By Bill Keller, July 7, 2011
John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.
And he has plenty of story to tell. “Absolute Monarchs” sprawls across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes (plus various usurpers and antipopes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more. Norwich manages to organize this crowded stage and produce a rollicking narrative. He keeps things moving at nearly beach-read pace by being selective about where he lingers and by adopting the tone of an enthusiastic tour guide, expert but less than reverent.
A scholar or devout Roman Catholic would probably not have had so much fun, for example, with the tale of Pope Joan, the mid-ninth-century Englishwoman who, according to lore, disguised herself as a man, became pope and was caught out only when she gave birth. Although Norwich regards this as “one of the hoariest canards in papal history,” he cannot resist giving her a chapter of her own. It is a guilty pleasure, especially his deadpan pursuit of the story that the church, determined not to be fooled again, required subsequent papal candidates to sit on a chaise percée (pierced chair) and be groped from below by a junior cleric, who would shout to the multitude, “He has testicles!” Norwich tracks down just such a piece of furniture in the Vatican Museum, dutifully reports that it may have been an obstetric chair intended to symbolize Mother Church, but adds, “It cannot be gainsaid, on the other hand, that it is admirably designed for a diaconal grope; and it is only with considerable reluctance that one turns the idea aside.”
If you were raised Catholic, you may find it disconcerting to see an institution you were taught to think of as the repository of the faith so thoroughly deconsecrated. Norwich says little about theology and treats doctrinal disputes as matters of diplomacy. As he points out, this is in keeping with many of the popes themselves, “a surprising number of whom seem to have been far more interested in their own temporal power than in their spiritual well-being.” For most of their two millenniums, the popes were rulers of a large sectarian state, managers of a civil service, military strategists, occasionally battlefield generals, sometimes patrons of the arts and humanities, and, importantly, diplomats. They were indeed monarchs. (But not, it should be said, “absolute monarchs.” Whichever editor persuaded Norwich to change his British title, “The Popes: A History,” may have done the book a marketing favor but at the cost of accuracy: the popes’ power was invariably shared with or subordinated to emperors and kings of various stripes. In more recent times, the popes have had no civil power outside the 110 acres of Vatican City, no military at all, and even their moral authority has been flouted by legions of the faithful.)
Norwich, whose works of popular history include books on Venice and Byzantium, admires the popes who were effective statesmen and stewards, including Leo I, who protected Rome from the Huns; Benedict XIV, who kept the peace and instituted financial and liturgical reforms, allowing Rome to become the religious and cultural capital of Catholic Europe; and Leo XIII, who steered the Church into the industrial age. The popes who achieved greatness, however, were outnumbered by the corrupt, the inept, the venal, the lecherous, the ruthless, the mediocre and those who didn’t last long enough to make a mark.
Sinners, as any dramatist or newsman can tell you, are more entertaining than saints, and Norwich has much to work with. If you paid attention in high school, you know something of the Borgia popes, who are covered in a chapter succinctly called “The Monsters.” But they were not the first, the last or even the most colorful of the sacred scoundrels. The bishops who recently blamed the scourge of pedophile priests on the libertine culture of the 1960s should consult Norwich for evidence that clerical abuses are not a historical aberration.
Of the minor 15th-century Pope Paul II, to pick one from the ranks of the debauched, Norwich 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 latter is surely unlikely.”
Sexual misconduct figures prominently in the history of the papacy (another chapter is entitled “Nicholas I and the Pornocracy”) but is hardly the only blot on the institution. Clement VII, the disastrous second Medici pope, oversaw “the worst sack of Rome since the barbarian invasions, the establishment in Germany of Protestantism as a separate religion and the definitive breakaway of the English church over Henry VIII’s divorce.” Paul IV “opened the most savage campaign in papal history against the Jews,” forcing them into ghettos and destroying synagogues. Gregory XIII spent the papacy into penury. Urban VIII imprisoned Galileo and banned all his works.
Most of the popes, being human, were complicated; the rogues had redeeming features, the capable leaders had defects. Innocent III was the greatest of the medieval popes, a man of galvanizing self-confidence who consolidated the Papal States. But he also initiated the Fourth Crusade, which led to the wild sacking of Constantinople, “the most unspeakable of the many outrages in the whole hideous history of the Crusades.” Sixtus IV sold indulgences and church offices “on a scale previously unparalleled,” made an 8-year-old boy the archbishop of Lisbon and began the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. But he also commissioned the Sistine Chapel.
Even the Borgia pope Alexander VI, who by the time he bribed his way into office had fathered eight children by at least three women, is credited with keeping the imperiled papacy alive by capable administration and astute diplomacy, “however questionable his means of doing so.”
By the time we reach the 20th century, about 420 pages in, our expectations are not high. We get a disheartening chapter on Pius XI and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church’s long streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich’s view, redeemed himself by his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis. But his indictment of Pius XII — who resisted every entreaty to speak out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz — is compact, evenhanded and devastating. “It is painful to have to record,” Norwich concludes, “that, on the orders of his successor, the process of his canonization has already begun. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.”
Norwich devotes exactly one chapter to the popes of my lifetime — from the avuncular modernizer John XXIII, whom he plainly loves, to the austere Benedict, off to a “shaky start.” He credits the popular Polish pope, John Paul II — another candidate for sainthood — for his global diplomacy but faults his retrograde views on matters of sex and gender. Norwich’s conclusion may remind readers that he introduced himself as a Protestant agnostic, because whatever his views on God, his views on the papacy are clearly pro-reformation. “It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the modern age,” he writes. “With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day — on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed.”
Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni.