If you’re a Catholic, an ex-Catholic, or just want a good old romp through the sordid history of that faith, check out the book reviewed in Sunday’s New York Times: Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich. It’s already #10 on the Amazon bestsellers list.
“Absolute Monarchs” sprawls across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes (plus various usurpers and antipopes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more. Norwich manages to organize this crowded stage and produce a rollicking narrative. He keeps things moving at nearly beach-read pace by being selective about where he lingers and by adopting the tone of an enthusiastic tour guide, expert but less than reverent. . .
. . . By the time we reach the 20th century, about 420 pages in, our expectations are not high. We get a disheartening chapter on Pius XI and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church’s long streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich’s view, redeemed himself by his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis. But his indictment of Pius XII — who resisted every entreaty to speak out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz — is compact, evenhanded and devastating. “It is painful to have to record,” Norwich concludes, “that, on the orders of his successor, the process of his canonization has already begun. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.” . .
. . . Norwich’s conclusion may remind readers that he introduced himself as a Protestant agnostic, because whatever his views on God, his views on the papacy are clearly pro-reformation. “It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the modern age,” he writes. “With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day — on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed.”
512 entertaining pages, and you can get the hardcover for only $16 from Amazon.