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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Twisting of History

Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Pope Pius VII
1804 - 7
Marble sculpture
71cm height
Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles


Yesterday I was surprised to read a favourable book review in The New York Times by Bill Keller, executive editor of the newspaper. It seemed to provoke a venemous meditation on the history of the papacy and its Popes, and therefore on the Catholic Church.


The book was Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich, a British "popular" historian who describes himself as "no scholar" and an "agnostic Protestant"

The book was published earlier this year in Britain under the title The Popes: A History to damning reviews from all points of view. It lacked scholarship. It was shallow and superficial.  The book was risible. It proceeded at a great gallop no doubt so that the reader would not notice the many errors. It is essentially a series of anecdotes and does not do full justice to the great and massive theme which it set itself to cover.

It is a work from the Da Vinci Code  school of history.

The NY Times review was surprising as it appeared to accept Norwich`s argument and use the book as a platform to attack the Catholic Church

The NY Times reviewer stated that:

"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."

Father Z and The Catholic League have attacked the review - quite rightly


First there is the lack of research done by John Julius Norwich and his anecdotal approach to the subject. This was noted by the reviewer in The Daily Telegraph. He wrote:

"The inevitable contrast here is between this account and Saints & Sinners, the history of the popes by Eamon Duffy. That book is also a work of synthesis for the general reader; Norwich cites it repeatedly and seems to have made much use of it.

But whereas Norwich structures his book entirely around the individual life-stories of the popes (including, by the way, an entire chapter on the mythical female Pope Joan, whom Duffy does not deign to mention), Duffy’s history is constantly aware of, and shaped by, the institutional and doctrinal development of the Church.

If I had to recommend only one book on this topic, it would have to be Duffy’s. But there’s certainly room for two books on an institution which, continuously and quite amazingly, spans almost 2,000 years of European history."

Second, in narrating the history, religion is left out and theological concerns are marginalised.

Professor Duffy in The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book and gently savaged the work as one might of a callow undergraduate

Rather humbly, Professor Duffy comments that the author is "heavily dependent on other papal histories". What he does not say is that one of the main book relied upon for research is Professor Duffy`s own book Saints and Sinners.

Professor Duffy wrote a classic review article which is educational about the subject itself. However he delicately points out the problems with Norwich`s book:

"He {Norwich] is not, by his own account, greatly interested in religion, and defines his book as “essentially political, cultural and, up to a point, social”. Occasionally, he warns us, “basic matters of doctrine cannot be avoided”, but as far as possible “I have tried to steer well clear of theology”.

This is probably just as well, to judge by the declaration in his opening paragraph that “Roman Catholicism began with Christianity itself; all other Christian religions – and there are more than 22,000 of them – are offshoots or deviations from it”, a claim liable to trigger apoplexy in Constantinople and Cairo, Geneva and Canterbury, and which might elicit a raised eyebrow even in the Vatican.

And on theological matters at any rate, errors abound: St Luke was not the author of the earliest gospel, St Peter did not write the epistles which go under his name,

Athanasius was never an archbishop, Greek was not the dominant language of the Roman liturgy in the fourth century, St Peter’s Basilica was a cemetery church and never a cathedral, St Jerome was not an Italian, Constantine was not baptized by Eusebius of Caesarea, we do not know the purpose of Gregory VII’s Dictatus papae, and they were certainly never “published”.

A history of the popes with most of the religion left out is a matter of some wonder, and the marginalization of theological concerns distorts the book. ...

There are some odd omissions.

The first century of the Church in Rome is shrouded in obscurity, but there is a scholarly consensus that rule by a single bishop was established there later than almost anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

So the first individuals recognizable as popes, with authority over the multicultural and polyglot congregations scattered through the city, emerge only in the midsecond century. For a dynasty which claims an unbroken pedigree back to St Peter, this is obviously a difficulty, but Norwich barely alludes to the issue in a footnote, and says nothing whatever about its implications.

Again, in the late seventh century and for much of the eighth, the clerical culture of Rome was dominated by an influx of Greek refugees from the theological battles of the East, and most of the popes of that period were Greeks. The effects of this invasion on the worship, theology and personnel of the Roman Church were profound, and at times unwelcome ...

In the skimpy treatment of the twentieth century, disproportionate space is allocated to the month-long papacy of John Paul I, and Norwich wastes time discussing whether or not Papa Luciani was murdered, only to concede that he wasn’t. The present Pope is predictably admonished for his incorrect opinions on gay marriage, contraception and the ordination of women. But the chief caning is reserved for the “odiously anti-Semitic”, “icily autocratic” Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, above all for his wartime failure to condemn explicitly the Nazi extermination of the Jews. ...

The Popes is an entertaining book which tells some good stories and embraces a large historical sweep.

But its overall effect is curiously trivializing. The papacy depicted here is in the end unintelligible, its power to inspire and its centrality over two millennia of Christian development reduced to a handful of vivid personalities and the to and fro of power politics.

Anyone seeking to understand more of the inwardness of the world’s most enduring religious institution will have to look elsewhere."


Michael Pye in The Scotsman attacked the scholarship of the book. He wrote:

Of the book`s treatment of the Templars:

"The parade is endlessly interesting, but sometimes worrying. John Julius Norwich does libraries, but he doesn't do archives; and as the Vatican archives are organised and opened, a laborious process, the story very often changes.

Here are the Templars, riding through to their doom: accused of Satanism, cat worship, and riding pillion on another knight's horse. Norwich seems to think the French king wanted their money, which is true, and the Pope might have saved them, which is more doubtful.

Deep in the papal archives, Barbara Frale found papers which suggest what was actually happening: a French king threatening to do a Henry VIII but 200 years early, to create a French church that did not answer to the Pope. To stop that, the Pope had to do what the king wanted.

And as for all those dubious accusations, the Pope had already absolved the Templars; he knew their more bizarre rites were a kind of hazing, to make sure the knights would obey instantly in the field. Or so the archives suggest. The trouble started when newcomer knights went to confess to priests outside the order. Templars told Templars they had not done mortal sin, even spitting on the cross, if they were properly repentant. Franciscans, however, were judgmental.

On this roller-coaster ride there's hardly time to stop for that kind of detail, but the details sometimes do change the whole story"

Of the Galileo affair which was seized on by the NY Times reviewer Pye writes:

"Here's Galileo, going to trial because he offends the dignity of Urban VIII by giving all the official papal arguments about the sun revolving round the earth to a bona fide idiot, and in print. A furious Pope gets him banned under a kind of theological control order. The church resists science, and the Pope, once Galileo's friend and protector, turns against him.

The trouble is, since Pietro Redondi started shuffling through the Vatican archives, the story doesn't seem quite so simple. It now seems the real issue was between Pope on one side and the Black Pope, the Jesuit leader, on the other. They'd been scrapping for a long time over assorted issues, including the castrati that Urban loved to hear in the Sistine Chapel choir and which the Jesuits said, moralistically, made Rome "just like Constantinople".

The Jesuits had a grievance against Galileo which was, in some ways, even more fundamental than discussing the place of the Earth in the universe: they disapproved of his tendency to atomic theory. Start doubting the nature of matter, and you never know where the arguments will lead; but probably not to transubstantiation. So the Jesuits wanted Galileo tried and Urban, far from being insulted by his friend, tried to protect him by insisting on the minor charges which wouldn't take him to the stake."

Even John Cornwell in his review in The Financial Times found major faults with the book:

"Norwich tells us that because he is an “agnostic Protestant” he brings “objectivity” to his subject. That’s like Tony Benn penning an “objective” history of the Tory party. And he has steered, he goes on, “well clear of theology”, which sounds like military history with no mention of a war. His interest is political and cultural, he maintains. Hence he fails to address the overarching significance of ecclesiology – the theological study of the spiritual role of “Vicar of Christ” as the ultimate foundation of Catholic unity and authority.

Norwich’s objectivity seriously fails his account of the 20th-century papacy, the era preeminently susceptible to fresh and original thinking.

It won’t do to describe Pius XI (1922-39) merely as an “autocrat” who thought “the Roman Catholic Church was right, and everyone else was wrong”. Pius XI played a crucial part in a process of papal social teaching during a period of political and social upheaval. "