Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book Review - The Popes : a history by John Julius Norwich

The Popes : a history by John Julius Norwich

London : Chatto & Windus, 2011      ISBN 978070182908

Having recently returned from a trip to the Eternal City, and realising what I knew about the history of the Roman Catholic Church merely scratched the surface, I found this book filled some of the gaps, as well as being a rollicking read. Norwich has taken on a massive task - trying to compress nearly two thousand years of history into a readable five hundred pages - and within the limits he's set himself, he has been successful.

Those limits do, however, limit the book. I quote from the Introduction - "This book is essentially political, cultural and, up to a point, social. There are moments, from time to time, when basic matters of doctrine cannot be avoided.....but as far as possible I have tried to steer well clear of theology, on which I am in any case unqualified to pronounce." He goes on to write that, being a book for that mythical creature, the "average intelligent reader", this book breaks no new ground in scholarship.

While to my mind a book about the head of the Roman Catholic Church that does not delve into doctrine is a bit like cauliflower without the cheese sauce, this is still an interesting and worthwhile tome. Norwich starts with Saint Peter, and works chronologically up to Benedict XVI, sometimes skipping forward some years to the next interesting phase in the development of the institution of the Papacy.

The first years of the Papacy are sometimes more myth than history, and Norwich is at pains to point out when he can't be certain of what he's writing, but that doesn't stop him relating an aprocryphal story if it's a good one - he devotes a chapter to Pope Joan, even though he's conclusive about the fact that she never existed.

Most of the small amount of doctrinal discussion occurs in the early part of the book, when the Papacy battled various heresies, and the Schism between Eastern and Western Churches began - something that Norwich shows the Popes have tried to remedy without success for the last thousand years.

With the decline of the Western Empire, and with the Eastern Church breaking away, the Papacy was the remaining major institution left in Italy, and so their spiritual power moved into the temporal sphere, with the Pope being the spiritual ruler of all Christians, and the temporal ruler of a growing number of states, both in Italy and other countries.

The Middle Ages saw the Papacy become at times the plaything of powerful families and become involved in diplomacy between Kings and Emperors. The men that sat on the throne of St. Peter reflected those times. Many were given almost fully over to temporal works, and some not choosing to fulfil any but the most basic of their religious duties.

A lot of what Norwich writes anyone with any interest in the Papacy of those times will already know - the scheming, the power-plays, the corruption and nepotism - the list goes on. What Norwich's narrative does lay out is how this was not the norm for the whole Medieval / Renaissance period: from time to time highly devout people, monks and even occasionally hermits, ascended to the throne. Sometimes these Divines made the office more Holy, sometimes they were the creatures of those more worldly people around them, and sometimes they were a leopard that changed their spots on election and became everything they weren't beforehand.

Norwich describes how having the wrong Popes at the wrong time helped both the English and Continental Reformation gather steam, and how the Age of Reason led to a gradual diminishment of the Pope's power in both spheres. With a very limited ability to raise funds, a lot of which was spent on nepotism and grandiose building projects, the ability of the Pope to militarily defend his lands became more and more limited as time rolled on. With the other states of Italy constantly being horse-traded by the nobility of Europe, the Papal States were under pressure for many hundreds of years, their survival being due solely to the diplomatic abilities of the Pope and the Curia.

Gradually the Papal States were lost, and the Papacy itself became beholden to whichever despot held or threatened Rome. When the Risorgimento united Italy, the Papacy was left with no earthly possessions at all. In fact anti-clericalism became the norm in Italy, with the Papacy under pressure from all sides. It seems bizarre to write, but it was the Fascists that gave the Papacy a lifeline, with the Lateran Treaty, signed by Mussolini creating Vatican City, making Roman Catholicism the state church, and offering the Holy See a regular income. Norwich gives a very good brief account of what was not the Papacy's finest moment. (Incidentally Norwich has made a blunder here, placing Mussolini's death two years earlier than it actually occurred).

In bringing his story to the present Norwich deals briefly with Vatican II, and the death of John Paul I (not murder, according to him).

This book is a great read - as well as the history of the Popes, we get a potted history of European nobility, Italy, and the building and re-building of Rome. While Norwich probably made the right decision to avoid the religious side, given his avowed lack of expertise in the area, it is a lack in this book which means I can't recommend it as the only book to read on the Papacy - it is, however, a great place to start.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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