The Vatican: Politics And International Relations

Challenges, Constraints And Contestation For Control Of Policy

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By Greg Alexander Mashaba

The recent trip to Myanmar (formerly known as “Burma”) by the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis towards the end of 2017 was one of the most closely monitored overseas trips by a pope in recent decades. The fact that it took place against an unprecedented military crackdown on the minority Rhohynga population which amounted to ethnic cleansing made the trip all the more important to both the people of Myanmar, diplomatic observers, and the international media. Given Pope Francis’s emergence as a progressive role player in both international relations and other pertinent issues which characterise the new millennia, all observers were keen to follow closely his engagement of the repressive Myanmar military government and its equally right-wing Buddhist supporters.

Whether Pope Francis’s trip was a success or failure will probably remain an issue of debate for a long time to come. It is now a matter of historical record that some observers criticised him for refraining from using the term “Rohynga” while in Mynmar. However a couple of weeks before he embarked on his trip, the pope had been strongly advised by many, including the most senior Catholic cleric in Myanmar, Cardinal Bo, to refrain from using the term Rohynga during his trip. Cardinal Bo pointed out that use of the word would in all probability result in a backlash by the military and conservative Buddhists, thereby rendering any attempts by the pontiff to bring relief to the Rohynga futile. Pope Francis himself confirmed this hard reality after his visit when he noted that “..doors would have been shut…” , had he used the term thus rendering any attempt to meaningfully engage the Mynmar regime futile.

There is a perception, even among Catholics, that the pope can wave a magic wand and thereby make all of religious, political, economic and social ills disappear into thin air. The reality is that the Pope is very much human like us and does not possess any supernatural powers. Apart from relying, in terms of Catholic tradition, on the Holy Spirit for guidance, the pope has to seek advice from a broad spectrum of advisers within the church. Like all other leaders, he also has his own ideological stance on a broad range of topical issues. Thus while one of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II could have been seen as politically conservative, Pope Francis is considered by many to be a radical, situated more to the left on the political spectrum.

In analysing the pope’s standpoint on major topical issues it is of critical importance to note that as head of the Catholic church, he exercises a dual role, namely that of being head of a religious denomination with an active membership of 1.2 billion faithful, and that of being head of state, namely the Vatican, or the Holy See as it is officially known. Therefore apart from the pomp and ceremony of religious functions which daily draws thousands of pilgrims and tourists to St Peters Square in Rome, the pope also exercises overall control over a mini-state which has all the attributes of a sovereign state (eg a government –  the “Roman Curia”, including a financial and banking system, and an international relations department with it’s own diplomatic corps who are officially referred to as “apostolic nuncios”). Some have even argued that the Vatican has its own intelligence service. Though providing proof of such is difficult given the traditional lack of information on some structures of the church, it has been argued that the Vatican has one of the best intelligence gathering services in the world. This is however disputed by one of the most pre-eminent authors on the Vatican, David Alvarez in his book “Spies in the Vatican –Espionage and Intrigue From Napoleon to the Holocaust”, Universty Press of Kansas, 2002. He argues elsewhere that “…….the churches trans-national networks has encouraged many governments to try to penetrate those networks and purloin the supposed secrets of the Vatican. The irony is that the Vatican usually knows less about international affairs than the foreign governments seeking to steal its secrets.” (1)

Alvarez also argues that although the Vatican does receive a lot of information from its diplomatic corps, the nuncios, however lacks institutional capacity to process and fully analyse such information.

This argument would seem to imply, without being seen to attribute this thesis to Alvarez, that foreign governments and other lobby groups would utilise such an engagement to further their own strategic and long-term objectives.

The dual role of the pope as head of a religious entity and head of state invariably opens up the church to intense contestation, both internally and externally, for control over policy direction. The mere size of the church and its position on the international stage opens it, very much like any other prominent international body, to infiltration by a wide and diverse range of political, social and economic lobbies. Thus gender activists, the LGBT lobby, immigrants, pacifists, liberation theology proponents and their far right adversaries etc are continuously seeking to influence the official position of the church very much in the same way that conservative and political groups do. This contestation for control or for influence over policy direction plays itself both within the imposing walls of the Vatican and within the local church far and wide. Even here in our native South Africa, as we shall show herein, there are those who seek to influence the policy of the church in favour of powerful business elites and minorities. They are forever joined in this contestation for control of church policy by agents and supporters of both progressive and repressive entities.

Paul L Williams seems to support this thesis of the Vatican and the church as a whole being the subject of a concerted campaign by conservative groupings, most of whom are backed by the CIA, to infiltrate it with a view towards furthering the international right-wing agenda. (2)

According to Williams, the links between the CIA and the Vatican have their origins as far back as 1942 during the Second World War following a proposition to the Vatican by senior US intelligence officers that the real enemy to western civilisation and values was posed by the Soviet Union rather than by Nazi Germany. This, according to Williams, laid the basis for a strategic but covert alliance between the CIA and the Vatican under the code name “Operation Gladio” in terms of which the two entities would coordinate an anti-communist and anti-left campaign lasting many decades. Apart from coordinating propaganda and misinformation campaigns, the strategy entailed arming and deployment of terrorist groups inside the Soviet bloc and paramilitaries who unleashed bombing and terror campaigns in both eastern and western Europe.These bombings and other terrorists attacks, though planned and executed by CIA-backed operatives, would be officially blamed on the Soviet Union and its allies.

One of the most notorious examples of these CIA flag operations was the recruitment of Mehmet Ali Agca by the Gray Wolves, an extreme right-wing para-military group with its origins in Turkey. Agca, who by all accounts proved to be mentally unstable, was instructed to assassinate Pope John Paul II and point at the Soviet Union’s KGB as his handlers. Among those who planned this operation were members of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic organisation with strong ties to the Vatican, the Masonic P2 Lodge which was based in Rome and had as some its members senior Vatican clerics, members of the Roman Curia , the Italian intelligence service , the Italian Mafia , and senior members of the Safari Club which had been established by Henry Kissinger, the veteran US diplomat. (3)

The abortive assassination on Pope John Paul II was carried out by Agca on 13 May 1981, which is incidentally one of the most sacred feast days on the Catholic callender, the anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. Although the pope was hit by four bullets, he survived the assassination. An accomplice of Agca who had been instructed to set off an explosive device in the crowded St Peter’s Square, upon seeing Agca being arrested fled the scene. For many decades the abortive assassination of John Paul II was indeed blamed on the Soviet Union and its allies. The rationale given was that the Soviet Union had sought to assassinate John Paul II because of his support for Solidarity, the Polish trade union Solidarity which evolved into a mass anti-government organisation that enjoyed a lot of political support in the west and in particular in the Vatican.

This strategy was also extended to South America especially from the early 1960s under the code word “Operation Condor”. The CIA, aided and covertly supported by the conservative clerics in the Vatican and in South America itself embarked on a campaign which included the overthrow of left-wing governments and their replacement by right-wing military juntas. In certain instances right-wing death squads were trained and unleashed on those who propagated left-wing views. Chief among the targets of this campaign were trade unionists and Catholic priests and bishops who were proponents of liberation theology. Thus Fr Camilo Torres Restrepo in Colombia and Archbishop Dom Helder Camara in Brazil were continuously caught in the cross hairs of the right-wing juntas and their death squads. Fr Camilo Torres was eventually forced to flee into the Colombian jungle where he joined the leftist guerrilla movement, ELN. He was killed in combat with the Colombian army. The election of the conservative Polish Cardinal, Karol Josef Wojtyla, who assumed the name Pope John Paul II in 1978 served to exacerbate the situation for clergy who promoted theology of liberation. Pope John Paul II was very hostile to the theology of liberation . This was in stark contrast to his open support for Catholic clergy who were opposed to the communist regime in his native Poland.

A lot of Catholic priests and nuns were assassinated by right-wing death squads during a period spanning over two decades. The case which stands out is that of the archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Ramero, who had openly opposed the repressive regime in El Salvador. Following the massacre of six nuns and a number of Jesuit priests, Archbishop Ramero went to the Vatican with evidence of complicity of the right-wing junta in the massacre of the nuns and priests. His plea to Pope John Paul II and his cardinals in the Roman Curia for assistance in quelling the bloodletting and to bring the perpetrators to justice apparently fell on deaf ears. He would pay the ultimate price for his resistance to right-wing military oppression when he was assassinated on 23 March 1980 while celebrating Mass. According to Catholic tradition, one who is killed under circumstances similar to the assassination of Archbishop Ramero is automatically declared a martyr for, to use the general expression, he has died “ …..in witness of the faith…”. That would traditionally suffice to have the deceased officially proclaimed “Blessed”, which is the first of two steps towards being declared a saint, the latter title being based on the requirement of two miracles which are declared as being authentic by the Church. It took over three and half decades for the Vatican to formally declare Archbishop Ramero “Blessed”. It has been argued elsewhere that Pope John Paul II was not comfortable with the idea of having Ramero officially proclaimed a martyr as he did not want to antagonise his allies in Washington. (4). His eventual beatification (being declared “Blessed”) could probably largely be due to the fact that a politically sensitive and, by Vatican standards, radical cardinal, namely Jorge Mario Bergoglio, formally archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, had been elected Pope in 2013, whereupon he assumed the name “Francis”.

The Chilean military junta headed by the notorious General Pinochet is said to have been assisted not only by the CIA in toppling the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. It is said that some clerics and members of the Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, were intimately and directly involved in the planning and execution of the coup. Some members of this organisation, it is said, were later absorbed into General Pinochet’s military junta. The most notorious of these was Hernan Cubillos, a retired naval officer turned businessman who was rewarded by being appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. Opus Dei elicited support from Catholic bishops in Chile for the overthrow of the Allende government. They worked closely with other right-wing organisations such as (ie the “Fatherland and Liberty”) in raising millions in US dollars which were channelled into the Institute For General Studies (IGS), itself an Opus Dei think-tank, which were used for the planning of the violent military coup. The mouthpiece of the coup conspirators was an extreme right-wing publication, “Que Pasa” which had been established by Opus Dei with the sole objective of propagating right-wing political views.

Present in Chile as the Apostolic Nuncio (ie Vatican ambassador) during the darkest days of the brutal reign of General Pinochet was one of Pope John Paul’s closest confidantes, Angelo Rafael Sodano. Sodano was widely viewed as being apologetic to the Pinochet regime . He was widely condemned for having been seen to be too tolerant of the regime despite its repressive excesses. Giving credence to this proposition is the fact that years later, after being appointed by John Paul to the powerful position of Vatican head of the Secretariat for The State, the mini-state’s department of foreign affairs, Cardinal Angelo Sodano pleaded in formal written correspondence with the British government to have General Pinochet released after he was arrested and held in Britain for crimes against humanity, including torture and mass executions. (5).

In raising the political controversies which characterised the papacy of John Paul II it is also very important to note that he is credited with adopting a progressive stand with regard to a number of other sensitive issues, some of which had dogged the Catholic church for many centuries. He was, unlike his political allies in Washington and London, namely Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a bitter critic of the racist regime in South Africa and openly advocated imposition of economic and political sanctions against it. In a an address to International Court of Justice in Geneva , John Paul condemned the racist regime “ …..discrimination in law and or in fact – on the basis of race, origin, colour, culture, sex or religion. Hence, no system of apartheid or separate development will ever be acceptable as a model for relations between peoples or races “ (6) .

Apart from his hostility to the apartheid regime, John Paul II is credited with taking the bold step of personally issuing public apologies on behalf of the Catholic church for many atrocities which had been committed by the church in the past :

  1. Involvement of Catholics in the African slave trade.
  2. The silence and inactivity of Catholics during the Holocaust.
  3. The Crusader attacks against Constantinople.
  4. The abuse of women through the ages.

During his celebration of the Day of Pardon Mass at St Peters Square on 12 March 2000 he asked “….for pardon for the divisions amongst Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth , and hostility towards followers of other religions .”

In his Apostolic Letter, “Tertio Millennio Adveniente”  ie “As The Third Millennium Draws Near”) his states: “Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close, the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling those times in history when they departed from the spirit of the Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of her faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.”

This quotation from John Paul’s Apostolic Letter is one which in my view the bishops and the clergy in South Africa would do well to read in depth. My views on the Catholic bishops attitude to the political situation in South Africa is more clearly spelt out in my article “His Grace Dances With The Devil” which first appeared on Uncensored Opinion on 18 May 2017. Hence, in the interest of space and brevity, I will not dwell too much on its contents. Suffice to state that there is a fairly huge number of Christians, including amongst them , many devout Catholics who have shared my opinion that under the guise of combatting corruption , the Catholic bishops and their counter-parts in the South African Council of Churches have abused their seniority in the Church by promoting minority and pro-capitalist views from the pulpit with the sole aim of influencing the political direction of our country towards a more conservative political direction . I observed what in my view was a glimmer of hope that some of our senior clerics were moving away from this position when Cardinal Wilfred Napier implored his colleagues during their plenary session of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference held in Tswane ( Pretoria ) early this year to desist from being fixated with ANC politics in general and the issue of former president Jacob Zuma and instead to develop a broader view of the situation in the country. He referred to the continuous attacks on Jacob Zuma as “an orgy “.

About two years ago I texted a brief message to a very senior comrade in the ANC wherein I made a desperate call that it was incumbent on all progressive minded Catholics to do all in their power to confront and to oppose conservative Catholic clergy who abuse our Church by adopting a one-sided and right-wing view in their analysis of the political situation in our country. Weeks later I caught up with him telephonically. When I politely told him that he had not returned my calls and messages, his response was one which can only be described as rude, offensive and insulting : “Udakiwe! Uphuzile!” (“You are drunk! You have had too much to drink!”). Given the fact that I do respect this comrade as my senior, and because I want to promote the unity and cohesion of our organisation during this difficult period in the history of our organisation, I shall refrain from publicly mentioning his name.

I pray and hope that the bishops and clergy will heed the call by Cardinal Napier and adopt a more balanced and unbiased political standpoint. I pray and hope that the Salesian priest based in Daleside who in his sermon to pupils from Dominican Convent School in Johannesburg made the startling and very disturbing claim that Jacob Zuma would never go to heaven will find it worthwhile to re-examine his conscious and retract that unfortunate remark. I pray and hope that the Jesuit priest who has made it his trade mark to launch continuous and unbalanced attacks on the ANC through the articles issued by the Jesuit Institute and through our only Catholic radio station in South Africa, namely Radio Veritas , will have the courage to carefully go through an examination of his conscious. Doing so will never make him less of a man but will certainly go a long way towards earning him credibility and causing less damage to our much-loved Catholic Radio station.

I was very happy to read an article on corruption which was posted on the website of the Catholic Diocese of Manzini (Swaziland) in which the author, Fr Chris Chatteris SJ adopts an unusually very balanced synopsis of the subject of corruption in South Africa. He correctly pins the blame for this cancer in equal measure on both the state, the politicians and powerful business interests. I am disappointed that very few, if any, South Africans seem to have read it. Our people would be much wiser if they were to take time to read it.

The election of a progressive-minded Cardinal to the highest position in the Catholic church will certainly go a long way towards restoring the credibility of the Church. However we must note that Pope Francis carries out his duties as spiritual head of the Church and as head of state in a heavily contested political and social environment. He cannot be expected to wave a magic wand in order to cure the ills of both the Church and society. He needs all of our support. We all pray that he is protected from his enemies both within and outside of the Church. The P2 Masonic lodge ( whose official name was Propaganda Due) is largely suspected of having been involved in the death on 28 September 1978 of John Paul IIs predecessor, John Paul I, a mere 33 days after his installation as pope. Although the Vatican has consistently denied that John Paul I was murdered, the theory that he was killed by members of P2 into which he had ordered an investigation for corruption involving the Vatican-linked Banco Ambrosiano persists to this day . Thus all Catholics and people of goodwill must pray that Pope Francis does not suffer the same fate.

Oremus pro pontifice Francisco         Let us pray for our Pope Francis

Dominus conservet eum et vivicet eum   May the Lord guard Him and    give Him Life

Et beatum faciet eum in terra                 May He be blessed on earth

Et non tradat eum anima inimicorum eius.   And do not let him fall  into  the hands of His enemies

Christus vincit!                                                Christ has conquered!



  1. ‘Vatican: The best intelligence service in the world’ . Interview in Religioscope . 29 January 2003.
  2. Paul L Williams ‘Operation Gladio: The Unholy Alliance Between The Vatican , The CIA , And The Mafia ‘ . Prometheus Books . 2015 . ISBN 978-61614-974-1
  3. ‘Operation Gladio: Turkey’s Invisible Coup And The Untold Story of The Cold War’ Atlas Monitor. 18 June 2016.
  4. Shaun Wilcock ‘Oscar Ramero: Rome’s Political Martyr in a New Light’.
  5. Gabriel Pardo ‘Sodano, The Contact of Chile in The Vatican’. El Mercurio . 21 November 2004.
  6. Los Angeles Times , 13 May 1985.


Greg alexander mashaba is member of the anc branch in ward 23 ekurhuleni and a parishioner at Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Church , Kempton Park, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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  1. Cde Stalin, threat to my life is a real possibility here. The alliance between WMC and counter-revolutionary elements , including fascists who wear priest’s robes , runs very deep in our country’s own political landscape. The proliferation of right-wing think tanks , including the Jesuit Institute based in Randburg ,echoes the situation which obtained in Chile in the run-up to the military coup which ushered in the repressive regime of Pinochet. I will however not cease to write and speak my mind as I see this as not only my revolutionary duty to my country but also as an internationalist obligation to arrest the rampant excesses of neo-imperialism . As it was written decades ago , ” for evil to triumph , all good men must do nothing”.

  2. Comrade Greg that’s very very and very deep stuff you posted(which may cost your livelihood or even life). A few years back I read the story of ex-Jesuit Priest Alberto Rivera who later died of poisoning. I was shocked and horrified. What I read there ties very well with what you wrote. Please allow me not to say much for now. A common denominator here is the right-wing politics, though not the’ (pronounced thee) only one. In our country we have witnessed even used-to-be progressive forces joining the right-wing ranks, of-course being lured with/by wealth crumbs. Most of them still do not fathom the deadly objective of this sinister force. We have the free masons who infiltrated almost all spheres of life, including the churches and the Catholic Church not spared. We have the Jesuits, many of whom are 33 degree masons; we have the Jesuit General or the Black Pope. We have all these other Orders (Malta, Bath, Knights Templar, Royal Order of Scotland etc). Comrade Greg this beast cannot be defined, it’s perplexing and full of mystery. Hordes of Christians are trapped in this system, whose intention is to see them go to perdition in the end of time. Let our eyes and ears see and hear.

    1. Cde Stalin this is indeed the mirky world of politics and religion – simply mafia stuff. There are many in religious circles who have been silenced for being outspoken – as I always say intolerance is not only unique in so-called right-wing circles.

      Talking of people being trapped in the Christian System, I’m reminded of the article I posted on Kenyan revolutionary Bildad Kaggia, who on his return from foreign lands, decided to attack Christianity as one of the foremost symbols of colonialism which had to be overthrown. He started his own church – with African traditions.

      As you say, people must open their ears and eyes – but the power of the WMC media with its protection of these sinister forces is so massive that it will take immense work from alternative platforms like ours to help open their ears and eyes.

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