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

The Spin to Come-The Death of John Paul II

By Deal W. Hudson

The television and radio interviews are already taped and waiting to be broadcast. The passing of Pope John Paul II will unleash a media spin on his papacy guaranteed to make you nauseous: This was a pope who cared about the poor but did not engage in dialogue, a pope who traveled the world to speak but not to listen, a pope who electrified crowds with his charisma but did not trust the leadership in his church, a pope who was a serious and prolific writer but rolled back the reforms of Vatican II, blah, blah, blah.

This will be the spin of dissenters and left-wingers frustrated by a pope who didn’t give them what they wanted, what they thought should belong to them—namely, a Church reorganized along the lines of the Episcopal church (which is presently falling apart over the appointment of an openly gay bishop).

I’m confident that CRISIS readers will be ready to challenge this spin for the rot that it is. The talking points are simple. The pope did listen to dissenting opinions on Humanae Vitae and the priesthood, rejecting their arguments and offering his own in 14 encyclicals, along with the new Code of Canon Law and Catechism of the Catholic Church. The pope did participate in dialogue, not only within the Church but with leaders of all religious traditions—especially the Jews—with whom he met on his travels. The pope did implement the reforms of Vatican II, not the ersatz “spirit of Vatican II,” accomplishing a genuine updating of theology, liturgy, and lay participation in ministry. Finally, the pope did trust his bishops, by forging close working relationships with cardinals like Ratzinger, Schonborn, and Arinze, thus bitterly disappointing the self-appointed leaders of democratization in the Church.

The authors of this spin were youthful in 1978 when John Paul II took office and expected the millennium to herald a Church of woman priests, birth control, and localized control of parishes and chanceries. Now they’re older and have left Call to Action to seek legitimacy in Voice of the Faithful and other organizations. They talk openly about a successor to John Paul II who will “listen,” but what they actually mean is a pope who will do their bidding.

At present in the United States, there are Catholics who hope the next pope will be more “open” to the selection of priests and bishops by the laity. Jim Post, cofounder of Voice of the Faithful, has finally come clean expressing his support for the lay selection of bishops and providing an example of what his organization means by “structural change.” Post and his supporters want to reverse the authority structure of the Church by making it democratic. Democracy is good for government but undermines the tradition and form of the Catholic Church. The legacy of John Paul II—particularly his enormous paper trail—has insured that it will never happen.

Other mainline Christian denominations have listened to such voices and, as a result, have been lured into the irrelevancy of cultural assimilation. One denomination after another has adopted modish, politically correct causes at the expense of the faith’s core message of spiritual salvation. Christianity is not primarily an earthly program for political change, psychological comfort, or the satisfaction of media outlets. John Paul II took his message directly to the people, thereby forcing the media to cover his message and leaving the malcontents to fume at the outer boundaries of cable news and talk-radio shows.

The brief feeding frenzy after the passing of John Paul II will be a period of payback against the pope whose wisdom and goodness overwhelmed the cunning of his detractors. But have no fear. The white smoke will herald the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Church another leader who will again. outsize those who would tailor the Church to their own measurements.

Published in Crisis Magazine, November 1, 2003

John Paul the Great

By Deal W. Hudson

The Catholic Church in 1978 was marked by confusion and conflict. In October of that year, the conclave voted and gave us Pope John Paul II. More than 26 years later there are two dominant views of his papacy. One argues that he renewed the Church and saved it from dissent and the encroachment of modern secularism. The other portrays him as a reactionary, a pope who ignored modernity and the vision of Vatican II. One commentator, Thomas Cahill, said that history may view John Paul II as having destroyed the Catholic Church.

John Paul II understood modernity from the inside out. He lived under the two great political movements of modernity—Nazism and Communism. He studied and wrote his dissertation on phenomenology—the major philosophical school of the 20th century. He employed the tools of modernity when they could be put to the service of the Church, exploiting the power of the media to communicate the truth about human life to millions around the world. But he never let “chronolatry,” to use a term coined by Jacques Maritain, dictate his point of view. For John Paul II, the truth about human existence had already been revealed, and everything else was simply commentary—whether the interpretive tools were modern or ancient was irrelevant.

In his funeral homily, then–Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the pope’s ability to portray the “beauty of the truth.” That comment, I think, gets to the heart of his universal appeal and effectiveness more than anything else, apart from his sanctity. When you read his writings or listened to his speeches you were not simply convinced intellectually, you were struck by his vision. The Christian life, as he described it, was something he made you desire to lead, not something you felt obliged to follow. He made you want to follow Christ out of love rather than fear of punishment or loss of eternal life. His ability to make visible the beauty of the Truth will be at least one part of his ongoing legacy.

I was privileged in 1997 to hand him a copy of Crisis with his picture on the cover and the inscription “John Paul the Great.” The issue was created to celebrate the 15th anniversary issue of the magazine. We thought that nothing less than a tribute to the Holy Father would be appropriate for the occasion. When I suggested to the staff that we put “John Paul the Great” on the cover, there was a moment of hesitation. Someone asked whether we should give such a name to the Holy Father. While I understood the concern, I replied that such titles are always bestowed by the laity and that one day John Paul II would surely be called by that name. All agreed.

It was clear even then that he would come to be known by this title. What I wrote then in “Sed Contra” became even more true over the next eight years: “He has taught Catholics once again to think beyond the headlines, to retain their confidence in the restless heart of mankind, and to serve the deepest needs of the human heart rather than the manipulators of popular opinion. In doing so, John Paul II has given us the agenda for the next century.”

Published in Crisis Magazine, January 1, 2005

At Mass with Saint John Paul the Great

Deal W Hudson

I never thought I would be part of a cheering, waving crowd. After all, I thought myself too old, too sophisticated. Then John Paul II walked out on the stage. It was his Wednesday public audience, and together with my family and six friends I sat only a few rows from the stage of an enormous room that holds up to eight thousand. As he walked slowly toward his chair, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was seeing Christ, and I couldn’t hold back, anything.

The next day I and my family would experience that magnetic, overpowering force in the small papal chapel.

Most people would think that an audience with the pope and thousands of other people wouldn’t be very satisfying. Only the lucky few on the prima fila, the first row, get to shake his hand afterward. But sitting there among Catholic groups from around the world, hearing them sing to the pope in over a dozen languages, offers nothing less than a revelation of the Church universal.

There, addressing itself to every sense of the body, was a living witness to why the Church has one man at its head, one man to represent the one Christ of its Body. I knew I would never again have to explain to my daughter why the pope is called the “Holy Father.”

As I watched John Paul II, I kept noticing the sheer size of his shoulders. Here was a philosopher with the shoulders of a stevedore! How heavy the burden is that he carries for all of us, I thought. His body, the way his head bends forward, almost looks crucified already. But as he prayed I could see how he was able to carry it-Christ carries it for him: “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest. . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11.28)

Very late that night the phone rang in the convent where we were staying. A sister came and knocked on the door, with an obviously urgency, and gestured that I was wanted on the phone. A voice with a heavy Italian accent told me that my family had been invited to celebrate Mass with the Holy Father the next morning.  Can I bring my friends? I asked. No, just you and your family I was told.

We came early the next morning to the appointed place where the Swiss Guards stood at the entrance to the long, seemingly endless, stairway leading to the papal apartments. We were the first to arrive and had to bow our heads to enter the chapel. Our host gestured to take the seats in the front row. Being so nervous it was only when I took my seat that I realized the Holy Father was on his knees, bent over, praying only a few feet in front of me. Yes, his shoulders were enormous, the shoulders of man bearing the greatest responsibility in the world.

The power of his prayer, his faith, his dedicated to the Sacrament was palpable.  It felt like a turbine engine sending warm throughout the room.

Afterwards, those who attended were placed in line in the reception room next door — since we had been the first to enter the chapel we became the last in the line to be greeted by Saint John Paul the Great. The entire time he was greeting the others, Holy Father had his eye on my then 11-year old daughter, she was the only child in the line, wearing his Catholic school uniforms and holding a box of gifts for him from her classmates.

He greeted by wife Theresa first, and handed her a rosary — her face shone as bright as I have seen. Then came Hannah, and it seemed as if the room had filled with pure love, seeing the way the Holy Father put his hand upon her head and took her gifts, then kissing her head and saying a short prayer.

He turned to me, definitely not as interesting to him as Hannah, but he clapped when he saw the copy of Crisis Magazine I handed him bearing his picture and the words “John Paul the Great” (December 1997) across the cover.  By his smile it was obvious he didn’t seem to mind the branding.

Don’t Call Me a Conservative Catholic Anymore!

Deal W. Hudson

Published October 17, 2013

Labels in politics and religion serve a purpose: There are discernible groups and coalitions within and between the worlds of the Church and government. Words used as labels serve the purpose of enabling us to distinguish between one group and the other.

But I don’t want to be called a “Conservative Catholic” anymore. In the last few months, I’ve read two headlines beginning with the phrase “Conservative Catholic” which contained comments that have effectively made the label, if not meaningless, represent a group of Catholics who are now spreading the virus of an identity crisis.

First, there was a former editor of First Things who broke with Church teaching on homosexuality because of lessons learned from a gay friend who pressured him on the subject.

Then, on Tuesday, there came a story in the Washington Post quoting “Conservative Catholics” who have become critical of Pope Francis. The Holy Father is charged with not being “accurate” in some of his recent interviews with and comments to the media.

Having read and pondered these “controversial” statements, I’ve defended them — which is what “Conservative Catholics” used to do — and I�m prepared to explain all of them.

Take one example: Pope Francis made the comment that every person seeks the Good as he or she “conceives” of it. St. Thomas Aquinas said precisely the same thing.

The will is naturally led by the vision of the Good — meaning what appears desirable — towards mental and physical action. That vision of the Good may be wrong, or incomplete, as Pope Francis knows, but that is how the human person operates.

By pointing out that all persons seek the Good as they see it, he is providing all Catholics with the secret of effective evangelism: Start with how people “see things” and work on converting that, and you will reveal the wisdom and beauty of the Church.

Pope Francis is a Jesuit. That makes him a highly educated and intelligent theologian who knows about one thousand times more about the subjects of the Church, God, faith, and salvation than any of the media.

What’s remarkable about this Jesuit Pope, the very first, is that he speaks and acts in the spirit of true evangelism. He’s not an enthusiast, a cheerleader, or a screamer. Pope Francis is the embodiment of the New Evangelization that has never gotten off the ground.

Instead of spending our days policing, and fretting over, his statements, I suggest we sit at his feet and learn from him.


Newt Gingrich and the Pope

Deal W. Hudson
Published September 28, 2009

When Newt Gingrich was received into the Church last March, the reactions were predictable. The former Speaker of the House was simultaneously welcomed, jeered, and cynically accused of positioning himself to run for president in 2012.

When I spoke to him last Friday in his Washington, D.C., office, Gingrich was humble and soft-spoken about his new faith. He was also excited about his forthcoming documentary, Nine Days That Changed the World, recounting Pope John Paul II’s first trip home to Poland in June 1979 after being elected to the see of St. Peter. Gingrich’s wife, Callista, a cradle Catholic, is a co-producer of the film.

The Gingriches first got the idea for the film five years ago on a trip to Rome, where Callista, as part of the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, was making a recording at the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. Conversations during the trip with Msgr. Walter Rossi, pastor of the basilica in D.C., combined with his recent reading of George Weigel’s Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, provoked thoughts about the parallels between Communist-ruled Poland and the growing secularism of the United States.

Gingrich hopes his film will be an “evangelical vehicle” to combat the “secularist moment” in our culture. Telling the story of how John Paul’s visit led Poland to overthrow Communism, Gingrich said the film will contain a clear message: “Our true humanness is found only in a relationship with God.” Added Gingrich, “I hope people will see the film and think about their relationship to Christ and the importance of courage.” The projected release date is November 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There is another Polish connection in the Gingrich family: Callista’s grandmother, on her father’s side, was from Krakow. Gingrich told me that his wife never pushed her faith on him, but by her example “it was clear it meant a great deal to her.” He went to Mass with her at the basilica and wherever they traveled – including Hawaii, where they were treated to a hula dance. “We’ve been able to see the extraordinary range of the Church,” he told me.

Gingrich explained that his wife “created an environment where I could gradually think and evolve on the issue of faith.” Reading and conversations with various friends, primarily Monsignor Rossi, fed that process until the moment of decision arrived.

The moment came when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008. Gingrich was seated in the basilica, where his wife’s choir was to sing vespers for the Holy Father, when he was suddenly able to see the pope up close. He recalled, “It was clear he [the pope] was having the time of his life, and the joy in his eyesbelied his reputation as an austere German. As he walked past me, I knew I wanted to become a Catholic.”

“I knew that I belonged here,” he went on. “No – as a Catholic, I should put it: Here is where I belong.” As Gingrich parsed his sentence, his eyes teared up, and he excused himself for getting emotional. He changed the subject, but the emotion remained in his voice as he talked about Benedict’s visit to New York City.

“It was extraordinary,” he told me; “we were so blessed.” As he and Callista tried to get close to the pope’s entourage driving up Fifth Avenue, they ended up on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and were invited to stand at the back for the Mass. Then they were told that the pope would pass by their spot near the rope and bless a young boy in the wheelchair sitting next to them. They were overwhelmed when “Benedict XVI blessed the boy directly in front of us!”

Gingrich comes from a Pennsylvania Lutheran background, though he became Southern Baptist while in graduate school. From his mother’s mother, he told me, he received a pronounced sense of “good versus evil in the world.” He regards it as something of a mystery that, when his father went to Gettysburg College, “he had a copy of St. Augustine.”

Gingrich thinks the first time he felt the tug of the Church might have been when he visited Notre Dame in Paris at age 13, but he clearly remembers the impact of visiting St. Jacob’s Stone United Church of Christ in Glenville, Pennsylvania, where the effect of the organ “swept me away” as he heard his mother sing Handel’sMessiah.

Since Gingrich often brings up the power of great churches and sacred music, I asked him about beauty. “Beauty comes from giving up our weakness and realizing you don’t have to impose anything on the universe,” he replied. “You accept that it comes from a higher being.”

Secularism rejects and ridicules this acceptance of our creaturely status. Gingrich sees it gaining more and more of a foothold in the United States, as it already has in Europe. Further, it is antithetical to the history and culture of the United States. As Gingrich explained, “This country is heir to a Scottish and English Enlightenment that did not reject God, unlike the atheism of the French Revolution.” “In the face of the secularist threat,” Gingrich mused, “along with that militant Islam, endurance is what really matters.”

At 66, Newt Gingrich has endured the travails of a very public life to discover a new faith and new mission to reinvigorate the Christian roots of our nation and our civilization. Nine Days That Changed the World will tell the story of John Paul’s return to Poland, but its subtext will be the moment Benedict walked by with a smile on his face.