John Cornwell is the author of Hitler’s Pope, a study of Pius XII, and A Thief in the Night, an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of John Paul I. Such titles reflect a preoccupation with drama, even melodrama. They did not give me confidence in his capacity to make a sober and measured assessment of the outstanding pontificate of John Paul II. Alas, I was not proved wrong by reading his latest book, The Pontiff in Winter.
Cornwell does not hide his incurably politicised way of looking at the Catholic Church: everybody is either left-wing or right-wing, a liberal (good) or conservative (bad). Such a crude template is clearly unsuited to an analysis of an institution as complex as the Church or the life of a many-faceted pontiff. The reader is treated to the full kit of the liberal Catholic outlook. We read of “dissidents” not allowed to exercise “their right to freedom of conscience within the Church”. Two of these, Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Küng – both disciplined for erroneous teachings – are described as “early casualties” of this pontificate, with no examination of the reasons for action against them.
Because Cornwell allows for no certainties and objective truths, every aspect of Catholic teaching becomes a matter of choice or opinion. So we learn of Karol Wojtyla’s “profound abhorrence of contraception and abortion”, as if these were merely the Holy Father’s rather rigid personal views and not the right response of all Catholics. Humanae Vitae becomes “a male celibates’ charter” rather than the constant teaching of the Church. The Pope is criticised for believing “that the Catholic priesthood involved heroism, discipline and self-sacrifice”. Doesn’t it? Or are priests meant to spend the entire week on the golf course? As a champion of women priests Cornwell laments that the Pope “has excluded women from any future hope of priestly ministry”. The list of complaints is a familiar one.
More serious are Cornwell’s tricks of tabloid journalism: his habit of dropping hints of impropriety which are entirely unfounded. For instance, there is a strong suggestion of effeminacy in one of the Holy Father’s early mentors, Jan Tyranowski, the tailor who introduced him to Carmelite spirituality. Again, Cornwell carelessly remarks: “It is uncertain to this day just what Karol Wojtyla did and did not do to help Jewish victims during the war.” What are we supposed to think? That a young man, without any resources and struggling to survive, working at hard physical labour all day before entering a clandestine seminary, could or should have done – what, exactly?
It gets worse. More irresponsible, even offensive, is Cornwell’s unfounded suggestion of impropriety with a woman academic whom he consulted about his book, The Acting Person. Cornwell turns a short and purely intellectual collaboration between two academics into a murky pool of innuendo which will unsettle the unwary reader.
The author is at his most energised when discussing malicious trivia and in fact, one chapter is devoted entirely to gossip. Inevitably, he uses an incognito (naturally) “stringer” in the Vatican, whom he calls “Monsignor Sotto Voce”. This mischievous cleric seems to enjoy nothing better than spending long evenings with John Cornwell in a seedy trattoria, whispering spiteful tittletattle over a bowl of pasta. The Vatican is a human institution, certainly, but it is difficult to take seriously the views of a biographer whose “facts” come from the insinuations of such a dubious source.
Cornwell’s chief indictment of this papacy is its centralising policy, which he thinks has resulted in demoralised and diminished local churches. This is familiar ground which he already covered in his 2001 book Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism. An “autocratic” Holy Father is surrounded by “aging, reactionary cardinals” and there is “no hidden corner of the Church where he is not absolute.” Because the Holy Father has “shut his ears to pleas to consider a married priesthood and calls for a woman priesthood” diocesan churches have become unhealthy and infantilised, with immature, unsuitable candidates for priesthood. This, he infers, meant that local bishops felt powerless in the clerical abuse scandals of the United States. Much disingenuous reasoning is at work here. It could as easily be argued that it was the cultural autonomy and independence from Rome of the US Church that has played a large part in the scandals. There are many examples of good bishops in the US who demonstrate that vision and vigorous authority go hand in hand, requiring neither rebellion towards Rome nor servility.
So what is Cornwell’s view of John Paul II? With some reluctance, he admires the Pope’s powerful and magnetic personality; he credits him with being a key player in the overthrow of communism in Poland; he admires the vision that produced Evangelium Vitae (surely a contradiction, given Cornwell’s support for contraception?); he accepts that a strong hand was needed at the outset of this pontificate to stay the “runaway Church” of the final years of Paul VI. But he believes that the Pope is now too enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease to govern effectively and that he has consistently undermined episcopal collegiality. His verdict is that John Paul II has been a “superman” Pope – travelling everywhere and trying to solve everything, constantly imposing his own charismatic presence, putting everyone else in the shade. He denies him the title of “Great” – surely a more accurate title than the shallow glamour of “superman”? Great personalities do shape history; Cornwell lacks the depth to realise that he is in the presence of greatness — and great holiness.
Readers would be well advised to counter this flawed interpretation by reading one of the books Cornwell mentions in his bibliography, George Weigel’s acclaimed Witness to Hope, a massive biographical study with all the careful, evaluative, critical skills and scholarship that The Pontiff in Winter so clearly lacks. Are there criticisms to be made of this pontificate? Undoubtedly. But it is safe to predict that a proper evaluation will not emerge from collaborative efforts of John Cornwell and his frivolous companion, “Monsignor Sotto Voce”.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.