By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
While Cardinal Francis Stafford’s comments about Barak Obama are still making waves, Stafford’s predecessor as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary garnered headlines in Italy this week for statements about another politician – in this case, Antonio Gramsci, the legendary founder of the Italian Communist Party, who died in 1937 after a long imprisonment under the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.
Archbishop Luigi de Magistris, who preceded Stafford as Major Penitentiary of the Vatican, asserted this week during an interview on Vatican Radio that Gramsci returned to the Catholic church on his deathbed, receiving the sacraments and even kissing a small image of the child Jesus.
Those claims, however, were swiftly denied by historians linked to the Communist Party and to Gramsci’s memory.
If confirmed, the revelations about Gramsci would arguably represent a significant public relations coup for the Catholic church. Gramsci’s major contribution to Communist thought in the 20th century was his theory of “cultural hegemony.” He held that it wasn’t enough to dismantle Capitalist economic and political structures, but one also had to attack the cultural system of meaning upon which “bourgeois values” were based.
For Gramsci, that meant above all replacing Christianity with a Marxist-inspired form of spirituality – combining, in his view, the enlightened critique of religion found in Renaissance humanism with some of the specifically anti-Catholic thought of the Protestant Reformation.
De Magistris insisted that as death neared, Gramsci abandoned these intellectual theories in order to return to the church’s embrace.
“He had an image of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in his room,” de Magistris said. “During his final illness, the sisters of the clinic where he stayed brought him an image of the Child Jesus, and Gramsci kissed it,” he said.
“Gramsci died with the sacraments. He returned to the faith of his infancy,” de Magistris said. "Some in the Communist world prefer not to talk about it, but it's true."
Several historians who specialize in Gramsci's legacy, however, cast doubt on de Magistris' account. They argue that there’s no mention of any such conversion either in private letters written by Gramsci’s family members chronicling his last days, which have only recently been published, or in regular police reports about Gramsci prepared for Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Beppe Vacco, a philosopher and a former member of parliament for the Communist Party, said that similar rumors about Gramsci have surfaced before. Almost 40 years ago, he said, an elderly nun who had cared for Gramsci in his final days reported a conversion, but so far, he said, there’s been no independent confirmation.
Angelo D’Orsi, a historian and a member of the Gramsci Foundation, said that “we don’t have any trace, or any indication, of a conversion by Gramsci.”
D’Orsi acknowledged that there were religious images in Gramsci’s room in the Roman clinic where he died, but argued that they “were a symbol of his attachment to his family, to its traditions, and to Sardinia,” where Gramsci was born.
D’Orsi said that Gramsci had a “comfort level” with religion which set him apart from many of his Communist peers.
“Gramsci was always very annoyed by anti-clericalism,” D’Orsi said. “He regarded it as a kind of infantile impulse. If you look at his writings in the period 1915-1920, meaning the First World War and the immediate post-war period, he dedicated constant attention to the role that priests, prelates and sisters played during the war. He completely rejected the typical socialist anti-clericalism, which he regarded as stupid and counter-productive.”
Still, D’Orsi insisted that “one does history with documents, not this sort of oral tradition,” and that so far no document points to a deathbed conversion.
On the other hand, Francesco Cossiga, former president of Italy, was prepared to take de Magistris at his word in light of his former role as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
“No one else, with the exception of the pope, knows as much when it comes to the Sacred Penitentiary, the office that presides over questions relative to the internal forum of the baptized members of the Catholic church,” Cossiga said.
“If there’s a person who would know about a conversion by Gramsci, about his death in the bosom of the Catholic church, it’s precisely Archbishop de Magistris,” Cossiga said.