John Cornwell talks to John Hinton about 'Hitler's Pope', his answer to Richard Dawkins and the great stem-cell debate ohn Cornwell lives in what he calls a "triangle", wearing different hats at three differ ent locations: London, where he is a journalist and novelist; Cambridge, where he is director of the Science and _Human Dimension Project and a Fellow of Jesus College; and rural Northamptonshire. where he takes the country air with the family at weekends.
Cornwell is a very tall man who smiles warmly as he opens the front door to his London base in a handsome enclave of Victorian houses magically preserved from the wrecker's ball near the Old Vic. He has laid out a lunch of soup and sandwiches in his sunlit back garden and makes it clear he's happy to talk about all the strands of his full life — including those which attract or deal with controversy. And that includes a book coming out in September attacking Richard Dawlcins's The God Delusion; the Cambridge debate on reductionist views of the human condition and human embryonic stem-cell research; and, by no means least, his bestselling book, Hitler's Pope, which he now has further things to say about.
First, his reply to Dawkins, which will welcomed by many who found the popular interest in the author's denial of God deeply disturbing.
"My book is called Darwin's Angel— not a very long book — but the idea behind it is that Dawkins has a guardian angel who suggests to him in the form of a letter where he goes wrong," he says.
'What I do is point out that Dawkins's book, which he thinks is a scientific book, isn't scientific at all. Most of my forthcoming book is engaged in pointing out where he's just plain wrong in terms of facts. For example, he argues, starting back in Leviticus Chapter 19. that in both the Old and New Testament the Bible commandment 'Love your neighbour as yourself' meant you were only to love another Jew. You weren't to love outsiders."
He laughs in disbelief. "He manages to do this by quoting selectively and — would you believe it — doesn't even mention the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which would have shown that, certainly in Christianity, your neighbour is anybody including people who are considered by society to be untouchables or heretics. He even says the Commandments only apply to other Jews; they don't apply to non-Jews whom presumably you are allowed to kill."
Behind the good humour of the attack one quickly finds indignation. "Certainly, I didn't want to take him as seriously as he takes himself The book is supposed to be an amusing read, particularly as it's written directly to him, if from his guardian angel. But my motive wasn't to have fun with him. My feeling was that was getting away with it; he was foisting on a huge public a thesis that is absolutely full of inaccuracies about very basic things."
As director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, for the past 17 years., Cornwell has run a project to promote the public understanding of science. The project brings together scientists and philosophers with people who are in the science media.
"The idea is to get the science media to think more deeply and more accurately about what science tells us about nature, and human nature in particular. The reason for this work is that in recent years the tendency to think of human nature in reductive terms — that everything, for example. is in our genes and there's no such thing as free will has tended to reduce the human self-image.
"In many ways it demoralises people's attitude towards society and their fellow humans. And it creates, as in Dawkins, the view that God doesn't exist and that religion actually is the cause of all the wickedness in the world. What the Cambridge forum does is create another view within a debate rather than the reductionist view being the only one people hear."
We move on to stem-cell research, where he believes the Church has, in a sense, lost the plot. "We have done a lot of work in Cambridge in relation to neuroscience — the science of the brain — and another book I'm working on at the moment is to do with the work on human embryonic stem cells," he explains. "Again, it's the same pattern — that you have scientists who believe that the embryo is just a bunch of cells which you can do what you like with. And they tend to be getting their own way — although not so much in the United States because the President is very much against it. But last summer the European Union voted to allow the funding for embryonic stemcell research after a long debate. In this country, there's not really been much of a debate but Blair always seemed very eager to allow scientists to experiment with human embryos.
"I find the situation peculiar in that one set of people think that the debate is all now finished: that it's been won by people who are scientifically more advanced than the rest of us. But I think the debate has hardly begun and I am very, very keen for the Catholic Church to comeback in to that debate.
"One of the problems is that the Vatican view is that any scientist who engages in that work or any politician who votes to allow the funding should consider themselves excommunicated. The problem with that is the Catholic Church is suddenly no longer at the table joining in the discussion. That worries me a great deal because there are a lot of people inside and outside the Church who want to keep discussing it.
"These are questions such as: what do we mean by a human soul? At what point does the soul arrive? Is it an instant act of creation? AB these kinds of questions. And currently we are working with that within the Cambridge project, mostly with Catholic theologians, scripture scholars and so forth. And that's something which is going to go on for another couple of years. I think it's tremendously important that the next election in America will, in part at least, be fought over the question of embryonic stem cells."
Burn in East Ham, London, Cornwell belongs to the generation of Catholics recruited as boys to become priests. At 1960, after seven years in junior and senior seminary at Cotton near Birmingham, he left, aged 20, to read English at Oxford and then went on as a graduate student, still in English studies, to Cambridge.
By then, he already made up his mind to become a writer. "The thing about a writing life is that even if you're a real writer, as opposed to just a hack, what you really want to do is to use your imagination. My first ambition was to be a novelist."
But like many writers knowing the uncertainties of the calling, he also became a journalist, working for the Observer from 1976 to 1988, becoming foreign editor and then moving into management and writing in his spare time. He's now a contracted feature writer for the Sunday Times.
He discovered his own voice, structuring factual material in an imaginative way (a kind of "super feature writing or experimental journalism", he calls it) but without an interfering editor. Seminary Boy, published last September, is in that vein as tells the moving story of his early years.
He has altogether 15 books to his credit, including novels which have not enjoyed the success of his factually based works. The most notable to the Catholic world have, of course, been highly controversial, including A Thief in the Night, the result of his invitation by the Vatican to disprove dark allegations surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I. His conclusion, based on extensive interviews. was that the pope was not murdered but died of a pulmonary embolism possibly brought on by overwork and neglect.
In 1999 his most controversial book, Hitler's Pope, produced a storm of international interest and criticism and spent five weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. The first writer to have access to testimonies from Cardinal Pacelli's nunciature which had just been opened by the Vatican under the 70-year rule, he wrote in his preface to the book that his original objective had been to vindicate Pius X11. But his research had resulted in an indictment of the Pontiff's alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
hi light of all the criticism, Cornwell has since modified his views.
"I would now argue, in the light of the debates and evidence following Hitler's Pope, that Pius XII had so little scope for action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by Germany," he explains "What the book is really about is the penalties you pay for having over-centralisation in the Church. And you can't tell what these penalties are, how weakened the Church is by centralisation, until the chips are down and there's a great struggle. A lot of people have misunderstood the book, and possibly it's my fault — the title could so easily be misunderstood."
You accept that it's given you notoriety? "An enormous amount of personal, cruel criticism. But then again, when you are critical of Pius Xll you can't expect people who loved him to treat you kindly."
And if he had a second take at that now would he welcome it?
"We are talking about it right at this moment," he replies. "I've changed my mind about the extent to which one could call in question Pius XII's motives and conscience over his silence. But that's not saying a great deal about the entire thesis, which is about centralisation.
"I've never accused him of being a wicked man, a Nazi or anything like that. The one thing I would say is that ethically if he did use political and diplomatic language and minced his words during the war, he had an obligation after the war when the pressures were off him to explain why he did it to those many people who were scandalised. And he never did."
Darwin's Angel: A Seraphic Response to The God Delusion is published by Profile Books on September 6, priced £9.99