"Church of Spies"

I’ve been reading the new book “Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler” by the Pulitzer Prize-winner historian Mark Riebling. Very interesting book that details (and is very heavily sourced in archival materials) the covert operations of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican against Hitler, as well as the Vatican’s current intelligence apparatus.

I mention it in this forum rather than the media forum because it illustrates a lot of issues that are frequently discussed here, such as the morality of dissembling or outright lying to protect the lives of others (such as the Jews and members of resistance movements, in this case) or in covert and undercover operations by Catholics; just war doctrine; and the Vatican’s involvement in secular politics, as well as historical issues that are frequently raised about the Church’s supposed silence in the face of National Socialism.

If Riebling’s sources are accurate (and they certainly seem to be), Pope Pius was actively involved, and provided support, in the attempts by German Catholics to assassinate Hitler.

Has anyone else read this?

I have never heard of the book but it sounds really good.
I loved the movie Valkryie and Tom Cruise’s character was a Catholic who helped with the failed plot to assasinate Hitler. Thanks for posting this. Maybe our library has a copy.

I haven’t read this, but I did recently read about Pope Pius XII’s actions to smuggle Jews out of Poland and other Nazi-controlled territories by having them claim to be Catholics and providing paperwork for them. Very intelligent strategy on the Church’s part.

Fascinating book, so far.

Pope Pius XII had the most political and diplomatic experience of any cardinal before his election to the papacy, and was a really sharp thinker and strategist. He saw the risk of the Nazis early on, began establishing an intelligence net, and even began recording all conversations in his office (using equipment provided by Marconi, the inventor of radio, and Jesuit technicians who had been trained by him) because he saw the risk that visitors to a papal audience, including pro-Nazi sympathizers, might claim he gave papal approval verbally to something he hadn’t. He even surreptitiously recorded conversations by the German bishops to see if any had closet Nazi sympathies, using a Jesuit wire-tap team.

Those conversations were carefully transcribed and preserved in the Vatican archives, and the author carefully cites each document in the footnotes. Nazi documents and transcriptions were also used by the author, so this is a very well-cited, scholarly work.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence (which was a secret nest of anti-Nazi sentiment), and a secret ringleader of the assassination attempts, was an Evangelical but had strongly pro-Catholic sentiments and recruited cut-outs to approach the Pope, as they wanted a world leader who could vouch for their pro-western intentions in the event of a military coup against Hitler. He was told by Hitler that he thought Catholics would be the ones most likely to assassinate him, Canaris was present at a meeting with Hitler before the invasion of Poland and learned:

Special SS Death’s Head formations, Hitler revealed, would snuff out the least flicker of Polish strength by liquidating thousands of Catholic priests. As one of Bock’s colonels recounted, Hitler asserted “that the Poles would be treated with merciless severity after the end of the campaign. . . . [H]e did not want to burden the army with ‘liquidations’ necessary for political reasons, but rather to have the SS undertake the destruction of the Polish upper stratum, that is, above all the destruction of the Polish clergy.”

That was the final straw for Canaris, A later statement he also transcribed from Hitler, when he gave control of occupied Poland to Hans Frank, a Nazi party hack, is chilling:

“The task I give you, Frank, is a Satanic one,” Canaris overheard Hitler say. “Other people to whom such territories are handed would ask: ‘What would you build?’ I will ask the opposite. I will ask: ‘What did you destroy?’”

A really fascinating (and heroic) figure in the book is Josef Muller, a well-connected Bavarian Catholic lawyer (known as Ochsensepp, “Joey Ox”) who was one of the Pope’s primary intelligence operatives in Germany, acting as a reliable secret courier between the German bishops and the Pope. Muller survived an interrogation by Goebbels and even recruited the head of Hitler’s bodyguard as an informant!

Like I said, an amazing read.

it sounds fascinating!

Thank you for mentioning this book. What you have revealed so far sounds like the author has not separated “intelligence” from the term “information gathering.” Complaints about the Nazis were received by the Vatican. Pope Pius XII called in a high German official and asked him, in perfect German, what he knew about the reports he was receiving. Were they true? That the Vatican is still trusted today to receive what might be called intelligence is no surprise.

At the end of the war, a person I know told me: “German uniforms were everywhere.” They had changed into civilian clothes. The SS and SD were being sought by the American Counter-Intelligence Corps. False travel documents were provided. False identities. When these people sought aid from the Church, it is not conclusive if there was a clear understanding, at the time, as to who these persons really were. Other escape lines were created for the same purpose.

I have found nothing conclusive about German Catholics attempting to assassinate Hitler. The motives of those who did try to assassinate him are well known. In any case, Hitler’s response to the 20 July 1944 attempt was to turn over more power to the SS. Hitler’s top commando, Otto Skorzeny, personally checked on all of the military commands to make certain that certain orders were not carried out. Some of the conspirators in Valkyrie were taken out and shot after the plans were found.

The Pope encouraging assassination? I greatly doubt this. It would be against Catholic doctrine. In any case, after Hitler’s alleged suicide, Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz replaced Hitler as leader.


As a former intelligence officer, I can tell you that “information” is the raw source data that is collected, and “intelligence” is the collected product that is derived from the analysis of that data. Colloquially, “Intelligence Operations” refers not only to the collection and analysis of data, but the recruitment of sources, the secure transmission of the collected data to higher command (often in a hostile environment), and sometimes, covert or clandestine operations that are conducted based on the intelligence product.

There is not a doubt that Pope Pius made all aspects that I described top priorities for the Church, including covert operations. When he was Cardinal Pacelli, Pope Pius was actively involved in Vatican intelligence operations, at the direction of the Pope while Papal Nuncio in Berlin, in ending World War I early. Pacelli conspired to thwart a 1917 offensive after learning that Prussian General Erich Ludendorff (who would later conspire with Hitler in the failed Beerhall Putsch) planned in France. Pacelli’s agent Matthias Erzberger, leader of the German Catholic Center Party, visited the Jesuit Superior-General in Switzerland. Soon afterward, French Jesuit Michael d’Herbigny tipped off the Allies, who moved up reserves and dealt Ludendorff a crushing defeat. German morale collapsed, the kaiser abdicated, and Erzberger signed the armistice ending the war.

While it may be true that the Vatican does not have a separate “intelligence service,” the entire Vatican diplomatic service, as well as the clergy and highly-placed Catholic laity, comprise a de facto intelligence service that is one of the most far-reaching on the planet. That sounds ominous, but if you consider the Vatican’s political goals, they are to preserve civil peace to permit the Church’s business of evangelization and administering the sacraments, end war, protect Catholic lives, and to preserve all human life. A transnational intelligence service which acts to promote the cause of peace worldwide does not sound like a bad thing to me. That it is the Mystical Body of Christ lends me even greater comfort.

I have found nothing conclusive about German Catholics attempting to assassinate Hitler. The motives of those who did try to assassinate him are well known. In any case, Hitler’s response to the 20 July 1944 attempt was to turn over more power to the SS. Hitler’s top commando, Otto Skorzeny, personally checked on all of the military commands to make certain that certain orders were not carried out. Some of the conspirators in Valkyrie were taken out and shot after the plans were found.

There were quite a few more, as the book documents.

The Pope encouraging assassination? I greatly doubt this. It would be against Catholic doctrine. In any case, after Hitler’s alleged suicide, Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz replaced Hitler as leader.


I highly recommend you read the book, Ed.

Actually, assassination is not against Catholic doctrine, if it is considered “tyrannicide”, but has to meet certain very strict guidelines.

As the author of the book described the deliberative process that guided Pope Pius:

Church teaching stated the conditions under which citizens could kill tyrants. Catholic doctrine permitted capital punishment; and though a priest himself could not shed blood, a Christian knight could wield the sword of justice at the bidding of a priest. Accordingly, over the centuries, Catholic theologians had developed a nuanced doctrine of tyrannicide, covering virtually every conceivable context. They divided tyrants into two classes: usurpers, who seized power illegally, and oppressors, who used power unjustly. Hitler, who held office legally but ruled unjustly, had become an oppressor. He therefore fell into the class of evildoers whom— as Aquinas and some Jesuit theologians argued— citizens could assassinate.

But Catholic ethics strictly limited political violence. The tyrant’s executioners must have good grounds for believing his death would actually improve conditions and would not cause a bloody civil war. The tyrant himself must not merely stand revealed as the primary instigator of unjust policies; his assassins must have sufficient reason to believe that those unjust policies would end with the tyrant’s life. If another tyrant would likely continue those polices, the assassins had no moral basis to act. Finally, the assassins must have exhausted all peaceful means for removing the tyrant.

The plot against Hitler seemed to meet these terms. First, the conspirators intended to secure an honorable peace under a strong but anti-Nazi government, so that Hitler’s removal would not mean chaos or more Nazism under Göring or Himmler. Second, Hitler could only be removed by violence, because he had abolished the democratic process through which he claimed power. As Josef Müller reported Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg saying, “We National Socialists have created this State; we are going to hold on to this State; and we shall never let go of this State.” Finally, and most fundamentally, Müller’s intelligence indicated not only that Nazi policies were wicked, but that Hitler himself directed those policies.

The wickedness of the policies was plain from Müller’s dossier on Poland. As a Vatican priest later summarized this evidence, “Hundreds of priests were arrested and shot by the Germans during the first month, while Catholic intellectuals, clerics or laity were arrested and sent to concentration camp Oranienburg near Berlin. . . . The basis of this program was the elimination of the intellectual elite and the traditional influence of the clergy.” Müller recalled the dossier as including proof also of “the systematic extermination of the Jews,” such as “movies, photos, reports, e.g. of naked Jewish men, women and children, packed in trenches they had to dig themselves, machine-gunned like sardines in a can; and, in one photo, a police officer shooting a child clamped between his knees.”

Riebling, Mark (2015-09-29). Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler (Kindle Locations 1386-1408). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Riebling’s sources for the above summary are Bride, “Tyrannicide,” Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, vol. 15 (1950), 2011; Lewy, “Secret Papal Brief on Tyrannicide,” Church History 26, no. 4 (1957); Mariana, De rege et regis institutione, Lib. I, c. vi; Pastor, History of the Popes, 26: 27– 28; Rance, “L’Arret contra Suarez (26 June 1614),” Revue des Questions Historiques 37 (1885): 603– 606; Suarez, Defensio fidei Catholieae et Apostolicae adversus Anglieanae seetae errores, Lib. VI, c. iv, secs. 14– 18.


Thank you for your detailed reply. Of course, the Church collects, and has always collected, information that would help keep the peace, protect the rights of Catholics in any country where they were persecuted, or, at least, tell the world what is going on. The World War II era was highly complex but intelligence, counter-intelligence and propaganda are all cut from the same cloth. Perceptions among the people in a given country are manipulated for good and bad purposes. In the US, we had this:





I will consider getting this book, but, again, there is so much to sift through and that I have sifted through. I also knew someone who was not Jewish who was put into a concentration camp, along with his father. I know someone who told me, long ago, about the long pits dug by persons about to be executed. In one case, as the machine-gun was sweeping across the victims, one man was grazed but fell over as dead. The following morning, he crawled out of the pit. Flowers had been planted on top of it. He survived.

Everyone who traveled abroad on business, anyone could be an official or unofficial part of the massive, global network of connections that fed information to whoever they felt loyal to, including the Church. You could call that a network.

And the story has always been: silence your most dangerous enemies after coming to power. First, among the military, then the intellectuals who could not be swayed, artists and writers. Those that got behind you wrote, drew and spoke the necessary words to make sure the people stayed on board.

“A Church of Truth” - World War II and the Vatican. That I would like to see.

Again, thank you for your answers.


I hope it isn’t too late to resurrect this thread, but I just finished reading the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If I ever homeschool, I will utilize this book for history. I grew up with the narrative that Catholics should be ashamed about Pope Pius XII. Fascinating, fascinating read.

There is no evidence, at all, that the Pope was “actively involved” in the attempts by “German Catholics” to assassinate Hitler. Of the various attempts, it was primarily German military personnel, and industrialists who originally backed Hitler, that wanted him replaced. The 20 July 1944 attempt was orchestrated by those in the Army and a few others. As a result, Hitler handed over more and more power to the SS as the war progressed. The German Military General Staff and High Command was trusted less and less, including the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering.

The Church was never silent about National Socialism. One has to distinguish between a highly trained and specialized intelligence group or agency, in the Vatican. The Church received regular reports from numerous sources, all the way down to the civilian level. From 1933 to 1939 when the Second World War started, Hitler was well-regarded in general, both by heads of State and the Germanic peoples. Hitler was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1938.

What was coming was not clear at the time, but what was clear was that his stated enemy was Bolshevism.


Evidence was destroyed. It’s outlined in the book, with sources.

The book actually shines a positive light on Pope Pius XII, and rightfully so, I think.

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