Rome’s Resistance

Church of Spiesby Mark Riebling

Basic Books. 384p $29.99

America’s deftly damning review in 1999 of Hitler’s Pope—John Cornwell’s 430-page indictment of Pius XII—failed to credit Cornwell on one score. Without breaking prosecutorial stride, Cornwell managed a subchapter on Pius’s collaboration with the German resistance. “His Holiness was the Führer ’s man, well, except when His Holiness was trying to overthrow the Führer.”


Unfortunately, this core contradiction neither derailed Cornwell’s bestseller nor created immediate demand for a book doing justice to a great untold story of intrigue. Fortunately, however, that book has finally arrived in Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler.

Riebling recounts the early enlistment of Pius as a co-conspirator with high-ranking German officers who repeatedly attempted Hitler’s removal. Fearing the Allied subjugation of a Hitler-less Germany, the officers used Pius to seek assurances of respect for a country restored by “decent Germans.” Pius’s role broadened, though.

The Vatican, along with German Jesuits, plus Alfred Delp, S.J., Dominicans and Benedictines, became both integral to preparations for a stable post-coup Germany and linked to every major resistance effort.

Central to all this was Josef Mueller, a Bavarian lawyer trusted by Rome. Mueller became a courier, coordinator and conniver, thanks to the resister Wilhelm Canaris, who headed German military intelligence. With sly audacity worthy of “Homeland’s” Saul Berenson, Canaris stationed Mueller as a Vatican-centered operative who “posed” as the disgruntled German he actually was. Spymaster Canaris ran brilliant interference for his double agent until Mueller’s arrest in 1943 and the S.S.’s recovery of blueprints to Hitler’s bunker from Mueller’s law office.

Despite scrupulous primary sourcing and endorsements from the heavyweights Michael Burleigh and Sir Martin Gilbert, some might discount this book as a thriller. Riebling’s account crackles with suspense even after the failed Valkyrie bombing in July 1944. More, Riebling serves up surprises, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s meeting in the Vatican crypt with Robert Leiber, S.J., Pius’s closest aide and advisor.

Notwithstanding his sin of good storytelling, however, Riebling effectively razes the caricature of a wartime pontiff prudent-unto-paralyzed in the face of the 20th century’s worst crimes. Whatever Pius’s limitations and blind spots, the scope, depth and duration of his subversive endeavors now defy dispute.

If World War II, the modern papacy or the “Pius War” interests you at all, get this book. But do not take it as some long-awaited winning brief for Pius’s canonization.

Pius’s canonical cause momentarily tempts anyone with a sense of historiographic justice. And it flat-out enthralls those grievance-fueled Catholics who yearn for the church to thumb her nose at the secular media and academia, some of which have muddied Pius for half a century. “Take that, New York Times!” “How do you like them apples, Professor Goldhagen?”

But, again, for two reasons, Church of Spies should not be read as the case for St. Pius XII.

First, Riebling actually sells Pius short in one regard. Riebling casts Pius’s “silence” about Nazi crimes as the price for ongoing collaboration with the resistance. Here Riebling exaggerates both Pius’s “silence” and, by implication, his ability to rally the faithful against Germany.

In 1941, a brave James Dillon stood in neutral Ireland’s Irish Parliamantarian Dail and begged his country to join the battle against Hitler’s “beastly tyranny.” Dillon repeatedly staked his moral assessment on the judgments of “Our Holy Father the Pope.” As shown in the work of indefatigable Pius champions like William Doino and Ronald Rychlak (ideologically unlikely friends of mine), similar papal judgments found expression throughout the war, albeit with varying directness.

As to the efficacy of more pointed declarations, read Owen Chadwick’s Britain and the Vatican During World War Two or general works like Lawrence Soley’s Radio Warfare. Appreciate then how a flaming papal protest would likely have been embargoed, suppressed, spun and discredited as either counterfeit or a vindication of Goebbel’s nationally broadcasted warning in 1937 that the church spread bogus atrocity tales. (Even the Irish government jammed Vatican Radio’s anti-Axis broadcasts.)

Second and more important, the reader can draw from Riebling things much richer than arguments for Venerable Pius XII’s further elevation. This book inspires and cautions.

Riebling’s German protagonists—lay and religious, civilian and soldier, planner and doer—assumed the dove’s innocence and the serpent’s cunning. Each displayed staggering courage and tenacity in a world slick with blood and betrayal. Some, like Delp and Bonhoeffer, sacrificed their lives. All were prepared to. Mueller sought assurances his daughter would be cared for when he was gone.

Take heart from these heroic examples. And take heed from the example of the nonheroic millions of the period.

For a time, Mueller successfully feigned Hitlerian loyalty despite a fierce anti-Nazi history early on. He managed this because so many Catholics—high and low—eventually succumbed to Nazi intimidation, bribery and seduction, but also because so many lost faith in the power of truth. Unable to identify a morally sound, politically tenable alternative, they accepted a vilely racist movement as a protector against chaos and Communism.

American Catholics have neither Hitler nor Stalin to contend with. Still, let’s admit that concerning, inter alia, economic justice, immigration and the unborn, our Republican and Democratic parties mercilessly shred the “seamless garment” from opposite ends. Pray with martyrs Delp and Bonhoeffer that we demonstrate more faith, more patience and more discernment than did our German brothers and sisters in Christ.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
3 years ago
"... Church of Spies should not be read as the case for St. Pius XII." Well put and I certainly wont. But might it, and other expose`s, serve to build the case for the indictment of all those who lacking a vantage of factual perspective have rushed to judgement on Pope Pacelli's person and his papacy's record?


The latest from america

Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019

“Anyone can do any amount of work,” wrote the American humorist Robert Benchley, “provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Procrastination is an act of will, the choice to postpone what needs to be done.

Nick Ripatrazone January 10, 2019
The stories of Andre Dubus delve into loneliness, the ferocity of parental love, adultery, retribution and sex that is a stay against loneliness.
Kevin SpinaleJanuary 03, 2019