It is hard to know the exact purpose of this new volume. Is it intended to critique current calls for wholesale reform within institutional Catholicism or is it primarily intended to walk the reader through the maze of discussion regarding the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust?
Certainly some of the current writers (e.g, Wills, Cornwell, Carroll) dealing with Pius XII and the Holocaust have an underlying agenda of church reform. I myself have criticized such attempted links in my review of several of the works that fall under Lawler's scrutiny. In the end, the volume seems far more concerned about the reform of the Catholic Church than about the current controversy over Pius XII's papacy. Lawler argues that the current "reformers" lack the depth and commitment of his ideal reformers, i.e., John Henry Newman, Bernard Haring, Yves Congar, Bernard Lonergan and Henri de Lubac.
Lawler quickly dismisses the works of Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti (on the left) and Ralph McInerny and Margherita Marchione (on the right). But he hardly does justice to their writings. This is even more the case with respect to his putdown of the book by Pierre Blet, S.J. on Pius XII. While I have serious reservations about some of Blet's conclusions, the docu- mentary evidence he has assembled as a Vatican archivist must be included in any serious analysis of Pius XII's papacy. I stand far more on the side of Phayer and Zuccotti (though not without some reservations regarding each of their works) than with Marchione and McInerny whose writings show an unwarranted defensive interpretation of Pius XII's response to the Holocaust. And I would be highly critical of Marchione's "canonization" in certain Vatican and episcopal quarters in matters related to Pius XII. But even Marchione has something to contribute to the discussion. And Phayer and Zuccotti who never get into the issue of church reform deserve a far more thoughtful evaluation of their work than Lawler provides.
One of Lawler's stated goals for this volume is to cut through the inflated rhetoric in the current debate over Pius XII. The recent volume by Jose Sanchez Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy succeeds far better at this. Lawler calls the late German theologians Charlotte Klein "biased" in her treatment of Karl Rahner's position on the Jewish question without ever discussions the sections from Rahner's writings that she used as a basis of her evaluation. Many of the architects of Vatican II, despite the greatness of their respective contributions, had a blind spot with regards to Jews and Judaism. To say this is not to diminish their significant contributions to conciliar reform.
It is interesting to note that the book carries no endorsements from scholars who have been central to the discussion of the Holocaust. While I admire the three endorsers (Charles E. Curran, Margaret A. Farley and Francis Schussler Fiorenza), none has ever done any serious work in Holocaust studies. One example of Lawler's weakness in terms of Holocaust literature is his highly positive appreciation of the work of Daniel John Goldhagen without ever mentioning the severe critique of Goldhagen's work by a host of respected Holocaust scholars and the very negative reaction towards Goldhagen's recent essay on the Catholic Church in The New Republic (which will be the basis of a new book) that castigated the Catholic Church over the centuries for its attitudes towards the Jews in ways that go far beyond the canons of sound scholarship. And his defense of Pius XII on the question of the Nazi invasion of Poland is simplistic to the extreme and fails to cite any of the available scholarly material on the topic.
As a volume dealing with Holocaust questions I give Lawler's volume a failing grade. Regarding the question of church reform, which in the end appears to be the primary thrust of the book, Lawler does make some significant points, particularly in terms of his critique of Gary Wills whose writings assume a place of great prominence in this volume Lawler's call for a return to genuine episcopal leadership over against current trends of centralization in the Vatican is a very valid critique of John Paul II's papacy. But the discussion of reform is marked by constant references to literary figures and to historical events. Certainly Lawler's has a good grasp of both fields, especially the literary. But these references serve only to obscure the main arguments regarding necessary reform. And on occasion, Lawler dismisses contentions by Wills and others about the "structures of deceit" in the Catholic Church. Certainly the current sexual abuse controversy is one glaring example of the reality of such structures. Another, more directly related to the Holocaust, is the imposition of false information about the number of Catholic rescuers of Jews in the Vatican document on the Shoah by the office of the Secretary of State, something Cardinal Edwatd Cassidy, principal author of that important document, has said publicly he had to accept as a condition for the approval of the document by the Secretariat. Certainly Wills may be criticized for overplaying this issue, but to dismiss his contentions out of hand is simply to ignore actual reality on Lawler's part.
The concluding section of the volume is the best part of the volume. Entitled "Beyond the Politics of Rancor II: The Vagaries of Institutional Renovation" it offers some sound observations based on the insights of Lawler's heroes of reform such as Haring. If only the rest of the book had been written in such a tone Popes and Politics would have made a significant contribution to the discussion of reform in contemporary Catholicism. Lawler certainly has important knowledge and experience to draw upon for such an endeavor. .
Lawler is neither a staunch defender of Pius XII nor of the church. He acknowledges the major failings of both. I have a sense that he believes that Pius XII was not quite the right person to lead the papacy in the midst of the challenge of the Holocaust, an observation shared with me by an American Cardinal in a recent conversation. Lawler has contributed little to the search for a properly nuanced evaluation of Pius XII's stance during the Nazi era and only very modestly to the discussion regarding proper directions for reform in today's Catholicism.