By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of a watershed event, both for contemporary Western politics and for the Catholic church: the kidnapping of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the left-wing terrorist group the Red Brigades, followed by Moro’s execution on May 9, 1978, after 55 days of captivity.
The morning Moro was kidnapped, he was on his way to Parliament to savor what was to be his defining achievement: the compromesso storico, a plan to bring Italy’s Communist Party into a governing alliance with the Christian Democrats in order to promote national stability. It was a controversial move, opposed bitterly in Washington and elsewhere as a violation of the cardinal rule of post-war Italian politics: to keep the Communists out of power.
Moro was a close personal friend of Pope Paul VI from their days together in FUCI, the Federation of Catholic University Students. Moro’s policy of a cautious opening to the Communists tracked with Pope Paul’s own policy of Ostpolitik, or dialogue with the Soviet bloc.
In the short run, Moro’s murder sapped whatever strength Paul VI had left, and arguably hastened his own death three months later. More generally, Moro’s execution strengthened anti-Communist and anti-leftist sentiment in Italy and across the West. In the Catholic world, it served to halt the momentum of Ostpolitik, helping to set the stage for a far more robust challenge to Communism under Pope John Paul II.
Paul VI’s anguish over Moro’s fate was clear from his public statements both before and after his friend’s death.
In a rare departure from what was then still the customary royal plural of the papacy, Paul VI addressed a first-person appeal to the terrorists to free Moro on April 23. In a note in the pope’s own handwriting published by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Paulo VI wrote: “I am writing to you, men of the Red Brigades ... you, unknown and implacable adversaries of this deserving and innocent man, I pray to you on my knees, liberate Aldo Moro simply and without any conditions.”
This marked the first time the pope had ever acknowledged the Red Brigades by name, and that alone was taken as a significant public relations victory.
According to Italian journalist Giovanni Bianconi of Corriere della Sera, the country’s premier daily newspaper, Vatican officials privately utilized prison chaplains in Italy to make contact with the leadership of the Red Brigades, offering to collect money to pay a ransom. Former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who was in power at the time of Moro’s abduction, later confirmed that Paul VI had offered to pay a large ransom to set Moro free. According to one report, the amount floated at the time was U.S. $10 million.
Other reports suggest that Paul VI even offered to take Moro’s place as a hostage in order to secure his release.
On the other hand, the pope’s use of the phrase “without any conditions” on April 23 was taken as implicit backing for the position of Andreotti, also a staunch Catholic layman, rejecting political negotiations with the terrorists. Bianconi reports that Moro himself expressed disappointment with Pope Paul’s letter in a note to his wife written while in captivity.
In the end, the kidnappers insisted upon the release of dozens of jailed Red Brigades militants, a demand the government refused to meet. After being declared guilty in a rump trial of crimes against the people, Moro was placed in the trunk of a car and riddled with ten bullets on May 9. Symbolically, the car was left on a Roman street exactly midway between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and the Communists.
The next day, Paul VI was scheduled to meet with a group of young Italian children who had just received their first Communion. Unable to hold back his tears, Paul VI wept while calling Moro’s death “a bloody mark which dishonors our country.”
“We knew him from the years of his youth since he was a university student,” Paul VI said. “He was a good and wise man, incapable of doing harm to anyone, a very good professor and a political and government figure, a person of great value, an exemplary father and, what counts even more, a man of high religious, social and human feelings. This crime has shocked every honest person in the world, the whole of society. His premeditated and calculated slaying, carried out in hiding and without mercy, has horrified the city, all Italy, and has moved the entire world with indignation and pity. Everyone speaks of it, everyone is indignant. And even you young people and children gathered in this basilica are horrified and saddened by this event.”
Three days later, Paul VI uttered a rare display of something akin to protest against divine providence. On May 13, the pope addressed himself to God in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, saying: “You did not grant our plea for the safety of Aldo Moro, of this good and gentle man, wise and innocent ... who was my friend.”
As is virtually inevitable in Italian affairs, Moro’s kidnapping and death are surrounded by conspiracy theories. The Italian right generally believes the Soviets were involved, while it’s long been a staple of the Italian left that either the CIA, or the Masons, or both, engineered the outcome in order to discredit the compromesso storico. Others believe that Andreotti wasn’t really interested in securing Moro’s release, seeing the kidnapping as an opportunity to eliminate a political rival.
Earlier this month, a new Italian book titled Abbiamo Ucciso Aldo Moro (“We Killed Aldo Moro”) hit the shelves, the heart of which is an interview with Steve Pieczenik, a former hostage negotiator for the U.S. State Department who claims he was sent to Italy by then-President Jimmy Carter to assist a crisis team led by Francesco Cossiga, then Italy’s interior minister and later the country’s president.
According to Pieczenik, it became the conscious policy of the crisis team to drive the Red Brigades into killing Moro, in part out of concern that he might reveal state secrets, in part in order to discredit the Italian Communists and to prevent their charismatic leader, Enrico Berlinguer, from coming to power.
“We sacrificed Moro for the stability of Italy,” Pieczenik asserts in the book.
As Cossiga has confirmed, at one point the crisis team leaked a false statement attributed to the Red Brigades asserting that Moro was already dead. Pieczenik says in the new book that the point was to communicate to the Red Brigades that the government considered Moro already dead, and would not negotiate for his release.
Exactly how seriously one should take Pieczenik’s reconstruction is not entirely clear. Readers of popular American fiction probably know him best as coauthor of a slew of Tom Clancy spy novels, and the principals on the Italian side haven’t yet offered any reaction to his claims.
What seems beyond doubt, however, is that the murder of Moro is to Italians what the JFK assassination is to Americans – one of those sudden historical turning points whose details will probably forever be the object of fascination and debate.
For the Catholic church, the fallout from the Moro affair was immense. Combined with Italy’s adoption of a liberal abortion law in early 1978, the Moro affair helped to seal a growing alienation between the church and the secular left – forces that in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had seemed to be moving towards detente.
Though largely forgotten today outside Italy, the kidnapping and death of Aldo Moro thus mark an important turning point in contemporary Catholic history, one whose consequences are still being felt.