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An "agnostic Protestant" may not necessarily be the best choice to write a history of the papacy.

By From the October 2011 issue

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Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy
By John Julius Norwich
(Random House, 528 pages, $30)

In his eccentric history of the papacy, Absolute Monarchs, John Julius Norwich is just hitting his stride when he mentions in passing the "hideous persecutions… instituted by the violently anti-Christian Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher-emperor who should have known better."

Now think about that for a minute. Norwich is a popular historian; by his own admission he is no scholar. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher. Here the popularizer presumes to instruct the philosopher on how he should have approached a question of belief. It apparently does not occur to Norwich that Marcus Aurelius might have had good reasons to fear the growth of Christianity--reasons that he, Norwich, fails to grasp.

Notice, too, how lightly Norwich airily suggests that the philosopher-emperor "should have known
better"--as if persecution were the sort of regrettable offense that might be committed by a naughty schoolboy. The same determinedly superficial attitude will be in evidence throughout Absolute Monarchs. And this passage appears on page 13, with 455 pages to go. Steel yourself.

IT IS NOT CLEARY WHY Norwich chose to write a history of the papacy. A devout Catholic might treat the papacy with reverence, while an ardent Protestant might compare the Roman institution to the Whore of Babylon. But an "agnostic Protestant," the description that Norwich chooses for himself, has no clear frame of reference. The author is skeptical about nearly every claim put forward for the papacy, the Catholic Church, and the Christian faith. He is not sure that St. Peter ever actually made it to Rome. Indeed he is not sure that Jesus intended to establish a Church. But if the reader holds these beliefs, Norwich will not oppose them. One has the impression that he doesn’t really care about questions of faith, as Marcus Aurelius did. He just wants to tell a story.

And what a story it is! Norwich roars through 2,000 years of errors and frustrations, schemes and setbacks, venality and failure. His history focuses on the political side of the papacy: the constant maneuvering for power and influence, the shifting alliances with political powers. Absolute Monarchs is absolutely the wrong title for this book; Norwich takes great delight in showing how many Roman pontiffs desperately sought support from earthly potentates. As he tells the story, one pope after another needed help from powerful Roman families or European emperors. As often as not the pontiffs failed to win the necessary support, and in a remarkable number of cases they conveniently die, sorely disappointed, as soon as Norwich has finished recounting their political failures.

Other historians have exposed the corruption that has undoubtedly tainted the papacy: the bribery and the assassinations, the mistresses and catamites, the sales of indulgences, the red hats for bastard sons. Serious Catholics and Protestants might disagree on the value of the papacy, yet agree that Rodrigo Borgia disgraced the institution. Norwich, never emotionally engaged with this subject, merely reports the vices of the Renaissance popes, sine ira et studio. It’s just all part of the story, and if you want to know the significance of the story--well, you’ll need to read another book.

Norwich the amateur historian does not try to stir the reader’s outrage against the scoundrels who have sat on Peter’s throne. But Norwich the popular writer cannot resist the lure of debunked myths about the papacy, even when he realizes that they are false. He realizes that the tales of a female "Pope Joan" are bunk, yet he devotes an entire chapter to the subject, giving the myth plenty of play before he disowns it. He airs the wild conspiracy theories about the alleged murder of Pope John Paul I in 1978 before quietly owning, in a footnote, that he does not believe them.

Page after page, chapter after chapter, Absolute Rulers recounts the conflicts between Roman pontiffs and other European leaders. In the early chapters the main conflict is between Roman and Byzantium, and Norwich, whose sympathies are clearly with the East, can barely suppress his wonder at the fact that Rome rather than Constantinople emerged as the acknowledged hub of the Christian world. Yet he notes that St. John Chrysostom, the most illustrious bishop of Constantinople, deferred to the bishop of Rome. Apparently St. John, like Marcus Aurelius, noticed something that has escaped Lord Norwich.

Yes, it is true that many early popes (and not a few later ones) had trouble differentiating themselves from the other political figures who surrounded them. But on their good days--and there were many good days, even if Norwich does not recognize them--the Roman pontiffs recognized that they were not politicians, but vicars of Christ, who had announced that his Kingdom is not of this world and his power is not earthly power.

Generations of history students have heard how a penitent Henry II stood barefoot in the snow at Canossa, waiting patiently for Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication. "In fact, Gregory’s triumph was empty and ephemeral, and Henry knew it," writes Norwich, who goes on to show that Henry continued to plague Gregory for years after that dramatic encounter. Nonsense! At Canossa, the pope clearly established that whatever political power a king might wield, he could not match the moral authority of Peter’s successor. Some 935 years later, Lord Norwich still has not grasped that lesson.

Because he takes so little interest in religious affairs, Norwich does not pay much attention to the theological underpinning for the belief that the Bishop of Rome is the Vicar of Christ. He skips lightly through the Christological disputes of the early Church, the disastrous split between Rome and Constantinople, and the Protestant Reformation. All these subjects are covered briefly, whereas the political machinations of the Vatican are given exhaustive treatment. In this history of the papacy--which is perforce a history of the Catholic Church--Napoleon Bonaparte is a far more prominent figure than Martin Luther.

"POPE PIUS V lived for just seven months after Lepanto," Norwich mentions, as he wraps up his coverage of one of the most important popes in history. Lepanto? The reader might be forgiven for wondering about the reference, since Norwich never says a word about the Battle of Lepanto, and barely touches on the heroic and ultimately successful effort by Pius V to rally Catholic opposition against an Islamic invasion of Europe. Again, the clash between religious forces is not a particularly important theme in this book--in a history of the papacy!

Norwich turns to an undoubted political expert for an assessment of another historically important pontiff, Pius IX. Metternich described "Pio Nono" as "a good priest, he never turned his mind toward matters of government." In this book, Pius IX is depicted as the Vatican leader who coped with the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, and the loss of the papal states. These were important historical developments, certainly, and they deserve treatment. But in Absolute Monarchs (again one notices the inappropriateness of the title) these political concerns completely overshadow the theological and pastoral work of Pius IX.

On the rare occasions when he does delve into theological issues, Norwich handles them poorly. He is misleading in his explanation of how Leo I justified papal primacy, sloppy in his recounting of the formulae set forth by the Council of Chalcedon, and simply wrong in his account of the teachings of Vatican II.

Predictably enough, Norwich hews to the standard line of criticism of the Catholic Church on the punishment of Galileo and on the reaction to the Holocaust; he pays no attention to the work of other historians who have challenged the liberal orthodoxy on those points. As he moves into the modern era, he shamelessly describes Church leaders as "bigots" when they uphold the perennial teachings of the Christian Church on issues that have become controversial in the past few generations.

AT TIMES, the author’s liberal bias is almost comical. For example, he argues that in his encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII "paralyzed contemporary scholarship and categorically condemned any new or original Christian thinking." That sort of line is best written in crayon. And it doesn’t help that Norwich follows up with a quote from the leftist Jesuit icon Daniel Berrigan, who claims that Pius XII presided over a "big Stalinist purge" in the Catholic Church.

When he is not dealing with subjects beyond his ken, Norwich can be an engaging writer. Yet even at his best he has a tendency to stretch too far for an arresting comparison. For instance, he writes that Attila the Hun was "more feared, perhaps, than any other single man--with the possible exception of Napoleon Bonaparte--before or since." One notes the fascination with Napoleon again. But is it possible to overlook Hitler and Stalin?

Or consider his description of the Emperor Constantine: "…with the exceptions of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed, and the Buddha, he was to be perhaps the most influential man who ever lived." If we confine ourselves simply to religious leaders, what about Moses and Confucius? And if we enlarge the field to include all men of influence, as the author’s words suggest, there might be countless other contenders. Norwich argues that Constantine is uniquely influential because he had enormous impact in both the political and religious spheres. True enough. Well, as long as we’re on the subject of Roman pontiffs, what about Pope John Paul II. It is truly astonishing that after spending 450 pages totting up the Vatican’s political wins and losses, Norwich says absolutely nothing about the dominant role that the late Polish pontiff played in the fall of the Soviet empire. He mentions that when Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope, there was a widespread belief that the Bulgarian secret service was involved; he never explains why a Soviet satellite would have found it convenient to arrange for this pope’s death. Once again the author’s blind spot shows here. The Soviet leadership understood why a strong Roman pontiff was a threat, just as Marcus Aurelius did. Norwich doesn’t.

In the last few pages of the book, Norwich attempts to show that Pope Benedict XVI has been maladroit in his handling of controversial issues. But the author stumbles badly himself, with a series of blatant factual errors, culminating when he says, speaking of the sex-abuse crisis: "The storm first broke in Ireland…" Since that scandal had already been aired in American headlines for more than a decade, it is difficult to understand how Norwich could have made such a blunder. It’s possible that he was just anxious to be done with this book. So was I.

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About the Author

Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (cwnews.com) and the author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture (Encounter).