(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Cornwell has written other books on the papacy and the history of Catholicism, but his books on Popes Pius XII and John Paul I reveal antagonism toward the centralized hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and especially toward all popes of the twentieth century with the exception of Pope John XXIII. Cornwell is a research fellow at Jesus College at Cambridge University. He has published articles in British journals, including Vanity Fair and the London Sunday Times.

In the preface to this book, Cornwell claims that he undertook his research on Pope Pius XII in an attempt to disprove claims that the pope was an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer but that his results forced him to conclude that Pius XII was both. Yet the virulence of his attacks against this pope, the centralized hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the reality of papal influence on Catholics throughout the world, and even the policies of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II will lead many readers to doubt his objectivity. The quantity of his research is indeed impressive, but he repeatedly questions the sincerity of historians who disagree with his very negative assessment of Pius XII. This book reveals his ignorance of traditional papal practices. For example, Cornwell would have readers believe that when a pope stands on his balcony and blesses the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, he is somehow arrogant and autocratic. Cornwell simply does not understand that this is a centuries-old practice that brings consolation to practicing Catholics on pilgrimage in Rome.

Cornwell’s basic argument in this book relies on guilt by association. No sensible reader would deny the considerable Catholic anti-Semitism throughout the centuries and also in Italy during the lifetime of Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), who served as Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1958, but it is unfair to claim that this pope was necessarily an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer because so many anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers were found in the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini.

Cornwell consistently attributes evil motives to the actions of Pius XII both before and after his election in 1939. Shortly after his ordination in 1899, Father Pacelli was recruited to serve in the Vatican. As a priest, it was his obligation to obey his religious superiors. As a faithful priest, he accepted the spiritual teaching of popes from Leo XIII, who died in 1903, to Pius XI, who died in 1939. There is nothing sinister in Eugenio Pacelli’s acceptance of the belief of Popes Leo XIII and Pius X that the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas contained essential truths about the nature of Catholicism.

As he advanced to increasingly more important roles as a Vatican diplomat, Pacelli was asked to negotiate various treaties with both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Since Vatican City is an independent country, it is entitled to send and receive ambassadors and to negotiate treaties designed to protect religious freedom of Catholics around the world. The primary responsibilities of Vatican diplomats or nuncios, as they are called, is not to change political systems but rather to defend Catholic interests from inappropriate governmental interference in their spiritual lives. The fact that nuncios negotiate treaties with authoritarian regimes does not imply moral approval of such regimes, as Cornwell would have readers believe. As a trained scholar, Eugenio Pacelli helped to draft the 1917 Code of Canon Law and then worked to ensure its acceptance in countries around the world. Until 1917, secular governments often had a say in the appointments of bishops and cardinals, but Pope Benedict XV correctly recognized that this constituted unacceptable interference in purely church matters. The 1917 Code of Canon Law made it quite clear that the pope alone had the authority to appoint bishops and cardinals. Benedict XV and his successors wanted to implement a separation between church and state in order to ensure freedom of religion in Catholic schools and churches.

It has been known for years that Pacelli served as papal nuncio to Germany from 1919 until 1929. Both before and after the Nazis imposed their dictatorial rule on Germany, there was overt opposition by Catholic priests, bishops, and laypeople to Nazi racism and...

(The entire section is 1744 words.)