Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

Of all the things one might observe about the history of the papacy, the simplest fact—that after almost two millennia, the institution constitutes the longest uninterrupted monarchy in the world—might also qualify as the most astonishing. Even the papacy’s perseverance across the earliest swath of church history seems unlikely in retrospect. More than 300 years passed after the death of St. Peter before Siricius (384-99) assumed the title of pope, with something like the unique significance it has today. In between, the Christian church in Rome experienced long periods of persecution, which waxed and waned with the predilections of imperial rule.

The threat of the church’s annihilation was only lifted with the rise of Constantine the Great, who in 320 began the construction of a basilica on Vatican Hill where a shrine to Peter had been established. Yet even then, the nascent authority of the bishop of Rome faced a novel problem that would recur with regularity over the centuries to come–the split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, which threatened the universal authority of the inheritor of the apostolic line descending from St. Peter and reflected the shifts in political power from Rome to Constantinople. Papal precariousness reached an early height by the fifth century, when it was left to Pope Innocent I to negotiate the safety of the teetering city from the first of several invaders, King Alaric the Visigoth. And there were still some 1,500 years to go.

Those centuries are filled with everything that should have brought the papal run, at some point, to its earthly end: schisms, invasions, and sackings; fights with emperors and dukes and Roman autocrats, Orthodox patriarchs, Calvinists, and Lutherans, and the great partisans of the Risorgimento; the humiliations, both financial and political, of failed crusades, the seventy-year abandonment of Rome in favor of the much less malarial and far more French Avignon, the hundred-year reign of debauched mediocrities known as the Pornocracy. This doesn’t even include all the anti-popes, simonists, perfidious Borgias and menacing Medicis, and a host of deadly schemers.

In his Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, John Julius Norwich argues that the last is hardly a thing of the hoary past. “I hear nothing but malice, directed against everything and everyone,” he reports John Paul I saying in 1978 about the jealously and rivalries among those in the Vatican. “Also, I have noticed two things that appear to be in very short supply: honesty and a good cup of coffee.” Norwich goes as far as to admit his initial belief in the theories that John Paul I was a victim of murder weeks later, a mere thirty-three days into his reign.

Norwich, a member of the House of Lords and popular historian best known for his three-volume history of Byzantium, becomes an outspoken commentator as his history of the papacy gets to the present—he chides John Paul II for his “berserk canonizations of everyone in sight,” a criticism that seems comically trivial on the heels of his skeptical characterization of the former Karol Wojtyla as a “reactionary” who did little to alter Catholic policy on birth control, homosexuality, or the ordaining of women. Norwich is far more fulsome in his admiration of John XXIII and Paul VI, who rose to the papacy following the tenure of Pius XII and did their best, in his view, to bring the church into step with the difficult and complex realities of a new, postwar world through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1960.

Mostly, though, Norwich is less contentious, a conscientious and jovial pilot surveying a vast landscape. This is a tremendous amount of historical ground to cover in a single volume, and the pace is a rapid one. If Norwich’s emphasis settles more on politics, international affairs, and military history than on theology, it attempts to ground what was at stake in doctrinal disputes and what role they might subsequently play in the spiritual and temporal power of the office. The treatment of the Reformation is exasperatingly slight—about the same amount of space is given to Luther as to the curiosity of the erstwhile Joan, a fictional ninth-century pope who concealed her sex until she gave birth and was killed by an angry mob (thanks to her, the myth goes, a porphyry chair with a little hole in the seat was subsequently incorporated into papal elections in order to ensure that the newly chosen pope was “of the approved gender”).

In his historical narrative, though, Norwich entertainingly pictures an institution that shaped the direction of western Europe no less decisively than any political or cultural force, persevering through change and adapting to the environments it has faced. To judge by the tenacity of the papacy that he records, it would be foolhardy to expect its future to look otherwise.