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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell


Is John Paul II still in control of the Vatican bureaucracy?
Is his once formidable brain still functioning?
Cornwell's answers are: "no" and "intermittently".

Did you see the pope's Midnight Mass this Christmas, satellited in by the ABC? I hurried home from church and caught the final minutes of it. It was a sad sight, one to be viewed only with the eye of pity, as that old invalid struggled with his task. From his quavering mouth issued a sticky mudslide of noise and I puzzled to recognise what he was saying. For that matter, which language was this? Listening intently, I couldn't comprehend it. Then one of the priests alongside him, Cardinal Sodano or Ratzinger, spoke and I knew what was happening. The Mass was in Latin, lingua nostra, the language of our youth with which I was once quite conversant; but listening to it on Christmas Day, I had not picked it. So, with every other viewer, I was given an update on the pope's current enfeeblement.

That enfeeblement and its meaning for the church is the main topic of John Cornwell's The Pope in Winter (Viking, $49.95). I started to read it soon after the papal Midnight Mass, knowing Cornwell to be a trustworthy guide. Fifteen years ago he sorted out the puzzle of Albino Luciani/Pope John Paul I's death after only three weeks as pope. An English crime writer, David Yallop, had startled the world by alleging that JPI had been murdered. Yallop's book trawled through the murky reaches of Vatican finance, the Mafia, Italian freemasonry and so on - improbable stuff; but he challenged anyone to prove him wrong. Well, John Cornwell did just that. Luciani had not been murdered, his death had a simpler explanation; alone in the vasty strangeness of the Vatican, the new pope had neglected to take his pills, a fatal mistake.

The writing of that book, A Thief in the Night (1989) coincided with a revival of the author's Catholic faith. Once a seminarian, he had given the church away at Cambridge; but now he came back to it. Born in 1940, he belonged to a generation of Catholics troubled by the Holy See's response to the Holocaust - had it been complicit, craven, or simply ignorant? Cornwell guessed that the pope of the time, Eugenio Pacelli/Pius XII had not got a fair go from writers such as Rolf Hoehuth, whose play The Deputy (1963) had depicted him as an institutional personality uninterested in Jewish misery. He was 'onside', Cornwell assured Roman archivists, who opened their holdings to him. What he found there, however, made him change his mind, as you can read in Hitler's Pope (1999). The conclusion of the book is that the root of problems in the church lies, not in the personality of this or that pope, but rather in the structural development of a centralist papacy which disallows pluralism or local initiative.

So this is the writer who has now turned to the more recent history of the papacy. You get a quick idea of what The Pope in Winter is about from its subtitle: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy. It is, if you like, a counterweight to unbalanced adulation such as you find in George Weigel's 1999 biography, Witness to Hope, whose 992 pages carry a single negative note, when the author suggests that the pope may have been unwise, or perhaps imprudent, in allowing himself to be photographed on a balcony with General Pinochet.

The Pope in Winter is a primer for obiturarists, who will keep this book within easy reach. (Note, however, that Vaticanologists have been predicting John Paul's imminent death from as far back as 1994, when Peter Hebblethwaite published The Next Pope. Hebblethwaite himself died that year, a cruel loss.) Nothing dates so quickly as contemporary history. Yet Cornwell's book usefully brings you up to speed on aspects of the contemporary papacy: what he thought of Mel Gibson's The Passion; and how he was used in George W Bush's re-election campaign; and why he refuses to resign (because Mary, speaking through a French seer, told him not to do so); and what is the drug of choice among Vatican staffers (Valium). Given time, these will be replaced by other talking points. At the heart of the book, however, is a more enduring and chilling enquiry about the extent to which curialists have aggrandised power as the pope's decrepitude advances. No one has formally denied the theology of Vatican II, yet the programme of John Paul's pontificate, as it has developed, in effect junked collegiality, pluralism and the need to listen to what local churches were saying: "We know best".

Insensitivity seems endemic, as the rehabilitation of Bernard Cardinal Law demonstrates. As Archbishop of Boston he protected priests who were child and youth rapists and only reluctantly was brought to see that the rape victims were crying out for healing, see Books Etc Issue 1. At last Cardinal Law resigned into decent obscurity; and then what does Rome do? In June 2004 he was made Archpriest of S. Maria Maggiore basilica in Rome, where he will help run key Vatican departments. The rehabilitation of Cardinal Law sends a clear message to the devastated victims of Boston's priestly rapists: "UP YOURS!"

Anyone who questions these developments is in line for rough treatment. Bishops who aim to be more than branch managers for head office are humiliated and the treatment of dissident writers is notorious. Cornwell instances the case of Paul Collins, the Australian whose books propelled him from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the priesthood. (He is, he tells me, "working hard on two books".) Nevertheless, one should keep a balance: one in every six human beings alive today is a Catholic and it's a good bet that most of them remain untroubled by the regrowth of centrism in the church.

The question of Catholic identity for themselves and their families is likely to be of greater concern; and here John Paul has played a pivotal role. His life in Poland taught him that culture was determinative of identity, an insight he carried into his pontificate. Hence his constant travel, which both took him out of the Vatican and, more significantly, presented him to millions and millions of people as the icon of Catholic identity. It didn't matter what he said, most of it was predictable anyway and often unintelligible. For unlike Billy Graham crusades, papal "pilgrimages" (as they were called) were not about moral conversion, they were about religious identity.

I wish John Cornwell had spent time on this because it seems to me as central to understanding this pontificate as any of the more churchy topics that make up his book. True, he devotes three pages to one of the World Youth Days that have become a feature, when hundreds of thousands of youngsters, mixing religion and fun in ways that Chaucer and the Middle Ages understood, party and pray with the pope. They are worth studying because they are emblematic of a considerable papal strategy, caught in the words of a young Australian woman who reported to her rural parish on her attendance at World Youth Day in 2000: "I will never, ever forget what it means to be a Catholic".

(News tip: expect a World Youth Day in Sydney sometime this decade.)

The Work:

  • The Pope in Winter


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