George Weigel Critiques Papal-Fiction-as-Fact

Cites John Cornwell´s Loose Research

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 17, 2002 (Zenit.org).- ZENIT here reprints a recent essay from George Weigel on a book by John Cornwell.



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Truth-challenged
by George Weigel

John Cornwell, the British Catholic writer, might call it journalistic license. I call it a case of being truth-challenged.

Mr. Cornwell´s new book, "Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism," begins thus:

"Early in the year 2001, eight hundred people turned out on a wintry night to hear the American Catholic writer George Weigel speak at London´s Westminster Cathedral. The occasion was the paperback release of his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. The audience listened respectfully as Weigel ran through a litany of papal statistics: ´670,000 miles traveled on 84 papal trips ... that is, 2.8 times the distance between the earth and the moon;´ 3,078 addresses and homilies delivered;´ ´13 million people met in audience´ as well as ´15,000 intimate personal encounters;´ ´159 new cardinals appointed.´ In ´144 ceremonies,´ John Paul had ´beatified 798 men and women and canonized 290 new saints;´ he had nominated ´2,650 of the Church´s 4,200 bishops.´ ´The printed record of his teaching,´ Weigel proclaimed finally, ´covers ten whole linear feet of shelf space in libraries!´"

Get the picture? Overwrought papal biographer -- a statistic-loving Yank, no less! -- cheerleads for John Paul II in Westminster Cathedral. It´s an effective piece of stagecraft setting up Mr. Cornwell´s critique of the Pope and his leadership of the Church.

The problem is, I never said any of this in Westminster Cathedral. Not a word. I did lecture there this past March 7, and my subject was the achievement of John Paul II. The analysis was drawn in large part from the epilogue of Witness to Hope. Mr. Cornwell, evidently unwilling to engage the argument I was making that evening, took some soberly-narrated statistics from a previous section of the epilogue, put them into my mouth at Westminster Cathedral, and thus had his frothy opening scene.

John Cornwell might call it journalistic license. I call it being truth-challenged.

The laxity of Mr. Cornwell´s grasp on authorial ethics was depressingly clear in his previous potboiler, the grotesquely-named "Hitler´s Pope"; here, the problems began even before the reader got to the first page. The book´s cover photo was carefully cropped and blurred to suggest Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (who became Pius XII in 1939) leaving a meeting with the Nazi dictator. In fact, the photo, taken six years before Hitler came to power, was a picture of Pacelli leaving a 1927 reception for German president Hindenburg, and the soldiers wearing those familiar coal-scuttle helmets were an honor guard provided by the Weimar Republic, not the Third Reich (which didn´t exist at the time).

In "Hitler´s Pope," John Cornwell claimed to have been the first writer to gain access to certain Vatican archives. The claim is false; others had previously worked over the material Cornwell saw, and Cornwell had no access to materials previously unavailable to scholars. Cornwell also claimed that he had worked for "months on end" in the Vatican archives. As an official statement published in the Vatican newspaper rather delicately put it, "This statement does not correspond absolutely to truth, either." The records indicate that Cornwell´s research began in the archives on May 12, 1997 and concluded on June 2 of that year -- about three weeks. Moreover, Cornwell did not visit the archive every day during that period and when he did, he frequently stayed for short periods of time. A 1919 letter from Nuncio Pacelli, which Cornwell described as hidden for decades in the Vatican archives "like a timebomb," had in fact been previously published in 1992.

In "Breaking Faith" (neatly summarized by Father Richard Neuhaus as a book in which the author "explains how the Catholic Church has broken faith with his understanding of what the Catholic Church should be"), John Cornwell complains that Catholic writers engaged in "conservative media polemics" have engaged in "slander" against him by questioning the accuracy of his reporting on the Vatican, the Pope, and the world Church in his books and in the international press. Mr. Cornwell protests far too much. On the very first page of "Breaking Faith," indeed in the very first paragraph, he conjures up a fiction to fit his journalistic needs and has the temerity to call it fact.

Journalistic license? No, truth-challenged.