Thursday, June 14, 2012

Absolute Monarchies

The Papacy is a unique and extraordinary institution, one that’s been around, more or less uninterrupted, for nearly two thousand years. John Julius Norwich’s book Absolute Monarchs: A History of The Papacy explores the amazing story of the popes, from Saint Peter (the legends about whose life and martyrdom in Rome may have been greatly exaggerated) to our own Pope Benedict XVI, who ascended the Apostolic Throne in 2005.

Benedict is the 265th pope, if you only count the ones the Vatican now recognizes as legitimately elected and consecrated. One of the interesting things about Norwich’s book is that he describes several of the antipopes - the many, many popes who were not legitimately elected or consecrated, although undoubtedly most of them thought they were.

It’s an amazing history, and Norwich tells it well, with interest but without reverence. He does not delve into the Papacy’s religious powers or the theological controversies that have always surrounded it. Instead, he looks at the popes as monarchs, focusing upon the worldly place of the Papacy and its often-contentious relationship with other secular powers.

The story of the Papacy is huge, and I admit the parade of Bonifaces, Urbans and Clements gets a little dizzying after a while. But if you’re interested in history, and especially in the history of the struggle between church and state, this opinionated, chatty book will fascinate you.

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