REVIEWING HITLER'S POPE
Ronald J. Rychlak
John Cornwell's new book, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,
turns out to be a deeply flawed attack on Pope John Paul II. That's right, the
final chapter is actually an attack on the current plaintiff. Cornwell is
disturbed by John Paul's "conservative" positions on celibate clergy, women
priests, artificial contraception, and abortion. He is especially concerned
about the Pope's opposition to direct political activity by the clergy.
Cornwell apparently decided that the easiest way to attack the Pope of today
was to go after Pius XII. If he can prove that Pius was flawed, then he
establishes that popes can be wrong. If that is the case, then he can argue that
John Paul II is wrong about the whole catalogue of teachings that tend to upset
many modern Catholics.
Cornwell's thesis is that Eugenio Pacelli–Pope Pius XII–was driven by the
desire to concentrate the authority of the Church under a strong, central
papacy. Cornwell argues that as Pacelli worked toward that end, he created a
situation that was easy for Hitler to exploit. Cornwell denies that Pacelli was
a "monster." In fact, he recognizes that Pacelli "hated" Hitler. His theory,
deeply flawed though it may be, is that Hitler exploited Pacelli's efforts to
expand Roman influence. Unfortunately, many reviews, like those in the New
York Post and the London Sunday Times, missed that point. They
simply reported that "Pius XII helped Adolf Hitler gain power," as if the two
worked together. That is certainly not Cornwell's point.
Some of the mistakes reported in the press are obvious to anyone who read
Cornwell's book. For instance, The Indianapolis News reported that Pius
knew of Hitler's plan for the Final Solution "in 1939 when he first became
involved with the German leader." First of all, the Nazis did not decide on the
course of extermination until 1942. Perhaps more telling, this statement is at
odds with two things in the book: 1) Cornwell argues that Hitler and the future
Pope Pius XII first "became involved" in the early 1930s, and 2) Cornwell
expressly notes that Pius XII's first reliable information concerning
extermination of the Jews came in the spring of 1942, not 1939.
Similarly, the New York Post reported in a couple of
different editions that "Pacelli... met with Hitler several times." This is not
true. The two men never met, and Cornwell does not claim that they did. The most
common error by made reviewers was that of accepting Cornwell's assertions
without checking out the facts. On some of these points, the reviewer's
oversight might be forgiven. For instance, Viking Press has marketed this book
as having been written by a practicing Catholic who started out to defend Pius
XII. One is always reluctant to say what another person's beliefs are, so
reviewers could be forgiven had they simply remained silent about that issue.
Instead, the vast majority took delight in calling Cornwell a good, practicing
Having decided to report on Cornwell's religious beliefs, the reviewers might
have noted that his earlier books were marketed as having been written by a
"lapsed Catholic for more than 20 years" and that reviewers said he wrote "with
that astringent, cool, jaundiced view of the Vatican that only ex-Catholics
familiar with Rome seem to have mastered." They might also have reported that
during the time he was researching this book he described himself as an
"agnostic Catholic." Finally, it might have been worth noting that in a 1993
book he declared that human beings are "morally, psychologically and materially
better off without a belief in God." Instead, they presented only that side of
the story that Cornwell and his publisher wanted the public to hear.
The Vatican had not yet spoken, so a reviewer might be excused for not
knowing that Cornwell lied about being the first person to see certain "secret"
files and about the number of hours that he spent researching at the Vatican.
When, however, he claimed that a certain letter was a "time bomb" lying in the
Vatican archives since 1919, a careful reviewer might have mentioned that it had
been fully reprinted and discussed in Germany and the Holy See: Pacelli's
Nunciature between the Great War and the Weimar Republic, by Emma Fattorini
That letter at issue reports on the occupation of the royal palace in Munich
by a group of Bolshevik revolutionaries. Pacelli was the nuncio in Munich and a
noted opponent of the Bolsheviks. The revolutionaries sprayed his house with
gunfire, assaulted him in his car, and invaded his home. The description of the
scene in the palace (which was actually written by one of Pacelli's assistants,
not him) included derogatory comments about the Bolsheviks and noted that many
of them were Jewish. Cornwell couples the anti-revolutionary statements with the
references to Jews and concludes that it reflects "stereotypical anti-Semitic
contempt." That is a logical jump unwarranted by the facts. Even worse, however,
is the report in USA Today that Pacelli described Jews (not a specific
group of revolutionaries) "as physically and morally repulsive, worthy of
suspicion and contempt." Again, it is a case of the press being particularly
anxious to report the worst about the Catholic Church.
Cornwell claims that he received special assistance from the Vatican due to
earlier writings which were favorable to the Vatican. Many reviewers gleefully
reported this and his asserted "moral shock" at what he found in the archives. A
simple call to the Vatican would have revealed that he received no special
treatment. If the reviewer were suspicious about taking the word of Vatican
officials, a quick consultation of Cornwell's earlier works (or easily-available
reviews thereof) would have revealed that he has never been friendly to the Holy
Cornwell stretched the facts to such a point that any impartial reader should
be put on notice. For instance, Cornwell suggests that Pacelli dominated Vatican
foreign policy from the time that he was a young prelate. One chapter describes
the young Pacelli's hand in the negotiation of a June 1914 concordat with Serbia
(he took the minutes), and leaves the impression that he was responsible for the
outbreak of World War I.
Certainly Cornwell, who describes Pope Pius XI as "bossy" and
"authoritarian," knows that Pacelli was unable to dominate Vatican policy as
Secretary of State, much less as nuncio. Any fair reviewer should have at least
questioned this point.
Another point that would be a tip-off to any critical reviewer is Cornwell's
handling of the so-called "secret encyclical." The traditional story (and the
evidence suggests that it is little more than that) is that Pius XI was prepared
to make a strong anti-Nazi statement, and he commissioned an encyclical to that
effect. A draft was prepared, but Pius XI died before he was able to release it.
His successor, Pius XII, then buried the draft.
One of the problems that most critics of Pius XII have with this theory is
that the original draft contained anti-Semitic statements. These critics are
reluctant to attribute such sentiments to Pius XI. Cornwell resolved this
problem by accusing Pacelli of having written the original draft (or of having
overseen the writing) when he was Secretary of State, then burying it when he
was Pope. It is really such a stretch that any good reviewer should have
questioned it. Instead, most merely took Cornwell at his word and reported that
an anti-Semitic paper was written by Pacelli or under his authority. (In
actuality, there is no evidence that either Pope ever saw the draft.)
Perhaps more startling than anything else is the way reviewers avoided any
mention of the last chapter of Cornwell's book, entitled "Pius XII Redivivus."
In this chapter, it becomes clear that the book is a condemnation of Pope John
Paul II's pontificate, not just that of Pius XII. This chapter also reveals a
serious flaw in Cornwell's understanding of Catholicism, politics, and the
papacy of John Paul II.
Cornwell argues that John Paul II represents a return to a more "highly
centralized, autocratic papacy," as opposed to a "more diversified Church." The
over-arching theory of the book, remember, is that the centralization of power
in Rome took away the political power from local priests and bishops who might
have stopped Hitler. Accordingly, Cornwell thinks that John Paul is leading the
Church in a very dangerous direction, particularly by preventing clergy from
becoming directly involved in political movements, including everything from
liberation theology to condom distribution.
Cornwell, of course, has to deal with the fact that John Paul II has played a
central part in world events, including a pivotal role in the downfall of the
Soviet Union. Cornwell's answer is that John Paul was more "sympathetic to
pluralism" early in his pontificate, but that he has retreated into "an
intransigently absolutist cast of mind" and has hurt the Church in the process.
Cornwell misses the important point that is so well explained in George
Weigel's new biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. John Paul's
political impact came about precisely because he did not primarily seek to be
political, or to think or speak politically. The pontiff's contribution to
the downfall of Soviet Communism was that he launched an authentic and deep
challenge to the lies that made Communistic rule possible. He fought Communism
in the same way that Pius XII fought Nazism: not by name-calling but by
challenging the intellectual foundation on which it was based.
John Paul has recognized the parallels between his efforts and those of Pius
XII, perhaps better than anyone else. He, of course, did not have a horrible war
to contend with, nor was he threatened with the possibility of Vatican City
being invaded, but given those differences, the approach each Pope took was
similar. As John Paul has explained: "Anyone who does not limit himself to cheap
polemics knows very well what Pius XII thought of the Nazi regime and how much
he did to help countless people persecuted by the regime." The most
disappointing thing is that the modern press seems unable to recognize cheap
polemics, at least when it comes to the Catholic Church.
This article appeared in December 1999 on the website of the
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.