"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, May 21, 2018

Papal Power

I have of course had a long-standing interest in the question of papal power, having written a book about it in light of Orthodox ecclesiology and ecumenism.

Not long ago I gave extended discussion to these themes in the context of Steven Ogden's book The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom.

And this interest is not mine alone, as my interview last year with Cyril Hovorun about his fascinating and important new book, The Structures of the Church, also shows. 

So I rather expected to be able to think further about these vital and perpetually controverted issues when the publisher sent me a copy of Paul Collins' new book, Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World (Public Affairs, 2018), 384pp. The author is an ex-priest in Australia. 

Whatever this book is, it is not a serious work of ecclesiology or anything else--"high journalism" perhaps, but not theology, still less any kind of sophisticated analysis. It's not badly written, but its tendentiousness is relentless. It never treats the question of power in any serious way; indeed the theme gets lost until the last 3-4 pages when a few comments are hastily cobbled together, saying nothing that others have not said for decades. 

Thus the book really is is just another history of the papacy, recreated in the image and likeness of a particular type of Catholic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. You won't be led terribly astray from the standard narrative, though if you want something with far more sober and sophisticated scholarly analysis then I see no reason here to deviate from my long-standing belief that Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners is the best one-volume history of the papacy.

As a story of the papacy, Collins's book is entirely standard and wholly unoriginal for this genre: the papacy is one long continuous power-grab by self-aggrandizing men. In the modern period, all the predictable villains come out--expecially the Piuses (IX-XII), and John Paul II--until, of course, the magical hero Francis emerges, at which point the book supplies its own Greek chorus, half of which offers adulation and hymn-singing to and about this man while the other half is chanting psalms of imprecation against his enemies, among whom are to be found any critics of Amoris Laetitia (or really anything else besides):
 "What is really happening here is a battle for the heart and soul of Catholicism. The sheer decency and openness of  Francis have restored the fortunes and reputation of the papacy in the wider world after the overbearing John Paul and the maladroit Benedict" (302).

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