After publishing in 1997 (with Fr. Robert A. Graham), Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican, 1939-1945 (London-Portland: Frank Cass), David Alvarez has recently written another book with a much wider perspective (while incorporating some of the episodes already narrated in Nothing Sacred). This new book, Spies in the Vatican, offers a history of Papacy and intelligence from Napoleon to the Second World War. The result is a fascinating and well-documented work, a balanced assessment, based on diplomatic and intelligence records in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and the Vatican.
David Alvarez is a Professor of Government at the School of Liberal Arts of Saint Mary’s College of California. His publications have dealt with diplomacy, intelligence, cryptography – and the Vatican, of course. Religioscope warmly recommends his book and has asked him a few questions.
Religioscope – Your book deals with intelligence operations against the Vatican as well as with the occasional involvement of the Vatican itself in clandestine work. For the Vatican, there seems to have been a significant turning point: as long as there were the Papal States, it needed an intelligence apparatus in order to identify and counter threats to its political power. But after 1870, there are no longer Papal States and the Vatican is just a tiny enclave surrounded by Italy. What did that transition mean in terms of intelligence for the Vatican?
David Alvarez – Among other things, it meant the end of the Papacy’s formal intelligence effort. To defend the Papal States against internal revolution and external threat in the decades following the Congress of Vienna, the papal governors and their police services recruited informants, intercepted mail, monitored suspects, and penetrated secret societies. With the loss of the Papal States and the temporal power, there was no longer any need for such activities and the organizations to perform them. The Papacy’s very modest international status in the last decades of the nineteenth century further reduced the need for foreign intelligence.
In guiding the Papacy through the rocks and shoals of the post-Napoleonic era the popes from Pius VII to Pius IX were always more likely to turn to their theologians and canon lawyers than their police directors for advice, but after the loss of the temporal power the tendency accelerated, in part because the police officials were no longer around, and in part because pontiffs such as Pius IX and Pius X were even more inclined to assert the spiritual dominion of the Papacy now that the temporal dominion has passed.
Religioscope – One of the most striking statement in your book is that – despite beliefs to the contrary by several governments – the Pope was definitely not the best-informed leader in the world during the period under consideration, while being the spiritual leader of millions of Catholics, with trans-national networks. Could you briefly explain why?
David Alvarez – As I point out in my book, a belief in the intelligence value of the Church’s trans-national networks has encouraged many governments to try to penetrate those networks and purloin the supposed secrets of the Vatican. The irony is that the Vatican usually knows less about international affairs than the foreign governments seeking to steal its secrets.
There are several reasons (for example, slow and insecure communications channels) why popes were (are) often poorly informed about world events. The principal reason, however, was (is) that the global institutional structures of the Catholic Church were (are) explicitly focused on ecclesiastical rather than political affairs.
It is often difficult for historians to acknowledge that popes consider the Church and its institutions devices for the salvation of souls rather than networks for the collection of political intelligence. The clergy and laity usually share this attitude. Bishops, priests, nuns, abbots, and lay Catholics communicate with Rome but almost always on church business. Except in the most extraordinary circumstances (e.g. the Final Solution) it never occurs to the typical Catholic to inform the Vatican of political events in his or her locality.
Recently I had the occasion to review the correspondence that passed between the archdiocese of San Francisco, California, and the apostolic delegate in Washington in the period 1910-1942, a not uneventful period in American history. Among the hundreds of letters and reports I could find not one—not one—reference to political affairs. Every letter dealt solely with church business.
We should not be surprised, therefore, to learn that during the Second World War both the British and French ambassadors to the Holy See were shocked at how poorly informed the pope and his advisers were about international affairs. Indeed, at times during that war the Vatican was seriously misinformed about events occurring in southern or northern Italy barely a few hundred kilometres from the apostolic palace, while events in places such as Russia might as well have occurred on the planet Jupiter.
The trans-national networks of the Church may be the envy of every intelligence service in the world, but these networks are usually directed to the service of religion rather than politics and diplomacy.
Religioscope – On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church was perceived as an ideological challenge by other players on the world scene, especially totalitarian regimes. Don’t you think that, even with sometimes mediocre intelligence capabilities, the historical experience of such a long-lasting institution plus a long-term perspective rarely shared by most secular leaders provided the Vatican with some insights?
David Alvarez – Perhaps, but I suspect that in most cases current and accurate information would prove more useful than historical memory. Circumstances, environments, and personalities change, so past experience may not always be a reliable guide to the present. Napoleon was not Adolf Hitler and Risorgimento Italy was not Stalinist Russia. We should also remember that decisions must be made in the short-term not the long-term. I have noticed little evidence that modern popes were politically more insightful than their secular counterparts.
Religioscope – Your book focuses on the Vatican. But the Roman Catholic Church is a huge, complex structure, and there are groups within the Church with a strategy of their own – for instance some religious orders. Do you feel that some of those groups would deserve a specific research from the perspective of the history of intelligence?
David Alvarez – This is a very interesting point and one that certainly deserves investigation. Commentators have often attributed to the Jesuits an appetite and capacity for clandestine operations. Most of these charges reflect little more than anti-clerical prejudices, but a serious and patient researcher might profitably look into the way the Jesuits acquire information, the nature of the information so collected, and the purposes for which the information is used.
The missionary orders might also prove a productive focus for research since some (the White Fathers in Africa, perhaps) may have collaborated with the secular institutions of the colonial powers.
Religioscope – You mention that the diplomatic corps of the Holy See became much more professional between the two world wars. And the role of the Vatican on the international scene has definitely increased in the meantime. While this is not the topic of your book and could be the subject of another one, do you tend to think that the intelligence capabilities of the Vatican have markedly increased over the past fifty years?
David Alvarez – With the advent of the Information Age everyone’s intelligence capabilities have markedly improved. The expansion and professionalization of the papal diplomatic service (a process begun by Pius X but still evolving at the time of the Second World War) is now complete with the result that the Holy See can rely upon a corps of trained and experienced observers in foreign capitals. The papal secretariat of state, however, remains under-staffed and under-resourced, and struggles to process the incoming information.
Of course, the idea of a clandestine service remains anathema at the Vatican, although at times (the Solidarity crisis in Poland comes to mind) the larger powers, especially the United States, have been more willing than in the past to share secret intelligence with the Vatican in the hope of securing papal sympathy or support.
Books by Prof. David Alvarez on spionage and the Vatican:
Spies in the Vatican: Espionage & Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002 (342 p.)
Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican, 1939-1945 (with Robert A. Graham), London / Portland: Frank Cass, 1997 (XIV+190 p.)