"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).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Papacy in History

To write about the Roman papacy, as I have done in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011)  is to write about a topic without end.

It is a simple fact of history that the papal office is the oldest institution of continual governance in the Western world. If I may be forgiven for quoting a famous purple passage from the English Protestant historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay:
The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable....Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.
Given this longevity and utterly fascinating history, books about the papacy are almost numberless, perhaps never more than in our day. To confine oneself just to historical treatments alone, and in English alone, would be enough to occupy a person for years. Among the many I have read, I have little hesitation in recommending Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes; Third Edition (Yale Nota Bene). Duffy, an excellent Cambridge historian and author of several other influential and important works, has managed, in Saints and Sinners, the near-impossible: he has been able to write about all the popes and do so in a very engaging, fair, balanced style in one volume. What has taken others--including, perhaps most famously, Leopold von Ranke--dozens of volumes to do, Duffy manages to do in one. Now, of course, he has to be utterly sparing of detail, but never in a way that omits what is truly crucial. For those who cannot go deeper, I always recommend Duffy as the place to begin.

There are many other one-volume treatments of the papacy, some good, many bad. In July of this year, we shall add another such volume to an already formidable collection: John Julius Norwich,  Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), 528pp. 

Norwich is a well-known historian and author of books on Venice, the Mediterranean, and several books on Byzantium.

About this book, the publisher fatuously repeats the wholly discredited suggestion of a "pope Joan"and rather breathlessly tells us:
With the papacy embattled in recent years, it is essential to have the perspective of one of the world’s most accomplished historians. In Absolute Monarchs, John Julius Norwich captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and devotion, intrigue and scandal. The men (and maybe one woman) who have held this position of infallible power over millions have ranged from heroes to rogues, admirably wise to utterly decadent. Norwich, who knew two popes and had private audiences with two others, recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world.
Given the importance of the papacy today in general, and especially, as I demonstrated in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, to Orthodox-Catholic unity, I look forward to reviewing this book for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

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