November 2005

William Cobbett.  By G.K. Chesterton. House of Stratus. 92 pages. $14.99.

Walker Percy, a friend of the NOR, used to ask "Where are the Hittites?" His point was that history's "big hitters" have a way of disappearing on us. But the Jews, Percy observed, however threatened, are here to stay.

What's true of whole peoples is also true of authors. Question: "Where is Auguste Comte?" Answer: in history books, pigeonholed as a sociologist of the 19th century. For a contrast, consider: "Where is G.K. Chesterton?" Quite another matter. Yes, he's in the history books as an English writer and controversialist of the 20th century. But he's also quite well, and getting stronger, in today's Chesterton revival. And why should he not be? With pedagogic paradox, he proudly presents the deep truths of Catholicism.

So what has this to do with William Cobbett? He's not a household name, and maybe not even recognized as a chap in a history book. To begin, then, on the dry side: William Cobbett (1762?-1835) was an autodidact, an English social reformer, an agrarian witness of the Industrial Revolution, a visitor to the New World (where he was both friend and foe of Thomas Paine), an advocate for the common man, and finally a member of Parliament who serious politicos of every stripe studiously ignored.

On the delightful side, to which Chesterton introduces us, William Cobbett was a patriot who demanded a patria worthy of devotion, a conservative who spoke for what was worthy in rural English life, a populist (sometimes) in jail, and a journalist who told the truth, whilst favoring the nom de plume "Peter Porcupine." He was especially keen to tell the truth about industrial capitalism, a corrupt banking system, and London as "the great Wen" rather than the crown jewel of an increasingly sterile England.

Chesterton, for his part, also tells the truth about William Cobbett. His subject was wont "to attack people" and "in highly personal and ferocious manner," and even "guilty of readily thinking evil." Yet he was, in Chesterton's view, the kind of man of which his day -- and ours -- stands in need. Cobbett, he tells us, "could not help realizing an evil too large for most men to realize, let alone resist. It was as if he had been given an appalling vision, in which the whole land he looked at, dotted with peaceful houses and indifferent men, had the lines and slopes of a slow earthquake."

A final note. Some see Charles Dickens, another of G.K. Chesterton's biographical subjects, as a poor man's Shakespeare. We might, in turn, see William Cobbett as a poor man's Dickens. But he was unlike Dickens in one regard. As Dickens became more idolized, he also became less faithful to his wife, the mother of their ten children. As Cobbett became more vilified, he never lost hold of the key to his identity and vision: his wife and family and the life they shared. While not a Catholic, Cobbett lived a truth that the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church restates: "Without families that are strong in their communion and stable in their commitment peoples grow weak."

- James G. Hanink



The Pius War.  Edited by Joseph Bottum, David G. Dalin, and William Doino Jr. Lexington Books. 282 pages. $29.95.

This book deals with those authors who have been critical of Pope Pius XII's handling of the Holocaust. In his Introduction, Bottum may surprise the reader with this summary at the end of his opening paragraph: "It [the Pius War] was a long and arduous struggle, vituperative and cruel, but, in the end, the defenders of Pius XII won every major battle. Along the way, they also lost the war." While his focus is on the works which have come out in the last decade, that war has been waged since Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy burst upon the international scene in 1963 and, as Doino points out, by the Communists as early as the end of World War II. Certainly, in the short run, it may be clear that the Pope's defenders, who have won those battles in their reviews of books by the Pope's detractors, have "lost the war," but in the long perspective of history that is not necessarily so because one of the yardsticks of such a victory is whether or not the road to the canonization of Pius XII has been permanently closed.

Of course, Bottum has a basis for his view, in that it is now "fashionable" for most people to echo the canards and myths of the Pope's attackers. However, Owen Chadwick, the great Cambridge historian quoted in the book, gives another perspective: "You do not correct the legends…. The only thing that corrects them is more history, and history takes time, too long a time for people's comfort, but it is the nature of history that it is only little by little that the truth about the past is found." It is premature, given Chadwick's reflection, to declare that the war is over when history's judgment still awaits us.

Since those who have won the battles in the Pius War have been the reviewers, what this book first does is to present the more outstanding reviews. Of these, Rabbi Dalin's is unique. Published in The Weekly Standard in early 2001 in the midst of the controversy over Pius XII, it demolished the arguments of Pius's prime detractors (James Carroll, John Cornwell, Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, Garry Wills) who, as Dalin points out, lack "historical understanding" and are preoccupied with "an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists." While conceding that Jewish scholars (Guenter Lewy and Saul Friedlander) did not lack criticism of the Pope, Dalin recalls that more Jews (Martin Gilbert, Jenö Lévai, Joseph Lichten, Livia Rothkirchen, Michael Tagliacozzo, and especially Pinchas Lapide) have defended Pius.

Other reviewers expose like violations of the canons of historical research. Robert Louis Wilken, of the University of Virginia, demolishes the thesis of James Carroll's Constantine's Sword that there is a straight line of anti-Semitism from the New Testament to the Holocaust by showing that Carroll's work "is an effort not to understand but to use history to advance a tendentious agenda." In exposing Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, Ronald J. Rychlak, of the University of Mississippi, shows that Zuccotti's study tends to accept, uncritically, evidence against the Pope and to ignore evidence in his support. In "A New Syllabus of Errors," a review of Garry Wills's Papal Sin, Justin George Lawler of Continuum reveals a number of factual errors, thereby proving that Wills has not done his homework.

Other reviewers, too, win battles against Pius XII's critics. Kevin M. Doyle, a lawyer writing in the New Oxford Review (Jul.-Aug. 1998), underscores the failure of Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky to take into account in their study (The Hidden Encyclical) the "troublesome evidence" that would undermine their position. John Jay Hughes, a priest-historian of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, rakes Michael Phayer over the coals for his "tissue of half-truths, gross misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods brilliantly crafted to produce a frisson of horror and indignation in even the most jaded reader" with his study, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965. John S. Conway, of the University of British Columbia, deals with the joint commission of three Catholic and three Jewish scholars who, in the fall of 1999, began to examine the documents published by the Holy See only to fail within three years because, in the reviewer's words, "this is not the way to deal with history." Rainer Decker, a German historian, takes on John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, which distorts the evidence in its screed against the papacy of Pope John Paul II, especially in its failure to understand why Pius XII did not speak out more because he wanted, in Pius's words, "to avoid worse evils" for those opposed to Nazism. Cornwell's hatred of Pius XII is matched by Daniel Goldhagen's A Moral Reckoning, which Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute characterizes as a "new low" in bigotry which "ignores facts, testimonies and accounts that sharply contradict his version of events." Bottum, not unlike Dalin, gives a final review of all the works in the Pius War, concluding that the trouble between the defenders and the detractors of Pius XII in his relations with the Nazis is due to "anachronism," that is, the failure to perceive the documents of the past as they were perceived at that time, not as they are perceived today.

Henceforth, any scholar interested in writing the definitive biography of Pope Pius XII must deal with this work.

- Vincent A. Lapomarda, S.J.





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