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The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 26/02/2013

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 2011; Pages – 467; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 499; Purchased from Cosmo

Papacy has suddenly become the news in vogue after the sudden declaration of resignation by Pope Benedict XVI. It is one of the oldest institutions in the world and has a long and interesting history, filled with controversy, politics, nepotism and sex. Despite the long history, resignations are very rare (the last voluntary resignation was in 1294), though there have been many Popes that have been deposed or forced to resign.

John Julius Norwich, a noted English historian and writer, has recounted the history of the Holy See in his 2011 book “The Popes: A History”. Summarizing two millennia of history into 500 pages is not an easy task and predictably, the details improve with the progression of time. The author runs through the first 800 years of papacy without much detail, but this is a characteristic of the status of Christianity as a religion during that time and the status of the Pope within it. Among the early Popes, the noteworthy ones included Leo I the Great who stared down Attila the Hun when he attempted to seize Rome and Gregory I the Great who developed the administrative setup of the Church.

For most part, the Popes have been aged gentlemen of learning, who had spent their life with the Church, and suffering from gout. But there have been exceptions, like Pope John XII, who become Pope when he was only 18 and attempted to excommunicate an Emperor by writing “You have no power to ordain no one”. The usage of double negative was dutifully noted by the Emperor. Pope John’s family, the Tusculani, is credited with having produced seven Popes including Benedict IX, who was one of the earlier papal resignees, because he sold his papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI (who would also subsequently resign).

It was only in 1059 AD, with the help of the Cardinal Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) and his Norman allies that the now familiar College of Cardinals was given the sole power of election of Pope. The custom of locking the Cardinals till they elected the Pope was instituted in 1274 by Pope Gregory X, after it took three years for the Cardinals to elect Gregory X. The papal election of 1287-1288, though it lasted only 10 months, saw the death of one third of the Cardinals present (due to malaria).

The last Pope to resign voluntarily, Pope Celestine V, was also the last Pope elected without a conclave; after an election that took two years. A hermit, incapable of handling the administrative responsibilities of the Holy See resigned within half a year. He was imprisoned by his successor which is where he would die, like a hermit.

It was during the middle ages that Popes got into the habit of making their nephews Cardinals. Nepotism was at an all time high and so was corruption. In fact the word nepotism comes from this practice (Nephew in Latin is nepos). It was subsequently banned in 1692 by Pope Innocent XII.

In recent years the papacy has lost the influence it once had, but it has vastly improved from the archaic institution it once was. Ironically, the papacy is an organisation that has been evolving since its inception. But with Europe becoming lesser Catholic, the papacy has largely been an out of touch institution not able to fully accept its diverse electorate. The author notes the positive moves made by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I in this regard, but criticizes the later Popes for their lack of interest in continuing forward. Since Pope Benedict XVI was still an active Pope at the time of publishing the author gives him the benefit of the doubt.

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One Response to “The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich”

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