The Truth Shall Make You Free: Catholicism and the CIA

By Greg BarnhiselNovember 13, 2021

The Truth Shall Make You Free: Catholicism and the CIA

Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA by Michael Graziano
A Drop of Treason: Philip Agee and his Exposure of the CIA by Jonathan Stevenson

ON HIS FIRST day in office, the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump came to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency to give what most mainstream news outlets described as an “unconventional” speech, one intended to reassure the spy agency of his support but that “veered off course to attack the ‘dishonest media.’”

Some CIA staff in the audience feasted on Trump’s red meat. Others, though, complained the speech was inappropriate given its venue: in front of the CIA Memorial Wall, with its stars representing 137 officers killed in the line of duty. Former Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan issued a statement saying that he was “deeply saddened and angered at Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement.”

What was also notable was the almost universally reverent tone used to describe this wall: it is a “shrine,” a “sanctuary” commemorating those who “sacrificed” for the nation, a place to which one makes a “pilgrimage.” By crapping on this sanctimony, Trump performed (if only inadvertently) the service of highlighting how the mainstream news media is willing to extend its reverence for the military to spies as well.

The intrusion of sanctified rhetoric into discussions of espionage might seem jarring. But as two recent books on the CIA show, religion — in particular, Roman Catholicism — colored the Agency from its earliest days to its greatest crisis, the spectacular 1970s revelations that it had tricked and lied to the public.

In his Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors, Michael Graziano goes back to the CIA’s predecessor agency, the World War II–era Office of Strategic Services, to look at how Catholicism “became the model through which the intelligence community could understand and manipulate other world religions,” and thus how its flawed understanding of Catholicism led to some of its greatest debacles, including the failure to see the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Jonathan Stevenson, on the other hand, focuses not on the institution but on a person: the Agency’s most reviled turncoat, Philip Agee, whose faith in part spurred him to repudiate his former employer and, for decades, crusade against US foreign policy and seek to destroy the CIA. Taken as two prongs of a thesis, these books argue that an overly simple conception of Catholicism, later taken to be congruent with all religions, led to many of the Agency’s blunders; while a deeply felt, liberation theology–influenced Catholicism brought about the worst damage to its public image and, in some cases, even its operations.

It wasn’t that the Agency itself was a redoubt of Catholicism, even though its founder, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Director “Wild Bill” Donovan, was an Irish Catholic from Buffalo. Quite the opposite: Ivy League WASPs dominated the early Agency, while the older FBI was the middle- and working-class Catholic half of the intelligence dyad. The FBI resented how aristocratic CIA officers condescended to the “Fordham Catholics” of J. Edgar Hoover’s agency.

Instead, Graziano argues, the CIA’s early approach to intelligence-gathering drew upon a burgeoning scholarly field of the 1940s and 1950s: the academic and anthropological study of “world religions,” which was developing symbiotically with the area studies that American universities and foundations were underwriting to prepare the United States for world leadership. The OSS was full of academics such as Yale’s Norman Holmes Pearson (whose biography I am currently writing) and the Harvard Americanist Perry Miller, whose 1956 study of the Puritans, Errand into the Wilderness, lends Graziano’s book its title.

The first such institution to be studied was the Vatican itself, which was, in Graziano’s words, “foreign enough to be worthy of study but familiar enough to be interpretable.” Operating under the cover of the deep persuasive power of the Church, the OSS mobilized European populations against their Nazi (and later Soviet) occupiers. The agency also collaborated with the Catholic International Press, through Belgian priest Felix Morlion, in what it called “Operation Pilgrim’s Progress.”

American spies sincerely and naïvely saw themselves in league with the priests because “American analysts often assumed that Catholic interests — and the Vatican’s more specifically — squared neatly with US aims.” In fact, once the Agency began encountering other world religions over the course of the Cold War — Shintoism in Japan, Buddhism in Southeast Asia, and especially Islam in Iran — it took for granted that “the United States and the world’s religions [were] natural allies” in the struggle against atheistic communism. They were not always right, especially in Iran, where they suspected communism, not Islam, was the force trying to topple the Shah.

Central to the CIA’s use of Catholicism was a man named Tom Dooley. Though the name is largely obscure today, in 1961 he placed third in Gallup’s “Most Esteemed” man in the world poll. Dooley was a Navy doctor who provided care for South Vietnamese refugees fleeing the chaos after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. His 1956 best seller Deliver Us from Evil, as well as countless articles and media appearances afterward, “justified American intervention in Vietnam and presented Vietnamese Catholics as sympathetic subjects.” He was a central-casting missionary, and the persecuted Vietnamese were precisely the kinds of people Christ charged Catholics to serve. But he was writing CIA-sponsored propaganda to build domestic support for Vietnam, and his stories weren’t “strictly speaking, true.”

One of the young men Dooley inspired to help was young Philip Agee of Tampa, Florida, and the University of Notre Dame, whose saga Jonathan Stevenson recounts in A Drop of Treason. After serving in the Air Force from 1957 to 1960, Agee joined the CIA, where he was posted to Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico City. In Uruguay in 1965, he overheard, from the next room, the torture of communist leader Oscar Bonaudi, who had been sucked up in a joint CIA–Montevideo Police Department operation called AVENGEFUL. This unpleasant experience made him doubt American intentions abroad and especially the justice of its collaboration with repressive governments.

But the Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico City in 1968, in which he felt the CIA was complicit, was his Damascene moment. Agee had begun to immerse himself in the leftist Catholic liberation theology movement sweeping Latin America: “I became the servant of the capitalism I rejected. I became one of its secret policemen. The CIA, after all, is nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism.”

Agee didn’t just quit. He moved to Cuba for a time to do “research,” and then, from his residence in the United Kingdom, wrote and published Inside the Company (1975), one of the first books by a former officer to air the CIA’s dirty laundry. But, controversially, he went further: in the book, Agee actually revealed the names of hundreds of active CIA officers and agents. “One way to neutralize the CIA’s support to repression,” he wrote at the time, “is to expose its officers so that their presence in foreign countries becomes untenable.”

Untenable, certainly; perilous, quite likely. While the CIA was “determined to maintain a façade of institutional cool” in the face of Agee’s revelations, individual CIA figures and other writers savaged him for putting his former colleagues in what they claimed was mortal danger. Even Barbara Bush called Agee a potential accessory to murder; in response, Agee sued Bush and received a public apology. For the rest of his life, from his home in Hamburg, Germany, Agee taught and wrote against American interventionism, often traveling on a Nicaraguan passport, as the United States had revoked his.

Stevenson’s book is an equivocal portrait of Agee, who comes across as a zealot with a worrisome willingness to cross the line between denunciation of the United States and collaboration with its adversaries. He casts doubt on, but does not dismiss entirely, the widespread suspicion that Agee actually worked as a Soviet spy. Stevenson tips his hand a bit when he refers to Agee’s work in Cuba as his “original sin,” but his book makes it clear that the CIA has been the much greater sinner, even if its sins were merely looking the other way while its partners did the bloody work. Writing from the perspective of the Trump years, Stevenson reservedly approves of the kind of “principled and acceptable rejection of the US government,” the “ruthless candor” that Agee embodied, while still entirely rejecting Agee’s unmasking of his colleagues.

In 1954, President Eisenhower asked his national security team to find a “Joan of Arc” for Vietnam — someone who could unite the country against communism by appealing to spirituality and religion. The CIA and the nation, though, seem to have found their own Joan in Agee — not the Joan who united her people against a foreign invader but the implacable Joan driven by “ruthless candor” and a compulsion to self-sacrifice in service of God’s will. Perhaps if the Agency had been more open to such candor in its early years, less willing to allow American exceptionalism to occlude the reality of other nations and religions and peoples, it would not have produced an Agee who would feel compelled to expose its sins to the world.

When the CIA was founded in 1947, Catholicism was still out of the mainstream, even foreign: it was, as Graziano shows, something to be studied. But in an irony that Wild Bill Donovan would relish, the CIA has had so many Catholic (or once Catholic) directors since the 1970s — William Casey, Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, and John Brennan — that today it is sometimes called the “Catholic Intelligence Agency.”

More broadly, in the last 25 years, even as its percentage of the population has changed little, Catholicism has become much more central to American public life. But the Catholicism in ascendancy is no longer JFK and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s old-fashioned Northeastern urban and ethnic variety. Instead, a hard-edged, reactionary, pre–Vatican II strain has achieved unprecedented influence and power through the right-wing bishops appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict; through political figures like Paul Ryan, Sam Brownback, Newt Gingrich, and Steve Bannon; and, most importantly, through their outright majority on the Supreme Court (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett). Leftist, social-justice Catholics like Agee no longer pose any danger to the CIA.

The recent threats have come and likely will come from the top — from people who embody the post-Trump Trumpist movement’s imperviousness to facts, evidence, and analysis. These, of course, are the very things that the Agency — with the Biblical quote “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” carved into the wall at its headquarters, only yards from the Memorial Wall — claims to venerate.


Greg Barnhisel is professor of English at Duquesne University. He is the author of James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound and Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy and is currently completing a biography of the professor and spy Norman Holmes Pearson.

LARB Contributor

Greg Barnhisel is a professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (2015) and James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (2005), and editor of the journal Book History. He has written for scholarly and trade publications including Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Humanities, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His Code Name Puritan: Norman Holmes Pearson at the Nexus of Poetry, Espionage, and American Power will be published in October 2024.


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