John Cornwell (writer)

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John Cornwell (born 1940) is an English journalist and author, and a Fellow Commoner of Jesus College, Cambridge. He is best known for various books on the papacy, including Hitler's Pope, as well as for his investigative journalism; memoir; and his work on the public understanding of science and philosophy. More recently he has been concerned with the relationship between science, ethics and the humanities. His most recent book, Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, is a biography of Cardinal Newman.

Early life[edit]

John Cornwell was born in East Ham, London, the son of Sidney Arthur Cornwell and Kathleen Egan Cornwell.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Cornwell entered the junior seminary, Cotton College, in 1953 intending to become a priest. He later wrote a memoir on his five years at Cotton.[1] He continued to the senior seminary, Oscott College, Sutton Coldfield, in 1958.

After leaving the seminary, in the 1960s Cornwell studied at St Benet's Hall, Oxford and Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1964 in English Language and Literature. While studying at Cambridge as a post-graduate student, he abandoned Catholicism and became an agnostic. He married a Catholic woman, however, who brought up their children as Catholics, and eventually, twenty years after leaving the Catholic faith, he returned to it.[2]

After leaving Cambridge, Cornwell taught in London schools, and at McMaster University, Ontario. He also spent time working for The Observer in London, being responsible for the newspaper's foreign syndication service. His first two books were novels: The Spoiled Priest, and Seven Other Demons. Two decades later he published a third novel, Strange Gods. In 1973 he published a critical biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge, Poet and Revolutionary, 1772–1804.

A Thief in the Night[edit]

His 1989 book A Thief in the Night investigates the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I, which was surrounded by conspiracy theories. Though Cornwell sharply criticised Vatican prelates, he concluded that the Pope was not murdered but died of a pulmonary embolism, possibly brought on by overwork and neglect.

Hitler's Pope[edit]

Main article: Hitler's Pope

In 1999, Cornwell published Hitler's Pope, in which he accuses Pope Pius XII of assisting in the legitimisation of the Nazi regime in Germany through the pursuit of a Reichskonkordat in 1933 and of remaining silent, like the Allies, after some information about the Holocaust was released to the public in late 1942 and early 1943.


Early reviews of the book were very positive. Writing in the Tablet, historian and author Owen Chadwick praised the book's scholarly approach and the abundance of new information Cornwell had managed to unearth.[3]

In 2004, Cornwell stated that Pius XII "had so little scope of action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war, while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by Germany. ... But even if his prevarications and silences were performed with the best of intentions, he had an obligation in the postwar period to explain those actions".[4][5] He similarly stated in 2008 that Pius XII's "scope for action was severely limited", but that "[n]evertheless, due to his ineffectual and diplomatic language in respect of the Nazis and the Jews, I still believe that it was incumbent on him to explain his failure to speak out after the war. This he never did."[6]

In his 2009 review of Roman Catholic priest-scholar Kevin P. Spicer's Hitler's Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism, he praises the book's admirable qualities but criticises the work for its failure to distinguish between the small minority of "brown priests", those priests who unequivocally supported the Nazi regime, with those who whom he considers to be "fellow travellers", i.e. accepting the benefits that came with the Reichskonkordat but who failed to condemn the Nazi regime at the same time. He cites Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) as being an example of a "fellow traveller" who was willing to accept the generosity of Hitler in the educational sphere (more schools, teachers and pupil places), so long as the Church withdrew from the social and political sphere, at the same time as Jews were being dismissed from universities and Jewish pupil places were being reduced. For this he considers Pacelli as effectively being in collusion with the Nazi cause, if not by intent. He further argues that Monsignor Kass, who was involved in negotiations for the Reichskonkordat, and at that time the head of the Roman Catholic Centre Party, persuaded his party members, with the acquiescence of Pacelli, in the summer of 1933 to enable Hitler to acquire dictatorial powers. He argues that the Catholic Centre Party vote was decisive in the adoption of dictatorial powers by Hitler and that the party's subsequent dissolution was at Pacelli's prompting.[7]

In 2004, Cornwell followed up Hitler's Pope with Hitler's Scientists.

A Pontiff in Winter[edit]

In 2004, Cornwell also published A Pontiff in Winter, a work critical of Pope John Paul II. Reviews of the book were often fiercely divided. James Carroll in The Washington Post said the book "dissects the record of John Paul II's pontificate with an informed, dispassionate and fully convincing authority".[8] Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Bates said: "John Cornwell has produced a devastating report. Catholics should read it, if not to change their views – though perhaps it should – then at least to inform them".[9] Other critics were less impressed however. Damian Thompson in The Daily Telegraph wrote that while, up to a point, the "early pages of The Pope in Winter are sympathetic", the book as a whole "is a hatchet job" and its "record of John Paul II's pontificate is often grotesquely biased".[10]

Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint[edit]

Published in 2010 by Continuum, this biography of Cardinal John Henry Newman coincided with renewed interest in the 19th century theologian and religious leader as a result of his beatification during the Papal visit by Pope Benedict XVI to England and Scotland. Philosopher Anthony Kenny in The Times Literary Supplement wrote that "Newman's Unquiet Grave is a substantial achievement...John Cornwell has taken on the task of writing a biography of Newman to make his life intelligible to the largely secular public which in a few weeks will watch on television the ceremony of his beatification. He has followed a via media between the hagiography of Meriol Trevor and the mockery of Lytton Strachey, and he has produced a Life which is readable, sympathetic and judicious... Altogether, he has succeeded in building up a vivid picture of Newman's personality."[11]

Science, Ethics and Humanities[edit]

Cornwell is also Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. This is a public understanding of science, medicine and ethics project. In this capacity, since 1990, he has brought together some scientists, philosophers, ethicists, authors and journalists to debate and discuss a range of topics. He criticised "reductionist brain science" for "its failure even to mention, let alone give an account of, human imagination".[12]

In two articles in 2006 and 2007, he criticised Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion for what he saw as an extremist tone and for alleged lapses in logic, imagination and understanding.[13][14] Cornwell followed up these articles with his book Darwin's Angel, published in 2007.

In 2003, he praised Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book, A Moral Reckoning.

In 2009, he was appointed founding Director of the Rustat Conferences, also based at Jesus College, Cambridge. The Rustat Conferences bring together academics with those from politics, business, the media and education to discuss the issues of the day in a roundtable format. The first two meetings in 2009 discussed the global Economic Crisis, and the Future of Democracy. The third Rustat Conferences meeting addressed Infrastructure and the Future of Society – infrastructure for energy security, cities of the future, and water.


  • The Spoiled Priest (1969)
  • Seven Other Demons (1971)
  • Coleridge, Poet and Revolutionary, 1772–1804: A Critical Biography (1973)
  • Earth to Earth: A True Story of the Lives and Violent Deaths of a Devon Farming Family (1982)
  • A Thief in the Night: The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I (1989)
  • Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light (1991)
  • Strange Gods (1993)
  • Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision (editor) (1995)
  • The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial (1996)
  • Consciousness and Human Identity (editor) (1998)
  • Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999)
  • Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People and the Fate of Catholicism (2001)
  • Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact (2004)
  • Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science (editor) (2004)
  • A Pontiff in Winter (2004)
  • Seminary Boy (2006)
  • Darwin's Angel (2007)
  • Philosophers and God: At the Frontiers of Faith and Reason (co-editor with Michael McGhee) (2009)
  • Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint (2010)
  • The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (2014)


  1. ^ Cornwell, John (2006). Seminary Boy. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-51486-7. 
  2. ^ Cornwell, Seminary Boy, p. 326.
  3. ^ Chadwick, Owen. "Review of Hitler's Pope". The Tablet. The Tablet. Retrieved 23 July 2013. 
  4. ^ "The Papacy", The Economist, 9 December 2004, p. 82-83.
  5. ^ John Cornwell, The Pontiff in Winter (2004), p. 193.
  6. ^ The Bulletin (Philadelphia, 27 September 2008
  7. ^ John Cornwell. Review of Hitler's Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism. By Kevin P. Spicer." in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, Volume 78, Issue Mar 2009, pp 235–237. Published online by Cambridge University Press, 20 February 2009.
  8. ^ James Carroll, "The Pope and His Legacy", The Washington Post, 30 January 2005.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Damian Thompson, "Is he on the side of the angels?", Daily Telegraph, 14 November 2004.
  11. ^ Anthony Kenny, "Was Cardinal Newman a Saint?", The Times Literary Supplement, 28 July 2010.
  12. ^ Chris McGillion, "Religion versus science might be all in the mind,, 29 April 2003.
  13. ^ John Cornwell, "A Christmas thunderbolt for the arch-enemy of religion". Times Online, 24 December 2006.
  14. ^ John Cornwell, "The importance of doubt", The Guardian, 30 August 2007.

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