For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re revisiting a slightly re-edited post that was first published back on August 30th, 2015.
The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal
By Hubert Wolf
Knopf, 2015, 496 pp.
Protestant literature of the 19th and early-20th centuries abounded with “convent escape narratives,” first-hand accounts of abuse and debauchery in Roman Catholic convents as reported by ex-nuns. Naturally, the veracity of those reports was attacked by Catholic spokespersons who dismissed the books as “Protestant pornography.”
Now we have “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by award-winning German historian, Hubert Wolf. From the archives of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, opened for the first time to scholars only as recently as 1998, Wolf gives us this tale of fraudulent mysticism, struggle for power, lesbianism, fornication, and murder all within the walls of this single Roman convent in the 1850s.
The story centers around German Princess, Katharina von Hohenzollern–Sigmaringen, who entered the Sant’Ambrogio convent as a middle-aged novice and quickly became a victim of the diabolic intrigues of the mother vicaress, Sister Maria Luisa. Katarina barely escaped the convent and certain death only because of her connections to powerful nobility. A subsequent church investigation uncovered more filth than a boardinghouse cesspool.
It’s ironic that the sheer vileness of what transpired within this convent as recorded in the pages of once-secret, official Catholic sources far eclipses those Victorian-age, blushingly restrained and inexplicit Protestant accounts. Perhaps even more interesting than the nuns’ tawdry behavior is how the scandal was used as a pawn by competing factions within the Catholic church at the time; Dominicans vs. Jesuits, Modernists vs. New Scholastics. A few reviewers gave this book low grades complaining it was too dry. Perhaps from the title they were hoping for something a bit more salacious? Quite the contrary, I found “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” to be an extremely well-written, well-researched history. Very rare is a history book that presents such a complex subject in such a readable, illuminating fashion.
Devout Catholic readers will be nonplussed by the revelations of what transpired behind the convent walls of Sant’Ambrogio and by the subsequent political machinations both inside and outside of the Vatican. There’s no doubt that similar diabolical debaucheries took place in countless other Catholic convents and rectories (and bishops’ palaces and at the Vatican) throughout the ages fueled by the church’s unnatural rule of celibacy for its clergy. Reports of pedophile priests abusing children have been in the headlines for the last twenty years as we well know.
After Christianity was adopted as the state religion by the Roman Empire, the church quickly became institutionalized and “faith” for most of its members meant adherence to religious ritualism and legalism. In general, Catholics are taught salvation is through the administration of the seven sacraments, all tightly controlled by the clergy, and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. Asceticism became the rule for many of the religious orders leading to expressions of fanatical mysticism of the type exhibited by the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. In contrast, God’s Word tells us salvation is only by the grace of God through simple faith in Jesus Christ alone.