Page 13, 15th August 2008

15th August 2008
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Page 13, 15th August 2008 — The hypochondriac pope and the vegetarian dictator

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Organisations: Catholic Church
Locations: Vienna, Munich


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The hypochondriac pope and the vegetarian dictator

Andrew M Brown says that Gerard Noel sheds new light on the complex relationship between Pius XII and Hitler in his frank biography of the controversial wartime pope

Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler by Gerard Noel, Continuum £20

Gerard Noel's new study of Eugenio Pacelli is a humane and compelling attempt to explain how • this pope's psychology influenced the controversial decisions he made and to reconcile two apparently contradictory aspects of his character.

First, the neurotic afflictions: they included a phobia about flies for which Pacelli always carried a swatter concealed under his robes; gastritis (brought on by hypochondria); anaemia; biliary disorder; an irregular pulse and imagined heart trouble. He had an obsession with dental hygiene: he rubbed his gums daily in chromic acid, which caustic stuff apparently contributed to his legendary hiccups as well as to a spasmic diaphragm. At the end of his life he had a Swiss doctor administer injections of "new cells ... taken from a pregnant ewe on the papal farm".

Added to this, Noel thinks Pacelli was probably a manic depressive. For example the Pope may have been on a "manic high" when he suddenly assented in November 1939 to papal involvement in a reckless plot (soon abandoned) to overthrow Hitler and then dithered over it.

For treatment of his nervous breakdowns he withdrew to a clinic in the Swiss Alps and it was here that, as an archbishop, he met the 24 year-old Bavarian nun Sister Pasqualina Lehnert. He took her to Munich, where he was nuncio, in 1918, and Pasqualina remained his beloved housekeeper and confidante for the rest of his life.

As for those contradictions in his personality, well. Pacelli certainly was anxious, but was he actually a coward? Noel puts it this way: "Of Eugenio Pacelli, it can be said with certainty that he was no coward. But he was a 'man afraid'." His fear was "an involuntary prompting of nature".

As Noel describes it. the effect of Pacelli's personality on the decisions he made was nothing short of disastrous for the world. Noel shares John Cornwell's conclusion in his sensational Hitler's Pope (1999) that the policies of the Holy See directly contributed to both the First and the Second World War.

Specifically, the 1914 concordat between the Vatican and Serbia, which was rushed through by its chief negotiator — Pacelli — in the teeth of the reservations of the papal nuncio in Vienna, outraged Austria by sweeping away its rights over Serbia and led to increased tension between the two states.

War was declared on August 4 and Pius X died on August 20 — of a broken heart, people said. Pacelli had ignored the effect of the concordat on Austria because of his singleminded pursuit of his Great Design, one of whose aims was to extend Latin Christianity into Orthodox territory. The paradox is that this was a period when the Church, on the one hand, retreated into its fortress and rejected a world infested with materialism and yet. on the other, was prepared to make pragmatic alliances with evil dictators. The Church believed that it could not survive for long without state protection, as it was forced to in the early days under the Roman Empire. The only government the Church would not do a deal with was a Marxist one. The Church failed to see that the Nazis were at least as determined to destroy Christianity as the Communists. With Fascist dictatorships, accommodation was made on the principle of "my enemy's enemy" — the enemy being Communism. This attitude explains why Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty in 1929. There was worse to come, with the signing of the concordat with Hitler in 1933. Pacelli was left "in a state of total nervous collapse". The Church adopted a position of servility towards the Nazis from this point, agreeing to the disbanding of all the German Catholic organisations that might have opposed the Nazis. As attacks on the Jews grew in intensity, there seems to have been a belief among Catholics that, as Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich put it in a letter to Pacelli. "Jews can help themselves" and that as "the foes of Jesus" (Pacelli's words) they deserved their fate anyway.

Under the papacy of Pius XII, Noel says, there were instances of the Church helping the Jews but it wasn't until June 1945 that Pius condemned the German regime with any clarity or vigour.

Pius failed to clearly guide Catholics about the wrongs of cooperating with the Nazi plan. The memory of this period and the grim indictments contained in books like this are bound to eclipse any credit due to Pius for his teachings or for the resurgent Church of the early 1950s.

Did Pacelli have a loss of faith? Did he underestimate his moral authority? "Hitler dared not attack the Catholic Church directly." writes Noel. "It was as though he could sense a power which Pacelli could not." The Nazis did back off when they met popular opposition, for example when the local Church condemned their euthanasia programme.

If only he had heeded the advice of Pasqualina. The "German general", as she was known, had extraordinary influence. It was said that cardinals had to supplicate to her to gain access to the reclusive Pope. She comes across as the voice of humanity in contrast to the etiolated Pacelli, always fearlessly challenging him to take the just course.

But it is worth remembering that the only source for the conversations between her and Pacelli that are imaginatively reconstructed in this work is the doughty Bavarian herself, together with a journalist on the Boston Daily Advertiser called Paul I Murphy. Murphy based a book on conversations with her. He adored Pasqualina: in his book La Popessa (1983) he writes of her as "at 87 ... disarmingly petite and angelic. yet startlingly alive and exciting". There is no reason to doubt Murphy's and Pasqualina's reconstructions, except that it would be understandable if, so many years after the events, when the judgments of history have been made, she wanted to put it on record that she was invariably inahe right.

pacelli's favourite reading was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, with its advice that we should show charity to all but especially those we don't like. "It was in this sense that Pacelli loved all Jews, even though he certainly did not like them," writes Noel. There is something of this attitude of universal charity in Noel's approach to his subject but although his tone is courteous, there are times when anger breaks through — when he is faced, for example, by the Vatican's deployment of flimsy diplomatic pieties against Nazi horror.

One evocative account of Pacelli's election as Pope has him turning it down. abandoning the conclave and falling on the marble steps in the Square ofSt Damaso crying: "Miserere mar' This is Pasqualina's version; others dispute it. But, true or not, it conveys the trials of a man unequipped for a gigantic task. Small wonder that the Pope suffered nightmares and that for the rest of his life the horrible sounds of his nocturnal screaming echoed through the papal apartments.

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