The future is like the past. And the past is like the future.
This is a fascinating book by an academic church historian, using the Vatican archives to show how it responded to the rise of Nazism and the reality of the Third Reich. It provides - perhaps unwittingly - insight into how the central bureaucracy of a totalitarian organisation functioned in the 1920s and 1930s and - no doubt - still functions today. There are obvious parallels between the way in which the Vatican has handled its recent sex abuse scandals and the way in which it handled its relations with Nazi Germany, in both cases always deciding in favour of institutional self-interest.
At first, I thought the author must be writing tongue in cheek, ironically, in taking us through the handling of matters about which priests in rather expensive black gowns get excited - female gymnastics in the case of the future Pope Pius XII. But by the end, I suspect not.
The Vatican as we know it was Mussolini's creation. He acceded to the Church's demand to remove itself from the jurisdiction of national civil and criminal law by granting it recognition as a state, able to send ambassadors all over the world, issue passports and postage stamps, but above all, able to claim immunity when threatened with action for the crimes of its leaders.
But its bogus claim to statehood is only one of the sources which nurtures the Vatican's irresponsibiliy. The other source is its unaccountability for the use to which it puts the funds furnished by the faithful. Hubert Wolf describes in detail what Vatican bureaucrats do with their time. So many bureaucrats, so much time on their hands. If God hadn't invented committees for them, they would have surely done so themselves.
It is in this area that I locate Wolf's lack of wider vision. As a church historian, he is above discussing the Vatican as an organisation where money, power and influence operate as in any organisation, only - because of its totalitarian character - more so.
Nor is it his job to moralise. I am free to do that. For me, the central question is this: Is the Vatican, as an organisation, a force for Good or Evil? (I am not a relativist and I am happy to use those terms).
I answer that it is a force for Evil, always ready to persecute, even excommunicate , those of its members who show too much humanity - as long as they have no worldly power. Always ready to accommodate to the powerful, to bow down to worldly power. Hitler was never excommunicated - a topic Wolf throws away lightly in his closing pages.
Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican. Only this year, all our politicians grovelled to Pope Benedict on a state visit got up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Standing up to the Vatican begins with withdrawing diplomatic recognition. No more Papal Nuncios scurrying around organising the bishops to fight the British version of Modernism. Wolf gives a detailed and fascinating account of what Nuncios - among whom the future Pius XII - got up to in the 1920s. I don't believe anything will have much changed. Read this book, and you won't want a Nuncio in your own back yard.
Postscript: "Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican". I forgot the recent action of the Belgain authorities who raided the Catholic bishops and archbishops, laptops and all, daring to treat them as subject to Belgian law. The indignation in the Vatican was intense: that our priests sexually abuse children is no business of the police!
Originally published on my Blog, The Best I Can Do, 8 November 2010