Mark Riebling's Church of Spies is an exciting Vatican thriller that doesn't quite add up

You might have thought that it’s not possible to publish yet another book on the subject of Pius XII and his behaviour, silent or otherwise, during the last war. However, Mark Riebling, “a pathbreaking writer on secret intelligence” as the blurb of his book has it, has written a lively and engrossing work with its own, somewhat conspiratorial angle on the subject: Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, published by Basic Books.

I was curious to read Riebling’s book because of the reviews it received in the secular press. They implied that Pius XII was closely involved in “tyrannicide”, ie. the assassination attempts against Hitler; indeed, that he was secretly plotting to kill him. I felt this could not possibly be the case and that this sensationalist interpretation was seriously misleading: a world spiritual leader such as a pope directly conspiring to have a secular head of state, however loathsome, murdered? Simply not true.

Having now read the book itself and checked the evidence (there are 100 pages of citations and references; the author has certainly done his homework) my mind is at rest. Pius XII was not a deliberate, knowing party to the several attempts to assassinate Hitler. However, having said this I must now qualify it, not so much to impugn Riebling’s sincerity but to put the record straight.

Riebling has set out to write a spy thriller. His authorial cast of mind is with the genre of John Le Carre rather than with an understanding of papal diplomacy. Thus the language he uses makes the unwary reader see the Vatican as a hotbed of spies rather than the tiny neutral state it became after the Lateran Treaty of 1929. So instead of referring to papal “nuncios”, the accredited members of the Vatican diplomatic corps assigned to each country for purposes of sending reports home, Riebling calls them “papal agents” – as if they were in the pay of a secret service such as MI5.

He refers to the then Mgr Pacelli’s role in Germany before the war as being sent “to run papal operations in Germany” rather than the usual diplomatic mission; states that during the war “he would serve as secret foreign agent for the resistance”; casually mentions the Pope’s “peace intrigues”; and even, early in the book, comments that “Politics were in Pacelli’s blood… As Pope, he saw politics as religion by other means”. These build up a picture in the unwary reader’s mind of a spiritual super-sleuth, a kind of James Bond figure dressed in a white cassock and skull cap.

The reality is that Pius XII came from a family long associated with the papal diplomatic service; knowing Germany and her language well, he saw before others how dangerous were Hitler’s political views; and like all popes before and after him he yearned for peace and found war abhorrent.

He also knew Catholic teaching on tyrannicide (I quote from Riebling’s book): that the death must improve conditions; that the tyrant must be the primary instigator of unjust policies; that all peaceful means of removing him must be explored. But this doesn’t mean that Pius made the choice, as Riebling suggests, “to help kill Adolf Hitler”. While, like everyone else during the war years, he longed for Hitler’s removal, and was prepared to use all the diplomatic means at his disposal to help broker peace with the Allies if it were possible, he stayed carefully behind the thin line that divides papal diplomacy from papal “plotting.”

If this sounds rather Jesuitical and casuistic, it is. Pius XII did employ a Jesuit, Fr Robert Leiber SJ as his unofficial “aide” to liaise regularly with Josef Muller, the man used by the German Abwehr, the intelligence branch of the Nazi government which contained many anti-Nazi sympathisers, beginning with its head, Admiral Canaris. So he knew who was involved and what the German resistance hoped to achieve. He also saw Hitler as a “diabolical” figure – in the Church’s ancient and continuing battle for good against evil. But this does not mean he knew and gave his blessing to the actual details of, for example, the July Plot. At the very least, as the head of a neutral state he could not be seen to engage directly in politics on the side of the Allies.

Muller himself, a Munich lawyer, devoutly Catholic and extraordinarily brave – he missed being hanged at Flossenburg in last days of the war by a whisker – is quoted as saying that he “knew that the Pope would not directly endorse violence”, adding, “We could not portray the Pope as a direct accessory to an assassination”.

Perhaps the last word should go to Fr Peter Gumpel SJ, postulator for the Cause of Pius’ sanctity, who was interviewed by Riebling and who told him (choosing his words carefully, obviously): “One has to be very careful when speaking about involvement or direct influence because it is not the place of the Vatican to meddle too much in the affairs of foreign states…Their way is very discreet… They are more diplomatic, and they act more prudently.”

Still, the book is an exciting and suspenseful read, full of real heroes such as Blessed Rupert Mayer SJ and Fr Alfred Delp SJ, and putting the lid finally on the coffin (if it still needs it) of the infamous slur against Pius that he was “Hitler’s Pope.”