I had a fascinating discussions with two Vatican experts about papal security for an article in Our Sunday Visitor.
The two had surprising things to say about Nazis and the Popes, but since that was off-topic for that story, John Norton at OSV has graciously allowed me to share their words with readers here.
David Alvarez is author of Spies in the Vatican: Espionage & Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust (University Press of Kansas 2002). He’s a professor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. I asked him whether the Pope was considered a threat to the Nazis.
What kind of tabs were the Nazis keeping on the Pope?
“The Nazis considered the Catholic Church in general and the pope in particular threats to their regime. Inside Germany the Catholic hierarchy and clergy was monitored closely by the secret police through the use of informants, phone taps, and mail surveillance. There were also various operations by German foreign intelligence services (there were several) to penetrate the Vatican.
“One effort involved establishing a phony seminary and filling it with ‘seminarians who were actually German agents. The Germans never had much luck in penetrating the Vatican. This is all covered in my book, Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican.”
The movie Valkyrie is out on DVD now. Was the Vatican in on the plot against Hitler?
“Which plot? There were many. The Vatican certainly did not know the specifics of the Valkyrie plot, although it knew from its contacts in the German resistance that there were general plots to overthrow the Nazis. In the winter-spring of 1939-40 Pius deliberately served as a channel of communications between London and the German resistance inside the German army and intelligence service.”
John O. Koehler is author of the similarly titled Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union’s War Against the Catholic Church (Pegasus, 2009). Koehler is a former Army counterintelligence officer who reported for the Associated Press for 40 years, chiefly from Europe.
I asked him about the latest stage in the beatification of Pope Pius XII.
Pope Benedict XVI recently gave the title “Venerable” to Pop Pius XII, despite recent attacks on the World War II Pope’s character. Was the timing right for that?
“Pope Benedict is absolutely correct in decreeing the title of ‘Venerable’ to Pope Pius XII. When I was in Rome several years ago attending a service in the Central Synagogue for the son of a friend who had been shot by terrorists at the Rome airport, I was astonished to find a bronze memorial plaque mounted near the entrance.
“It was from Israeli Premier Golda Meir thanking the Vatican, i.e. Pope Pius XII, for saving thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution. The truth about Pius XII is that even before he became Pope, he spoke to to 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes, France in 1935 saying the Nazis are ‘in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.’
“Thus, he became an enemy of the Nazis. Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Pacelli, made numerous other attacks on Nazism. As a result, Israeli Orthodox Jewish Rabbi and diplomat Pinchas Lapide estimated that at least 700,000 Jews were saved by the Catholic Church.”
Thanks to Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Koehler, and thanks once again to OSV. (The interviews over there are “Protection Measures for Pontiff Under Review” and “Enemies of the Pope” and are available here.)