528 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-1400067152
Reporting the history of a two-thousand year old institution in a single volume is a daunting task that can only be accomplished by skimming the highlights, but in Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy author John Julius Norwich has done an excellent job of doing just that. Knowing when to skim and when to dive in is a knack that he demonstrates with aplomb. From St. Peter to Benedict XVI this book introduces us to the men who have led the Catholic Church – for better or for worse – over the course of two millennia.
What I appreciated the most in this book is Norwich’s clear delineation of various eras: The Pornocracy; The Reformation; The Counterreformation; The Renaissance; and so on. Individual popes might have been undistinguished and/or unremarkable (and some outright corrupt, especially by modern standards), but when grouped together in eras, we get a clear sense of the evolution of the papacy, both as a spiritual and as a political institution. It is interesting to see that the institution wasn’t always as austere and as highly regarded as today, but was often contested as any other political office. Rival Italian factions would often resort to underhanded tactics like bribery and violence to install their favorite candidate, and many popes would openly favor their family members by appointing them to influential offices.
As a self-proclaimed Agnostic Protestant (?) Norwich claims to have no agenda to push, and while he does express opinions throughout the work, he does seem to be true to his word – until we come to the more recent Popes when his opinions can be easily ascertained. I caution the reader to recognize that Norwich presents only one side to each accusation he brings up, as when He accuses Pius X of maintaining a police state to reign in free thinking (I have read the same from various Church historians who both support and take issue with this characterization). Norwich also comes down hard on Pius XII for alleged indifference to the plight of Jews during World War II (I will only say that there are two sides to this story, both widely presented and which claim to document persuasive support). As he proceeds from John XXIII through Benedict XVI he points out the highlights of each, and in this part of the book Norwich identifies issues on which he thinks that the laity and many clergy have been disappointed by the lack of reform. In so doing, I think that the author views doctrine as something to be determined by majority opinion, not revealed truth as taught by the Catholic Church. In this I believe that he displays a misunderstanding of the nature of the Church and its mission, that being to preach the Gospel, not to present a popular program.
I do have an issue with the title, however. One thing this book makes clear is the popes may have been a lot of things, but absolute monarchs they absolutely were not. Again and again we read lengthy descriptions of various emperors and dictators bullying the popes into giving up more and more land and more and more power. It seems as if the Holy Roman Empire was almost perpetually at war with the papacy over any number of things, some serious, some petty. Later European power-brokers, like the French kings, Napoleon, etc. too continued this tradition of jostling with the pope. Often this ended very badly for the Holy See, and there are numerous instances where Popes were physically assaulted.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The information which the author presents is interesting and enriching, and while I would not use this book as a definitive authority on the Papacy, it manages to weave European and, to a lesser point, Middle Eastern History throughout. I enjoyed his overall view of the Papacy as a temporal power and how the institution retained that power.