Pacelli's fatal flaw, as Cornwell would describe it, was his
life-long drive to strengthen the Vatican by centralizing its
authority over the Church's far-flung bishops and priests (Pacelli
wasn't alone in this drive; it dates back to the mid-nineteenth
century). This is manifest in his work as one of the principal
architects of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, for instance. But it
is Pacelli's work in negotiating the Reich Concordat of 1933
that serves as the best example of the tragic outcome of Pacelli's
preoccupation with centralizing papal authority.
Catholicism had grown significantly in post-war Germany, and
as Cornwell writes, up to 1933 it "remained the largest
single social institution in the country." As the driving
force behind the Center Party, it also exercised considerable
political influence. Unfortunately, the German Catholic priests'
criticism of the National Socialist Party (vehement by 1930)
was at odds with the Vatican's own view of the Nazis, according
to Cornwell. As far as the Vatican was concerned, Communism offered
a much worse (and more overt) threat to the papacy.
Pacelli's abiding desire throughout the negotiations was to
unite all German Catholics under "the full force of Canon
law." And, as Cornwell acknowledges, Pacelli thought the
negotiations showed Hitler's willingness to recognize the legitimacy
of the Church's legislation. But Hitler made a crushing demand
for, in Cornwell's words, "nothing less than the voluntary
withdrawal of German Catholics from social and political action
as Catholics, including the voluntary disbanding of the Center
Party, by then the sole surviving viable democratic party in
Germany." Blinded by his desire for strengthened papal authority,
With hindsight, the Reich Concordat was clearly a tragic mistake.
In addition to dismantling the last political force against Hitler,
it took away the German clergy's ability to speak out individually
against the Nazis' increasingly overt persecution of the Jews.
At the time, though, the Vatican thought it had made the right
decision in approving it, and Pacelli's role in its negotiation
was praised. When Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Pacelli was the
obvious choice to replace him. His nineteen-year-long reign was
marked publicly by saintly quiescence (which troubled the anti-Nazi
movement during the war, of course, because he never decisively
spoke out against the Nazis) and privately by a disciplined determination
that belied his Angelic Shepherd countenance (as Cornwell acknowledges,
Pacelli actually considered accepting a plan to depose Hitler
during the war, and his anti-Communist zeal preoccupied him after
Cornwell's portrait of Pacelli is certainly not flattering.
His descriptions of Pacelli's reclusive tendencies and his rather
prim confidence in himself is likely to leave the reader with
the feeling that spending an evening with Pacelli wouldn't have
been all that fun--or even spiritually uplifting. But Cornwell
is right to claim that it isn't the portrait of a monster. While
his book isn't likely to gain him friends among devout Catholics,
it is a strong, meticulously researched study of a man whose
good intentions led him into tragically misguided decisions.
Pacelli can't be blamed for Hitler's war against the Jews, and
Cornwell doesn't suggest he should be. But his documentation
of Pacelli's failure to force the Church to stand up against
it when its own priests spoke out against Hitler is damning,
Whether the reason for Pacelli's silence after the mass extermination
of Jews became known lay in a secret, deep-seated anti-Semitism
(as Cornwell suggests might have been the case) or merely in
a self-interested desire to hedge his bets in case the Axis Powers
prevailed (the Vatican, after all, was defenseless against either
an Italian or a German assault) seems irrelevant, in Cornwell's
estimate. As he writes, "That failure to utter a candid
word about the Final Solution in progress proclaimed to the world
that the Vicar of Christ was not moved to pity and anger. From
this point of view he was the ideal Pope for Hitler's unspeakable
plan. He was Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's Pope."