I’m all for it

R.W. Johnson

  • Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwall
    Viking, 430 pp, £20.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 670 87620 8

When I was a child we were taught to sing a hymn whose last lines were:

God Bless the Pope
The Great,
The Good.

Later, when I became an altar boy, and accordingly more irreverent, I learned an alternative ending:

God Bless the Pope
The Great
White Hope.

Whichever way you sang it, you knew that you were singing about Pius XII. The nuns who taught us were transported by enthusiasm for His Holiness, sometimes into states of rapture. He was not just the Vicar of Christ, he was the 13th Apostle, a living saint, the greatest Pope of all. They were clearly in love with him.

The Christian Brothers who took me in hand from the age of nine felt the same way but, being great whippers and floggers, they empathised more with his stern authority, those hard unsmiling eyes behind the glasses; in all the thousands of pictures of Pius thrust before us I don’t remember a single smile. This fitted well enough with the easily observed fact that a Catholic education was no laughing matter. Like most others, I got flogged two or three times a week, was taught that the earth was 4000 years old (Darwin had it all wrong) and, when we played Birkenhead School at rugby, was reminded that Protestants like them had only been prevented relatively recently from burning people like us at the stake. Accordingly we (a) had to win and (b) should leave no valuables in the changing room. The austere, ascetic Pius XII was the presiding spirit in this grim theocratic world.

Later we had other Popes who, we were told, were also jolly good, but even the warm feeling about John XXIII never approached the devotional cult around Pius XII. There was a sense of real surprise that he wasn’t beatified and canonised as soon as he died. The nuns had told us that he couldn’t officially be declared a saint while he was alive but once he was dead he would be sanctified more or less automatically. The Christian Brothers, who took out the strain of their enforced celibacy, not just in the endless floggings they administered to us but in sporting machismo, agreed: Pius XII was the no-contest champ when it came to holiness, the Mike Tyson of the whole blessed business – canonisation would be achieved on a first-round knockout.

John Cornwell gained access to key archives in Rome by claiming that he wished to exonerate Eugenio Pacelli – he became Pope in 1939 – from charges of complaisance and connivance in the face of mass terror and extermination. This has been seen as disingenuous, and some feel Cornwell has gone over the top in his clear execration of Pacelli. There is a measure of truth in this. His assertion that, by working to achieve a religious concordat with Serbia in 1914, Pacelli helped pave the way for the First World War seems absurd. Any Catholic diplomat (Pacelli was then undersecretary of state in the Vatican) would have done the same and he could hardly be blamed for the secular frenzy which followed. But Cornwell has delved to much effect – his book surpasses all others on the subject – and the evidence is always honestly presented, allowing one to establish clear areas of agreement and disagreement with the author.

The thesis is simple enough. Pacelli was born into a caste of lay Vatican lawyers who had served the Popes since 1819. He was never a normal boy – but godly, smug, effeminate, delicate and priggish, captivated by the ethic and romance of asceticism. Solitary and highly strung, he was ‘born a priest’ and ordained at 23. Singled out at an early age for preferment, he seems to have known from his thirties on that he was likely to become Pope, and as self-confidence grew into certainty, he developed a feline narcissism, a self-conscious and often exhibitionist piety. As a precocious Papal nuncio in Germany, he had the bad luck to run headlong into the terror of the 1919 Bavarian Soviet republic; the young Bolsheviks who threatened and appalled him were for the most part Jews. He never entirely recovered, and from then on nursed a pathological hatred of Bolshevism – which he identified with Jews. To understand how important that experience was, one must recall that Germany, like America now, provided the Holy See with more funds than all the other nations of the world put together. Jewish Bolshevism had threatened not just Pacelli’s person, but the heart and sinews of the Church. And in any case, Pacelli came to feel, the two were pretty much the same.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in