Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Absolute Monarchs

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

Open quote 
The next two popes, Stephen V and Formosus, died in their beds, but on the orders of his successor, Stephen VI, the body of Formosus was exhumed in March 896, eight months after his death, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne, and subjected to a mock trial on charges of perjury and of coveting the Papacy."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: D+
History is just 'one damned thing after another....'
Toynbee could have been thinking of this history of the papacy. Depending on who is counting there have been 265 popes, more or less, since St. Peter first held the title, or didn't, as the case may be. Norwich crams that history into a single volume, necessitating a whirlwind review of the papacy.

For example, the early middle ages are a mind-numbing parade of popes, antipopes, heretics, emperors (east and west), Roman aristocracy, barbarian kings and armies. Given the palace intrigues and natural hazards (e.g., malaria, plague), popes come and go with such frequency that it's easy to understand why even church historians disagree on the exact lineage. Record keeping was poor. Rome was repeatedly sacked. Who knows what's real and what's a convenient fabrication?

To single out only one example, I'd have to go with the infamous Pope Joan from the ninth century. That's right, a female pope, who allegedly hid her sex until she became pregnant and went into labor while riding a horse through the streets of Rome. Did she even exist? For hundreds of years people thought so. Martin Luther himself wrote of seeing a statue of her at the place where she gave birth. Modern historians dismiss Pope Joan as myth. On the other hand, Norwich points out a chair still on display in the Vatican museum, a chair with a hole in the seat that is rumored to have been used to grope the testicles of future papal candidates as a test to avoid a repeat of a "Joan" succeeding St. Peter. (If you read reviews of this book, many will include this anecdote. It's by far the most colorful story in the 2,000 year line of mostly forgettable, often venal men who held the papacy.)

What isn't myth is the long list of conspiracies, excommunications, exiles, imprisonments, tortures, and deaths as popes play a never-ending game of musical chairs with the throne of St. Peter. The alliances and double crosses are impossible to keep up with. For centuries, the emperor had to approve the candidate picked for pope and the pope had to crown the emperor, a delicate balance that was ignored as often as it was honored. What's amazing is that the papacy survived and gradually strengthened its position vis a vis emperors and kings, patriarchs and bishops. Eventually, the papacy became the most powerful religious position in the world, a distinction it holds even today.

There isn't much theology in this history. Mostly, popes are more pre-occupied with saving their fortunes and sometimes their own lives than with bringing people to Jesus. What theology there is sounds absurdly pedantic to a modern ear. The dispute over the Latin phrase Filioque added to the Nicene Creed contributed to the Great Schism between east and west. So much anguish and conflict over a preposition. If you think it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the canon of the Roman Catholic Church, check out the Albigensian Crusade. The sword, too, played a big role in settling theological arguments.

Norwich's history is so abbreviated that it's stultifying. Call it the Cliff's Notes of papal history. It's almost as dry as those synopses of the great books. I can't recommend opening this book with the intention of reading it cover to cover. If, for some reason, you have room for only one book of papal history on your bookshelf, maybe Norwich's single volume is as good a choice as any. But in this day of Wikipedia and e-books, there's no reason to limit yourself.


"It seems more likely than not that St. Peter did in fact come to Rome and was martyred there, probably somewhere on the Vatican Hill. There his remains may have been buried, the site being marked with greater or lesser accuracy by the shrine that grew up in the later second century; unfortunately, there are still too many question marks for any confident deductions to be made. What Peter most certainly did not do was found the Roman Church."

"He is known to us as Constantine the Great, and with good reason: with the exceptions of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed, and the Buddha, he was to be perhaps the most influential man who ever lived."

"As the greatest pope of the early Middle Ages, Gregory’s most important achievement was to implant ineradicably in men’s minds the idea that the Roman Catholic Church was the most important institution in the world and that the Papacy was the supreme authority within it."

"Just as the scarlet mantle of the Papacy was brought forward and Roland, after the customary display of reluctance, bent his head to receive it, Octavian dived at him, snatched the mantle, and tried to don it himself. A scuffle followed, during which he lost it again; but his chaplain instantly produced another -- presumably brought along for just such an eventuality -- which Octavian this time managed to put on, unfortunately back to front, before anyone could stop him."

"Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe. Even in the ninth century, the Saracen pirates had contented themselves with tearing the silver panels from the doors; they had never penetrated the building. This time, according to a contemporary -- Otto of St. Blaise -- the Germans left the marble pavements of the nave strewn with dead and dying, the high altar itself stained with blood. And this time the outrage was the work not of infidel barbarians but of the emperor of Western Christendom. St. Peter’s fell on July 29, 1167."

"That ceremony -- it was the last imperial coronation ever to take place in Rome -- marked the apogee of Nicholas’s pontificate. All too soon came disaster: on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, after a fifty-five-day siege, the army of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II smashed down the walls of Constantinople and put an end to the Christian Empire of the East. The news was received with horror throughout Western Europe. The Byzantine Empire had lasted 1,123 years."

"Anti-Semitism had first manifested itself in Rome soon after Constantine the Great adopted Christianity in the fourth century, and with succeeding centuries it had grown steadily worse. But it was under Paul IV that the Jews were first rounded up into a ghetto, forbidden to trade in any commodity except food and secondhand clothing, permitted only a single synagogue in each city -- in Rome seven were demolished -- compelled to speak only Italian or Latin, and obliged to wear yellow hats in the street. The bull Cum Nimis Absurdum of July 17, 1555, which laid down these and innumerable similar regulations, was to remain in force for the next three centuries."

"His greatest monument is probably his encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in May 1891. It was in fact the Papacy’s shamefully belated response to Das Kapital and The Socialist Manifesto and was later to be described by Pope John XXIII as the Magna Carta of Catholic social doctrine. Already in the preamble, Leo nailed his colors to the mast. In the present industrial society, he wrote, 'a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke which is very little better than slavery itself.'"

"As did the Italian, the German Concordat came in for heavy international criticism. The Catholic Church could have set itself up in determined opposition to National Socialism; instead, by agreeing to the abdication of all its political rights and morally obliging all German Catholics to obey their Nazi leaders, Pacelli and Pius had together cleared the way for the unobstructed advance of Nazism -- and of its treatment of the Jews."

"The days of papal dictatorship were over. Henceforth the Church would be a collegiate body, with pope and bishops sharing responsibility between them. No longer could it turn its face away from the modern age. Aggiornamento was the new watchword, the bringing up to date of both its organization and its teaching. It was time, said the pope, to throw open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air."


glbeach said...

Thanks for publishing your commentary and review. I had this book on my 'to read' list, but may pass it by instead. It's a shame, in the New York Times review it sounded as if it might be a provocative read.

glbeach said...

Thank you for publishing your review and commentary. I had this book on my 'to read' list, but may pass it by instead. A shame; based on the New York Times review it sounded as if it might be a provocative read.