An Interview with John Cornwell

By Deal W. Hudson

John Cornwell is controversial. The best-selling author of Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII has been widely condemned both for the quality of his research and for the alleged heterodoxy of his Catholic faith.

In his newest book, Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, Cornwell opens himself up to still more criticism by taking on Pope John Paul II and the conservative current in the Church.

But if you think Cornwell is a mere toe-the-line theological liberal, you’re wrong. Deal Hudson sat down with him at his home in England to talk about Pius XII, liturgy, and the future of the Church.

Deal Hudson: When I first saw the title of your book, Breaking Faith, I thought it meant that the Holy Father had broken faith with the Church, but it has a very different meaning, doesn’t it?

John Cornwell: I wanted the book to have an arresting title, as well as a true one. Breaking Faith refers mainly to my own loss of faith, which happened in about 1965, when I was 25 years old, and took me away from the Church for more than 20 years. Although my book is not an autobiography, I wanted it to have a subjective, autobiographical dimension. When one writes about the faith, leaving out the phenomenology of personal belief, there is a danger that you’re telling people everything and yet telling them nothing. Sociological and journalistic accounts that attempt to be totally objective are always flawed. So Breaking Faith is certainly a survey—where the Church is at this time—using the Church’s own statistics, or the Vatican’s statistics, but it is also about one individual’s sense of the faith.

And I have to say that my own break with the Church was a crucial and positive thing in my life; it was providential, because I returned with a much stronger, more mature approach to belief. One would never advocate apostasy, but sometimes it may be necessary for those whose faith is immature and based on egotism and self-seeking.

In the first few chapters of the book, you describe the hurt you felt over the reception of Hitler’s Pope, the book on Pius XII and Hitler. Do you feel like your intentions or motives for writing that book were misunderstood?

I did not object to those who criticized the arguments and disputed the historical evidence. But I was dismayed by those who used ad hominem arguments, claiming that I was not a Catholic and disputing that I had started out intending to defend Pius XII. The facts are these: I spent an evening with some young Catholics who were arguing that the Church had sided with all the worst right-wing elements in the history of the 20th century. I did not believe that this was true. About that time, I had read a book by the historian Owen Chadwick called Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, which seemed to me to be an important defense of Pius XII’s conduct during the war—certainly the best to date.

But Chadwick’s book was very academic—an uninviting sort of book.

It seemed to me that if I took that as a basis and I did the whole of Pius XII’s life, including his undoubted growth of spirituality, his youth, it would provide a riposte to the young critics I had talked to. But that’s not the way it worked out. As I went through the documents, I got a completely different picture of him. I had to revise my opinion of Owen Chadwick’s work. After the book came out, a segment of the Catholic media simply focused on whether I was lying about being a Catholic, making me out to be part of an almost demonic conspiracy to undermine the Church. Ronald Rychlak, for example, has written almost a whole book about how I was a liar and apostate.

In Breaking Faith, you have a chapter about coming back to the Church after 20 years and being horrified by the liturgies that you experienced. I was surprised when I realized this chapter could have been published in Crisis. You write about the dumbing-down of liturgical music and the banality of the “me-ism” in hymns. Yet you also seem to be struggling to accept the way God may be speaking to people through this form of music, though you find it unpleasing. Where do you stand on that question at the present time? Do you still grudgingly accept it or feel like it’s just not your cup of tea?

Well, what really concerns me about liturgy is the Mass itself. It’s not so much the translations I oppose or the music accompanying it; it is that the Roman missal has been undermined in a way that aids this general process of Pelagianism in the Church, robbing us of our sense of unworthiness and also robbing us at the very heart of the Mass of the sense of the Trinity.

You mean as in, “Lord, I am worthy to receive you”?

Yes. So I have to make that the starting point. It’s not a question of taste in music, although I must say that I deplore the dumbed-down jauntiness and egotism of much that passes for Church music, or even the loss of dignity and elegance. My greatest concern is the loss of the repetitions and the doxologies, which exemplify the truth of the Holy Trinity. I have to say I am deeply depressed about it, because I don’t know how, when, and where that will be rectified.

Conservatives believe those you call the “progressives” are trying to make being a Catholic easier for people. They do this by allowing people to measure Catholic issues by a personal standard. In doing this, liberals want to lower the bar, lower the standards, of both belief and action. I detect a tension between the higher standard for liturgy that you would like to see and your insistence that the Church become more inclusive and more participatory.

Surely, the inclusive, participatory Church doesn’t imply a destruction of the traditional liturgy. This was not envisaged by the Second Vatican Council.

Let me give an example. You tell a lot of poignant stories about people who have been divorced, and they don’t want to get an annulment, so they are excluded from partaking of the Eucharist. You seem to be suggesting that this is a barrier that should be removed. Now, isn’t that an example of lowering a standard and thereby making people who don’t want to go through the annulment process seem OK with where they are?

You are right of course. I guess we can’t have it both ways. But we are living in very difficult and confused times within the Church itself. A very large proportion of Catholic marriages founder: It is the way the whole of our culture and society is drifting. But are we right to use annulment as a form of divorce by another name? There are, I should think, hundreds of thousands of people who get annulments even though they know that they were married. Some 60 percent of all annulments in the Church occur in the United States. This can’t be right. It is beginning to look like a cynical exercise in legalism and suggests that perhaps we need a new theology of marriage and annulment.

I must confess that I feel muddled, as do many Catholics, because part of me feels very firmly that the Eucharist is a litmus test of our Catholicism. I believe that those Catholics who do not go up to the Eucharist because their situation is not right in terms of marriage—remarried divorcees, for example—are acting as witnesses for other Catholics. Part of me agrees with that. But part of me also knows, and especially from the research I did for Breaking Faith, that there are millions of Catholics drifting away from the Church because of sheer spiritual inanition. I do think that compassion and love and sympathy have got to reign, because it’s such a prodigious problem involving millions of people across the world who are being lost to the Church.

I am conscious that this is a muddled answer. But I hope that I make myself clear about one thing: Receiving the Eucharist is a huge privilege. If one’s personal situation, or marriage situation, is not right, being deprived of the Eucharist is a form of desert spirituality; it can be a positive thing. But not all of us are capable of seeing it in that light, and it worries me that so many millions of people are drifting away.

The thrust of your new book, if I understood it correctly, is that under the pontificate of John Paul II, there has been almost a parallel phenomenon. On the one hand, John Paul II has tremendous personal appeal, both to Catholics and to non-Catholics, and in this sense, the Church has benefited from his pontificate. But on the other hand, in terms of the infrastructure and management of the Church, it has been a negative experience because of the centralization, the management style—the micromanagement style—the multiplication of strictures on bishops. Do you think that those conservatives who read this entirely differently simply have a fundamental blind spot when it comes to that second issue?

We could argue forever about the issue of centralization and collegiality in the Church—whether we have the balance right. I’m not a Church historian or a theologian; I’m just trying to make a contribution from the periphery to a debate. And it’s a debate that has so many dynamics.

For example, much of my thinking on these questions comes from the work of Henri de Lubac, the Jesuit theologian who inspired much of the thinking and direction of Vatican II. And yet, de Lubac turned out by 1970 to be one of the sternest critics of the progressives, and in a curious way, he’s probably right. It’s just absolutely undeniable that people went shooting off in all kinds of damaging directions. I guess that we’ll still be arguing about the balance between collegiality, subsidiarity, and centralization of Vatican II in a hundred years’ time.

But the point I tried to make in my book on Pius XII is, I hope, a valid one for discussion. Excessive centralization, I argue, weakened a powerful German Church during the 1930s, rendering it weak in the face of Nazism. Contrast that with the strength of the local German Church during the Kulturkampf 60 years earlier, which took on Bismark and won. Think, too, of the strength of the local Church in Poland through the grassroots power of Solidarity. These are issues we need to discuss and to debate openly within the Church, and I hope that I have at least made a contribution.

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2002

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