Cornwell's Popes

A front-page story in the Sunday, October 17 New York Times alerted readers to the arrest of thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel. The prospect of show trials designed to inflame anti-Israel feeling among Iran’s fundamentalist Muslim majority now threatens that nation’s small but venerable Jewish community. "Human-rights groups outside of Iran have suggested that the charges have been trumped up for political reasons," the Times ominously reported. "In Iran, spokesmen for Jewish organizations have mostly avoided discussing the case, saying that protests from Jews, here or abroad, would only make matters worse."

On the face of it, the situation presents rather stark choices. If the Iranian Jews are convicted on trumped-up charges and hanged by Iran’s "revolutionary" court, those who publicly protested the arrests may be accused of having indeed made "matters worse." On the other hand, if the quiet negotiations of Iran’s Jewish community save the thirteen, the wisdom of exercising prudence and pursuing diplomacy in the face of lethal hostility will be vindicated. If quiet diplomacy fails, however, those who advocated such a course may well be charged with complicity or worse in the state’s crimes.

Although such intractable moral tradeoffs are not necessarily exculpatory, it is important to keep them in mind when trying to evaluate the accuracy of John Cornwell’s best-selling Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking). Cornwell’s widely commented upon book is for the most part a familiar, if compelling, redramatization of the longstanding accusations about Pius’s "silence" during the Holocaust. It will not redefine "the entire history of the twentieth century," as advertisements claim. Nor will Cornwell’s claim to have uncovered proof of Pius’s life-long anti-Semitism stand up to much scrutiny. Pius’s determination to put the interests of the institutional church before virtually all other considerations has long been documented, and Cornwell offers little new here. The author’s most sensational accusation is that Eugenio Pacelli—elected pope in 1939—cut a deal in March 1933, whereby he silenced Catholic political opposition to the Nazis in return for Hitler signing a concordat with the Vatican. In that context, Cornwell argues that Pacelli could have prevented Hitler from attaining absolute power. But the idea that the Vatican, or German Catholics liberated from the Vatican’s malign influence, could have stopped Hitler after his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 is as novel a reading of history as it is false. (Joseph Goebbels stated the Nazi plan plainly in his diary: "Once we have power we will never give it up. They will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries.") None of Germany’s major institutions, including the Catholic church, can escape responsibility for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. But to place the ultimate blame for Hitler’s coming to power on Pius’s ascetical shoulders is an almost absurdly simplistic reading of events.

As our reviewer John Morley observes (page 27), Cornwell both exaggerates Pius’s power and influence (even accusing him of helping to start World War I!) and refuses to contextualize historically the choices Pacelli faced as Vatican secretary of state and subsequently as pope. Those debilitating flaws, however, did not stop James Carroll from publishing a wholly uncritical review of Hitler’s Pope in the Atlantic Monthly (October) or the reviewer in the New York Times Book Review (September 26) from similarly swallowing hook, line, and sinker Cornwell’s polemical chronicle. Once again, the conventional wisdom seems eager to treat Catholicism and fascism as synonyms. That atavistic instinct risks misdiagnosing Catholicism’s current ills while it trivializes both the radical nature of Nazism and the horror of the Holocaust.

Books like Cornwell’s cast their critics in the unenviable position of defending Pacelli’s dealings with the Nazis. Except for those utterly convinced of Pius’s sanctity and diplomatic infallibility, that is a thankless task. Many of Pacelli’s actions were indefensible, especially his preference for right-wing authoritarian governments and his refusal to speak out explicitly against Nazi anti-Semitism and genocide. But authoritarian monarchists like Pacelli should not simply be conflated with Nazi totalitarians. Nor, finally, does Pacelli’s wrongheaded determination to keep the Vatican neutral during the war make him a perpetrator of Nazi genocide, any more than the Vatican’s willingness to act as an arbiter with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict make it an accomplice to ethnic cleansing.

It is one thing to judge a man’s actions as fatally flawed in retrospect; it is something else to offer a one-sided indictment disguised as history. But Cornwell does not stop there. He does something worse. Hitler’s Pope is finally a book not about Pacelli but about the battle now being fought within the church over the power of the modern papacy. In an effort to forestall Pius’s ill-considered canonization and to discredit what he sees as an authoritarian resurgence within the church, Cornwell is willing to indict Pacelli for the political ascension of Hitler and a malicious indifference to the fate of the Jews. Then, in his concluding chapters, he explicitly links John Paul II’s papacy to Pacelli’s absolutist model in a way that ignores both the Second Vatican Council and John Paul’s own steadfast endorsement of liberal democracy. "Pacelli’s failure to respond to the enormity of the Holocaust was more than a personal failure," Cornwell argues. "It was a failure of the papal office itself and the prevailing culture of Catholicism." In other words, Cornwell links the church’s hierarchical structure, and especially the Petrine office, to fascism, implying that the spirit of political absolutism is again flourishing in the church under John Paul.

These are execrable charges that should be laughed out of the court of public opinion. They should be especially repellent to those who rightly question John Paul’s sometimes unpersuasive theological conclusions and peremptory style. Is there an unhealthy concentration of power in the papacy today? Certainly. Should local Catholic churches exert more authority in the selection of bishops and in the development of doctrine? Absolutely. Should the pope seek greater solidarity with, rather than obedience from, his fellow bishops? Yes. But these distortions in Catholic practice must be debated on their own ecclesiological and theological merits. Whatever traditionalists or radical reformers may think, Pacelli would find the papacy and church of John Paul a foreign land. Portraying Pius XII as not merely a dupe but as a soulmate of the Nazis to clinch a case against John Paul II as "a traditionalist autocrat as despotic in his management of the church as Pacelli ever was," is an abuse of reason and history.

Those who strive to bring the injustices of the past to light have no excuse for perpetrating injustices of their own.

 


Related: John Morley's review of Hitler's Pope
Paul Baumann, Re: James Carroll

Published in the 1999-11-05 issue: 
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