Book of the week: Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich

The British historian's profile of the papacy contains splendid details of the institution's scandalous history and the popes' scandalous behaviors.

(Random House, $30)

Over the past two millennia, countless empires have come and gone, said John Cornwell in the Financial Times. Yet one institution “has outlived them all.” Despite “the aggression of its enemies, and the occasional depravity of its pontiffs,” the Roman papacy has survived and often thrived, propped up by the faithful’s “robust spiritual allegiance to the popes in every era.” With “flashes of wit and a formidable accumulation of detail,” British historian John Julius Norwich has created a group profile of the church’s popes, producing a motley procession of martyrs, saints, philanderers, perverts, and homicidal maniacs. Legend has it that there was even a female pontiff. Pope Joan, the story goes, briefly became the leader of the Catholic church during the ninth century by disguising herself. She was purportedly discovered when she gave birth while attempting to mount a horse.

Joan’s is just one of 265 stories Norwich seems to tell, said Bill Keller in The New York Times. Faced with an “immense cast,” the author manages to keep things flowing at a “nearly beach-read pace” by nimbly selecting information and skipping matters of theology. He pauses to admire such saintly popes as Leo I, who famously faced down Attila the Hun, yet he knows that the “sinners are more entertaining.” In that respect, Norwich “has much to work with.” Pope Paul II, for instance, is said to have had a taste for torturing young men and for eating melons, possibly simultaneously. Pius II, when not attending to papal duties, wrote pornographic romances. In the vast middle reside more-complex characters—men like Sixtus IV, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel but was also responsible for inaugurating the Spanish Inquisition.

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“Reading page after page of this cacophony of temporal sin, one begins to wonder whether this is a history of a religious institution at all,” said Janet Kinosian in the Los Angeles Times. Norwich eventually touches on the current pope, Benedict XVI, and notes that Benedict is dealing with a worldwide scandal involving child-sex abuse perpetrated by clergy. Sadly, the story doesn’t seem out of place. Aiming for objectivity, the author refrains from inserting his own opinions, leaving readers to ponder the meaning of the church’s mostly scandalous history. Why would an organization built on the teachings of one who exhorted his followers to love their neighbors “conduct itself with such utter opposing hypocrisy?” Perhaps the next 2,000 years will bring an answer.

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