The Popes: A History, by John Julius Norwich, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25, 528 pages

Three hundred years ago, Adam Smith, that wise social philosopher, forecast the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church under the weight of its own contradictions. Yet despite the aggression of its enemies, and the occasional depravity of its pontiffs, the papacy continues to flourish. For 2,000 years, empires, dynasties, dictatorships have come and gone; the papacy has outlived them all.

Unique as a human institution, the papacy is marked by extraordinary diversity. There have been martyred popes, including most of the bishops of first-century Rome; down the centuries there were popes who kept mistresses and fathered families; there were homicidal popes; popes who were generous patrons of the arts and architecture; there has even been a putative 9th-century female pontiff, Pope Joan. And, amid all the crooks and scoundrels there have been great reformers and occasional saints and mystics. John Julius Norwich, popular historian and author of books on Byzantium, Venice and Glyndebourne, approaches his vast canvas with broad brush strokes, dashing off profile after profile with aplomb, flashes of wit and a formidable accumulation of detail. Yet there is a problem.

Norwich tells us that because he is an “agnostic Protestant” he brings “objectivity” to his subject. That’s like Tony Benn penning an “objective” history of the Tory party. And he has steered, he goes on, “well clear of theology”, which sounds like military history with no mention of a war. His interest is political and cultural, he maintains. Hence he fails to address the overarching significance of ecclesiology – the theological study of the spiritual role of “Vicar of Christ” as the ultimate foundation of Catholic unity and authority.

Norwich’s objectivity seriously fails his account of the 20th-century papacy, the era preeminently susceptible to fresh and original thinking. It won’t do to describe Pius XI (1922-39) merely as an “autocrat” who thought “the Roman Catholic Church was right, and everyone else was wrong”. Pius XI played a crucial part in a process of papal social teaching during a period of political and social upheaval. The publication in 1891 of Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), on work and society, through to John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year), measures successive papal attempts, notably that of Pius XI, to combat the social and spiritual fallacies of communism and fascism. For all their individual foibles and failings the popes of this era urged on the world a theological view of human nature and society as an alternative to totalitarian ideologies. Alas, they also sought to protect the faithful in Italy and Germany with international agreements: concordats. In consequence, Pius XI’s treaty with Hitler in 1933 looks in retrospect like an exercise in Nazi fellow travelling. At the same time, protective centralisation led to church legal measures which ruled that only the pope has a right to nominate bishops, a regulation that would lead to papal yea-saying episcopates around the world. Lack of local discretion has certainly contributed to the cover-ups of paedophile scandals in many dioceses around the world.

The issue of modern papal centralisation has caused much antagonism between traditionalist and progressive Catholics who yearn for greater collegiality in the Church. Yet the rifts and tensions are unlikely to lead to serious fragmentation precisely because Catholic unity, despite disagreements, is ultimately sustained by a robust spiritual allegiance to the popes in every era. Unfortunately, for all his lively vignettes and agnostic Protestant objectivity, Norwich fails to address the source of that allegiance, how it has manifested itself down the centuries, and just why it underpins the continuing existence of the institution itself.

John Cornwell is author of ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint’ (Continuum)

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