Chinese Spying on the Vatican: A McCarrick Connection? – PART I – Primary effects

November 10, 2020 (Edward J. Barr) – The controversial Vatican-Chinese agreement signed in 2018 and just renewed was no doubt aided by the sophisticated and capable Chinese intelligence service. Lost in the recent discussion about the rationale for the Vatican continuing to abide by the as yet undisclosed agreement is the role disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick played in setting the stage for the historic pact.

Totalitarian regimes of all stripes seek to influence foreign nations by recruiting key decision makers that they can manipulate for their own benefit.  The Cubans had a fairly successful program of inviting US politicians and academics to the country to show them the glories of that communist island.  Of course, each trip was completely choreographed by the intelligence service, designed to immerse the visitors in propaganda that they could take back to the US. 

China employs the same type of intelligence operation.  While there is no official evidence of the actual relationship between Chinese intelligence and McCarrick, a review of the tactics of Chinese intelligence and McCarrick’s career can offer some possibilities as to what may have occurred.  The following is reasoned speculation through the eyes of a Human Intelligence professional.

When determining whom to select for recruitment an intelligence service looks for someone who has placement and access to the desired information or person(s).  The net would be cast wide at first; it is here that McCarrick may have come to the attention of the Chinese.  Next, the service assesses the potential asset for vulnerabilities.  Since “Uncle Ted’s” predilections were an open secret, a more detailed analysis would likely have also noted his desire for notoriety and power.  Any initial spotting and assessing of McCarrick potentially began in the 1990s.  During trips to China in that decade it has been reported that he stayed in communist Church seminaries.  It is here that the development of McCarrick as an agent of influence would have begun. Chinese intelligence operatives would have determined his suitability to serve as an agent of influence during these visits. McCarrick’s ego and desire for power would have been fed by the Chinese, who provided psychological and financial benefits (Note: it is unknown if there is a McCarrick connection to the recently alleged transfer of money from China to the Vatican in support of the 2018 agreement). Why would McCarrick be selected?  Two reasons.  First of all, he was fairly senior and influential, with ties to several key Vatican (and US) officials.  Secondly, he possessed a personality profile that indicated he could be manipulated. 

McCarrick maintained consistent if not official ties to China throughout the first decade of the twenty first century.  He maintained particularly close relations with both official and unofficial churchmen in China, such as Bishop Aloysius Jin of Shanghai, who was both out of and then in favor with the Vatican.  His access within the Vatican was rivaled by his access within the US government.  After being appointed Archbishop of Washington DC on January 3, 2001, he made it a point to curry favor with select politicians.  He was in a position to be a valuable asset for Chinese intelligence, as he not only had access to information on Vatican policies and positions but also those of the United States.  How would they know?  It is the standard practice of the Chinese intelligence services to technically exploit all senior foreign officials of interest.  From employing technical means, to elicitation, to debriefing everyone who came into contact with McCarrick, the Chinese could have gathered important intelligence from his visits.  His value would have been highlighted to the Chinese when then (and current) Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi relayed a greeting from McCarrick to the aforementioned Bishop Jin, whom he had met when he was Archbishop of Newark. This information came to light from a Wikileaks expose and can be found on that site.

An October 17, 2005 report from the Catholic News Agency noted that the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries invited Cardinal McCarrick to visit Beijing.  The list of high-ranking officials that McCarrick met on the visit included Fu Tieshan, the chairman of the Catholic Patriotic Association of China and acting chairman of the Chinese bishops’ conference.  This is the “official” communist backed church that is not in union with Rome.  They and their controllers were and continue to persecute the “underground” (faithful to the Vatican) church. Any development of Cardinal McCarrick would have moved to full progress. 

The Chinese would have selected an excellent agent of influence, though it is likely McCarrick was an unwitting asset.  No formal recruitment was necessary.  Throughout his years as an unofficial Vatican diplomat, McCarrick often touted the communist Chinese regime, despite their horrific human rights record and official atheism.  A bump in the road for the Chinese occurred when Pope Benedict XVI restricted McCarrick in 2011 after knowledge of his perversion reached the Vatican.  Alas, he was given new life after Pope Francis assumed the papacy.  There is direct evidence that the Pope and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin were aware of his renewed activities relating to China by at least 2013 (source: The Figueiredo Report).

McCarrick’s level of coordination with China is evidenced by his January 20, 2016 letter to Pope Francis, where he indicates, “I have not been back to China since the fall, but I have received some indication to continue my conversations with some of the leaders of that great country as well.”  Chinese leaders and McCarrick were in continual contact.  The “who” was revealed in a February 9, 2016 email to Monsignor Figueiredo: “I returned to DC on Tuesday evening and flew to Beijing the Thursday morning … The reason for the China trip was the invitation by the son of a former Communist Party General Secretary who is still very close to [President] Xi [Jinping].” The seniority of Chinese governmental participation shows the level of interest high-ranking leaders had in working with McCarrick.  In a March 23 follow-up to the trip McCarrick noted “I will try to be in contact with Cardinal Turkson and Cardinal Parolin to check on the progress of the planned meeting with the Chinese” (source: The Figueiredo Report).  McCarrick was in the middle of Vatican-Chinese diplomacy. 

The revitalized and rehabilitated McCarrick continued to promote a pro-Chinese communist line. In a February 2016 interview with The Global Times (a Chinese controlled news outlet), McCarrick praised the Chinese and claimed that under Chinese President Xi, Communist hostility toward the country’s underground Catholic Church was a thing of the past.  He stated, “I see a lot of things happening that would really open many doors because President Xi and his government is concerned about things that Pope Francis is concerned about,… issues like “the care of poor, older people, children, our civilization and especially the ecology.” It is unknown whether the absurdity of the statement can be due to McCarrick’s ignorance or the expertise of a potential Chinese intelligence operation.

McCarrick continued in close contact with the Vatican. In a January 27, 2017, letter, McCarrick informs Pope Francis of the details of the negotiations.  The sensitivity of the correspondence required that he use the diplomatic pouch (a secure means of transporting important documents and equipment used by all governments). He writes, “I am grateful to His Excellency Archbishop Pierre [U.S. Papal Nuncio] for his kindness in enclosing this letter in his diplomatic pouch, so that I may give your Holiness some idea of a number of the questions which were brought up during my recent visit to China.”

McCarrick was performing admirably in promoting China, but so were senior Vatican officials whom he may have influenced. In February 2018, just prior to charges against McCarrick being made public in the US, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences claimed that atheistic China has created the best model for living out Catholic social teaching. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin continued to praise the Communist regime despite objective evidence of a crackdown on religious freedom.  In May of 2019 he spoke highly of the Vatican-China deal, in an interview with The Global Times.  The Cardinal stated, “Many global challenges exist which need to be faced with a spirit of positive cooperation. I am thinking in particular of the great issues of peace, the fight against poverty, environmental and climatic emergencies, migration, the ethics of scientific development and the economic and social progress of peoples.”  The similarities to McCarrick’s February 2016 interview are clear.  He certainly had done well influencing! 

The available evidence suggests there was great potential that Cardinal McCarrick was acting as an unwitting agent of influence for the Chinese communist regime [NB: Roma Locuta Est has also discussed McCarrick, agents of influence, intelligence operations, and the 2013 Conclave here].  The resulting Vatican-China agreement that both sides refuse to make public and the increased crackdown on religion in China demonstrate that Chinese intelligence and the communist regime got the best of the Vatican.  Yet sometimes such operations have additional positive effects for the intelligence service.  We will turn to that topic in Part II.

Edward J Barr, Esq. is a Catechist and former intelligence officer who teaches strategic intelligence at Northeastern University.  He holds a Master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute. Mr. Barr is a contributing writer for the Roma Locuta Est blog (

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