The National Catholic Review
John Jay Hughes

With Popes and Politics Justus Lawler has written two books. His first four chapters analyze recent works about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. His final three chapters address issues of church renewal and reform.

So massive has been the devastation inflicted on the memory of Pius XII by Rolf Hochhuth’s pseudo-historical drama, The Deputy (1963), that the praise heaped upon the pontiff before 1963 by Jews and Gentiles alike for his wartime rescue efforts is now largely forgotten. Hochhuth’s third-rate literary effort, as Lawler calls it, did more than besmirch the reputation of a man widely acknowledged at his death to have been a leader of towering moral stature. It defined the terms of all subsequent debate. What is asked of Pius, Lawler writes, is not a deed which would achieve the cessation of the Jewish slaughter, but merely a statement, a proclamation, a word.

Overlooked in the strife of tongues that Hochhuth unleashed are two incontrovertible facts. First, the pope himself was convinced that he had spoken clearly, not only in papal allocutions but through his personally directed radio station and newspaper. He said exactly what he thought would save lives and carefully avoided anything that could cause more deaths. Moreover, the pope’s contemporaries on all sides heard and understood the pope’s words clearly, even if six decades later critics living comfortably in the precincts of somnolent libraries at claustral universities with their snug professorial digs cannot. And overlooked, second, is what Lawler calls the fatuity of mere speaking out’ when action was called for.

Lawler criticizes the pope’s defenders (ideological consecrators) and excoriates his critics (ideological denigrators). Of the former (Ralph McInerny and Margherita Marchione) he is dismissive. They proffer testimony to the righteousness of their viewpoint rather than exposition or argument to support that viewpoint.

About the denigrators he is devastating. In great detail, and with biting sarcasm reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, Lawler analyzes the anti-papal books of John Cornwell, James Carroll, Michael Phayer and Susan Zuccotti. He finds in their books an omnipresent papaphobia. What emerges is the startling phenomenon of slanted and bogus scholarship where one might least expect it...among the acknowledged professional exponents of candor, honesty, and rectitude.

He shows Zuccotti constructing a tissue of suppositions [that] displays an astonishing reliance on unverified and unverifiable assumptions, and cites examples of her doctoring of facts. In her 1993 book, The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews, Zuccotti excused the French and others for inactivity in the face of Nazi atrocities because during the war [the Holocaust] was almost inconceivable. In Under His Very Windows, by contrast, Zuccotti gives a vitriolic description of the allegedly precise knowledge [of the Holocaust], grasped early in the war years and conveyed to his emissaries by the detached and indifferent figure of the pope frigidly gazing down at the swelling ranks of the doomed under his very windows.’

Lawler gives examples of how both Zuccotti and Phayer distort facts to support personal prejudice. A case in point: Phayer writes that Pius failed to condemn the German bombing of England during 1940 and 1941, but then spoke out against the bombing of civilians when the Allies gained aerial superiority. In fact, the pope repeatedly condemned the bombing of civilian centers, starting in 1939, less than a week after the Nazi 10-day bombing of Warsaw. He continued these condemnations later, when Allied planes devastated German cities. Allied leaders paid as little attention to these protests as the Nazis had earlier in the war. Might not a similar fate have met any repeated denunciations of what led to the Holocaust? Lawler asks rhetorically.

Lawler’s indictment of Carroll and Garry Wills is even more severe. Wills’s Papal Sin is not distinguished by any discernible narrative sequence or development, save for its leitmotiv of papal sin and deception. And it is as jumbled thematically as it is chronologically. Lawler charges Wills with deliberate mistranslation of texts...textual truncation and mutilation and authorial fabrication, in short, a hoax. As for Carroll, his Constantine’s Sword displays an author whose cutting edge is so severely blunted by self-indulgent effusions that he is unable to envision any phenomenon, social, cultural, religious outside the constricted ambit of its impingement on matters related almost exclusively to him and his.

The final chapters of Popes and Politics, on church renewal and reform, reject both the nostalgic looking back of the right and the experimental restlessness of the left. Too original to wear any label, Lawler comes closest to the position of the extreme center once claimed by Belgium’s Cardinal Josef Suenens. What will count, he says in a quotation from Bernard Lonergan that prefaces the book, is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half-measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.

The insistence on complete solutions and the willingness to wait are equally important, in Lawler’s view. Little is achieved by compromisers or by the impatient. As examples of reformers who took the long view, Lawler repeatedly cites Newman and, on the final page, Yves Congar. Cardinal Congar had faith in history and faith in the power of the spirit ultimately to reform the distortions and errors which he saw about him. Censured and suppressed before the Second Vatican Council, Congar’s writings are bearing now in these more propitious timescompletely unforeseeable five decades agothe richest and most lasting fruit. Paul VI and John Paul II have stated publicly that the work of Congar had nurtured their own spirit and instructed them in the ways of religious renewal. It is no small thing to be a teacher of popes.

Lawler has written an original book that stretches the mind and, in its final chapters, the imagination. It is a major work on vital issues.

John Jay Hughes, a church historian, is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Mo.