When did the word “dossier” become so sinister? If you’re eager to ratchet up the tension or create a sense of skulduggery then the other options simply won’t suffice. When, for instance, you are concocting outlandish theories about why Benedict XVI resigned, there’s a lack of drama in talking about cardinals producing a “file” after they had completed their investigations. No, a “secret dossier” landing on the pope’s desk has much more oomph.

The same goes for rumours about conclaves being influenced, or stashes of documents in Eastern European archives revealing the “truth” about assassination attempts against John Paul II. And, frankly, in an age of VatiLeaks or dubious dealings at the Vatican bank, a word like “dossier”, with all its menacing overtones, can be hard to resist.

A question, though. Why does it attach so readily to events within the Catholic Church? There is sometimes a cultural assumption that Rome has always been particularly gifted when it comes to secrecy: every bit as likely to go in for dossiers as the intelligence agencies of superpowers or the movers and shakers behind the latest twist in the tale of Donald Trump.

Is this reputation justified? It can be stated with certainty that the Church has deployed espionage during its long history; it has attempted to influence political events in far-flung climes; and since it helped to invent modern diplomacy it stands to reason that it also helped to create the rules of diplomatic engagement and to find ways around them.

But what else was a Church to do, especially back in the days when it was a mighty political player as well as a spiritual lodestone? If the Medici or the Tudors are sending agents to spy on you, then you’d be wise to return the favour. If the Gestapo are muckraking against you, then why not seek intelligence from German bishops that might help the Allies?

A fair conclusion would be that, historically, the papacy has been no more addicted to gathering information than any other influential power, that most of the less edifying episodes are already well known, and that you can dismiss most of the tall tales that infect the blogosphere. For every genuine covert agent or overly curious nuncio there were many other poor victims who had to endure entirely spurious accusations. At this chilly time of year, for instance, spare a thought for Simone Matkovitch. In the depths of the Hungarian winter of 1635, the governor of Buda slung Matkovitch and two fellow priests into an icy cell, bound them with shackles, and made them watch some of their fellow Catholics being tortured. Despite being beaten, Matkovitch refused to admit that he was a papal spy, largely because he wasn’t. He was just a humble parish priest from Mohács.

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