Papal peccadillos

July 12, 2011 • 3:50 am

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.

30 thoughts on “Papal peccadillos

  1. Norwich books on Byzantium and Venice should be on the top of every atheist’s book list, if only for his treatment of the foundations of the monotheistic worlds of Christendom and Islam, the history and consequences early church heresies, the challenge of Islam, and especially the Fourth Crusade.

  2. “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”

    This was of course the intention of Vatican II. After the probable murder of JP1 the succeeding popes, rather than implement the recommendations of the council, have been busy resetting to status quo ante. Of course it makes no difference to the popes that they have no authority to do this. It has caused a lot of unhappiness among some catholics, and jubilation among the extreme conservatives. And of course, as always, the disaffected neither push for reformation nor leave RCC, they merely complain in silence….

    1. “Complain in silence”? Is that one of those Catholic mysteries, like the Trinity or transubstantiation?

      1. Have you read David Yallop’s “In God’s Name”? He makes the case. It may not convince you, but it’s not bollocks.

        (He previously wrote a book called “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” – filmed with David Hemmings – about a NZ murder that helped get the convicted man out after two trials and 10 years inside.)

        There are many suspicious facts about JP1s death, starting with the actuariality of it. He was only 65 and in good health, and died within a month.

  3. When you’re ordering “Absolute Monarchs” from Amazon, be sure to order “Inside Scientology”, by Janet Reitman at the same time. Free shipping, yo, and all your questions about Xenu answered. It’s outstanding!

  4. I want a baby Peccadillo as a pet as they are so cute! Oh, that’s armadillo…

    It is just called “The Popes: a history” in the UK. I Read the first two volumes of Byzantium, not the third as I find Byzantine history depressing for some reason, & wish I could have been an emperor to fix things (I would have been done away with in a palace coup no doubt)! I have read his second volume about Sicily however, “Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194” which was very good. (I am biased because of the Norwich bit, though it is a title – Viscount Norwich & his real name is Cooper). You do know he is related to David Cameron? Cameron is his cousin’s grandson.

      1. Yes, if we adopt Latin terms why should we not anglicize them? As long as one is consistent within a composition that is all that matters to me.

        1. I can just about accept “millenniums” as an anglicised plural (and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors allows it in non-literal contexts, I see). What I can’t accept is when people talk about “a millennia” – which I’ve actually seen in a book from a respected publisher. I suppose it’s like “a criteria”, which is another of my pet hates.

    1. The NYT style book dictated that spelling a while ago; don’t blame the reviewer. (My reaction to it mirrors yours.) You will also see “curriculums,” and others. At least they haven’t gone to “datums.”

        1. From the Style Book, page 96:

          data is acceptable as a singular term for information: The data was persuasive. In its traditional sense, meaning a collection of facts and figures, the noun can still be plural: They tabulate the data, which arrive from bookstores nationwide. (In this sense, the singular is datum, a word both stilted and deservedly obscure.)

          Well, I, for one, am rather fond of “datum.”

          Since I usually cringe at “data is,” I suspect they generally get it right in the science stories I read.

  5. Any review that calls a history of the papacy “rollicking” was written by an idiot.

    But, alas, “rollicking” might very well be the bon mot, for the book may very well be intended as entertainment instead of serious history for those seeking knowledge.

    Does everything have to be reduced to Hollywood-style entertainment? Must the news media be endlessly filled with trivia about so-called celebrities? No one cares if dear Britney shaves her privates, except sad people with no lives. And, I suppose, Rupert Murdoch, though his interest is probably financial, not lubricity.

    1. Ha, I’ll bet it makes Murdoch wet either way!

      And that is the bottom line here: the bottom line. Media at large doesn’t care if it titillates, amuse, disgusts, whatever, they care about profit.

      Except maybe many science authors and journalists, I haste to add.

  6. I read the review eagerly, hoping for a mention of my favorite pope, the late 15th century Pius II. He wrote a remarkable — and remarkably self-centered — autobiography, although he wrote it in the third person so he could rave about himself “modestly.” His actual name was Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. Obviously he was a humanist, an innovative builder and thinker and a rather ribald guy. I love him for two reasons: he built in entirety the enchantingly ideal Renaissance town after demolishing the (literal) pig sty that was his birthplace, near Siena and Montepulciano. The town is now called Pienza (after him, of course). It is eerie and gorgeous, often used in movies (The English Patient and Midsummer Night’s Dream, for two).
    And although I think I mentioned this previously, he is the honoree of the Libreria Piccolomini, a small side chapel in Siena’s Duomo (to the left just after you enter the cathedral). Pay the small extra fee they charge. Sure, admire at the beautiful, deeply colored murals that take you, like a graphic novel, through Pius’s life. Then look up. The ceiling is pornographic. Part of it, anyway. It’s an absolute kick. I haven’t learned how the artist and his assistants got away with it…or why they painted it in the first place. Maybe someone can enlighten me?

  7. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.


    Too late for that.

  8. “the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.”

    You don’t need saints to make a mockery of sainthood. All it takes is the idea itself.

    Religion is self mockery, don’t you know? (Say, self obsession with “humans are the win, so the universe must be created by human-like agents for humans”. Narcissism is sooo last last millennium.)

    1. Ah, but more saints give the Confirmation kiddies more names to choose from… although I can’t imagine anyone wanting “Pius”.

      (For those who aren’t familiar with the Catholic ritual of Confirmation, it’s where a young person confirms their adherence to the Catholic belief-set. Traditionally each confirmant chooses a saint’s name and is called by that in the ritual.)

  9. John Julius Norwich is by far my favorite history writer.

    I read his 3-volume history of Byzantium a couple of years ago, and was blown away by how readable he made centuries of sordid history. He went through a long line of Emperors’ deeds and misdeeds, and somehow managed to keep me from repeatedly falling asleep through 3 very long volumes. Reading through a history like this should be enough to make any sensible human being despise the Christian religion (particularly the organized aspect of it), but alas, most people just don’t care.

    His history of Venice was equally good, although it becomes quite a task to keep dozens of Doges, many of them sporting identical names, straight in your head.

    I will be piking up this book as soon as I can get myself to a bookstore. Now .. the only question is what to read first: this, or A Dance With Dragons, the latest installation of GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

  10. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.”

    That reminds me of something Dawkins said about Thomas being the patron saint of scientists.

    1. I was a very young child of Catholic parents when I responded approvingly to the story of Skeptical Thomas. Couldn’t understand why anyone didn’t find him a perfect role-model. (But in that 1960s family I was the control group, the only one of 5 kids never catechized, first-communioned and confirmed, so can’t claim any credit for extraordinary perspicacity)

  11. One of my cousins works in The Meeja and a few years ago spent an enjoyable afternoon with John Julius Norwich looking at his home movies from the 1930s, for a TV programme called (something like) Britain’s Nazi King.

    In the programme you can see clips of a toddler JJN running around under the feet of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

    I’ve read the first two of his Byzantium books, which are excellent, but can’t bring myself to read the last one. From Manzikert onwards Byzantine history is just so damn depressing.

    PS “The media is….” – that’s another one.

  12. Norwich’s “Byzantium” trilogy is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and something I continue to re-read with great pleasure. His lesser known “Normans in Sicily” about the Normans in Southern Italy and Sicily is equally fascinating.

    Can’t wait to grab a copy of this. Not so much for the atheist in me inasmuch he writes with great style and wit, and is always thoroughly informative.

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