The Winter of John Cornwell's Discontent

Sister Margherita Marchione on Anti-John Paul II Book

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NEW YORK, DEC. 12, 2004 ( In 1999 British journalist John Cornwell published an attack on Pope Pius XII. More recently he shifted his focus onto the current Holy Father.

For a perspective on this new attack, ZENIT turned to Sister Margherita Marchione, an expert on Pius XII. A retired professor of languages at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, she is a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini.

Q: You are an expert on the life and papacy of Pius XII which is evident in many of your writings such as your most recent «Man of Peace: Pope Pius XII,» published earlier this year. Were you surprised to find that Cornwell had transferred his attack onto our current Pontiff?

Sister Margherita: Not at all. British journalist John Cornwell’s new book belongs in the same category as [the book] «Hitler’s Pope.» Cornwell unjustly defamed the memory of Pope Pius XII and is now attacking Pope John Paul II and his papacy.

I experienced John Cornwell’s animosity and bitterness when we exchanged words on TV and radio during his «Hitler’s Pope» book tour in the U.S.A. I was so disturbed by the lack of truthfulness that I included a description of these encounters in my memoirs, «The Fighting Nun: My Story.»

Just as there was a reaction to Cornwell’s rantings against Pius XII, I am sure there will be a definite outcry against «The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy.»

Most historians and fair-minded people now regard «Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII» as biased, and recently Damien Thompson’s critique in London’s Daily Telegraph denounced Cornwell’s latest book, «The Pope In Winter,» as «a hatchet job,» and called him a «sensationalist hack.»

Q: Cornwell proposes himself as an authority on the papacy and matters inside the Vatican. What can you tell us about his credentials and credibility on Church teaching?

Sister Margherita: Cornwell’s claims in connection with his research in the Vatican Archives were refuted in the Osservatore Romano, on October 13, 1999. It is clear that Cornwell, a British journalist, is not an expert in Vatican diplomacy, the Holocaust and, I dare say, in theology.

Q: Would you describe for us Cornwell’s interpretation of ecclesiology in contrast to the ecclesiology consistently laid out by the Church councils?

Sister Margherita: Cornwell’s objective is to destroy the papacy and the Church as we know it.

He attempts to contrast the «progressives» and «traditionalists,» pitting them in an all-out war. In promoting «Hitler’s Pope,» he wrote in Vanity Fair, page 192: «A future titanic struggle between the progressives and the traditionalists is in prospect, with the potential for a cataclysmic schism, especially in North America.» But neither Pius XII nor John Paul II are the reactionary traditionalists depicted by Cornwell.

Among his many encyclicals, Pope Pius XII wrote «Mediator Dei» in 1947, and set the stage for the full blossoming of the renewal of Catholic worship. He took a first significant step in liturgical reform, in 1956, with the complete revision of the Holy Week services of the Latin Church.

Pius XII’s encyclical on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, «Mystici Corporis Christi,» June 29, 1943, opened the way for a new Catholic approach, to a theology grounded in the insights of both Scripture scholars and theologians.

It is interesting to note that Pius XII is the Pope who consecrated John Paul II a bishop. Speaking to a group of Jewish leaders, Pope John Paul II stated that documents «reveal ever more clearly and convincingly how deeply Pius XII felt the tragedy of the Jewish people, and how hard and effectively he worked to assist them.» His Holiness called for «genuine brotherhood» between Christians and Jews.

On the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Pius XII’s pontificate, John Paul II stated: «We cannot forget the contribution he made to the theological preparation for the Second Vatican Council, especially by his teachings on the Church, by the first liturgical reforms, by the new impetus he gave to biblical studies and by his great attention to the problems of the contemporary world.»

Q: John Paul II has dedicated his entire pontificate to the Mother of God. Cornwell sees him, however, as being indifferent to the sufferings of women. How has the Pope’s devotion to Mary influenced his view of women? In what
ways has John Paul II demonstrated his concern for women during his pontificate?

Sister Margherita: Neither Pius XII nor John Paul II have been indifferent to the sufferings of women. Their writings in defense of women’s rights are numerous. Pius XII was a modern-day leader.

In the book «Papal Teachings» one finds his writings applicable in today’s world. His pronouncements on the subject of womanhood are unprecedented. On October 21, 1945, his call was for Catholic women to enter public life: «She must compete with man for the good of civic life, in which she is, in dignity, equal to him.»

In an address to the Federation of Italian women on October 14, 1956, Pius XII stated that, in virtue of a «common destiny here on earth, there is no field of human activity that must remain closed to women. Her horizons reach out to the regions of politics, work, the arts, sports — but always in subordination to the primary functions fixed by nature itself.» No Pope had ever spoken in this fashion.

Both John Paul II and Pius XII devoted their pontificates to Our Lady. In fact, it was Pope Pius XII who proclaimed the dogma of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950. He also dedicated the year 1954 — known as the «Marian Year» — to Our Lady.

Q: John Paul II has consistently spoken about human sexuality to the extent where a series of his teachings were compiled and published under the title «Theology of the Body.» Cornwell blames John Paul II’s authoritative teaching on sexual morality as the cause of divorce, pedophilia and sexual promiscuity among members of the Church, just as he drew Pius XII’s silence as permissiveness during Jewish persecution. In your opinion is Cornwell attempting to portray the authority of the Church as an institution subject to a certain social relation with society?

Sister Margherita: As an institution the Church cannot subject its authority to a certain social relation with society.

Contrary to what Cornwell states, Pius XII was not «silent.» For almost two decades, Pius XII defended and fortified the Church, condemned Nazi racialism as antireligious, stemmed the Communist tide by firm intervention in the 1948 Italian elections, and created new cardinals from all the globe. My books document these facts.

Anyone who seriously studies John Paul’s teachings on the theology of the body knows that his words on human sexuality are uplifting and balanced.

The sexual scandals in the Church are not attributable to orthodoxy, but to a massive moral breakdown within our seminaries, parishes and colleges. Much of this breakdown emerged in the 1960s and has been promoted by the dissenting Catholic press.

A misreading of the Second Vatican Council has led to secularism and flagrant violations of Church teachings. The scandals involving sex, the anti-Catholicism in media, and the dissent among our own brethren, is being confronted.

Q: In defense of magisterial teaching, specifically the role of the Vicar of Christ as head of the Church, what material do you recommend to your readers desiring to learn more?

Sister Margherita: In general I would endorse «The Truth of Catholicism,» by George Weigel, who not only defends the Church’s teachings, but also provides reasons for hope that the Church will flourish in the future.

To answer the charges by Cornwell and other anti-papal polemicists, consult my books, published by Paulist Press: «Pius XII: Architect for Peace,» and «Pope Pius XII: Consensus and Controversy

Lastly, for those seeking the truth about the papacy and the HoIocaust, I recommend the new anthology, «The Pius War,» edited by Joseph Bottom and Rabbi David G. Dalin. It contains an annotated bibliography and commentary by William Doino.

Cornwell has maligned the character of both Pius XII and John Paul II, and denigrated our faith. His facts have been manipulated. He does not consider the wisdom of both Pius XII’s and John Paul II’s words and actions. His books reveal his prejudice. His judgment is faulty.

Although parts of «The Pope in Winter» may seem sympathetic, many facts are misrepresented. The author argues that Pope John Paul II has done more harm than good and endeavors to poison the world against him. Catholics should dismiss its reports of geriatric confusion.

Despite Cornwell’s outrageous books, the Catholic laity with their bishops will revive the Church and lead to a healthy, vibrant orthodoxy, in tune with the contemporary world and faithful to Catholic tradition. It suffices to read the encyclicals by both Popes to learn the way back to reform.

Cornwell’s objective is to destroy the Papacy and the Church as we know it.

By denigrating Pius XII, depicted as authoritarian, traditional and Roman, by painting John Paul II with the same brush, Cornwell is contributing to the goal of many confused Catholics — changing the Church into a social institution.

John Cornwell’s books are scandalous. Instead of objectivity, Cornwell ignores what does not fit into the image he wants to convey and omits the real record of historical importance.

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