The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History

By Gregg, Samuel | The Historian, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History


Gregg, Samuel, The Historian


The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History. By Frank J. Coppa. (London, United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, 2014. Pp. 304. $35.00.)

Few subjects are more interesting and difficult to navigate than the relationship between the head of the Catholic Church and what is often called "modernity." It is not uncommon for the relationship to be portrayed as an "intransigent premodern institution" rather than "progressive enlightened all-knowing secularism." The use of political concepts and terminology such as "conservative" and "liberal," when applied to the papacy and Catholicism, are misleading at best and obfuscate more helpful and accurate terms such as "orthodox" and "heterodox"--especially with regard to theological questions and disputes--or "optimist" or "skeptical." It follows that a political history of the papacy in the modern world, which the reviewer takes to mean how the papacy has acted politically in the post-medieval and post-Enlightenment world, is bound to be a difficult exercise.

Frank J. Coppa's political history of the papacy avoids, for the most part, these potential pitfalls, especially between the end of the eighteenth century up until the end of the papacy of Pius XI in 1939. Neatly divided into manageable sections, the volume covers more than 230 years of history and seventeen papacies, from Pius VI to Francis. Though most of the attention is on the way that the papacy reacted to and tried to shape the political, social, and economic upheavals, ranging from the French Revolution to the long confrontation with atheistic Communism, Coppa is attentive to how theological ideas and issues of Catholic dogma and doctrine influenced these reactions. …

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