Even today, the CIA is referred to as the ‘Catholic Intelligence Agency’ while the Vatican’s ties to espionage date back more than five centuries.
With the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Washington and Vatican City quietly made strategic contact - so too did CIA Director William Casey and special envoy Monsignor Luigi Poggi, otherwise known as the ‘Pope’s Spy’.
By the time Reagan and Pope John Paul II met face-to-face in the Vatican Library in 1982, they were ready to discuss a joint, clandestine campaign centered on Poland and designed to thwart communism and the Soviet Union. "This was one of the great secret alliances of all time," Richard Allen, Reagan's first National Security Adviser, later recalled.
Meanwhile, in the same wing of the papal apartments that day, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Reagan’s National Security Adviser focused on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon with their counterparts Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and Archbishop Achille Silvestrini. Unsurprisingly, many of the US players were Catholics - Haig, Casey, and US National Security Adviser William P. Clark Jr. among them.
“They regarded the US-Vatican relationship as a holy alliance: the moral force of the Pope and the teachings of their church combined with their fierce anti-communism and their notion of American democracy,” Carl Bernstein wrote in an article for Time magazine.
The religious approach to intelligence initiated by OSS pioneers Edward Lansdale and spymaster ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan in the 1940s established CIA methods and understanding of the world in the early days of the spy agencies, author Michael Graziano argues. The CIA is still referred to as ‘Catholics In Action’ and the ‘Catholic Intelligence Agency’.
The Holy Alliance
Does the Vatican have spies?
“Yes, there have been books written about this and the Vatican diplomats are truly experts. The ones I’ve met who worked for the nuncio were very talented people, multilingual, and were able to blend into different cultures very easily,” said Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a former US State Department psychiatrist, author of The Negotiator's Cross, and SPYEX consultant. “I thought they were very remarkable as diplomats.”
The role of Vatican spies involves keeping the church safe. “They manage the relations between the Vatican and different countries including in places where there may not be formal relations yet, or areas where there are formal relations yet the negotiations involving appointments of bishops, priests, things like that, are very complex," Dekleva told the Goldster podcast. "China is a great example in that regard.”
While the Vatican has always denied it operates an intelligence agency, Eric Frattini, author of The Entity, has written extensively about Vatican ties to espionage across five centuries including its sacred secret service founded in 1566 and known as ‘The Holy Alliance’ (later renamed ‘The Entity’), and the 1913 foundation of Vatican counterintelligence unit Sodalitium Pianum (the fellowship of Pius) or SP, for short.
“Napoleon likened the power of a single Pope to that of an army of 200,000 men,” Frattini said. “Really throughout history, the papacy has always displayed two faces: that of the worldwide leadership of the Catholic Church and that of one of the planet’s best political organizations. While Popes were blessing their faithful on the one hand, on the other, they were receiving foreign ambassadors and heads of states and dispatching legates and nuncios on special missions.”
Today the Pope also oversees a sophisticated diplomatic service that operates worldwide while the US, Britain, and dozens of other countries appoint ambassadors to the Holy See, the seat of government of the Catholic Church headquartered in the independent Vatican City State. US Ambassador Joe Donnelly presented his credentials to Pope Francis in 2022, the 12th such American representative to operate as a liaison between the Holy See and the US since the Reagan years.
With cross and sword
More than 40 Popes have governed since the creation of the Holy Alliance spy service under Pius V, Frattini writes, confronting schisms, revolutions, dictatorships, world wars, and assassination attempts. In the 16th century, the Vatican’s enemies were liberalism, democracy, republicanism, and socialism. By the 19th and 20th centuries, they were modernism, Americanism, and the sexual revolution. The 21st century has thrown up the problem of scientific intrusion in religious questions.
The Holy Alliance’s powerful chieftains - some call them ‘spymasters’ - range from Ludovico Ludovisi and Bartolomeo Pacca to the ‘Pope’s Spy’ Luigi Cardinal Poggi, a diplomat who started in the Secretariat of State in 1945 and worked in the diplomatic service of the Holy See from 1946 to 1994. Poggi is said to have modernized the spy service and taken full advantage of his contacts with Israel’s Mossad.