Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy

Article excerpt

BRIEFLY NOTED KEEPERS OF THE KEYS OF HEAVEN: A HISTORY OF THE PAPACY by Roger Collins Basic Books, 566 pages, $35

At the beginning of his preface, Roger Collins, a medievalist and Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh University, admits that a one-volume history of the papacy is "probably far too ambitious an undertaking." Collins is right and, despite its virtues, Keepers of the Keys proves the point. The book is instructive in its rendering of the complexities and chaos of die medieval papacy, where Collins is playing on his home pitch; but when we get to the past two hundred years or so, both the narrative and the judgments become uneven. The necessary brevity imposed by the one-volume format (and, perhaps, an uncritical deference to the Whig theory of modern history) yield a treatment of the papacy from the French Revolution to the present in which two of Rome's greatest accomplishments-securing the Church's independence against the assaults of the modern state and preserving the deposit of faith while developing Catholic social doctrine as a comprehensive vision of human goods- go unnoticed and unremarked.

Collins' sketches of the key popes of modernity are also, well, sketchy. Although unhappy with Gregory XVTs political conservatism, he righdy praises the Camaldolese pope for vasdy expanding Catholic missions and for condemning the slave trade. Pius LX is treated with respect and Collins' summary of the dynamics at Vatican I is refreshingly free of liberal cant but Leo XIIFs creation of the modern papacy as an institution of moral consequence in the world is virtually ignored.

The complexities of Pius Xpious, gentle pastor and stern scourge of Modernism- are duly noted; the underrated pontificate of Benedict XV gets a fair shake; and Collins righdy portrays the "rather neglected" Pius XI as "one of the outstanding popes of the century." His sketch of Pius XII, however, is shadowed by the calumnies of Rolf Hochhuth and John Cornwell and betrays a striking lack of familiarity with recent scholarship on Pacelli's anti-Nazi convictions and his work on behalf of persecuted Jews bodi before and during World War II. Missing in action is Pius XII's reforming work: in liturgy with Mediator Dei, ecclesiology with Mystici Corporis, and Catholic biblical studies with Divino Afflante Spirir«- three encyclicals that set the intellectual foundations for the Second Vatican Council (in whose documents Pius is the single most cited papal source). …

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