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Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

The story of the power of the Papacy – and how it has waxed and waned over the centuries.

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This did not prove a problem for the well-connected Tusculums. Each time that the situation arose the family spent a (presumably) busy day having their man tonsured (head hair close-cropped), ordained a priest, consecrated as Bishop of Rome, and then enthroned as the Pope. The Tusculums were clearly experts at job advancement.

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This is not a book which will contribute much to anyone’s theological knowledge. There’s very little theology in it, which is probably justified by the fact that the earlier Popes had few theological interests. When they held convocations of their clergy it was usually to discuss matters such as priestly celibacy – a sticky question at a time when Papal grandchildren were playing in the gardens of the Vatican.

Norwich tells a tale of how the power of the Papacy waxed and waned according to circumstances and the abilities of successive Papal figures, some of whom were dedicated masters at their job and performed towering achievements – such as defending Rome from barbarians, suppressing heresies, providing the administration for a growing church, and fighting off charlatan “anti-popes” claiming the office They had to rule over a frequently rebellious clergy.

Generally the Pope’s authority has increased over the ages although the book’s title "Absolute Monarchy" is absolutely wrong. Never in the history of the Papacy has any Pope been able to regard himself as the “absolute monarch” of the world. When they have been at their best, they acted as a major spiritual force in the world and contented themselves to claim only as being “Christ’s Vicar on Earth.” That was enough. To refer to themselves as “God’s Representative on Earth” , as did Nicholas I (858-867), was clearly over the top.

Until fairly recently, the Papal incumbents came predominantly from the Italian aristocracy. As recently as Pius XII (1939-1958) Norwich describes that Pope as being “icily autocratic” and “odiously anti-Semitic” to boot. Their views were reactionary and rarely liberal.

In more recent years, however, the Popes have been highly educated men with no temporal ambitions. While surely not “absolute monarchs” they occupy the dominant position of spiritual leadership among Roman Catholics and, indeed, substantial numbers of other Christian denominations.

This is a valuable book but so densely crowded with historical events and historical figures – most of whom will be unknown to readers – that it poses a challenge. Reading two thousand years of history with this enormous cast of characters is hard work. But for those sincerely interested in religious history, Lord Norwich is worth the effort.

Richard M. Watt is a Monitor contributor.

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