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Did NSA spy on the Vatican? Should we be concerned?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 30, 2013

Did the NSA spy on the Vatican? We don’t know, really. We only have one report, published by an Italian magazine, claiming that the NSA monitored cardinals’ phone calls. The White House isn’t talking about it, and the Vatican claims to be unconcerned.

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But if you are a Catholic and a US citizen, maybe you should be concerned. I am.

The report in Panorama is credible. The NSA was evidently eavesdropping on nearly everyone; it seems quite probable that cell-phone calls by Church leaders were being captured. If any sensitive information was captured, it was passed along to the political overseers of the NSA, who work for the Obama administration: an administration that rarely misses an opportunity to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, or promote the views of Catholic dissidents. It’s unsettling to think that our nation’s leaders might use espionage to influence Church policies. But it’s not far-fetched.

One reassuring note: Despite the scare headlines in the (reliably awful) British press, the NSA was not spying on the papal conclave. Maybe the cardinals’ calls were recorded before they entered the Sistine Chapel. But once they were there, in a sealed room that had been swept for electronic listening devices, the opportunities for high-tech espionage were virtually nil. There were certainly no cell-phone calls to record, because the cardinals surrendered their phones as they entered the conclave.

In fact, the complete absence of working phones in the Sistine Chapel led to one of the more intriguing sidebar stories about the conclave. Before he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s, the newly elected Pope Francis wanted to speak to his predecessor, Benedict XVI. But he couldn’t find a working line in the building, and the cardinals couldn’t leave the building until the Pope was introduced to the world. So there was a frantic scramble through unused rooms in the apostolic palace, until finally a phone was found. The story is told in A Call to Serve; my co-author, Stefan von Kempis, was there when it happened.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 12, 2017 8:55 AM ET USA

    Yes! Jesus tells us over and over "Do not be afraid". Not liking the prospect of terrible pain or being torturously treated to death is not fear of death. But even in these extreme prospects where fear of 'how' one dies is understandable, Jesus asks us "where is your faith". And he goes back to sleep in the bow of the boat! I like to think he is resting in the Father's heart and encouraging us to do the same. Trust and hope in Jesus promise, "I am with you always".

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 06, 2017 5:56 PM ET USA

    Wow! Where does one begin? "...knowledge makes it worse...petrified with fear...deny the possibility of eternal punishment." Fr. John Hardon gives these definitions for sins against the Holy Ghost: despair of one's salvation, presumption of God's mercy, and 4 others. There is another condition that is relevant here. Scrupulosity: "The habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial. ...the...remedy is absolute obedience (for a time) to a prudent confessor."

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Nov. 05, 2017 1:04 PM ET USA

    "But belief in an afterlife makes death less fearsome." Not so, Phil, not so. The knowledge make it worse - one becomes petrified with fear that one may somehow turn against God, or that one's slovenly observation of Jesus' commandments don't hit the mark (sin), and afterlife will be endless horror and pain. For some people, an endless afterlife may be a fate worse than final non-existence. Luckily (?) Pope Francis seems to deny the possibility of eternal punishment.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 04, 2017 10:03 AM ET USA

    I would really appreciate hearing the results of your research into brain death. From my own reading there seems to be more and more scientific evidence that brain dead people are frequently still physically alive and aware of what is going on around them.