Pacelli's Prosecutor

One approaches with skepticism and apprehension a work whose author describes his "moral shock" at the very subject about whom he is writing. Such feelings are exacerbated by a tendentious title which, on one hand, characterizes Pope Pius XII as some kind of subservient ally or stooge of Adolf Hitler, and, on the other, with its reference to "secret history," reduces itself to the level of a supermarket tabloid. There is no author or historian who can write totally objectively, and such an antiseptic approach would not be desirable in any case. It is rare, however, that any author reveals the level of his bias even before the reader takes up the book, but this is what John Cornwell does in Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book which enlightens while it enrages, accuses while it challenges, offends while it searches for truth. Cornwell’s research includes sources as diverse as the beatification testimony for Pope Pius XII, Vatican archives up to the year 1922 dealing with Pacelli’s early career in Germany, and a variety of governmental and scholarly studies concerning the 1933 concordat between the Holy See and Nazi Germany. It is perhaps Cornwell’s most damning allegation that Pacelli, then the Vatican’s secretary of state, was instrumental in making a deal whereby the Catholic Center Party, then the only political obstacle to Hitler’s one-party rule, would disband in exchange for concessions made to the Holy See in the concordat.

Peter Gumpel, S.J., the postulator for the beatification of Pius XII, has already severely criticized Cornwell not only for the thesis of his book, but also for overlooking many pertinent sources. This may well be true, but Gumpel’s task, and I say this with admiration for his dedication and years of research, is to do all in his power to promote the cause of someone whom he calls a "saint." If one is biased, so also is the other.

Cornwell’s portrait of the young Pacelli’s impressive but rather conventional piety lies at the heart of the book. Inner-directed with an emphasis on withdrawal from society. Pacelli’s spiritual life was individualistic and subjective. Cornwell makes much of the anachronistic quality of this approach to spiritual formation. But those of us trained in seminaries before Vatican Council II will readily recognize it. That this spirituality became part of Pacelli’s entire attitude toward life is indisputable, but why should it have been otherwise? Cornwell gives the mistaken impression that this severe priestly spirituality was somehow unique to Pacelli and thereby had grave consequences for his governance of the church. But it was hardly unique. Many of us were taught in similar fashion. For example, Cornwell does not seem to understand the awe in which most Catholics held their local bishops, to say nothing of the adulation directed toward cardinals and the pope himself. This high clericalism may appear foreign or negative to us now, but such retroactive judgments, evaluating the past with the benefit of hindsight, are not historically or intellectually tenable. The major fault, perhaps, of Cornwell’s book is precisely this inability or unwillingness to understand the sitz-im-leben, the real-life situation in which Pacelli was raised, taught, and pursued his ecclesiastical career.

In a similar fashion, the author imputes malevolence to Pacelli’s attempts to bring the prerogatives and relationships of the individual German states, and later the Reich itself, into conformity with the 1917 Code of Canon Law. True, the concordat, as others before it, contributed immensely to the centralization of power in the Vatican. But Pacelli and Pope Pius XI viewed concordats as essential to the security of the church of that day, particularly in light of the ever-present threat from communism. They may have been shortsighted, they may have been wrong, but they were sincerely dedicated to the church, and sinister motives should not be attributed to either of them.

On the specific question of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, it is important to remember that all Catholic political parties were anathema to Pius XI because they could too easily operate outside the influence of ecclesiastical authorities. Pius XI and Pacelli considered it a fair exchange to effectively dissolve the Center Party for the presumed advantages the concordat would bring the church. In the light of history, all of this may have been a mistake. Any short-term advantages for the church were soon overwhelmed by Hitler’s totalitarian rule. Indeed, the church in Germany was probably weakened by the concordat. It seems to me, however, that the greater problem with the concordat was that Pius XII never attempted to repudiate it even during the worst years of Nazism. Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Nazi Germany continued throughout the war. There were, indeed, some benefits in this relationship, particularly for the Jews of Rome at the time of the German occupation and Jewish deportation. Nevertheless, the fact of such a continuing link between the church and the Nazis remains a source of scandal.

Cornwell’s description and interpretation of Pacelli’s alleged anti-Semitism is also problematic and simplistic. He assumes from two letters that he quotes in detail that Pacelli had a decades-long "secret antipathy toward the Jews," that Pius believed there was an intrinsic link between Jews and Bolshevism, and that assisting the Jews would enable them to move more actively against the church. Most damning, Cornwell contends that the pope was a hypocrite in attempting to claim "retrospective moral superiority" in defending the Jews. These are weighty and sobering charges that cannot be dismissed out of hand. However, I do not believe that the documentation Cornwell presents proves his case, especially because throughout the book Cornwell insists on interpreting every decision and action of Pacelli in a way most inimical to him.

The author is so committed to demonstrating or proving everything prejudicial to Pacelli, that he weakens, almost to the point of destruction, his own basic argument. He casts Pacelli as some sort of villain with the power to manipulate events and people around him, even his superiors, and as a man of the church so single-minded that only ecclesiastical power and prerogatives mattered to him. He judges the concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany not only deleterious for the German church but also the principal reason that the pope was outwitted by the Nazis and became "Hitler’s Pope." Predictably and anachronistically, Cornwell also holds Pacelli responsible for everything that went wrong after the concordat was signed. He furthermore depicts a man who reflected the anti-Jewish attitudes of the church of that time and therefore by definition was an anti-Semite. All of this allows Cornwell to present an unproven generalization as a conclusion: The pope’s "silence had more to do with a habitual fear and distrust of the Jews than a strategy of diplomacy or a commitment to impartiality."

However, despite its serious flaws, Hitler’s Pope is a book that cannot, and should not, be ignored. Every point that Cornwell raises—whether it is Pacelli’s early career, his concordat negotiations, his spirituality and approach to the world, his refusal ever to explicitly criticize Nazi Germany, and his reaction to the Holocaust—is a matter of crucial concern to Catholics. For Catholics to gloss over Pius’s actions as if there were no problems, no evidence of short-sightedness, no sacrificing of one principle for another, no infatuation with the notion of the church triumphant, denies the moral purpose of historical study. Pius XII cannot be seen to be above criticism.

Cornwell’s final words are judgmental, but also challenging and inviting. His frankness may antagonize some, but I detect in this book an honesty and an angst that should not be overlooked: "I am convinced that the cumulative verdict of history shows him to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret."


Related: The Editors, Cornwell's Popes
Richard Cohen, Pius XII: Not Vindicated

More on Pius XII and sainthood: Michael Phayer, Canonizing Pius XII
Peter Quinn, Why the Rush?

Published in the 1999-11-05 issue: 

The Reverend John F. Morley is the author of Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust, 1939-43. He teaches in the department of religious studies at Seton Hall University.

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