Several years ago, in the cosy bosom of Soho’s Academy Club, Patrick Reyntiens the preeminent stained glass artist and devout Catholic, stood on a chair (despite his 85 years) and delivered an impromptu reading from Ludwig von Pastor’s History of the Popes. Eventually he was halted mid-sentence by a piece of flying bread. It’s that kind of club.
Reyntiens’s enthusiasm sent me back to Pastor, whom I first read in the library of Oscott College where I was once a seminarian. Papal history is a mighty tapestry: resplendent and blood-stained with holiness and martyrdom; defiled and moth-eaten by tyranny and corruption. Its narrators are an ill-assorted ragtag of chroniclers, hagiographers, and occasional historians.
As for the present and recent past, Netflix, HBO et al compete with our divided, mutually antipathetic, Catholic media for ownership of the contemporary papal story. Meanwhile, rigorous and balanced journalistic portrayals include Garry Wills, Marco Politi, Paul Vallely and Austen Ivereigh (author of two fine studies and the book-length interview Let us Dream).
Serious writers on the current and recent popes, caught in the lib-trad crossfire, risk trolls more bruising than a bread roll, while hacks and hoaxers have gotten rich on papal pulp fiction, faction and the “true story” that never happened. Here’s a case in point.
In 1984 a scalding “non fiction” best- seller, In God’s Name, by the late David Yallop (the erstwhile EastEnders script writer), was flying off the shelves. He claimed that John Paul I, barely pope for a month, was murdered back in 1978 by a conspiracy of masons aided and abetted by Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank.
The murder of a pope is not of course entirely unthinkable: at least six popes were assassinated in the first millennium. John VIII was poisoned and clubbed to death for good measure. John X was strangled, some think by his mistress’s daughter; Benedict XI was despatched with powdered glass – in his figs, they say.
Having questioned the papal doctor, the Rome pathologist, the morticians and Marcinkus himself at length (none of whom Yallop spoke to), I concluded in my A Thief in the Night (1989) that John Paul I died of a neglected embolism.
Marcinkus was no walking saint; more a mix of naivity and gutter cunning. He told me blandly that he raided the Vatican pension fund to pay a $250m fine for moral complicity in the 1982 Banco Ambrosiano collapse. But there is not a tissue of evidence that he was a murderer nor conspirator in murder. Nor was he a night-cruising rent-boy-ring maestro, as claimed in Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican. The full extent of his risqué improprieties was a rare game of tennis with his female secretary.
Yallop’s unholy thriller has nevertheless prevailed, having sold a prodigious six million copies and counting. Not so long ago, visiting the Vatican’s own bookshop opposite St Peter’s, I saw rows of his paperback on prominent display. “His publisher gives us great discounts,” explained an assistant.
There are nevertheless painstaking, reliable historians of the papacy. A select constituency of scholars, exercising modern disciplines and critical skills in historicism, emerged in the mid-19th century, including Ludvig von Pastor. A line of successors include such writers as Henri Daniel-Rops, Owen Chadwick, Eamon Duffy, Hubert Wolf, and David Kertzer.
Pastor researched the 40 volumes of his papal lives with admirable regard for primary sources. He was emulating the academic rigour of his scholarly mentor the Lutheran historian Leopold von Ranke, author of the earlier History of the Popes. And there was a refreshing, if restricted, Catholic candour in the air. John Henry Newman could write that a long-lived pope (he had Pius IX in mind) “becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it”. Newman’s contemporary, Lord Acton – historian and politician (alleged originator of “Power tends to corrupt…”) – was famously critical of papal pretensions. He rated the Protestant Ranke more highly than the Catholic Pastor.
Francis has altered what it means to be a pope: the papacy can never be the same again
Yet the ultamontanes (enthusiasts for a papal supremacy that shines across mountain ranges), struck back. They cited Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, stating that trusting to historical research rather than doctrine was rank heresy. Cardinal Henry Manning, Newman’s antagonist, put it succinctly in 1870: the definition of papal infallibility, he declared, was “a triumph of dogma over history”. In the first decade of the new century, Pius X’s “anti-modernist” spy master, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, pronounced that church historians were a group of men for whom history is a “desperate attempt to vomit”; the only remedy: “the Inquisition”. Preference for hagiography would persist through the Pius papacies, down to Pius XII.
Following the Second Vatican Council, open criticism thrived among Catholics up to the highest clerical levels. John XXIII was blamed for “the runaway Church”. Paul VI was lambasted for Humanae Vitae. A Catholic archbishop declared that in choosing John Paul I the Conclave had elected Peter Sell- ers. Critics charged that John Paul II “brought a bit of the Iron Curtain with him from Poland”. Benedict XVI has been mocked for camp headwear and footwear (that would “take the eyes out of you”, writes Colm Tóibin); attacked for his Islamophobia and conservativism (a bit rich, considering his stunning abdication).
Unphased, the papacy has reasserted its sacred ascendancy by mutual self-promotion to the communion of saints, establishing a kind of Dead Saintly Popes Society. One notable pope has yet to be raised to the altars: Pius XII. The debate over his reputation is serious and significant; yet it has resonances of many a hoary old chestnut: not least, the batty insistence that the papacy has been sede vacante – that the throne of Peter has been empty – since his death.
In the 1990s I embarked on Pius’s life story, aiming to prove him no Nazi sympathiser. I discovered, however, a circumstance much worse in its consequences if not intentions. In 1933, as Cardinal Secretary of State, Pacelli negotiated a treaty with Hitler who promised protection of Catholic belief and practice in exchange for the Church’s withdrawal from social and political action. I argued that the concordat between Hitler and the Holy See demoralised a Catholic opposition, scandalised the young, and awarded Hitler substantial credit internationally. It involved the voluntary disbanding of the Catholic democratic political body, the Centre Party. Hitler himself told his cabinet that the treaty had given impetus to his plan for the Jews.
Pius XII saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the war, according to his defenders. That may be so; although there’s a danger that praise due to others has been appropriated. But does one congratulate a man for calling the fire brigade after he sets the house on fire, albeit accidentally? Amidst the fury of ensuing debates, Hitler’s Pope (1999) served as an unofficial devil’s advocate in the cause for his beatification, a role abolished by John Paul II. A historian whose opinion I value has accused me of coarsening the Pius debate with a brutal title. That too may be so. Yet the book prompted a torrent of subsequent articles and books more scholarly than earlier studies of Pius’s troubled papacy.
I next wrote a portrait of John Paul II, Pope in Winter (2005). No writer could deny John Paul’s greatness, nor compete with George Weigel’s formidable biography. I criticised, however, the ageing pope’s failure to accept the scope and extent of the clerical sexual abuse of minors. He was inclined to blame the malice of the media and rogue clergy in Anglophone countries. Relying on the “charism” of personal “discernment”, he honoured Father Marcial Maciel, arguably the most psychopathic sexual abuser in the Church’s modern period.
And now we have Francis, who has been a target of unbridled insult, more so than any pope since the Reformation. He has been called a heretic, a fool, insane, satanic even. Historian Professor Richard Rex has characterised Francis as a “crisis within a crisis”, citing in particular his softness on the divorced and remarried.
My quarrel is not with criticism of Francis per se, but the reckless rancour that goes beyond the bounds of common decency. Professor Eamon Duffy, author of a splendid popular history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners, has written: “Catholicism is a conversation, linking continents and cultures, and reaching backward and forward in time.” In my portrait of Francis, Church, Interrupted, I have attempted to address the readership of my children and grandchildren, who are better at talking across fences than my generation.
They have little or no interest in fingering the theological frets, nor fussing over sanctuary choreography, nor anathematising fellow Catholics, let alone those of other religions. Their moral concerns and preoccupations extend well beyond those of traditional Catholicism, reaching out to wider relationships and moral responsibilities, including the fate of nature and the planet itself.
One thing seems certain: Francis has altered what it means to be a pope: the papacy can never be the same again. He has offered a renewed vision of what it means to be a Catholic, especially for those who find themselves at the margins. The Church can never be the same again. There are those of my generation who think the change is for the worse. I believe that his disruptions have been providential for the troubled, uncertain world of my grandchildren and the generations beyond.
John Cornwell’s Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis is published this month by Chronicle Prism, priced £21.99
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.