Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler

By Gerard Noel, 256 pages, Continuum Books.

This book has just enough going for it to keep a reader going until the end, when Gerard Noel punishes the faithful reader with ridiculous, condescending reflections on this pontiff. Catholics deserve a few good renditions of this complicated pope, but Noel, a writer and a journalist, ends up going way beyond his abilities of psychoanalysis.

His last few thoughts paint the pope as a pitiful, nutty old man with no critical self-awareness. The following words about the pope properly describe Hitler or Napoleon rather than Pius: “As time went on, Pacelli, monumentally conscious of his position as a man sent by God to save a deeply troubled world, came gradually but increasingly to inhabit a fantasy world. More and more, he feasted upon the image of himself as a demigod; a man above other men, the supreme arbiter of events. He was a sort of spiritual megalomaniac, and he was ever supremely conscious of himself as a man of destiny.”

Noel then decides in the next paragraph that he is going to save the late pontiff's reputation with his own psychologizing. The pope was a good man who didn't know what he was doing; Pius wasn't grounded in reality:

“Pacelli took his every action with the purest and loftiest of intentions. He was at no moment aware of himself as other than the divinely appointed guardian of the world's most precious heritage, being sometimes forced into terrible, heart-rending decisions for the greater good.”

As if the pope didn't have severe self-doubt and regrets. Pacelli for decades was in an impossible position. He was papal nuncio to Bavaria and Germany in the scary, unstable interwar period, and then as pope faced a bevy of dictators in Europe, from Franco and Salazar to Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. The Brits were weak, the French were wimps, and the Americans were distant and self-absorbed.

Noel plants ridiculous or rude thoughts about Pope Pius XII throughout The Hound of Hitler, but balances this with excellent research and knowledge about the intricacies of the papal curia. This often good writing, in addition to the mesmerizing, evil politics at the time, make this a book that can't be put down, even with Noel's failures.

For example, the interactions of the strong-headed personalities at the top of the Church are fascinating. While recuperating from stress-induced illness at Rorschach, Switzerland, the future Pope Pius was nursed back to physical and psychological health by a Bavarian nun who had taken the name of Pasqulina, often referred to as La Popessa.

She followed him back to Munich, where he was papal nuncio to Bavaria, and shaped up his household. She stayed with him throughout his diplomatic career, later arranging the parties in Berlin when all of Germany's elite and not-so-elite called on him. She became a powerful though unofficial figure at the Vatican after his election as pope, and stood up to the most powerful cardinals when she saw fit.

The Hound of Hitler is an eccentric read, as it has many good and many bad points, but its coverage of the evil politics of the twentieth century does add to our understanding of that topic.

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