A Portrait of Four Popes: Book Offers a Full, Nuanced History of the Papacy in the 19th Century

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A HISTORY OF THE POPES 1830-1914 By Owen Chadwick Oxford University Press, 614 pages, $39.95

If like many Catholics you like to read about the popes, this is a book for you. If you simply want to know more about the trauma Catholicism suffered after the French Revolution and how it began to overcome it, this is also the book for you. If you just like history and want a good read, this is the book for you. Owen Chadwick, emeritus Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, has here pulled off a tour de force.

He covers four pontificates, beginning with Gregory XVI, "the most hated pope for two centuries," then moves on to Pius IX and Leo XIII and ends with Pius X. Each of these popes is important, and the names of the last three are familiar to anybody interested in 19th-century Europe. Although they appear often in history books, they rarely get treatment that is comprehensive. That is one of the strengths of the book. Chadwick covers every one of these four popes "in the round," so that you become aware of the many balls they were trying to juggle at the same time. The full treatment also gives him room for concrete details that bring the stories to life. One of my favorites is the ordinance under Gregory XVI about who might attend the execution of criminals in the Papal State and what medals the papal officers might wear for the occasion.

Of the four popes, Pius IX is the most important and receives the most extensive coverage. Chadwick devotes about 50 pages to Vatican Council I--the political and ecclesiastical background and then the process of the council itself. He devotes another 50 to Pius as serf-imposed and self-proclaimed "Prisoner of the Vatican" after the fall of Rome to Italian troops in 1870. This is all high drama, but so is the earlier part of Pius's story, which includes his flight in disguise from Rome on the night of Nov. 24, 1848. So is the story of the conclaves, especially the conclave of 1903 that elected Pius X.

Chadwick ranges beyond what his title indicates to provide narratives about the church in-the major European countries. With the popes still as the focus, the book turns out to be a full-fledged history of the European setting in which the church had to operate. Understanding Italy is of course crucial for understanding the 19th-century papacy, but France and Germany are also especially important and receive incisive coverage. …