Andrew Soane finds that a biography of Angelo Roncalli by a best-selling American author is bursting with predictable prejudices Angelo Roncalli was a farmer's son from Bergamo, who rose slowly but surely from his Italian village to the Papal throne. The extraordinary impact of his papacy is the subject of Thomas Cahill's short biography, recently published in Britain by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
The author is a well established writer with several best-sellers to his credit, including How the Irish Saved Civilisation. Reading this latest work, it is easy to understand why his books sell well. His writing style is enjoyable and simple to follow, and the story flows smoothly.
Cahill begins with a compressed history of the Catholic Church and the papacy (which takes up 82 of the book's 274 pages), and then focuses on Angelo Roncalli (1881-1963), who became Pope John XXIII at the age of 76. Known as 11 papa /mono by the delighted public, he then ushered in the era of the Second Vatican Council, which, to quote from the publisher's description of the book, marked a true shift in the relationship of the Catholic Church with the modern world.
There are some good things in these pages — it came as news to me, for instance, that as early as 1929, over two decades before Roncalli was appointed Patriarch of Venice, his name was being bandied about as a possible Archbishop of Milan and thus potentially papahile. He was far from being the low flyer he is sometimes made out to be.
In the event, the Milan appointment went to a Benedictine monk, the saintly Ildefonso Schuster, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Cahill clearly has a low opinion of Cardinal Schuster, his Blessed status notwithstanding: in fact, he evinces no sign that he has heard of it. Also interesting is Cahill's account of how Archbishop Roncalli, based in Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he preferred to call it) helped to save the lives of 24,000 Jews stranded in Eastern Europe during World War Two. However, there are problems with this hook, not all of them due to the popular style, which result in too much room being given to scandals in the distant past, at the expense of further squeezing, the limited space available for Roncalli's own life.
To begin with, the author shows a strong dislike of the Catholic Church as an institution. Pope John XXIII may be good, but as a rule other Church authorities are usually impossibly bad. Cahill is contemptuous of several of John XIII's near predecessors. Blessed Pius IX, the Pope of the First Vatican Council, is caricatured as a strident bully. St Pius X is diagnosed as "clinically paranoid" on account of his campaign against modernism. Poor Pius XII is a branded a "moral pygmy" on account of the Holocaust. The dogma that he proclaimed, the Assumption of Mary, is repeatedly and obsessively insulted by the author in a particularly graceless barrage of epithets, the mildest of which is ''oddball".
According to Cahill, the pontificate of Blessed John XXIII represents a complete bleak
with the moral mediocrity that preceded it. One cannot help feeling that if the system was as deimid of idealism as Cahill paints it, there is no way to account for Angelo Roncalli's rise to the top — or indeed, to explain why he bothered to become a priest in the first place.
Luckily. one can go to other sources. such as Roncalli's own journal (not meant for publication, but in fact published posthumously) in order to find out whether he himself thought of his predecessors in the same way as Cahill does, that is, dripping with dislike. And the evi
dencc is all the other way.
A journal entry from 1961 reveals that, far from considering the Assumption "oddball', Angelo Roncalli approved of its proclamation in November 1950, and was even on hand for it. After all, the Assumption is one of the fifteen mysteries of the Holy Rosary. to which he devoted an Encyclical in 1959 (Grata Recordatio). This information is nowhere reflected in Cahill's book.
Another annotation from 1910 shows that he was completely in favour of the measures taken by Pope Pius X against modernism. These two entries, written half a century apart, and many others like them, are strong witnesses to the consistency of Roncalli's traditional Catholic beliefs. While not quoting Roncalli's journal when it does not suit his slant, the author reveals that he has studied it, at the same time advancing some pretty oddball theories of his own. The most controversial of these will surely be the conjecture that Roncalli was homosexual. This is based not on what the journal actually says, but on a "hunch" (the author's word, not mine) that the Vatican excised the clues from the text when it was published in 1964 as the Journal of
On reaching this point I was irresistibly reminded of a memorable parody by C S Lewis in one of his books, of someone who points to a chair and claims there is an invisible cat sitting in it: its very invisibility is cited as evidence of its existence. Cahill's reasoning is a good example of this sort of thinking.
Other typical views of the author include the dismissal of the Resurrection its a historical event, the Papacy as a mere invention of the Church, and infallibility as plainly ridiculous.
Early on in the book Cahill praises Voltaire, "despite the demonising he has suffered at the hands of Catholic apologists-, as a moderate thinker. The end of the book sees Cahill, predictably, expressing strong reservations about Pope John Paul II. The author uses the enormous prestige of Blessed John XXIII to promote a vision of the Church which the great man himself would never have agreed with. I cannot he sure of this, but I suspect that he would probably not have recommended the book.