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Whether one believes it is of divine or secular origin, the papacy’s impact on human history has been remarkable. Because its legacy has been so rich and varied, however, it is a challenge to write a full-length history. Most authors can’t master a single pontificate, let alone all 265. Many who make the effort fail.

The latest is John Julius Norwich, author of Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy . Norwich is a popular historian and television personality in Britain, but his forte is not Christianity, much less the papacy, and his limitations show. Even aside from the misleading title (no pope was ever an “absolute monarch” in the way that phrase suggests), Norwich’s book gets off to a poor start, and never recovers.

After ridiculing the omniscience of Christ (“would Jesus really have been thinking at this early stage of founding a church?”), Norwich assures us that “Luke was the first” Gospel written (most scholars affirm it was Mark); and then offers disingenuous statements about Peter’s presence and activities in Rome:

What Peter most certainly did not do was found the Roman Church. He seems to have been in the city for only a very short time before his martyrdom, and he could not possibly have been a diocesan bishop as we understand the term and as the pope is Bishop of Rome today.

Of course, Catholics believe that Christ , not Peter, found the Church; and even the most traditional Catholic wouldn’t claim that the Chair of St. Peter, at that time, was exercised as it is today. Recent scholarship has much to say about the origins and development of the Petrine ministry, but Norwich appears oblivious to it, and instead comes across as an entrenched skeptic, determined to expose the Church of Rome. (In a candid interview with Canada’s National Post , Norwich confessed: “I think it’s built on practically nothing.”)

As one reads on, it becomes clear that Absolute Monarchs has no real interest in the popes, other than to mock or marginalize them, and rob them of their saving grace: their faith. “As far as possible,” writes Norwich, in an introduction, “I have tried to steer well clear of theology.” Then why write a history of the papacy at all? As Cambridge’s Eamon Duffy wryly remarked, “A history of the popes with most of the religion left out is a matter of some wonder.”

Norwich tips his hand early on when he tells us that papal history is “all too often stultifyingly boring.” Yes, to the sensationalist, ordinary goodness and decency are dull: what excites them most is scandal and sin, especially when high-ranking prelates are involved. Attracted to vice, rather than virtue, Norwich has produced a tabloid history of the papacy.

To say this book is cynical would be an understatement. What one writer admiringly called “the pageant of the popes,” Norwich reduces to dumb luck and serial power grabs. While most popes strove to lead good lives, Absolute Monarchs is dominated by freaks and misfits, out to deceive and oppress. Norwich’s disdain for saintly popes is summed up in his judgment of Pius X: “He was too quiet, too humble, too holy, and his very holiness closed his mind to original thought.” Even on the rare occasion he praises a pope, Norwich does so more because of their secular achievements, than ability to inspire believers.

To make the papacy look as absurd as possible, he resorts to fantasy and conjecture. Norwich devotes an entire chapter to the female “Pope Joan,” even as he admits she was non-existent. Later, he recycles lurid claims that someone in the Vatican may have murdered John Paul I, recommending, with a straight face, that people read up on the supposed conspiracy, “then decide for themselves.” It’s as if he is taking cues from a Monty Python skit, or the poison-the-pope scene in The Godfather: Part III.

That Norwich disparages John Paul II (“a reactionary”) and Benedict XVI (“distinctly shaky”) is to be expected, as are his attacks on Catholic moral teachings. More surprising”if only because he champions it”is his assertion about Vatican II: “It contradicted Pius XII’s pronouncements on almost every main issue.” In fact, Vatican II relied heavily on Pius XII’ teachings, and cited them approvingly over 200 times” more than any modern pontiff . This is not just faulty history; it is striking ignorance.

But nothing equals Norwich’s treatment of Pope Paul II, which takes anti-papal propaganda to new heights. He writes:

The pope’s sexual proclivities aroused a good deal of speculation. He seems to have had two weaknesses”for good-looking young men and for melons”though the contemporary rumor that he enjoyed watching the former being tortured while he gorged himself on the later is surely unlikely. The stroke that killed him on July 26, 1471, at the age of only fifty-four is said to have been brought on by a surfeit of both.

This is scurrilous. As both Mandell Creighton and Ludwig von Pastor show, in their classic histories of the papacy, there is no evidence that Paul II was a bad man, much less that he was an immoral glutton. Claims that he was began with Paul’s secular-minded opponents, whom he opposed because of their exaltation of paganism over Christian teaching. One of them, Bartolomeo Platina, enacted revenge against Paul II by writing a malicious and largely fictitious biography of him, much like modern ideologues have tried to defame Pius XII. But just as the latter have been exposed, so too has Platina. Von Pastor, the first historian granted access to the Vatican’s secret archives, published almost 200 pages vindicating Paul II, while unearthing primary evidence revealing that Platina, in stark contrast, was a “violent and immoral man.”

Leave it to Norwich to confuse villainy with virtue.

To defend Paul II is not to make excuses for those popes guilty as charged. That the papacy has had certain unworthy occupants is no secret, least of all to Catholics. But it is exactly in analyzing the bad popes where Absolute Monarchs fails. Commenting on the state of the Church at the beginning of the Reformation, Norwich relates that reverence for the papacy “had been utterly lost in the hearts of men.” In the hearts of Protestant reformers, no doubt, but not the Catholic ones. The latter knew the force of Protestantism’s critique, and in fact agreed with it in part”but always maintained that the papal office, as such , apart from abuse, was essential to the Church, and that no true reform was possible without it. History has proven them correct.

As the centuries have passed, Catholics and Evangelicals have come much closer together. Mutual accusations have given way to ecumenical reconciliation, and one of the chief reasons why has been the papacy”ironically, the same institution which once so divided Christendom. Even with remaining disagreements, Evangelicals have expressed increasing respect and appreciation for the papal office. Hermann Pottmeyer, a leading Catholic theologian and ecumenicist, has written: “Whenever the Petrine ministry has been exercised according to Christ’s will and example, it has proved a blessing for the church, protecting its unity and defending its independence. This is confirmed by the experience of Christians who lack this office. They themselves regret that they have no one charged with preserving unity.”

Nowhere in Absolute Monarchs do we get any sense of this, or how the papacy made it possible. Norwich informs us that he is an “agnostic Protestant” who has “absolutely no ax to grind,” but the former should not have prevented him from writing a more credible book, and the latter is contradicted by almost every page of this one.

One doesn’t have to be a Catholic, or even religious, to write intelligently about the popes, but one does need to be careful about one’s facts, and respect the vision that faith brings. It is precisely these qualities which Norwich lacks.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine , among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics . He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII .


The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J.N.D. Kelly and Michael Walsh

A History of the Popes”with the Religion Left Out by Eamon Duffy, Times Literary Supplement , April 27, 2011

The Petrine Ministry in a Changing Church by Hermann J. Pottmeyer

The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church , by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Church Unity and the Papal Office: An Ecumenical Dialogue on John Paul II’s Encyclical Ut Unum Sint , edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson

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