Sunday, July 26, 2015

Jacques Kornberg "The Pope's Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War"

Jacques Kornberg's book, "The Pope's Dilemma" (2015, University of Toronto Press) arrived on my desk a few weeks before the end of the second school term here in Australia. That meant it would have to wait until exams were marked, reports written and students sent home to their parents.  And what a wait it was.  I had read the table of contents, glanced through the introduction, made a note of scholars cited in the index and resolved to resist the urge to read until I had sufficient time to do so without interruption.  I am happy to write that I was successful.

This is a significant work that advances our understanding of Eugenio Pacelli in several significant ways.  

Firstly, Kornberg is a master of the topic; his erudition is obvious from the opening pages.  This led me to believe I was in the hands of a well-informed, learned and balanced guide, who had a profound grasp of the various disciplines necessary to make serious comment on Pius XII. He demonstrates with clear and logical writing the arguments of the current historical arguments and debates as well as the claims of the "canonise him now" apologists. In order to this Kornberg has immersed himself into the available archival material, especially the Actes et Documents, as well as the latest current historical research from both sides of the debates.  And while the opening of the Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pius XII remains in the future, Kornberg, as do other historians, believes the reader has enough evidence upon which to make a sound judgement through use of the available material.

Secondly, Kornberg demonstrates a detailed familiarity with the vast literature on Pius, as well as his predecessors, Pius XI, Benedict XV and Leo XIII, and his successors John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.  It was clear to see how Kronberg linked elements from Pius XII into broader papal politics and policies, following equally clear lines within Catholic theology and ecclesiology of the late-Tridentine era.  

Thirdly, Kornberg makes lucid and learned comment on the history of fascism, National Socialism, the relationship between the Catholic Church in Germany and the Nazi regime, the Concordat and the demise of the Catholic Centre Party.  Context is never sacrificed, and while at times, the reader might be tempted to skip a few pages here and there because of their familiarity with the subject matter, it is definitely worthwhile reading the whole text.

I believe Kornberg's most significant contribution lies in the explanation of a politics of consistency from Leo XIII through to Pius XI and then into the papacy of Pius XII. He challenges one of the consensus views of Pius XII, namely that he stood apart from other popes in his diplomatic approach to crises and his silence in the face of atrocities.  Surely Pius XI was a model of outspoken language that the more phlegmatic Pacelli sought to interpret and re-cast in more calming words?  A lengthy quote from page 186 established Kronberg's thesis.  I found it compelling.

At least until fairly recently the consensus was the Pius XII stood alone, that he brought baggage to the papacy that other popes did not, that his personality and training were ill-suited to the times ... Domenico Cardinal Tardini, Pius XII's undersecretary of state ... believed Pacelli's temperament made him a natural fence-sitter: he sought to "please everyone and displease no one" ... In keeping with this view of Pius XII, Michael Phayer argues that Pacelli's predecessor, Pius XI, far more passionate, forceful, and outspoken, would have responded differently to the destruction of European Jewry,  in keeping with the enormity of the crime.  These assessments of Pius XI are just beginning to change in the light of additional research.  Phayer later agreed with historians Gerhard Besier and Peter Godman that Pius XI was as diffident as his successor when it came to acting against "racism, totalitarianism, and Nazism."   ... I will argue that the foreign policies of modern pope just prior to Pius XII - Leo XIII, Benedict XV and Pius XI - in the face of war and even mass atrocities were all of a piece.

This chapter is the setting for the final chapters in the book that examine the priorities of Pius XII's action or inaction in the face of the mass murder and torture on unprecedented levels.  In his conclusion, Kornberg's assessment of Pius is chilling, but the process that brings him to this point is so clear and well-plotted, that I was hard pressed to find reason not to share his conclusion.

Pope Pius XII's responses, or lack of response, during the 1939-1945 war, were successful in his execution of his perceived role as Pastor Pastorum - shepherd of the shepherds -  and the visible head of Christ's church on earth.  He successfully defended the rights of the church in the face of the dangers of fascism, Nazism and Communism.  The institution survived the war; the hierarchy was still in place, churches were opened, clergy ministered to their people and the sacraments were celebrated.  However, Pius' non-defence of the moral norms and ethical principals that lie at the heart of Catholic Christianity are judged a failure.  Kornberg cites Pacelli's own words to lay the charge against him.  In his 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus, Pius said he would not and could not remain silent in the face of crimes against divine law.  His silence in the face of the mass-murder of Catholic Poles, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic and Orthodox Roma and Sinta, and then the genocide of European Jewry seals Kornberg's argument.

This is an important book that gives us possibly, the most important work to date on Pius XII within the contexts of the early twentieth century papacy and its relationship with the modern world.  It is a valuable complimentary volume to other works on Pius XII.  Professor Kornberg has done us a great service in his book. It is accessible to the professional historian well-versed in the study of Pacelli, and, more importantly, is accessible to the lay reader who wants to know more about a man, a pope, about whom there appears never enough said.

Emeritus Professor Jacques Kornberg

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