John Julius Norwich dredges up the same old slur about Pius XII

The handsome and much-publicised book costs £25

I have just picked up John Julius Norwich’s The Popes: a History. It is a handsome volume and will set you back £25. Published earlier this year with the usual publicity (I heard Norwich himself discuss his book in a radio interview, assuring listeners that he would steer clear of all theological considerations), I started on his introduction. My hackles were instantly raised at the reference to “the odiously anti-Semitic Pius XII to whom the beloved Pope John XXIII came as such a welcome contrast…”

The same old ignorance; the same old slur. Turning to the chapter on Pius XII I checked Norwich’s sources: there was only one: Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell. Cornwell’s book, as Norwich should have known if he had done any homework before throwing out his vicious comment, has been comprehensively demolished by respectable historians such as Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes and Sir Martin Gilbert in The Righteous.

As it happens, Pius XII and the Jews happened to have been the subject of my first blog last summer. The posts I received about it were instructive and helpful. As well as referring to Burleigh, whom I had read, and Gilbert, whom I hadn’t, people mentioned the research done by Pierre Blet SJ, Ronald Rychlak, Hubert Wolf and Gerhard Besier. It was pointed out that Cornwell had not seen vital Vatican archival material which shows Pius XII in a much more favourable light than in his (deliberately mischievous) portrayal. Indeed, Rabbi David Dalin, a Jewish historian, had written The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, a book I had also read, to demonstrate just how misleading and selective Cornwell’s book is.

Burleigh’s verdict in Sacred Causes is that “there is not the slightest evidence to support the idea that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope’”. Indeed, after his death in 1958, Pius was praised by Golda Meir, later to be prime minister of Israel, and in the useful little CTS booklet, “A History of the Papacy” by Fr Nicholas Schofield, the author concludes: “Pius XII’s concern for the Jews impressed many outside the Church. In 1945 the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took as his baptismal name ‘Eugenio’, in tribute to the pope.” (Pius’s baptismal name was “Eugenio”.)

John Julius Norwich, a well-known writer and broadcaster on the arts – the blurb on the dust jacket of his book cites his industry and versatility – is content to blacken the reputation of a greatly respected historical figure on the flimsiest evidence. His introduction concludes with the extraordinary statement, “as an agnostic Protestant, I have absolutely no axe to grind… My job has been to look at [the papacy] and to give as honest, as objective and as accurate an account of it as I possibly can.” There is nothing objective or accurate in his assessment of Pius XII. I think readers might save themselves £25 and read Fr Schofield’s booklet in the CTS’s “concise histories”; it is only £1.95. Interestingly, Schofield doesn’t bother to mention another myth, that of “Pope Joan”; Norwich gives her six pages.