Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich

This week I'm talking about a book that covers the history of the papacy from its alleged foundation in the first century CE to the reign of the (then-current) pope Benedict XVI. To cover roughly two thousand years of history is no small task in and of itself. On top of that since the men who are elected pope are, usually, rather old men their reigns vary from in some cases a few weeks to equally rarely a few decades. The result is a bit of a whirlwind as Norwich attempts to give a very brief overview of the papacy over hundreds of years and also has to provide necessary historical context. The Great Schism, Investiture, the Italian Wars, and more are all mentioned at least briefly. And in the end I'm not sure if I'm satisfied with the result.

In terms of this being an overview, I think it's all right. I certainly haven't read many books on the history of the papacy, aside from perhaps the Investiture dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Crusades. So there are plenty of things I wasn't aware of that I learned about from this book. As I said, it's very much a whirlwind view because entire books can be written about just a short period of time or just one pope. So while Norwich doesn't go terribly deep in a lot of places, he certainly manages to be very broad throughout.

Plus it's pretty interesting to see, at least as Norwich argues it, how the papacy moves from being just a spiritual power to also being a temporal power because of the overall breakdown of government in the western Roman Empire as various Germanic tribes begin to move into the area. I definitely get the impression that it started purely as something out of necessity and then became a bit of a bad habit as time went on. Although it's also frustrating to see the papacy struggling to remain relevant in a changing world and as Norwich presents it, seeing it fail more often than not in that quest.

My biggest concern is I'm not sure exactly how impartial Norwich is during his writing of this book. He seems to veer very strangely between deep respect and unmitigated scorn for the papacy throughout the book, and weirdly enough he takes almost opposite positions on a couple of the more famous popes. What I first noticed was his almost absolute assumption that St. Peter was a real person and actually the first Bishop of Rome. Or at least he presents the tradition that assumes St. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome as close to historical fact, which makes discerning his own opinion difficult. Personally I cannot say for certain whether St. Peter existed or not, and whether he went to Rome and became Bishop or not. Or if, as tradition maintains, he was crucified upside down. (Fun note, an inverted cross is a symbol of absolute humility before Christ, rather than of the anti-Christ. Although considering people use it as a symbol for Satan/the anti-Christ/whathaveyou I guess you could debate it has become such a symbol de facto.) Anyway, as one of those pesky atheists I don't tend to swallow such traditions as absolute definite fact and it bothers me to have it presented as such. But that's just my own personal hold up.

Another good example is his section about Alexander III. For those of you who aren't aware, Alexander III was one of the Borgia popes and was well known for his immorality and extravagances, including numerous parties with the prostitutes of Rome. Jesus may have eaten with sinners and tax collectors, but I hardly think that was what he had in mind. Generally speaking, Alexander III goes down as one of the ''bad'' popes; regardless of how much art he may have sponsored, the man still had people assassinated. However, Norwich advances an argument that Alexander III wasn't all that bad. He points to the art as one example, and also points to numerous things Alexander III did to make the papacy one of the modern Italian states involved in the various Italian wars between France, Spain, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and Sicily. However I think this largely depends on whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing. If you're merely looking at the Papal States as a nation, this organization of power and ability to influence big players certainly looks good. But if you're looking at the Papal States as the moral and spiritual leader of Europe, then this is a very bad case because the papacy becomes just one more state among many jockeying for power.

A more recent example is Pius XII, who was pope during World War II and after his death was put on the fast track for sainthood, although his case appears to have stalled at beatification. Pius XII has been the subject of some controversy because of his fairly muted indictment of the Nazis during the war, especially when there's strong evidence Pius XII was aware that atrocities and crimes against humanity were being committed. Norwich for his part takes Pius XII to task and boldly accuses Pius of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. He also portrays Pius as a bitter reactionary, refusing to modernize the Church as society continues to develop in new and sometimes unanticipated ways. On the other hand, there hasn't been any strong arguments made by the Church against Pius which would prevent him from attaining sainthood, given sufficient miracles. People also tend to argue that while Pius would have liked to speak out against the Nazis, he simply wasn't in a position to do so, being surrounded by Mussolin's fascist Italy and effectively under siege. Honestly I don't know enough about the man to say one way or the other and I think I'm ultimately more confused than I was.

And getting even more recently, Norwich is not above calling John Paul II for a variety of his policies, such as his vehemence against birth control, his policy of anti-communism, and as Norwich describes it, his attempt to saint everything that moves. Norwich gets especially testy on the sainthood subject, pointing out that John Paul II created more saints during his term as pope than all the popes of the last five hundred years had done combined. Norwich seems to be genuinely offended that so many saints were created, and he seems to believe that it has cheapened the institution of sainthood. And criticizing John Paul II certainly comes with a fair amount of controversy, considering how well-loved John Paul II was in life despite his various shortcomings.

Ultimately I'm left with some serious doubts about this book. Norwich doesn't seem terribly unbiased as a historian which is probably shading his interpretations and narrative, but how much I can't really say because I'm by no means an expert on the subject. It's certainly ambitious in its scope and its attempt to cover the entire papacy, but I'm worried it falls short.

- Kalpar

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