Every new book on the Francis pontificate has the advantage of being more up-to-date than its predecessors, and John Cornwell manages to squeeze in the Amazon synod and even “Francis in the Time of Coronavirus.” Yet for all its breadth and range, and the qualities that a veteran Church reporter brings to such a project, Church, Interrupted does not seek to be a systematic chronology of the Francis years. It is too perceptive, personal, quirky, and emotionally involved, which turns out to be its strength.
In asides at the start and close of the book and scattered throughout the text, the British writer and Cambridge academic shares the story of his intense but painful relationship with the Catholicism of his childhood, and the frosting of his ecclesial faith in later life. Cornwell was appalled by the abuse scandals and oppressive ecclesiastical culture—as he saw it—of the John Paul II years. After finding little to hope for from Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he was astonished by “a moment of grace” in Francis’s election in March 2013. Cornwell saw in this new pope the “possibility of new beginnings...for the entire Church, practicing, lapsing and lapsed.” Hence this book, an exploration of this irruption of grace, what Cornwell describes as a welcome “interruption” of the course the Church had seemed set to follow.
The premise, of course, is discontinuity: Cornwell’s love of Francis and antipathy toward John Paul II and Benedict XVI is explained, in part, by the writer’s life story. Having moved from a pious working-class Irish childhood in London’s East End into that most preconciliar of institutions, the minor seminary, Cornwell abandoned priestly training for agnostic freedom and life as a journalist at a national newspaper. After marrying a Catholic, his faith was rekindled, but “there was no return to the Church of certitudes, ultimate truths and righteousness.” Catholicism became an object of his reporting. His first Catholic book was the result of a Vatican official inviting him to investigate the true story of how John Paul I met his end after just a few weeks in 1978. A Thief in the Night, which was published in 1989, debunked the lurid conspiracy theories surrounding Albino Luciani’s untimely passing, yet still read like a whodunnit. It was a bestselling page-turner, and delighted Cornwell’s Vatican handlers.
With doors opened in Rome, Cornwell could have built a career out of books defending the Church. But his next Vatican-endorsed project, to refute claims that Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, led him in the opposite direction. Given privileged access to newly opened files on Eugenio Pacelli’s beatification and diplomatic career, Cornwell says he stumbled upon “a circumstance that seemed to me even worse in its consequences, fully justifying the book’s title, Hitler’s Pope.”
It was publishing gold: a gripping account of the pope’s failure to speak out against the Nazis based on primary Vatican material hardly anyone else had then seen. Hitler’s Pope roiled the Vatican—“I appeared to have fulfilled the role of ‘devil’s advocate,’ which John Paul II abolished to expedite hordes of new saints,” Cornwell recalls wryly—and triggered an avalanche of academic theses on Catholic “collaboration” with fascism and anti-Semitism. Some would say the response created a counter-mythology even more obfuscating than the official version. But Cornwell defends his record, claiming that these “rigorously academic” articles and books were an improvement on the hagiographies.