“How many divisions does the pope have?” This was Stalin’s sarcastic response to Churchill’s request not to let internal developments in Poland upset relations with the pope.
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While Stalin’s dismissive statement suggested that the Catholic Church was an insignificant power in international affairs, he could not have been farther from the truth.
The Holy See has played an important but understudied role in intelligence and diplomacy through its diplomatic service, which is one of the oldest in the world. The extensive presence of the Holy See’s diplomats combined with their neutrality provides them access to unique information in the far corners of the globe.
Formerly top-secret KGB (Soviet security service) documents declassified after the end of the Cold War reveal the Kremlin’s obsession with containing the papacy’s influence. The Soviet security services devoted substantial resources to penetrating and undermining the Catholic Church for the entirety of the Cold War. And as international threats have become more sophisticated, so too have the Vatican’s methods for protecting itself.
Today, because the papacy maintains diplomatic relations with 183 countries, the Catholic Church is still an influential power in international affairs. While the papacy does not possess a formal intelligence service, it does field a diplomatic corps that provides valuable information to the diplomatic community in the far reaches of the globe, including war zones in the Middle East and Africa.
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A Brief History of the Pope’s Diplomatic Service
The Holy See’s diplomatic service was established over 500 years ago. In addition to his role as the head of the Catholic Church, the pope is the political leader of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world.
Papal ambassadors, called “nuncios,” are the official representatives of the pope to sovereign states and to foreign bodies, such as the United Nations. Their diplomatic cables to Rome include information about secular political, economic, and social concerns in addition to notes about the local church community, such as which priests might be candidates for elevation to bishop.
Papal diplomats train at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. Bishops nominate candidates who are then selected by the Secretariat of State headquartered in Vatican City. The Secretariat of State is the central governing bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and is responsible for the Church’s political and diplomatic affairs. The Secretary for Relations with States is the equivalent of a foreign minister and the Holy See’s most senior diplomatic official.
The course of study for papal diplomats at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy is approximately four years in length; if the entering student already has an advanced degree in canon law, the course is shortened to two years. The curriculum includes diplomatic history, international law, negotiation techniques, economics, canon law, theology, and cultural studies. Students are also expected to become proficient in two languages in addition to their mother tongue.
U.S. foreign service officers, by comparison, train for several months up to a year or more, depending on the nature of their first assignment and language requirements. Papal diplomatic training is significantly longer due to the obligation to gain expertise in theology and Church law.
In a 2016 interview, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a former papal nuncio who served in Latin America and Africa, said that as in the U.S. State Department, papal diplomats are moved every few years and often serve in austere locations.
With their extensive training, nuncios serve as an invaluable source of information on political, economic, and social developments in dangerous locations around the globe.
Hugh Wilson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany before the outbreak of World War II, said that the pope had “the best information service in the world.” More recently, the Holy See was credited with using its diplomatic connections in Cuba to assist Washington and Havana’s normalization of relations in 2014.
Today as in the past, when wars break out and other diplomats begin evacuating, papal nuncios remain in their posts even though the Holy See allows them to leave as violence escalates.
In 2003, rebels in Burundi believed to be from the National Liberation Forces assassinated Archbishop Michael Courtney for his role in negotiating a peace accord between the Burundian government and the Hutu opposition. Perhaps the best example of the influence of papal diplomacy in international relations is its role in combatting communism during the Cold War.
Espionage and the Holy See during the Cold War
Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the founding of the Soviet state, senior leadership in the Holy See recognized the threat that the Soviets posed to organized religion.
In 1929, Pope Pius XI established the Pontifical Russian College, the Russicum, to prepare priests for service in territories controlled by the communists. However, the Soviets believed it served as a schoolhouse for spies.
The 1972 edition of the KGB’s counter-intelligence encyclopedia described the Russicum as a clandestine intelligence organization engaged in active measures and influence operations. It stated that students at the Russicum received political, theological, and language training, “are taught civilian specialties to establish a cover identity,” and that “their goal is organizing support for subverting the Soviet Union.”
Since such a substantial portion of the population in Soviet-occupied territory was Catholic, the Kremlin was especially concerned with the Holy See using its influence to undermine Soviet authority.
KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin stated that the Soviets viewed the Catholic Church as a serious ideological threat and that “the Vatican was a primary target for KGB penetration operations.” Owing to Soviet anxiety about ideological subversion after the rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the KGB’s operations targeting the Holy See expanded significantly in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Soviets were particularly concerned about subversion in Lithuania, as more than 80 percent of its population was Catholic. A primary objective of the KGB was to prevent the Holy See from contacting any Catholic clergy not under Soviet control.
In 1956, the KGB launched Operation Students, designed to penetrate Vatican bureaucracies and undermine the Catholic Church’s influence in Lithuania, by sending two KGB agents to study as theology students at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
While these agents did interact with senior members of the Holy See — they even met Pope John XXIII — the operation largely failed. Many of their fellow students, Lithuanian emigres in Rome, and clergy suspected that they were cooperating with Soviet authorities. Certainly, the operation did not result in the degradation of the power and influence of the Church among the Catholic faithful in Lithuania that the Soviets so strongly desired.
In 1962, the Soviets tried again to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Holy See. That same year, the pope officially convened the Second Vatican Council, which considered a broad number of reforms in the Catholic Church. Invitations for participation were sent to the Christian Churches in communist territories. In response, the KGB assembled a delegation of Catholic clerics from Lithuania, among whom were several of its agents.
The KGB instructed these agents to directly participate in and shape the discussions taking place at the council. They were to achieve a private audience with the pope, make inroads with the “reform wing” in the Vatican, and work to convince council participants that accounts of persecution of Catholics behind the Iron Curtain were much exaggerated. Because the KGB was not able to cultivate high-level sources in the Holy See, this operation also proved to be of little utility in the Soviet Union’s clandestine war against the Catholic Church.
The Kremlin’s concerns about Catholic influence only increased over time. In 1975, the KGB organized a conference in Warsaw with representatives from the security agencies of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Cuba to devise a strategy for more coordinated intelligence operations targeting the Catholic Church.
A formerly top-secret KGB document states that the communist security organs should actively attempt to cultivate several influential Catholic officials, such as Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, a senior Holy See diplomatic official, and Cardinal Franz König, the Archbishop of Vienna.
Other stated objectives of the conference included penetrating the academy responsible for training Vatican diplomats and gathering intelligence about future papal elections. The objectives of the Soviets at the conference could be characterized as wishful thinking.
The KGB did, however, manage to surreptitiously implant a listening device in a statue that was placed in the dining room of Cardinal Casaroli. Since Casaroli regularly had discussions with papal diplomats focused on the Communist bloc at that location, the electronic bug was likely a good source of information on the Holy See’s policy of Ostpolitik, i.e., rapprochement with the Communist bloc.
Soviet fears about the Holy See turned into hysteria in October 1978, when the College of Cardinals chose Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as pope. When Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB at the time, learned of Wojtyla’s election, he asked his station chief in Warsaw, “How could you possibly allow the election of someone from a socialist country as pope?”
The KGB had been closely following the career of Wojtyla owing to his profound anti-communism before his elevation as Pope John Paul II. A KGB report described him as a dangerous anti-communist. A declassified Central Intelligence Agency report from 1978 presciently stated that a Polish pope would rejuvenate nationalism in Poland and the other Soviet-occupied states, posing a serious challenge to Soviet authority and stability.
The Reagan administration viewed the Catholic Church as a very important ally in the war against communism. Ronald Reagan and Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey were both elated by the articulate anti-communism of Pope John Paul II, which led to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984.
Casey traveled to Rome several times to meet personally with the pope and brief him on developments in the communist world. A declassified Central Intelligence Agency report details a January 1986 briefing given by U.S. intelligence representatives to a small number of Holy See officials on Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a highly controversial missile defense system.
That U.S. intelligence officials provided a classified briefing to a group of papal advisers underlines the importance that the Reagan Administration attributed to the Holy See in world affairs. Additionally, the Central Intelligence Agency used Catholic clergy to funnel money into Poland to support Solidarity, the anti-communist Polish trade union.
The KGB’s fears about the threat to communism posed by the Catholic Church were indeed justified, and the Holy See ranked as one of the top targets of Soviet intelligence services during the Cold War. Nevertheless, the concerted efforts of the Soviet security services to undermine the Catholic Church’s influence in the Eastern bloc were a complete failure.
Eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis identifies Pope John Paul II as an instrumental figure in setting the course for the Soviet Union’s demise. The collapse of communism, however, did not diminish the Holy See’s active role in post-Cold War international relations.
Quietly Influencing International Relations: The Holy See after the Cold War
In the post-Cold War world, the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts are even more apparent in every corner of the globe. Because the Holy See today maintains diplomatic relations with so many countries, it serves as a valued source of information for Western diplomatic services and remains a target of foreign intelligence organizations.
In a 2017 interview, one former U.S. diplomat said that many nuncios have in-depth subject matter expertise on foreign governments with whom Western governments have limited or no contact. Because the pope maintains a policy of political nonalignment, his diplomatic corps obtains unique access to foreign powers, especially in the Middle East.
The Holy See has proven a very active force in attempting to prevent the escalation of violence in the Middle East. To achieve this aim, papal diplomats worked diligently to cultivate better relations with Iran in particular, opening a diplomatic mission in Tehran and consecrating a bishop to serve Catholics in Iran. The Holy See’s efforts to engage with Iran have given it greater access to that country’s senior leadership, which now maintains one of the largest diplomatic missions to the Vatican.
Iran and Russia, among others, have acknowledged the Holy See’s weight in international deliberations. In 2013, the Holy See persistently lobbied against military intervention in Syria in response to allegations that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
Papal diplomats briefed over 70 foreign ambassadors on the pope’s position. When the United States chose not to intervene militarily at the time, it provided evidence that the Holy See remained an influential force in international relations among the great powers. Iran “expressed admiration for the way the pope headed off airstrikes in Syria.”
As the international threat environment has evolved, so too has the Holy See’s approach to security. Given the large number of diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See, Vatican City remains a center of foreign intelligence activity. Iran maintains a large diplomatic presence in the Vatican.
A senior official in Vatican City once said to a journalist, “who knows what other duties they [Iranian diplomats] have,” implying that Iranian intelligence is active in “the world’s great listening post.” Since the Holy See maintains close contact with countries of interest to Tehran, Vatican City is an attractive target for Iran’s intelligence services.
Additionally, the Holy See is ever more concerned about foreign powers using electronic eavesdropping technology, especially during the election of a new pope. When a pope dies or resigns, the College of Cardinals gathers in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City to elect the new pope.
Prior to their meeting, Italian secret services in conjunction with Vatican security officials thoroughly sweep the Sistine Chapel for electronic bugs. Additionally, they employ jamming equipment to prevent radio frequency signals from either entering or emanating from the area. Cardinals are prohibited from bringing cell phones or other electronic devices into the Sistine Chapel during the selection of a new pope.
The Holy See is also concerned about the physical security of its diplomatic missions and the integrity of its communications networks. A former nuncio said during a 2017 interview on diplomacy that papal embassies use modern and sophisticated methods of encryption when transmitting diplomatic cables to Rome. Because the Holy See is neutral and desires to be welcoming, it institutes minimal physical security measures at its overseas diplomatic facilities.
In 2009, the residence of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the nuncio to Burundi who took over after the assassination of Archbishop Courtney, was hit by National Liberation Forces mortars. While Gallagher survived, the incident demonstrated once again that the Holy See’s diplomats are putting their lives on the line in dangerous locations around the world.
Intelligence studies of the Cold War tend to overlook the historical importance of the Holy See, despite the archival material available from the Soviet security services establishing that the Kremlin viewed the Catholic Church as a significant threat to Soviet authority. The persistent efforts of the KGB and its sister services to penetrate and undermine the Holy See proved to be futile.
While the Cold War is over, the prominent role of the Catholic Church in international affairs has only expanded. The extensive footprint of papal diplomats around the world has solidified their place as valuable members of the international affairs community. The pope does not have a large military or vast economic resources. Regardless, the Holy See will remain a prime target for espionage due to its influence and possession of one of the most valuable commodities of the present time: accurate and timely information.
Aaron Bateman is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he served for six years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. He has published on a wide variety of subjects including Russian intelligence and Cold War history. This article was originally published on War on the Rocks.