What's the truth about the Holy See? Is it as powerful as popular perception paints it, as omniscient as the God to whom it answers, as embroiled in the affairs of other states as lore and legend maintain? The answer to all three questions, according to David Alvarez's Spies in the Vatican: Espionage and Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust (Univ. Press of Kansas, $34.95) is: not nearly. "It is common for historians to speak knowingly of the 'Vatican intelligence service' and for the especially bold to assert confidently that the pope is the best informed of the world's leaders," Alvarez writes. But when it comes to Rome's effectiveness at international politics and intrigue, he maintains, the papacy gets at once a bad rap and overinflated credit -- both less than fully deserved.

The Vatican didn't even have a bona fide intelligence department until World War I, when an undersecretary of state named Umberto Benigni organized one to spy not on other states or political leaders, but on Rome's own -- priests and theologians suspected of excessive liberalism and modernism. In the interwar period, the Vatican gave clandestine support to the Russian Orthodox Church against the Soviet government. But for the most part, unable to keep up with the elaborate espionage capabilities of secular states and relying too heavily on clerics rather than professional spies, the Vatican in modern history -- with its minimal security procedures, minuscule territory and vulnerable communications channels -- has been far more spied upon than spying, says Alvarez. His contrarian conclusion that Allied governments learned of the Holocaust before the pope did could stir some debate, but on the whole he argues convincingly that, in the intelligence game, the Vatican has been "a reluctant and ill-conditioned player."

-- Zofia Smardz