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Book Review 253: A Dark History: The Popes

September 29, 2012 - Harry Eagar
A DARK HISTORY: THE POPES: Vice, Murder and Corruption in the Vatican, by Brenda Ralph Lewis. 256 pages, illustrated. Metro.

A lavishly illustrated coffee table book about the crimes of popes is one of publishing's odder byways. Brenda Lewis, a hack if ever there was one, did this for a British publisher, and in Britain there are still a lot of fanatical anti-Catholics, so perhaps that explains it.

What audience American republisher Metro was aiming for is more difficult to guess.

Apparently British publisher Amber has a series of “Dark Histories,” since Lewis has also done “Kings and Queens.”

This volume is a fairly dark incident in the history of publishing. There is plenty of crime in the Vatican to write about, but Lewis manages to both overstate and understate it.

There are chapters on the violence in Rome in the 9th and 10th centuries, on the centuries-long witchhunts, on the Borgias, on the persecution of Galileo, on the antimodernism of the 19th century Vatican and on the relationship of the Vatican to Naziism in the 20th century.

Nothing about the Vatican's war on Jews.

In the context of religion, the Borgias don't belong. Unlike the 9th-century or 19th-century popes, the Borgias never presented their misdeeds as expressions of the morality of Christian teaching.

There is also not a word about the murder, corruption and sexual violence promoted by the Vatican in present days.

It is perhaps not necessary to state that a coffee-table book about Vatican crimes is superficial, but there is a jarring change of tone when Lewis comes to Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, and the Vatican's relations to the greatest political issues of the 20th century.

After smearing pope after pope (deservedly), she switches gears and whitewashes Pacelli's fellow-traveling with fascism.

She is clumsy about this. Not a word about Falangism and the Vatican's alliance with German and Italian fascism in Spain.

Just a list of all the things Pacelli supposedly did for the Jews. This list is more or less phony, but as with Spain, it is what Lewis leaves out that makes the book so smarmy.

The pope had no army, so Pacelli's options were limited by that. It can be, and has been, argued endlessly what his motives were, and, depending upon what they were, whether his strategy was either worthy or effective. (Well, it certainly was not effective., so that part of the argument is largely bogus.)

But there was a place in Europe where the pope did, in effect, have an army, where his writ ran, where he could have saved Jews with a quiet word: Croatia.

He didn't.


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