Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes

By Katainen, V. Louise | National Forum, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes

Katainen, V. Louise, National Forum


Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes. New Haven:Yale University Press, 1997. 326 pages. $18.95.

This book tells the story of the papacy from the Apostle Peter to Pope John Paul II. The papacy is the office of the pope, who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and, according to Catholic belief, the successor to St. Peter, Christ's representative on earth. This is the theory of the Petrine supremacy. To recount within the covers of a single volume the history of an institution that has existed for over two thousand years is an ambitious undertaking, indeed.

From Saint Peter to Pope John Paul II, there have been 261 popes. Despite the heady challenge that the writing of this book implies, it is one that Eamon Duffy meets very well. The author succeeds in writing a two-thousand-year history in a breezy, conversational style without getting bogged down in sleep-inducing minutiae. Complicated historical issues, some of which went on for centuries (such as the Investiture Controversy) are explained with clarity, insight, and, when appropriate, a sense of humor. Key ecclesiastical and theological terms are not eschewed but rather defined in layperson's terms. The author shows himself to be a modernist when he uses terms such as "humankind" rather than the outdated and limiting "mankind" or "man." And most importantly, the narrative never becomes bogged down in a swamp of abstractions. Rather, the story is enlivened with pithy anecdotes which remind the reader that the popes were, after all, human beings with human failings, as the title of the book clearly states. For example, the opening paragraph of the section on the Renaissance popes reads:

The Renaissance papacy evokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon's Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone (133).

Because the history of the papacy is an often dramatic story, Duffy maintains the sense of drama by recounting the most exciting stories about the papacy. For example, in recounting the Church's eleventh-century reform movement and its growing conflict with the German Church, the narrative tension builds to a pitch, at which point the author concludes: "Pope and monarch faced each other across the ditch of reform" (94). This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the gunfight at the OK Corral.

The volume was published in connection with an international television series of the same name, a series conceived by S4C in Wales and produced by Opus Television for S4C in association with RTE (Ireland) and La Cinquieme (France). Saints & Sinners is divided into six long chapters that follow the division of the television series into individual programs. The first chapter, entitled "Upon this Rock," covers the history from about the year 33 of the modem era to 461. It was in this period that the idea of an institution that would lead the faithful took shape in what is now the Middle East and was then brought through Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Cyprus, and Crete to Rome. The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year 312 of the modem era legitimized Christianity, after centuries of persecution as an illegal religion, and made it a state religion. In the second chapter, "Between Two Empires (461-1000)," the story of the papacy is told as it maneuvered between the powerful Eastern (Byzantine) Empire and the beseiged and weaker Western (Roman) Empire. This was the age, nevertheless, of one of the most important popes of all time, Gregory the Great (d. 604), who never wanted to be pontiff, but who, when faced with the tough realities of this powerful position, admirably brought to bear all his administrative and diplomatic talents on the multiple problems besetting the institution.

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