"60 MINUTES" ON PIUS XII
By Ronald Rychlak
The March 19 broadcast of CBS Television’s "60 Minutes" profiled
Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell
(Viking Press, 1999). As the title suggests, that book presents a very
cynical portrait of Pope Pius XII.
Like many print reviews, "60 Minutes" started by discussing Cornwell’s
claim that he was convinced of Pius XII’s evident spirituality and thought
that the full story would vindicate him. So, assuring Church officials
that he was on the Pope’s side, Cornwell claims to have obtained special
permission to look at the Vatican’s archives.
By the middle of 1997, after having worked on the project for five
years and having studied the Vatican files, Cornwall claims to have found
himself in a "state of moral shock." He was now convinced that Pius XII
had a soaring ambition for power and control that had led the Catholic
Church "into complicity with the darkest forces of the era." He concluded
that Pacelli was "an ideal Pope for the Nazis’ Final Solution."
Crucial to his self-promotion is Cornwell’s claim to have been a good,
practicing Catholic who set out to defend his Church. His earlier books,
however, were marketed as having been written by someone who had left the
Church. According to a 1989 report in the Washington Post, Cornwell
"was once a seminarian at the English College in Rome and knows the
Vatican terrain, [but] he has long since left the seminary and the
Catholic faith, and thus writes with that astringent, cool, jaundiced view
of the Vatican that only ex-Catholics familiar with Rome seem to have
mastered." At that time Cornwell described himself as a "lapsed Catholic
for more that 20 years."
In The Hiding Places of God (1991) he declared that human beings
are "morally, psychologically and materially better off without a belief
in God." He also said that he had lost his "belief in the mystery of the
real presence of Christ in the Eucharist." Reviews of that book called
Cornwell an agnostic and former Catholic. As late as 1996, when he was
supposedly trying to vindicate Pius XII, Cornwell called himself a
"Catholic agnostic," who did not believe in the soul as an immaterial
Perhaps more revealing are Cornwell’s prior comments about Pope Pius
XII. In his 1989 book, A Thief in the Night, Cornwell mentions the
"alleged anti-Semitism" of Pius without offering any explanatory comment.
Then, on page 162, he mocks Pius, saying that he was "totally remote from
experience, and yet all-powerful-a Roman emperor." He goes on to call Pius
an "emaciated, large-eyed demigod." In 1995 in London’s Sunday Times,
Cornwell described Pius as a diplomat, a hypochondriac and a ditherer. The
next year, when he was supposedly working on his defense of Pius XII,
Cornwell wrote in the New York Times of Pius XII’s silence on Nazi
atrocities" as an example of a failing by the Catholic Church. In light of
this evidence, his claim to have had nothing but the slightest regard for
Pius XII up until 1997 is simply not believable.
As to his claim to have received special assistance from the Vatican
due to earlier writings which were favorable to the Church, a simple call
to the Vatican would have revealed that he received no special treatment.
Any competent scholar can obtain access to the archives that he saw
without promising to be "favorable" to the Church. Moreover, a quick
consultation of Cornwell’s earlier books (or easily-available reviews
thereof) reveals that he has never been friendly to the Holy See.
In A Thief in the Night, Cornwell rejected rumors of a Vatican
conspiracy to poison Pope John Paul I, but his conclusion that a
cold-hearted bureaucracy let the Pope die was almost as bad. Cornwell,
voicing sentiments that sound exactly like what he now says about his new
book, wrote: "The Vatican expected me to prove that John Paul I had not
been poisoned by one of their own, but the evidence led me to a conclusion
that seems to me more shameful even, and more tragic, than any of the
Cornwell’s 1993 novel, Strange Gods, is about a Jesuit priest
who keeps a mistress on whom he lavishes caviar and champagne, goes on
golfing holidays in Barbados, and takes lithium for manic-depressive
swings. He supports his lifestyle by absolving a wealthy Catholic
benefactor from his own sins of the flesh. The Independent (London)
called the priest "a cut-out model of a sexually tortured Catholic."
Driven by fear and desperation, the priest deserts his pregnant mistress
in favor of a dangerous, immoral venture in an obscure part of Latin
America. When he returns to England, his faith is transformed into what
one reviewer called "a soggy Christian humanism."
In The Hiding Places of God (1991) Cornwell wrote of his days in
the seminary: "I took delight in attempting to undermine the beliefs of my
fellow seminarians with what I regarded as clever arguments; I quarreled
with the lecturers in class and flagrantly ignored the rules of the
"60 Minutes" skipped over these matters even though they were contained
in the April issue of Brill’s Content magazine, which was on
newsstands at the time of the broadcast. Instead they interviewed Gerhard
Riegner, who complained about Pope Pius XII’s "silence."
Riegner wrote a memorandum to the Holy See, dated March 18, 1942,
describing Nazi persecution. Cornwell describes this memo in his book and
leaves the impression that the Vatican failed to take any action in
response to it. Cornwell fails, however, to note the letter of thanks that
Riegner himself sent on April 8, 1942. In that letter, Riegner, on behalf
of the World Jewish Congress, states:
We also note with great satisfaction the steps undertaken by His
Excellence the Cardinal Maglione, with authorities of Slovakia on
behalf of the Jews of that country, and we ask you kindly to transmit
to the Secretariat of State of the Holy See the expression of our
We are convinced that this intervention greatly impressed the
governmental circles of Slovakia, which conviction seems to be
confirmed by the information we have just received from that country…
In renewing the expressions of our profound gratitude, for whatever
the Holy See, thanks to your gracious intermediation, was good enough
to undertake on behalf of our persecuted brothers, we ask Your
Excellency to accept the assurance of our deepest respect.
Ed Bradley asked about the numerous letters sent from various Jewish
groups following the war, but there was no mention of Riegner’s own letter
In fact, the recently-released memoirs of Adolf Eichmann, chief of the
Gestapo’s Jewish Department, reveal the Nazis’ knowledge that Pius was
deeply offended by these arrests and that he worked hard to prevent the
deportations. (Ironically, given complaints about secrecy within the
Vatican, this important piece of evidence was suppressed by the Israeli
government from 1961 until March 2000.)
On a different matter, Bradley said that Pius objected to having black
soldiers garrison the Vatican following Rome’s liberation because the Pope
had heard reports of rape being committed by African-American troops. This
clearly offended Bradley, and he used it to raise questions about the
Actually, confusion about this situation stems from a report the Pope
received about French Algerian troops. The report said that these troops
had raped and pillaged in other areas where they were stationed, and the
Pope did not want these specific soldiers stationed in Rome. Pius
expressed his concerns about these specific men to British Ambassador
Osborne who broadened the statement in his cable back to London, saying
that the Pope did not want "colored troops" stationed at the Vatican.
Bradley said that Pius was talking about African-American troops,
which is clearly not correct.
Cornwell expressed the opinion in the "60 Minutes" segment that things
could not possibly have been worse for the Jews than they were. To say
this is to ignore the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Jewish
men, women, and children who were saved by Pius XII and those who were
working at his direction. Those Jewish victims, however, were very
thankful during and after the war.
Gerhard Riegner said that the numerous offers of thanks and praise at
the end of the war were merely political maneuvers, designed to restore
good relations between Jewish and Catholic people. However, 13 years
later, at the time of his death, Pius XII efforts to save Jews from the
Nazis was still the primary focus of attention. The Anti-Defamation
League, the Synagogue Council of America, the Rabbinical Council of
America, the American Jewish Congress, the New York Board of Rabbis, the
American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the
National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Council of
Jewish Women all expressed sorrow at his passing and thanks for his good
works. The Jewish Post (Winnipeg) explained in it November 6, 1958
It is understandable why the death of Pius XII should have called
forth expressions of sincere grief from practically all sections of
American Jewry. For there probably was not a single ruler of our
generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest
tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.
Then Israeli representative to the United Nations and future Prime
Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, said: "During the ten years of Nazi
terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope
raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their
victims." Nahum Goldmann, President of the World Jewish Congress, said:
"With special gratitude we remember all he has done for the persecuted
Jews during one of the darkest periods of their entire history."
Unfortunately, these voices were not heard on "60 Minutes," nor are
they to be found in Cornwell’s book.
Ronald J. Rychlak is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for
University of Mississippi School of Law. His book, Hitler, the
War, and the Pope will be released this summer by Genesis Press.
This article appeared in May 2000 on the website of the
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.