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Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy…

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (2011)

by John Julius Norwich

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In a single volume it would seem impossible to write a history of every single Pope who ever lived, but Norwich does an impressive job all the same. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Oct 6, 2017 |
Interesting initial approach to such a broad topic. Norwich's prose is agile and flows from one story to another with ease, leaving the reader wanting to delve into many of them (a great virtue in a book of this nature) The problem of the book is its own thematic breadth, which creates a lack of focus and reveals some gaps in the author's knowledge, producing errors, minor but irritating (as an example: he places the death of Mussolini in 1943) Fortunately these errors do not seem to affect the core of the book (As far as my knowledge of the issue allows me to know) ( )
  Alberto_MdH | Feb 8, 2017 |
The author makes it clear from the start that he is no scholar; even the first pages confirm this very forcefully.

He seems to be unquestioningly accepting traditional authorship of the New Testament Gospels and Epistles, which, apart from six Pauline Epistles, no scholar would do. In a footnote he states that Luke's Gospel was the first to be written; also in a footnote he asks rhetorically why Catholic clergy is forbidden to marry if Jesus' disciples were married; this despite his previous declaration that he has "no ax to grind". OTOH, he states that every Christian religion is an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the Orthodox Church is not and neither are some other Eastern churches.

And these are not the only serious factual errors, yet I didn't even read two full chapters. ( )
  igorterleg | Dec 29, 2015 |
A history of the Papacy is not an easy chore as the institution has been in existence in one form or another for 2000 years, but author Julius Norwich manages to do so in a coherent and entertaining fashion. The first 1000 years of the Papacy focused on getting the church established, its rivalry with the Eastern Orthodox Church and squabbles over arcane issues of doctrine that no one would care about today, but which often led to warfare between rival factions in the church. The next 500 or so dealt with the Pope trying to establish his power over the temporal powers of Europe with decreasing success as nation states became steadily more powerful than the church. The same period saw the rise of Islam and the Crusades against its power in the MidEast (highly unsuccessful) and the battle against its incursion into Europe (ultimately successful) And finally the last 400 or so years dealt with the rise of Protestantism, the Church's loss of temporal power and it's battle against modernism in almost any form.

With few exceptions, the Popes were mostly poor leaders and venal in the extreme. They were constantly looking to line their own (and their families') pockets with wealth and high office. Nepotism and simony were accepted practices, and vows of celibacy were largely ignored. Matters of faith seemed to take a decidedly second place to matters of temporal power.

Once the 19th Century was underway, the Papacy quickly lost any influence it once had over international events. Napoleon started things off with his Empire at the beginning of the century and the unification movements in both Germany and Italy finished the job, with the Papacy just left with Vatican City at the beginning of the 20th Century. Is it any wonder, the Popes weren't fond of the modern age?

Norwich does not spare the Popes of the last 100 years. Pius XI legitimizes Mussolini and Pius XII did virtually nothing to protest Hitler's extermination of the Jews. The one bright spot was Pope John XXIII who instituted the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI who carried on its work after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963. Pope John Paul I in 1978 gave every indication that he would extend the reforms of Vatican II even farther, but he died just 33 days after taking office and Norwich heavily suggests that he was murdered by reactionary elements in the Curia. Certainly the next two Popes were far more traditional in their doctrinaire outlook.

The book, written in 2011 ends with Pope Benedict XVI, so we will have to leave it to another historian to judge the influence of Pope Francis. This is an interesting book that peels away the holy pomposity that surrounds the Papacy and shows the Popes as the men they were - warts and all. ( )
  etxgardener | Apr 21, 2015 |
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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.)
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A comprehensive, rollicking, and timely history of the papacy.

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