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William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2014

Who’s Afraid of John Cornwell?

Why is John Cornwell such a source of recurrent irritation to so many Catholics (certainly among the ones I know)? Why don’t we just ignore him? Some liberal writers are substantial enough to be impossible to ignore. It is historically not feasible, for instance, simply to discount Hans Küng, for all that his influence is now a largely spent force (as Benedict XVI’s is not). In England, the late Peter Hebblethwaite was an enemy of Ratzingerian (ie mainstream) Catholicism intellectually formidable enough to make it, here at least, not possible entirely to disregard him. Without him, The Tablet is a shadow of its former self, its capacity for mischief vastly reduced.

But Cornwell? Cornwell is an enigma. He has (for reasons I find it difficult to fathom) the reputation of being an intellectual heavyweight: Catholic writers clearly opposed to him tend to feel obliged to make some such acknowledgement, perhaps in the interests of fairness. Christopher Howse, for instance, in his review of Cornwell’s latest onslaught against the Catholic tradition, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, observes that “Cornwell is a humane man with a sharp intellect”.

As Rabbi David Dalin, for example, points out: “The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple. It requires only that favourable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavourable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test.''

But does someone with a sharp intellect really bandy about quite so many assertions for which he offers no evidence of any kind, as though they were so well known that proof is unnecessary? I have met him, and found him agreeable and surprisingly forgiving of the sharp things I had written about him in the past. Humane, certainly. But a writer “with a sharp intellect”? His thinking, it seems to me, is too ill-disciplined for that to be an appropriate description.

Take the attack, in his polemic against John Paul II, The Pope in Winter, on that pontiff’s beatification of Pius IX. An early example of poor judgment and “the presumptuous influence of reactionary aides”, he charges, “was the announcement made by the pope … that Pius IX, Pio Nono, was to be beatified in the autumn of the jubilee year. … He was chiefly famous for calling the First Vatican Council, which declared the dogma of papal infallibility and papal primacy, although he was known for his infamous Syllabus of Errors which denounced democracy, pluralism, workers’ unions and newspapers. A fine exemplar for the 21st century to be sure!”

Such writing (typical enough), as I wrote at the time, is so crass, and at so many levels, that it is difficult to know where to begin. We were told that Vatican I “declared the dogma of papal infallibility and papal primacy”, as though they were the same thing. But papal primacy, from the earliest centuries, had been taken for granted: it was no purpose of the Council to “declare” it.

As for papal infallibility, that too was widely believed; Vatican I simply defined it formally. The controversy at the time was over whether its definition was “opportune” (Newman, for instance, never doubted that the doctrine was true). The implication that the reactionary Pio Nono somehow invented papal infallibility ex nihilo and then imposed it, and that this indictment, by extension, applies also to John Paul II, is simply laughable.

And as for the Syllabus of Errors, not one article of it mentions democracy, workers’ unions or newspapers, and if it rejects “pluralism” (not a concept anyone at the time was familiar with) it is mostly in the sense that any religion which claims to be true, rather than a matter of opinion, rejects it. Pio Nono was certainly intolerant of other religions, but with few exceptions so, at the time, was nearly everyone else. The famous (for liberals the notorious) article 80 of the Syllabus – which condemns as an error the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff may and ought to reconcile himself to, and to agree with, progress, liberalism and modern civilisation” – seems reasonable enough. As Saint John Paul often declared, Christians today are called on to be “signs of contradiction” (rather than signs of the kind of unvarying conformity with “progress, liberalism and modern civilisation” which you will find in the pages of The Tablet and of Cornwell’s books).

This brings us back to my opening question: “Why don’t we just ignore him”? Perhaps at the present time, it’s because the present pontificate has excited (surely delusive) hopes that were dying out under Benedict XVI, of a liberal revival, of a new quickening of the “Spirit of Vatican II”.

We are all a little on edge, perhaps. But Cornwell always did have the gift of being intensely irritating to many who love the Church, of mounting violent assaults, often at first effectively, against the most seemingly unassailable bulwarks of the Catholic tradition, in a way which has sometimes made him seem a real threat. And he has from time to time succeeded in being remarkably destructive – or, at least, in swinging in behind a process of successful destruction already under way. Consider the extraordinary phenomenon of the devastation during the Sixties and Seventies of the reputation of one of the great popes of the last century, Pius XII, in which Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope played a prominent part.

As Rabbi David Dalin, for example, points out: “The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple. It requires only that favourable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavourable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test.

“So, for instance, when Cornwell sets out in Hitler’s Pope to prove Pius an anti-Semite (an accusation even the pontiff’s bitterest opponents have rarely levelled), he makes much of Pacelli’s reference in a 1917 letter to the ‘Jewish cult’ – as though for an Italian Catholic prelate born in 1876 the word ‘cult’ had the same resonances it has in English today, and as though Cornwell himself does not casually refer to the Catholic cult of the Assumption and the cult of the Virgin Mary.”

Cornwell’s book – the cover of which shows a German soldier standing to attention and an officer saluting as the then papal nuncio to Germany left that country’s foreign ministry (the outrageous implication being that here were Nazi stormtroopers saluting the Führer’s acknowledged ally, Pius XII) – was marketed by its publishers with the announcement that Pius XII was “the most dangerous churchman in modern history”, without whom “Hitler might never have … been able to press forward.” Did Cornwell ever repudiate that? I ask the question.

Back to his latest onslaught, The Dark Box. According to the publisher’s burb – presumably either approved or actually written by Cornwell – confession has “been a source of controversy and oppression, culminating … with the scandal of clerical child abuse. … Cornwell takes a hard look at the long evolution of confession.”

Christopher Howse, however, finds that he’s not centrally concerned with the confessional at all: “The real subject of the book is sex, and not the ordinary sex that Mum and Dad enjoyed, or even the romantic adultery of a Paolo and Francesca [da Rimini], but nasty furtive sex – of sex solicited by confessors, abuse of minors, girls or boys, of masturbation, guilt and shame.”

“Cornwell’s focus on the dark side”, Howse continues, “leads him into generalised accusations. ‘Criminality among confessors was widespread and entrenched by the 15th century.’ How widespread? As widespread as smoking today, or as widespread as heroin? In the 17th century, we are told, ‘alcoholism among mendicant confessors was common’. Or is that ‘not common’?”

“At times”, says Howse, “the book reads like a Gothic novel of the more salacious kind, with wooden dildoes and a Venetian confessor-seducer sitting ‘like a great Turk in his seraglio’. Cornwell mentions febrile 19th-century bestsellers like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Yet in his own rambles around the seamier side of priestly conduct, he is happy to draw on a 19th-century work by H C Lea, the notorious anti-Catholic historian who loved nothing better than a tale of torture and the Inquisition.”

For Cornwell, it’s all grist to his mill. “His compilation of misery leaves a nasty taste,” Howse observes, before adding: “Who is it meant for? Readers who enjoy voyeuristic wallowing in collected details of sexual crimes are unlikely to gain a realistic perspective.”

Professor Eamonn Duffy is more sympathetic, and even describes what Howse calls this “compilation of misery” as “a major [sic] contribution to the Catholic Church’s examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse”. But he also insists that “the role of confession in moderating … sins, cultivating civility and a sense of right and wrong, is also a necessary part of the story. … For a rounded historical assessment of confession itself, we will need to look for a different kind of audit.”

The three books I have touched on share the same underlying subject and a common agenda, which Cornwell supports by the “evidence” he deploys.

The underlying agenda is Cornwell’s own fundamental criticism of the Catholic Church as it is and ever has been. The Dark Box describes what he thinks it is really like. As a young person he was, he tells us, himself propositioned by a priest, though that did not deter him from proceeding towards ordination, studying first at Oscott then at St Benet’s Hall.

As a postgraduate student he abandoned the Catholic religion and became an agnostic, though he returned to the Church 20 years later when he married a Catholic, who brought up their children as Catholics. But his return, it seems, was on his own terms, his abandonment of Catholicism only partly, perhaps, repudiated.

He is now, once more, in communion with the Holy See. But his condemnations of that See appear to be undiminished. That makes him just the sort of Catholic the secular press loves to quote, and the sort of Catholic writer whose “controversial” (ie annoying) books secular publishers love to bring out.

They only do it, of course, to annoy – because they know it teases. It also sells copies.

Faith Magazine