Page 7, 24th September 1999

24th September 1999
Page 7
Page 7, 24th September 1999 — The lessons of the Cornwell affair

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The lessons of the Cornwell affair

rr HAs ALREADY become clear that John Cornwell's attempt — in his viciously entitled book Hitler's Pope — definitively to discredit Pope Pius XII has backfired on him: it is Cornwell himself who has come out of the affair with his reputation as a writer seriously damaged.

Not only is it clear that, far from being a dispassionate attempt to tell the truth, Cornwell's is a polemic as much against the present Pope as against Papa Pacelli; it is also emerging that it is an unusually shoddy piece of work, with little or no scholarly merit. The general verdict is well summed up in the conclusion of an article by the American writer Kenneth J. Woodward, in this week's Newsweek magazine: "In the end, Cornwell's assertion that he began his book as a defence of Pius XII is difficult to accept. Most of his sources are secondary and written by Pacelli's harshest critics. Errors of fact and judgment appear on almost every page. Comwell questions Pacelli's every motive, but never doubts those who tell a different story. This is bogus scholarship, filled with nonexistent secrets aimed to shock". As Clifford Longley says on the opposite page, "the truth deserves better".

If the dubious character of Cornwell's project is so obvious, why then give him so much attention? The answer is that some of the mud may still stick, even if Cornwell's most ridiculous accusations are easily kicked into touch.

Most of all, the question of Pius's supposed inactivity in defence of the Jews — with the unavoidable implications of anti-semitic motives — is still an intractable problem for his defenders. This is a question that remains relevant to the process for his canonisation. "Because of his bad reputation," argues Clifford Longley, canonisation "would do some harm to Jewish-Christian relations, and for that reason I would regret it".

THIS ARGUMENT is not to be dismissed lightly. The present Pope has immensely improved Jewish-Catholic relations: anything that would seriously damage the advances that have been made should be done only with the greatest circumspection. Nevertheless, the real question must remain whether or not Pius XII really deserves his bad reputation.

Certainly, the general Jewish perception in the aftermath of the war was that Pius had done a very great deal in secret, and that he deserved their thanks for what he had done, not condemnation for what he had not done. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took Pius XII's baptismal name, Eugenio. The Jewish World Congress voted two million lire to the Vatican in gratitude. The Israeli Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven's ninth symphony in the Vatican in honour of Pius XII. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Dr Isaac Halevi Herzog, thanked the future Pope John, then a Vatican diplomat, for all he had done personally to protect many Jews, and was told "I did it on orders from the Pope." Later, Dr Herzog asked a Catholic priest to convey to the Pope his blessing and his thanks: Pius replied "I wish I could have done more".

Could, he in fact have "done more": and what would have happened if he had? Before attempting to answer that question it is worthwhile pointing out what was achieved. According to the calculations of the Israeli historian Pinhas Lapide, 860,000 Jewish lives were saved by Pius XII's rescue network. But could more lives have been saved if Pius had openly condemned the Nazis' treatment of the Jews? The answer must be, not only that no more lives would have been saved, but that even more would almost certainly have been lost. One telling piece of evidence for this is provided by a comparison between Holland, where the Catholic bishops openly and courageously condemned the wholesale arrests of Dutch Jews, and Belgium, where the hierarchy had the policy of public silence, combined with concealment, personal assistance and financial aid. The Nazi policy was to respond to all protests by retaliating against those on whose behalf the protests were made. At the end of the war, 79 percent of Dutch Jews (Jewish converts to Catholicism, including Edith Stein, were particularly targeted) had been exterminated. In Belgium, 73 percent of the Jewish population survived. Pius was aware of the Dutch tragedy: and it had a strong influence on his policy.

JOHN CORNWELL, nevertheless, contrasts his behaviour in openly confronting Communism with his "silence" during the war: and draws the wholly erroneous conclusion that he was more opposed to Communism than he was to Nazism.

The simple fact is that Pius understood the different nature of the historical situations that were unfolding during the war against fascism and the more long-drawn out cold war that followed it: and he fitted his response to his understanding of what was taking place. The suggestion that he saw Nazism as an anti-communist force which ought not to be excessively discouraged is simply ludicrous: he supported American lend-lease to the Soviet Union, and threatened "dire consequences" to any American bishop who opposed American entry into the war, despite the fact that this meant an alliance with communist Russia (Cornwell does not mention either of these facts).

Cornwell's views have been given huge currency by two long articles in the Sunday Times (no friend of the Catholic Church); and most of those who read these sensational and persuasively written articles will be unaware of how ill-founded they were. Cornwell, however is not the real problem. The problem is a persistent — and largely ignorant — public opinion, which Cornwell has now helped to make even more intractable.

In the end, the truth will be better known and understood. But there is still a great deal of work to be done, both inside and outside the Church.

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