The CIA has earned itself a nickname of “Catholic Intelligence Agency". Although no official statistics exist on Catholics in the CIA, one interesting clue is the relatively high number of Catholics who have served as director of the agency.
- The Catholic Herald
Just a few days before Christmas 1988, terrorists blew up Pan American Flight 103 as it passed over Lockerbie, not long after leaving Heathrow. One of the 259 murdered onboard was Matthew Gannon. The eighth child of devout Catholic parents, Gannon had joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1977, becoming a skilled operations officer and linguist.
Nearly a year later, in October 1989, many victims’ belongings still lay unclaimed in trailers in Lockerbie. When Gannon’s brother arrived there, he identified his family member’s personal items by spotting a missal in a bag with one of Matthew’s favourite shirts.
While conspiracy theorists have probably already exploited Gannon’s death, the link between the CIA and its allegedly high number of Catholic employees is worth exploring.
The United States is a country in which – with the recent exception of the Supreme Court – Catholics have never dominated the highest offices. Only one out of 44 US presidents has been Catholic. The only Catholic Vice President is the current one, Joe Biden.
Before John Kerry, the last Catholic Secretary of State was Alexander Haig, who left the post in 1982. Catholics are a rarity in other top positions such as Secretary of Defence.
By contrast, three out of the past five CIA directors have been Catholic: Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, and the current director, John Brennan. A number of Catholics led the agency in critical periods during the Cold War. (There were no Catholic directors in the 1990s.)
Some of the most influential directors in CIA history have been Catholic – Walter Bedell Smith, John McCone, William Colby and William Casey. They were not just casual Catholics. They were devout Mass-goers – in many cases, members of groups like the Knights of Malta.
The conspiracy theorists usually start there, with nefarious plots about the Vatican steering world affairs. Of course, they never ask why an all-powerful Vatican can’t engineer more Catholic presidents.
To make sense of Catholics in the CIA, you have to go back to the 1940s, before the agency existed. Until that decade, the United States did not have a unified intelligence system. Separate branches of the military collected and analysed their own intelligence.