Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Norwich's Absolute Monarchs: A History Of The Papacy'

Odiously anti-Semitic Pius XII leaves a sitdown with Hitler
There have been 265 Roman Catholic popes, 266 if you count Pope Joan, who existed only in the popular imagination in the Middle Ages, and these don't count various usurpers, interlopers and antipopes. To paraphrase Longfellow, some of the real popes were good, some were bad and some were horrid.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that my view of the modern Roman Catholic church and is somewhere south of horrid. The Holy See has utterly failed in dealing with its twin crises of the new millennium -- the pedophile priest scandal and homosexuality in the priesthood and among the laity -- while raising the church's hypocrisy, and in some cases criminality, to unholy levels.

But I approached John Julius Norwich's recently published Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy with a semi open mind and the prayerful hope that this esteemed British historian would provide an overview that might soften my animus. If you stick around to the end of this review, you'll find out what I concluded.

Absolute Monarchs is a history light on theology and heavy on the political, cultural and social aspects of the Papacy, which is the longest continuing absolute monarchy in the world and is as old as Christianity itself. All other Christian religions, and there are a staggering 22,000 or so, are offshoots or deviations from the Roman Catholic Church.

The first pope, of course, was Peter (AD 33-64/67), who neither founded the church, let alone founded it on a rock, nor even spent much time in Rome, where he was or was not martyred. I guess you had to start somewhere.

As it is, Norwich hop scotches . . . no, make that rollicks through two millenniums of popes at breakneck speed, pausing only when a particular pontiff interests him. These include:

Vigilius (537-555), who upon learning that a rival was usurping the papal succession, had him kidnapped. Vigilius tried to unify the many disparate elements of the church scattered throughout Christendom. He failed, and for his efforts spent long stretches of his Papacy under house arrest or in exile.

As had Vigilius, Gregory I (590-604) failed to unify the church but was one of the most formidable popes (and the first monk to become pope), bringing new direction and great integrity to the office, which he declared to be the supreme authority within the church as the ancient world verged on collapse. The church by now was the single largest landowner in the West, but Gregory though nothing of selling off vast estates to feed the poor and raise armies to defend Rome and Naples.

Gregory -- or Gregory the Great as history has come to know him -- was the first pope to engage in missionary work, and by the end of his tenure several European rulers, as well as King Ethelbert of England, had converted. He also introduced traditional plainsong into the liturgy. We know it today as the Gregorian chant.

Leo III (795-861) occupied the throne of St. Peter during an era of turmoil as the Persian Empire engulfed lands from Afghanistan to the Punjab to the Middle East to North Africa and much of southwestern Europe, destabilizing the farthest outposts of the church.

Charles, King of the Franks and later known as Charlemagne, literally rode to the rescue and Leo placed the imperial crown of Rome upon his head on Christmas morning 800. Despite that remarkable act -- "the pope would fight for the faith while Charlemagne would wield the sword," in Norwich's words, the pope was an unremarkable man. Go figure.

(A time out for the aforementioned St. Joan, a mid-ninth century Englishwoman who, according to the hoary legend, disguised herself as a man, became pope and got caught out only when she . . . uh, gave birth. The church, determined not to be fooled again, required subsequent papal candidates to be groped by a junior cleric who would confirm that he had testicles.)

As the grandson of Marozia, one of the most shameless debauchees of her age, John XII (937-964) came by his passions for gambling and every kind of sexual license honestly. Enough said about him.

Gregory VII (1073-1085) was one of the great reformers of the Holy See but to the people of Rome was viewed as extraordinarily arrogant. His papacy was threatened by his excommunication of King Henry IV of Germany, but the Normans saved him, and Gregory's longest lasting accomplishment was declaring that kings and emperors would defy the Papacy at their peril.

The only English pope was Hadrian IV (1154-1159). Hardian was a reformer from the get-go, and he towers over the mediocrities who occupied the Throne of St. Peter during the first half of the 12th century even if in the end he was unsuccessful in subduing the restive Roman Senate.

Alexander III
(1159-1181) and Innocent III (1198-1216 ) were two of the greatest medieval popes and their accomplishments tower over those of the five mediocrities who occupied the throne in the 17 years that separated them. Both were genuinely loved and Innocent had that rarest of qualities -- a sense of humor. He also ordered the Fourth Crusade, which against his orders attacked Constantinople, resulting in the forced reunion of Eastern and Western churches, and objected strenuously to the signing of the Magna Carta.

After a 73 year interregnum in Avignon because of the conflict between the Vatican and the French crown, the Papacy returned to Rome in 1378 but then began the Western Schism, a political (as opposed to theological) split that lasted until 1417 during which two men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Then came Martin V (1417-1431), who is considered to be the first Renaissance pope.

Rome was still a cultural and artistic backwater when Nicholas V (1447-1455) become pope, and his lasting achievement was the creation of what became the nucleus of the Vatican Library and setting in motion the stabilization and enlargement of St. Peter's into the magnificent edifice it is today, including laying the broad avenues familiar to pilgrims to the Holy See.

As historical as the year 1492 was, what with the end of the Moorish kingdom and the unwitting discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, it ushered in a nightmarish era of popes that Norwich unhesitatingly calls "monsters."

These included Julius II (1503-1513), known as "The Fearsome Pope" who although an educated man and a patron of the arts, was a soldier at heart. When Michelangelo suggested that Julius put a book in the pope's left hand as he worked on a 14-foot bronze statue of him, he replied, "Nay, give me a sword, for I am no scholar," and indeed as pontiff he led armies in battle.

Leo III (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534) were known as the Medici Popes because they were members of the powerful Florentine family.

Norwich says that Leo was less a pope than a renaissance prince and was openly homosexual. No orgies, mind you, everything was kept very tasteful. Clement refused to allow the annulment of Henry VIII's first marriage and Rome had to endure another sacking (a total of seven from ancient times on by most historians' count) as a result.

Urban VIII (1623-1644) was a friend of Galileo and even wrote a poem in the great astronomer's honor, but push came to shove and he was forced to communicate him because of his advocacy of heliocentrism, which contrary to the church's teaching stated that the sun and planets did not rotate around the Vatican. Rome was not sacked.

As the 17th century dawned, the Papacy confronted a new enemy. This was the outset of the Age of Reason, which would beget the Age of Enlightenment, which writ short was the view that all knowledge can be gained by the power of reason alone, hence the church and the Bible were not what they were cracked up to be.

Not one to take the marginalization of the church lying down, Benedict XIV (1769-1774) moved aggressively to reassert its influence in his own way.

Norwich writes that he was genial and approachable and once met the visiting King of Naples not in his palace but a neighborhood coffeehouse. A deeply learned theologian and church lawyer, Benedict wrote what is still the standard work on canonization and was extraordinarily liberal for his time or any other, among other things regularizing mixed marriages so a Catholic, for example, could wed a Christian of the Eastern rite or a Maronite. Jews, of course, were out.

The upheavals in Europe that characterized much of the 18th century had abated as Pius VII (1800-1823) took the throne, but then seemingly out of left field loomed a new adversary -- Napoleon Bonaparte, whom for most cardinals was an antichrist who represented the French Revolution that had persecuted the church, stolen its property and massacred its priests.

Then things went from bad to worse as French armies surrounded the Holy See and then occupied Rome, with Pius held prisoner in the Quirinal and under intense pressure to abdicate all of his temporal power. Once again the papal seat was transferred to France, but only until Napoleon was arrested and exiled to Elba. When Pius died he left the church in a far better state than that in which he had found it.

As is obvious by now, the work of every moderate or even liberal pope was eventually countermanded, and so it was with Pius IX (1846-1878), an intolerant reactionary who never met an inquisition he didn't like.

(1878-1913) dragged the church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. His greatest accomplishment, Norwich writes, was not political or diplomatic but sociological and he was the first pope to face up to the fact that the industrial age had spawned an immense working class that was the responsibility of the church, which had largely ignored it.

This now regrettably bring us to Pius XII (1939-1958), a photo of whom adorns the top of this book review for a very good and deeply personal reason: This odious anti-Semite and racist presided over the church during World War II, the greatest political and humanitarian crisis in history.

Pius, in all likelihood, could not have dissuaded Hitler from exterminating 6 million human beings, most of them Jews and some of them relatives. But he not only never tried, he coddled Der Fuhrer, a reality that the Vatican has tried to paper over in the half century since his tenure with the feeble explanation that Pius was fearful of Communism.

Once again the pendulum swung back with the elevation of John XXIII (1958-1963), who convened the Second Vatican Council, which addressed relations between the church and the modern world. John, known as "The Good Pope," opened up the church to the 20th century. Never mind that it already was half over.

John Paul II (1978-2005) was the first Polish pope and first non-Italian pope in 455 years. His tenure was notable for his outreach to other denominations and tireless world travels.

John Paul's funeral was presided over by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI (2005-). Norwich writes that he has gotten off to a distinctly shaky start, and writes at the conclusion of Absolute Monarchs that:

"All that can be said is that Pope Benedict will prove better than many of his predecessors, worse than others, and that after nearly two thousand years, and despite the atmosphere of agnosticism that prevails in much of the world today, the Roman Catholic church -- with its two billion members, representing as it does half of all Christians and about one-sixth of the global population -- is, despite everything, flourishing as perhaps it has never flourished before. If he could see it now, St. Peter would -- I think -- be proud indeed."

As promised, my own conclusion:

As another reviewer of this book has noted, sinners are more entertaining than saints, and Norwich had a great deal of material to work with, while the pedophile priest abuses that have belatedly come to light and been dealt with so poorly by Benedict XVI have been a back story in the history of the church for most of its existence.

That so noted, I found a great deal to admire in a surprisingly (to me) large number of popes, including but not limited to Gregory I, Nicholas V, Leo XIII and, it should go without saying, John XXIII and John Paul II.

Now if the Roman Catholic Church would truly enter the modern age.

IMAGES (From top): Peter, Gregory, Joan, Alexander III,
Innocent III, Julius II, Benedict IV,
Leo III, Pius XII,
John XXIII, Benedict XVI.

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