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.

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich, Random House, 522 pp.

In Matthew 16 (18-19) Jesus says to his first disciple, Simon Peter, “….you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

After Jesus's death it must have become apparent to Peter that it was absolutely necessary for him to transfer his ministry to Rome – the Imperial capital of the world. And once in Rome he would take up the position of head of the Christian church. Well, we don’t know exactly how or when (or even if) Peter arrived in Rome but we assume that he did and after having been given some office similar to the Bishop of Rome, he was killed in about 64AD. Peter was never actually a “Pope,” as the title did not exist until adopted by Siricius (584-399), but for almost 2,000 years he has been considered the first Pope.

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy is the story of the Popes – by whatever title – as they have supposedly passed from Peter in an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession. It is the story of all the Popes which poses a problem for the reader, as it must have been for the author, because so many of the Popes, particularly the earlier ones, were downright dull, stupid, and uninteresting or else we simply know nothing about them.

The author of "Absolute Monarchs" is John Julius Norwich, a productive and respected British author whose specialty is the history of the Mediterranean world during the first millennium AD. Norwich was the son of a titled Conservative British politician and diplomat, Duff Cooper. Consequently, his heir Norwich is also a lord – the Second Viscount Norwich.

An Old Etonian, Norwich served in the Royal Navy, studied languages at Oxford, joined the British Foreign Service and then left it to become a writer. Norwich has done it all – he's been the host of a radio game show, the writer and narrator of 30 television documentaries on historical subjects, and the author of travel books (a genre the British seem to own) as well as a half-dozen quite distinguished histories set in medieval times. Norwich is an old – and skillful – hand at historical story-telling.

The Popes, as "Absolute Monarchs" tells us, were at one time simply nominated and pushed into office by a powerful ruler or a wealthy family. Not until 1059 did a Pope propound a decree which placed the selection of the Papal office squarely in the hands of the cardinals – who were, of course, themselves selected by the Pope.

When the naming of the Pope had been largely the prerogative of wealthy Italian families such as the Medicis, the Borgias, and the Tusculums, the latter family was able to name three successive Popes starting in 1012. A problem arose for the Tusculums. None of the men the family backed as Pope was even a member of the clergy. They were all laymen.

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.

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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