God’s Representatives: The Eight Twentieth-century Popes
by james bentley
constable. 200 pages, £16.95 .
Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes
by eamon duffy
yale university press. 500 pages, $23.
by paul johnson. edited by michael walsh
wiedenfeld and nicholson. 224 pages, £25 .
Gregory the Great and His World
by robert markus
cambridge university press. 264 pages, $59.95 .
Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy from St. Peter to the Present
by p.g. maxwell-stuart
thames and hudson. 240 pages, $29.95
Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II
by richard mcbrien.
harper san francisco. 520 pages, $29.50
The year 1997 was an annus mirabilis in papal history. Not because the Holy Father did anything more mirabilis than he usually does, but because no fewer than six substantial books treating papal history appeared in English alone. These books invite reflection on how to think about papal history, and on what, exactly, papal history is.
In the nineteenth century Leopold von Ranke, best known for saying that history could be written wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (“as it actually happened”), ostentatiously took on a history of the papacy in the Reformation period to prove that his objectivity would permit him, good Protestant that he was, to tell the story with Olympian objectivity. On concluding his work he said, with wry irony, that after all the dust of all the wars had finally cleared one would still see the outline of the Vatican against the glimmer of the morning sun. The papacy was here to stay. But what did that mean? Then? Now?
In the early years of the sixth century an anonymous writer in Rome began to compile a biographical record of the Popes. His work, still readable as the Liber Pontificalis (more or less, “The Book of the Popes”) and now available in a wonderful, and helpfully annotated, English translation by Raymond Davis, established definitively one way of thinking about papal history, as a succession of individual lives or pontificates running from St. Peter to the reigning Pope. The original version of the Liber Pontificalis was continued contemporaneously until the end of the ninth century. Then, for reasons we still do not understand, the book was closed until the eleventh century when it was begun again and carried on intermittently until the late Middle Ages. Scholars wrangle learnedly, in ways that make the public decline to read history, about this enigmatic and informative text. But it did establish definitively the biographical approach.
The papacy is also an idea. The idea was articulated for the first time by Christ himself in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” These words did not create a papacy but they did create the possibility of a Petrine mission in the Church. For two millennia the successors of Peter have sought ways to make that mission real and effective in the Christian world.
Finally, the papacy is an institution. Obviously Peter did not have a bank, a diplomatic corps, an army of assistants, a radio station, a newspaper, or (for Pete’s sake) a web page. But within a century of Peter’s death the Roman church had begun to evolve a cadre of officials who assisted the local bishop in administering the local church and in maintaining that church’s relations with other Christian communities.
Men, ideas, and institutions, then, are the raw materials out of which papal history is built. But the papacy is the oldest institution in the world. First in the Mediterranean world, then in Europe, and then all around the globe papal history has influenced, and has been influenced by, all the other histories that can be told. The sheer staying power of the papacy commands respect, admiration, and curiosity. But Ranke knew that already when the United States was less than a century old, when modern France and Germany had not been invented, when Russia still had czars and serfs, and when emperors ruled China.
The books under consideration here represent well the various customary approaches to papal history. Three are, after the fashion of the Liber Pontificalis , biographical: Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Popes ; P. G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Chronicle of the Popes ; and James Bentley’s God’s Representatives: The Eight Twentieth-century Popes . Robert Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World is biographical in a strict sense, while Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes and Paul Johnson’s The Papacy are general histories. Let’s begin with a few general observations about each of these books and then turn to the larger and more interesting question of how they help or hinder the interested reader’s quest to come to grips with a long and complicated story. Markus’ and Duffy’s books I can recommend with enthusiasm. The former is a beautifully written, learned but accessible, balanced treatment of an immensely significant pontificate—Gregory I (590–604) is one of only two Popes universally called “the Great”—and of an engaging human being. Duffy, a rare bird in that he is a Catholic with no axe to grind, prepared his book in connection with a British television series on the papacy. Duffy resisted any temptation to trivialize his subject and produced the most readable, comprehensive, and level-headed single-volume history of the papacy apart from Horst Fuhrmann’s outstanding Von Petrus zu Johannes Paulus II (second edition in 1984 and, alas, still without an English translation). Duffy’s book is beautifully illustrated, and the pictures chosen are both contemporary with the matters under discussion and key parts of the narrative.
Two books I can dismiss promptly: Bentley’s and Johnson’s. The former is just the tonic for fire-breathing Pope-haters of seventeenth-century intensity. If you prize fairness and sensitivity, give Bentley a pass. The latter is a curious grab-bag that is neither scholarly, nor complete, nor readable. It is actually a set of essays edited by Michael Walsh with a very brief contribution by Johnson himself. Some of the authors are well-known, some obscure. The volume lacks focus and consistency of themes and organization. Even Paul Johnson fans may safely ignore this book.
Maxwell-Stuart’s book is lively, readable, lavishly illustrated, and packed with useful tables, charts, documents, and maps. Of the books under review, this one is the most fun to rummage around in. The author divides papal history into several chronological sections and opens each section with an essay on that period’s major historical features. Often, but not always or equally helpfully, Maxwell-Stuart situates papal history within larger historical contexts; Duffy, by comparison, is excellent on this account. Maxwell-Stuart devotes a scant twenty-four pages to the period from 1769 to the present and his individual sections are oddly disparate. That is, one cannot easily follow any particular theme in papal history through this book’s pages.
Finally, there is McBrien’s offering, which he candidly admits is a spin-off from his 1995 HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism . This volume is even more of a dictionary than Maxwell-Stuart’s although it also has occasional essays introducing major periods and a few poorly reproduced pictures that are more decorative than illuminating. McBrien has lists of “Outstanding Popes,” “Good or Above Average Popes,” and “Worst Popes”; major encyclicals; papal firsts and lasts; a concise discussion of papal electoral procedures; and a glossary. McBrien’s reputation will draw attention to this book. Natural curiosity will attract readers to the lists. An uninformed public will be misled by them. Once again, this book’s encyclopedic approach obscures trends that played out over time. But McBrien’s volume is somewhat more biographical than Maxwell-Stuart’s in that he routinely provides basic details about the life of each pontiff; Maxwell-Stuart often contents himself with only the major events of a pontificate. As a basic reference tool, no one has improved on the readability or scholarship of J. N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes (1986). Indeed, McBrien acknowledges Kelly as a prime source for his own book. Expressed as an equation, Kelly equals McBrien minus the sneering and sniping.
Historians either discover new things or argue with each other. Among these books, only Markus’ really says anything new. Because he focuses on only one reign, however, I shall not draw him into the conversation. If the other books say little that is new, only Duffy’s occasionally, but never obtrusively, enters into historical debates. Yet this is not to say that the books are equally objective and reliable. McBrien’s, in particular, is relentlessly tendentious. A few examples will serve to establish the character of these volumes.
Pope Leo I (440–461) was antiquity’s greatest spokesman for the supremacy of the papal office. He was, says Maxwell-Stuart, “a man who had no doubts that he was exercising the full authority of St. Peter as transmitted to the bishops of Rome, and that this authority overrode that of all other patriarchs and bishops.” That is a fair statement, but the reader is not prepared for it by antecedent reflections on earlier papal pronouncements. Although McBrien sometimes will mention earlier statements of papal primacy (usually with a sly remark that such-and-such a Pope achieved no concrete results with his pronouncements), he ignores them when interpreting Leo, concluding that “So forcefully articulated were Leo’s claims for the Pope’s universal and supreme authority over the Church, in fact, that his own pontificate constitutes a major turning point in the papacy.” Duffy, meanwhile, discusses dispassionately earlier papal claims to primacy, quotes Leo helpfully, and situates his statements in the context of contemporary theological controversies, not least those that lead to the momentous definition of Christ’s humanity and divinity promulgated in 451 at Chalcedon. Duffy says that “For Leo, the coming of Peter to the center of empire had been a providential act, designed so that from Rome the Gospel might be spread to all the world.” In sum, Maxwell-Stuart gives the impression that he does not understand Leo’s significance, McBrien treats Leo as a grasping innovator, and Duffy treats Leo as an articulate spokesman for a point of view long latent and now needful of vigorous explication in contentious times. Duffy has it right.
Gelasius I (492–496) provides another illuminating comparison of the merits of these books. In a famous letter to Emperor Anastasius, Gelasius said that there are two powers by which the world is chiefly governed: the “authority” of priests and the “power” of kings. He said that these powers are normally exercised in distinct spheres but that, because priests concern themselves with immortal souls while kings rule mortal bodies, the authority of priests is ultimately superior to the power of kings. Maxwell-Stuart relegates Gelasius’ crucial letter to a marginal “box” in tiny print, thus providing little help in understanding what was at stake. McBrien—his treatment is too long and choppy to be quoted—makes a hash of what Gelasius actually said, confusing the Pope’s own remarks with medieval interpretations of them. For McBrien, Gelasius’ letter arose from the Pope’s failure to be more sympathetic to Constantinople and resulted in Gelasius’ being “consumed with the task of defending papal prerogatives against those who favored a less rigid Roman approach.” (The “less-rigidists” are always McBrien’s heroes.) Duffy quotes a large piece of Gelasius’ letter. Right away, he lets the reader make up his own mind. Then he remarks that “This was not the sort of language that Anastasius was accustomed to hearing from the docile court-bishops of the East.” Quite right. But for Gelasius a matter of principle was at stake, and that principle was not new. Perhaps the power and clarity of the formulation were new. Perhaps the precise concatenation of circumstances was new. But the issue was an old one and Gelasius’ letter would not have shocked his predecessors.
One comparison drawn from the modern period will round out the picture. Maxwell-Stuart says of Pius X (1903–1914) that he entertained difficult relations with the Catholic states of Europe, condemned a group of thinkers called the “Modernists,” and carried out important reforms in ecclesiastical administration. This is all true but completely baffling to any reader who does not already know a lot of church history and modern European history. McBrien sternly places Pius X among the “worst Popes” because of his “intemperate campaign” against theologians and biblical scholars, a campaign that was “cruel,” and “internecine,” and that burdened the Church disastrously until Vatican II. It is true that Pius opposed modernism and it is also true that, with the 20/20 hindsight that is history’s glory and despair, we can see now that Pius was excessively concerned about some aspects of modern biblical scholarship and non-Thomistic theology. But McBrien’s approach makes it difficult to understand the issues as Pius saw them. Surely in this post-modern world we are no longer required to stand in awe of all that is modern. And our judgments should be mature enough that we need not dismiss as pettifogging obscurantists all of those who were courageous enough to stand athwart the alleged path of “progress” and say “No.” It might be added here that McBrien has no use for any of the nineteenth-century Popes, all of whom declined to jump on whichever fashionable bandwagons happened to be passing by the Vatican.
Once again, Duffy is better. He tells us that Pius was the son of a postman and a seamstress and that before his election he had spent his entire Church career as a parish priest and diocesan bishop. If he was out of step with the intellectual elites of his day, perhaps he was in step with the people in the pews. Pius was a reformer of Vatican institutions, a reviser of canon law, a formidable liturgist, and the “Pope of frequent communion.” He detested the modern state and had serious doubts about many streams in modern thought. Duffy quotes him: “God has been driven out of public life by the separation of Church and state; He has been driven out of science now that doubt has been raised to a system . . . . He has even been driven out of the family which is no longer considered sacred in origins and is shorn of the grace of the sacraments.” One might well agree with Duffy that Pius’ staunch Ultramontanism was not necessarily the right remedy for these ills, but that is not to say the doctor didn’t make a sound diagnosis.
So much for the current crop of books. Suffice it to say that some seed fell on good soil and some did not. What of the three themes I spelled out earlier? How might one follow them in an attempt to create both a history of the papacy and a sense of the rhythms of that history?
The papacy is an idea. From the time, in the second century, when the graves of Peter and Paul came to be especially venerated as holy places, the Roman See has been seen as having a special significance in the Christian world. By the third century, Rome’s bishops were explicitly basing their authority on the “Petrine” text in Matthew. In the fourth century, in an administrative context that permitted the Church to function as a legal, public institution, and in a theological context where the most fundamental doctrines of the Trinity and of the divine and human natures of Christ were struggling to find acceptable and communicable definitions, the Popes began to perceive the potential of their Petrine office. Christ had assigned Peter some kind of leadership. The reigning bishop of Rome was Peter’s successor. Therefore he was a leader. But what kind of leader? In what precise respects could he lead? It was Leo I in the fifth century who did more than any other Pope in history to articulate a working definition of papal primacy. His views owed much to a particular exegetical understanding of Matthew. But they were also rooted in the traditions of the Roman See, in the carefully conserved writings of earlier Popes. What is more, Leo was spurred on by classically Roman views of universalism grounded in and given visible expression by specific institutional structures. Finally, Leo was both guided and constrained by the terminological limitations of the Latin language.
Leo drew from deep wells of precedent, and his successors drew from him. Leo’s Petrine thinking has never been altered much in basic outlines, but it has experienced modification. First, medieval Popes, beginning in the eleventh century and then definitively from the twelfth, referred to themselves not only as “Vicar of Peter” but also as “Vicar of Christ.” From a theological point of view, this gradual shift can be attributed to a deepened understanding of Christ’s words to Peter. From an historical point of view, the change can be seen as reflecting a natural reaction to a political environment in which kings and emperors regarded their own authority as God-given. As I often tell my students, medieval people would not have understood the modern notion that church and state can and ought to be separated. They wanted to know to whom God had assigned primary responsibility for Christendom. The modern secular state, deriving its ultimate authority in some way from “the people,” does not demand a like clarification.
Second, as Christianity and the Petrine idea traveled from their Mediterranean homeland to the very different world of Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic Europe, they encountered, changed, and were in turn changed by people, cultures, and languages different from and sometimes even hostile to the original converts and communities. This dynamic process was repeated in the modern age as Catholicism expanded after its millennium of European focus to greet almost all the populations of the globe. Roman and Latin expressions of universalism and urban institutional structures proved, at least initially, to be ill-suited to defining and exercising leadership in all these diverse environments. The core of the Petrine idea has not changed but the language and conceptual frameworks that build bridges”a pontifex, that is, a pontiff, is a “bridge builder””between the Petrine idea and the people for whom it became a living reality have altered significantly.
The understanding of papal primacy has also been modified over the centuries. While the hierarchical churches have never denied to Peter’s successors a “primacy of honor,” there have always been serious discussions of whether that kind of primacy translated into a “primacy of jurisdiction.” Did Christ make Peter sovereign or chairman of the board, to put it aptly but inelegantly? In antiquity, there were Christian communities that fully subscribed to Roman primacy and other communities that did so only when it suited them, as when the Pope agreed with their theologians against the “heretics” of some other community. Byzantine theologians spoke of a “Pentarchy,” meaning the joint leadership of the Church by the five ancient Patriarchs (Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome). Some writers in the time of Charlemagne saw the Pope as “first bishop” but not as primate. In the high Middle Ages, the newly constituted College of Cardinals sometimes viewed their consistories with the Pope in virtually parliamentary terms. In the late Middle Ages a “conciliarist” ecclesiology harkened back, or imagined it did so, to the “collegiality” of antiquity. Only a council, with the Pope in the chair, could truly exercise the Petrine office. Vatican I declared the Pope infallible and made him “universal ordinary” but the Council ended before defining precisely the relationship between the Pope and the bishops in the governance of the church. Vatican II did not resolve this issue, particularly not to the satisfaction of those who wish for a dramatic trimming of the theoretical and practical implications of the Petrine office. What is especially interesting here is the remarkable consistency both of papal views on the nature of the Petrine office and of episcopal, collegial, conciliarist challenges to that view. Read a few of the letters of Innocent I (401–417) and you would hardly be surprised by anything you would find in the letters of Pius IX (1846–1878). And a glance at the words of the acidulous Cyprian of Carthage (200?–258) would prepare you for the writings of, say, Richard McBrien.
It is immensely difficult for secular historians to grapple with the idea of the papacy as a theological proposition. It is easy enough for them to assemble the key texts and to weigh their words in particular historical or ideological contexts. Historians are good at that, and whether they are well or ill disposed towards the papacy, they have taught us much. But historians are not so good at dealing with the possibility that the papacy is part of the divinely willed order of things. Put a little differently, one can ask whether the “idea” of the papacy is to be treated in the same ways, and with the same analytical perspectives, as Marxism, or capitalism, or liberalism, or modernism, or any of the other big ideas that have been powerful forces in human history. Framed in such bald terms, it is easy to hide behind ambiguity, to answer “Yes and No.” Compare the “idea” of the Trinity. It is easy enough to see this as a felicitous conjunction, in a certain place and time, of Greek syllogistic and analogical thinking, of Platonic vocabulary, of Latin precision, of catechetical necessities, and of disputational dynamics. Still, all of this being stipulated as true, there is something there that is independent of all the words that have been heaped on top of it. So too, the papal idea.
The papacy is an institution. No other area of papal history evinces so much change over time. Yet an assessment of that change must be yoked to an appreciation of why the changes took place, what ends they were meant to serve, and whether they were consistent with the fulfillment of the Petrine ministry.
For about three centuries, the Church was a persecuted and prosecuted institution and simply could not function openly and publicly. After the Constantinian “Peace of the Church,” the institutions at the papacy’s disposal began to grow, and they have never stopped growing. Between about 400 and 800 the Popes developed a set of administrative, charitable, and liturgical structures that served to manage extensive patrimonies in Italy (and for a long time in North Africa and southern France), to shelter the Roman populace that had been gradually abandoned by the imperial authorities, and to organize sacramental services in a large diocese. The Popes, especially and ironically the deeply ascetic Gregory I (590–604), were often talented administrators who regularly “spoiled the Egyptians”: The papal chancery is modeled after the Roman imperial one, papal charitable services derived much from the urban practices of late antiquity, papal record-keeping owed a lot to city archives, and papal liturgical practices grew apace with those of other large episcopal towns.
After the Church had accomplished the Christianization of much of Europe, new problems presented themselves. If the papal idea centered on unity and leadership, how might that leadership be made effective in the new Christendom? The Popes had spent centuries organizing their own local church in an exemplary way while struggling all the while with ambitious local aristocrats, with warlords of every stripe, and with Frankish and German emperors who had succeeded the Roman and Byzantine rulers as papal nemeses. Beginning in the eleventh century and continuing for the next two centuries, the Popes fostered an unprecedented expansion and maturation of institutional structures. The Sacred College—fifty-three cardinals if the College was up to full strength, which it rarely was—took shape as a kind of “senate” for the Church. Canon Law was compiled, revised, and added to as never before, thanks to numerous high medieval Popes who were lawyers (few of them have been canonized, a fact that might prompt other reflections). Courts of law were refined to handle the avalanche of new business. Lateran Councils frequently gathered the clergy of Europe. Financial management was put on sound footings. Legates tied the Popes to people all over Europe in new and more continuous ways. The language of papal documents of the high Middle Ages is more juridical, even bureaucratic, than the more pastoral and prophetic language of earlier times, but this should be put in context. There was not so much a basic shift in the idea of the Petrine office as an explosion in papal competence and responsibility, requiring such precision and formalization.
Richard McBrien takes some delight in listing things that late antique and early medieval Popes did not do, his point seeming to be to delegitimize the things that later Popes actually did do. It is more useful to note that as papal opportunities and responsibilities grew, the Popes fashioned structures to make it possible for them to preserve unity and to exercise leadership. What is more, the growth of papal government in the years between 1050 and 1300 exactly parallels the development of increasingly sophisticated secular institutions in realms from Russia to Spain. I do not wish to enter here on a discussion of whether or not the development of strong central governments has been a good thing, but I cannot resist the temptation to remark on the irony implicit in modern liberals’ profound faith in all governments except that of the Church.
The late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation were hard on the papacy in a variety of ways. In 1077 a German ruler, Henry IV, clad in penitent’s garb, stood in the snow before Canossa castle begging absolution from Gregory VII. In 1303 Philip IV sent thugs to Anagni to terrorize the eighty-year-old Boniface VIII. The French king had attempted to tax his clergy and to haul a bishop before royal judges. Boniface opposed him resolutely but lost the battle.
The secular state was struggling to be born—a labor that took centuries. Europeans were still overwhelmingly Catholic, but they were caught in tangled webs of conflicting allegiances. In an attempt to settle accounts with France, the Popes temporarily removed to Avignon in 1305. They did not return to Rome until 1378. Then factions of cardinals hurled the Church into a schism that lasted until the Council of Constance put an end to it in 1417. People all over Europe were shocked, as well they might be. Catherine of Siena lamented the “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy. Today’s reader of Chaucer or Boccaccio cannot miss the anticlericalism of the age. Theologians at Paris formulated a conciliarist ideology that sought to vest more authority in councils and less in a monarchical papacy. This view of church government was ancient and novel at once. This was the time of Italian city councils, of the growth of parliament in England, of the Estates General in France, and of the Cortes in Spain. As monarchy was the fashion in the twelfth century, so representative ideas took flight in the fourteenth.
The scholasticism and courtly love of the high Middle Ages were receding before a call to return “ad fontes” (to the sources). For some, this meant a return to the Greek and Latin classics which taught views about things human and divine that accorded poorly with what ecclesiastical writers had been saying for centuries. For others, the sources were religious and, above all, the Scriptures. By denying authority to councils, treatises, and encyclicals, by appealing to “Scripture Alone,” the Reformers sundered whatever was left of Christendom. What place was there for a papacy in such a world?
A shrinking one. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) affirmed many traditional teachings and achieved salutary institutional reforms, but it was lamented by some Catholics, ignored by most Protestants, and irrelevant to most rulers. The Popes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are probably the least known in history. True, Urban VIII censured Galileo, but it is difficult to think of anything else “that every schoolboy should know” in that whole period. Joseph II, Holy Roman emperor from 1765 to 1790, issued more than six thousand religious edicts, closed four hundred monasteries, forbade the kissing of relics and the clothing of statues, demanded warrants for pilgrimages, and reorganized seminaries. Pope Pius VI was powerless to prevent these actions. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment fomented change on an unprecedented scale and the Popes responded with either stunned silence or calls to restore a world that had vanished. Pius IX (1846“1878) and his successors had to reinvent the papacy, not as an idea, but as an institution.
It has taken more than a century, right down to the time of Paul VI and John Paul II, for the papacy to figure out how to deal with the myriad states of the modern world. Pius IX distrusted republics, not least the Italian one from which he retreated into a self-imposed exile in the Vatican. Until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 the Popes had almost no influence upon, and also no real means of influencing, the states of either Europe or the wider world. Pius XI (1922–1939) reentered the world by signing a series of concordats with Europe’s fascist powers. His aim, perhaps naive, was to restrain them and to create favorable conditions for the Church. By 1937 Pius pronounced Nazism “anti-Christian” but by then the Catholic center parties that might have provided viable opposition had all been crushed. Pius XII (1939–1958) was faced with the cataclysm of world war. In recent years critics, formed in a media-crazed age that is fond of gestures that are normally as splashy as they are empty, have bitterly chided both Popes for not taking bolder public stands, especially in the face of Hitler’s atrocities. The reality is more complicated. Both Popes, especially the latter, worked tirelessly behind the scenes. Each knew that there was no hope of bringing Hitler to a modern Canossa, and that noisy pronouncements might well have worsened the plight of Europe’s Jews, destroyed the Church’s opportunities to save individuals and communities, and threatened the existence of the Catholic Church itself. Retrospective condemnation is easy. Making prudent decisions in 1940 was hard.
Stalin famously asked how many divisions the Pope has. Of course, he has none. But Paul VI and John Paul II realized that the Popes have moral right on their side. They could appear on television, travel, write, speak at the United Nations, visit and receive heads of state, and kick the props out from under Soviet Communism. And they could do all of this by mobilizing not soldiers but truth. The Popes have learned how to engage the modern world. Polls regularly show John Paul II to be the most admired man on earth. That’s better than Canossa any day.
The Popes were relegated to govern a Catholic community that today numbers more than a billion souls scattered all over the planet. There are more Catholics in Latin America than anywhere else. Catholicism is growing faster in Asia and Africa than anywhere else. Modern Popes have sensitively addressed both of these phenomena.
The routine business of the Church has grown more centralized in some ways and more localized in other ways. Curial departments have been massively reorganized. People from all over the world have been brought to Rome to serve in important capacities. Communications, aided of course by technology, have become faster. Unity and leadership are exercised differently and more efficiently than in earlier times, but the basic aims of papal policy are consistent.
Modern Popes have been sensitive to the needs of Catholic communities on continents other than Europe and the Americas. Pius X may not have liked modern states but he promoted missionary work with genuine zeal. The sweet fruit of this labor is a Church today, and a cardinalate, that is more catholic than at any time in history. This too occasions interesting problems. The Catholic Church in the United States—there is no “American Church”—consists of around sixty million people, some of whom cause more noise and problems than the rest of the world’s Catholics together. One important aspect of being Catholic means being in communion with all of those who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The ordination of women, ending clerical celibacy, popularly electing bishops, and many other issues that seem so urgent to some fraction of those one in twenty Roman Catholics who live in the U.S. are less urgent or even meaningless to the hundreds of millions of Catholics all over the world. The Popes have learned to be the heads of the world’s most authentically international institution. They have done so, moreover, without the vaporous talk, the bureaucratic weirdness, and the fiscal profligacy of the world’s other major international organization, the United Nations.
The Popes have in fact made peace with the modern world. It is easy to look back at Popes from Leo XII (1823–1829) to Pius XII and wish that they had had an opportunity to know exactly how a variety of political, social, and intellectual movements were going to turn out. Whether or not the ascendancy of liberal democracy actually marks the end of history, it is certainly true that in the nineteenth century the advent of democratic regimes signaled the end of kingdoms that had been around for an impressively long time. Popes were the leaders of a Church that democratic governments were legislating out of almost every realm of life from marriage to school. It is not surprising that a long series of Popes took a dim view of democracy. What is more, there is no reason why, even today, democracy itself should be lauded apart from a close scrutiny of its successes and failures. John Paul II has praised democracy as the most just form of government while also warning that the greatest benefit of liberty is the chance to do what is right. That is not a message that most in, say, modern America want to hear. Yet it is a more hopeful assessment of democracy, and also a more inspirational challenge to it, than Pius IX was able to muster.
It is probably impossible for us today to form even a vague sense of the impact of Darwin and Freud in their time. They shocked people. And not all of the people they shocked were rubes or simpletons. Suppose that we all have monkeys for ancestors. Then were monkeys created in the image and likeness of God, or have we all been sold a bill of goods? Suppose that our actions all result from unseen forces that have nothing to do with free will and that cannot be characterized by means of such notions as sin. Then do grace and redemption have any meaning?
It took a long time to think through these issues. That, of course, is one thing the Catholic Church does: It takes its time. The Church was finally able to teach confidently that purposeful creation and the basic concepts of modern biology could be brought into peaceful coexistence, if not into a state of complete identification. John Paul II has said that evolution deserves careful scrutiny. Moral theologians have come to agree that certain “objective disorders” may be rooted in mysterious recesses of the human psyche. Such agreement does not, of course, excuse the disorders. It helps to explain them and suggests paths for ministerial intervention. The Church cautiously took a few fine pieces from the vault of modern psychological and scientific thought, and paid full price for them. Progressives raided those vaults like crazed looters, regarded everything they hauled out as equally valuable, and paid for nothing.
The Church cautiously accommodated modern biblical studies and theology as well. It is important to remember that when the “Higher Criticism” appeared it was no less shocking to Protestant than to Catholic thinkers. Yet whereas biblical scholarship split Protestantism into factions, some of which turned the Bible into just one good book among many while others became “Fundamentalist,” Catholic thinkers were encouraged by Providentissimus Deus (1893) and then by Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) to apply to the text of Holy Writ all the tools of modern science. Today Catholics stand in the front ranks of biblical scholars. A century of papal encouragement is partly responsible for that.
Popes have encouraged scholarship in other ways. Leo XIII opened the Vatican archives in 1883 and to this day the Vatican library is a home-away-from-home for scholars in myriad disciplines from all over the world. Leo XIII also, in Rerum Novarum (1891), engaged the work of modern social scientists. The probing analyses of modern society by John Paul II are unthinkable apart from the intellectual framework of this encyclical. The very staying power of some papal documents is revealing about certain aspects of Catholic social thought. When Pius XII celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum and when John Paul celebrated both its ninetieth and its hundredth anniversaries, the popular press was flummoxed. How, journalists wondered, could such “conservative” Popes say such “liberal” things and thereby contradict themselves? The reality, of course, is that these Popes were always and only Catholic in their fundamental analysis of society. But modern social sciences and the technical progress of modern societies forced Catholic thought to take account of specific realities that could not have occurred to St. Augustine or St. Francis.
Dogmatic theology is a trickier subject to handle in brief compass. Above all else the Pope is the guardian of the faith. Some progressives seem to assume that the distance between any two positions can always be halved. If you are an historical Pope and you act this way, Richard McBrien will say you are “understanding,” or “reasonable,” or “flexible.” But if you stand on principle, McBrien will say you are “obstinate,” or “inflexible,” or “reactionary,” or, worst of all, “conservative.” Persons of honor have always known, however, that a person holding the truth cannot agree to split the difference with someone else, no matter if that person is holding a half-truth or a full error. Some of the eighty items listed on the “Syllabus of Errors” may make us smile today, but only some of them. The latitudinarianism condemned there might be equated with the rampant relativism of the present. Popes have been stalwart defenders of the proposition that all things are not equally true.
The neo-scholastic orthodoxy of the nineteenth century turns out to have been less satisfactory than Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII might have thought. It is interesting, in retrospect, that the same Pope, Pius XII, who issued Divino Afflante Spiritu could also have issued Humani Generis (1950) with its condemnations of the “New Theologians” and their more scriptural approach to theology and ministry. A close reading of the latter encyclical shows that Pius’ great concern was relativism more than the substantive positions of the theologians. Then Vatican II rehabilitated the New Theology and three of the New Theologians got red hats: Jean Danielou from Paul VI and Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar from John Paul II. On one occasion Gregory I was criticized for changing his mind about something and he wrote back to say, “What is reprehensible is not to change one’s stand, but to entertain fickle opinions. Now if the mind remains unwavering in seeking to know what is right, why should you object when it abandons its ignorance and reformulates its position?” Always seeking to know what is right, the Popes have reformulated their positions many times in the past century.
The papacy is an idea and an institution, but above all, the papacy is about particular individuals. It would be pointless to attempt to say something here about each of the 264 Popes or to make generalizations that would somehow apply to many of them. Two cautions may be entered, however. First, Duffy entitles his book Saints and Sinners . That applies to all of us. But as it applies particularly to the Popes it reminds us that, no matter how detestable, a bad Pope cannot ruin the papacy and, however admirable, a great Pope cannot save it. The papacy is, as I have been insisting, an idea and an institution immeasurably larger than any individual Pope. Thus, focusing on the saintliness of John XXIII or on the sinfulness of Alexander VI is really beside the point. Second, pontificates are complex organisms. Perhaps the Pope is the nucleus, but to understand the organism you need to know something about the cardinals, about the key personal advisers, about the person who drafts the encyclicals (more of an issue in modern than in earlier times), about the issues that arose and about how and when they arose. Some Popes we know to have been powerful personalities, some we know to have been weaker. In many cases, we have too little evidence to say for sure. Paradoxically, studying just the Popes can distort the history of the papacy.
McBrien has his best and worst Popes. I have been reading, writing, and teaching papal history for more than twenty-five years and I do not know how to do that. I do know that historians in recent years have learned to differentiate carefully between what actually happened and how events are remembered. For those unaccustomed to the language of the academy, this is to distinguish between history and “memory.” McBrien’s assessment of John XXIII shows that he either does not know or deliberately neglected this useful distinction. He makes John the best Pope in history. The fact is that John was old and relatively inactive. He famously called a council but he did not live to shape its activity. It is only in retrospect that John’s “memory” has grown to Everestian proportions.
How do you get to be great? For McBrien you have to be “progressive.” For Duffy you have to be historically significant—although Duffy is too serious to pronounce Popes “great” or “bad.” On that account, I would rank Leo I, Gregory I (McBrien puts him down as his other “Best” Pope), Nicholas I, Innocent III, Gregory IX, Nicholas V, Pius IX, and Leo XIII as great Popes. If a long list of achievements, a marked impact on your time, an obvious personal holiness, and the respect (I do not say “agreement”) of your contemporaries are marks of greatness, then it is very hard to think of a greater Pope than the present one.
Papal history is replete with stories that are funny, disturbing, inspiring, illuminating. The fascination of those stories and of the Popes who made them is perpetual. Of that whole story, Richard McBrien says, in concluding his book, “Few, if any, traditions associated with the papacy have anything to do with the Apostle Peter, or with the Lord himself, for that matter. If nothing else is clear from this lengthy review of more than 260 Popes, at least that should be clear.” Well then, why did he bother to write his book? Here is how Eamon Duffy begins: “For all its sins, and despite its recurring commitment to the repression of ‘error,’ the papacy does seem to me to have been on balance a force for human freedom, and largeness of spirit.” The spirit of the successful historian needs to be almost as large as his subject.
Thomas F. X. Noble is Professor of History at the University of Virginia.