Review: The Pope’s Dilemma

Posted 13 April, 2015 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War
By: Jacques Kornberg
Format/Source: Galley courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley

Pope Pius XII presided over the Catholic Church during one of the most challenging moments in its history. Elected in early 1939, Pius XII spoke out against war and destruction, but his refusal to condemn Nazi Germany and its allies for mass atrocities and genocide remains controversial almost seventy years after the end of the Second World War.

Scholars have blamed Pius’s inaction on anti-communism, antisemitism, a special emotional bond with Germany, or a preference for fascist authoritarianism. Delving deep into Catholic theology and ecclesiology, Jacques Kornberg argues instead that what drove Pius XII was the belief that his highest priority must be to preserve the authority of the Church and the access to salvation that it provided.

In The Pope’s Dilemma, Kornberg uses the examples of Pius XII’s immediate predecessors Benedict XV and the Armenian genocide and Pius XI and Fascist Italy, as well as case studies of Pius XII’s wartime policies towards five Catholic countries (Croatia, France, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), to demonstrate the consistency with which Pius XII and the Vatican avoided confronting the perpetrators of atrocities and strove to keep Catholics within the Church. By this measure, Pius XII did not betray, but fulfilled his papal role.

A meticulous and careful analysis of the career of the twentieth century’s most controversial pope, The Pope’s Dilemma is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the Catholic Church’s wartime legacy.

I hadn’t been on NetGalley for, errr, a very long time :3 When I logged on and started casually browsing through the most recent titles added, this book popped up. It caught my curiosity because I had some vague idea what went on during Pope Pius XII and knew of the controversy surrounding his papacy thanks to an essay that was submitted to the undergraduate history journal I was on the committee for years ago. I was fortunate to have been approved a copy of this book for review as I wanted to see how this author went about analysing his papacy. This book was released on 24 February 2015 (though the University of Toronto press is listing its release date (for the paperback, I believe?!) as 23 July 2015).

I guess another reason why the book caught my attention was because there’s been ongoing discussions whether or not to canonise him (I think the most recent discussions I’ve heard was from late last year when Pope John Paul II was canonised as a saint). It’s an interesting topic, and Professor Kornberg does consider different elements of what was going on in and around World War Two and how it affected Pius’ papacy and policy. There’s no easy answer, the politics of the time was very complex, tied in with the way that Catholicism was used and promoted in certain countries. Catholicism and nationalism went hand-in-hand in some countries, as was seen in the segments devoted to the policies and situations in Poland, Croatia, and Hungary.

The first two chapters were really helpful in putting the situation in context (that of Pius XII’s place in the public consciousness, how his papacy has been viewed immediately after the war and in more recent times, the change of public opinion between the end of the Second World War and the Second Vatican Council). The second chapter was rather dry but it does also set up the period in which Pius XII operated. It can be a bit of dry reading throughout at times, but it is nonetheless an interesting read. My sense though from reading some of his chapters was that some clerics operated outside of what the pope could say, which was indeed noted, but as a whole the Vatican had to operate as other states operated despite of its notable differences, that of its own survival being factored into the political equation.

The first time I finished reading the last chapter, I felt the conclusion was a bit generalised and a bit of a ump after such a meticulous look at the period and the issues that Pius XII faced. I went back and re-read the last two chapters again a little while ago to see if I had missed anything in my first reading (it’s been a while since I’ve read a history non-ficton text s I thought I might’ve not read it as closely as I should’ve); the second time around I was able to understand why the religious/institutional aspect was kept in its own chapter at the end, and explains much of why the conclusion made was what it was, but it still felt a wee bit disjointed, probably because of the last chapter’s focus on Vatican and Catholic doctrine and the segment on Catholic/Jewish relations and attitudes was introduced much, much earlier in the book as well as the overall political complexity of the period and of Europe as a whole.

Overall, I’m glad to have read The Pope’s Dilemma. It didn’t provide me with a solid answer at the end, of course, but it helped me understand a little more what was going on during this period and a sense of what Pius XII faced with the rise of Nazism and Fascism.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Visit the author’s profile on the University of Toronto faculty website || Order this book from the University of Toronto Press Publishing website

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