New York Times Executive Editor and "collapsed Catholic" Bill Keller reviewed “Absolute Monarchs – A History of the Papacy” by John Julius Norwich --the cover review for the Times Sunday Book Review. The issue included an editorial note at the front of the magazine confessing the paper’s rough relationship with the Catholic Church (which Times Watch has documented).
Through the years, The New York Times’s coverage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican has received sharp criticism from practicing Catholics -- including the past eight years that Bill Keller has been the paper’s executive editor. Yet Keller, who wrote this week’s cover review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” by John Julius Norwich, was raised within the fold.
“My parents took their faith very seriously -- especially my mother, who had the fervor of a convert (from Episcopalian),” Keller recalled in an e-mail. “My brothers and I had nuns and priests as our teachers through high school, and I look back on that education with real gratitude. I’m now what my friend Dan Barry calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ -- beyond lapsed -- but you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing.”
In his review, Keller cited the church’s “long streak of anti-Semitism” and stated as fact the controversial argument that Pope Pius XII didn’t lift a finger to help the Jews during the Holocaust.
By the time we reach the 20th century, about 420 pages in, our expectations are not high. We get a disheartening chapter on Pius XI and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church’s long streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich’s view, redeemed himself by his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis. But his indictment of Pius XII -- who resisted every entreaty to speak out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz -- is compact, evenhanded and devastating. “It is painful to have to record,” Norwich concludes, “that, on the orders of his successor, the process of his canonization has already begun. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.”
That idea was popularized by John Cornwell’s 2000 book "Hitler's Pope," but many challenged Cornwell’s conclusions, notably Newsweek’s religion reporter Kenneth Woodward, who "not only called Cornwell's charge of Pope Pius's anti-Semitism 'bizarre,' but called the book 'a classic example of what happens when an ill-equipped journalist assumes the airs of sober scholarship...Errors of fact and ignorance of context appear on all most every page. Cornwell questions [Pope Pius's] every motive, but never doubts those who tell a different story. This is bogus scholarship, filled with nonexistent secrets, aimed to shock.'"