by Ronald Rychlak
Remember John Cornwell? In his last book, Hitler’s Pope, he claimed that he was a loyal, practicing Catholic who had the highest regard for Pope Pius XII and wanted to write a book defending him. He said he received special access to secret archives due to his previous writings defending the Church. He said he spent months on end in a dungeon-like room studying the documents. Ultimately he was left in a state of moral shock and concluded that Pius XII was the ideal Pope for Hitler’s evil plans. This claim was repeated in virtually all of the early reviews, and it helped makeHitler’s Pope somewhat of a best-seller.
Before long a number of problems developed with Cornwell’s story. First came a statement from the Vatican denying that Cornwell had been granted any special privileges. As he has since admitted, the archives that he saw were not secret. They were from the years 1912-1922 and therefore contained nothing about Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. Moreover, as he has now also admitted, Cornwell spent no more than three weeks doing archival work, not “months on end.”
The rooms, by the way, are not dungeon-like.
It also seems that, contrary to his self-promoting claims, Cornwell was not really out to defend Pius when he started the project. He had previously written comments critical of Pius XII, calling him “totally remote from experience, and yet all-powerful–a Roman emperor”; and an “emaciated, large-eyed demigod.” He had also written of “Pius XII’s silence on Nazi atrocities.” In fact, far from having defended the Church in his previous writings, to the extent they dealt with religious matters at all, Cornwell’s writings were critical of Catholic doctrine and the Catholic Church. Often he was openly hostile.
In 1989, Cornwell described himself as a “lapsed Catholic for more than 20 years.” In 1993 he declared that human beings are “morally, psychologically and materially better off without a belief in God.” He also said that he had lost his “belief in the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” As late as 1996, Cornwell called himself a “Catholic agnostic,” who did not believe in the soul as an immaterial substance. This undisputed evidence (which is never mentioned in Hitler’s Pope) conflicts with his claim to have been a devout Catholic convinced of Pius XII’s sanctity when he started that project in the early 1990s.
When commentators pointed to the numerous inconsistencies in his story, Cornwell ignored their legitimate arguments and instead played the part of a victim – a wounded, deeply offended Christian who has had his personal faith questioned. He elaborates on this response in his new book, Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People and the Fate of Catholicism. The book is an amalgam of personal theology, Church history, preachy sermonizing, and predictions about the future. Of central importance to the author, however, is his explanation that although he left the Church as a young man and became a serious critic, a “miracle happened” in 1989, causing him to return to his faith.
In the first few pages of Breaking Faith, Cornwell explains why it is so important to him that he be recognized as a bonafide Catholic. He is an acknowledged critic of the Catholic Church, and “there is a world of difference between an authentic believing Catholic, writing critically from within, and a ‘Catholic bashing’ apostate who lies about being a Catholic in order to solicit an unwarranted hearing from the faithful.”
Although Cornwell assures us throughout the book that he is an “authentic believing Catholic,” his expressed faith is not in the Catholic Church of Pope John Paul II. He picks up where the last chapter of Hitler’s Pope left off: with an open attack on the papacy and the current Pontiff. One need go no further than the prologue to read: “John Paul is leaving the Catholic Church in a worse state than he found it.”
Cornwell argues that there has been a fundamental breakdown in communications between hierarchy and laity and that this was brought on by John Paul’s authoritarian rule. “Bullying oppression,” he writes, is driving people away from the Catholic Church. He blames virtually all of the Church’s modern problems on “the harsh centralized rules of Wojtyla’s Church.” He calls the Pope a “stumbling block” for “progressive Catholics and a vast, marginalized faithful.”
Cornwell warns that if a conservative Pope succeeds John Paul II, the Church could face a “sectarian breakup.” He argues that: “under a conservative pope the situation will deteriorate and expand rapidly, pushing greater numbers of Catholics toward antagonism, despair and mass apostasy.”
Cornwell’s evidence for a looming sectarian breakup is found in the decline in vocations and attendance at Mass, along with opinion surveys suggesting that many Catholics have difficulty with Church teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. In fact, he cites so many opinion surveys that at points it interrupts the flow of the book. The most serious problem with these surveys, however, is the way he uses them.
Consider, for example, the survey cited on page 254 of Breaking Faith. Here we are told that 65% of American Catholic respondents “hoped for a Pope who would permit the laity to choose their own bishops,” and 78% “supported the idea” of the Pope having some lay advisors. Cornwell ominously reports that “for such a large proportion