Looking Back on the Papal Legacy; the Papacy. Edited by Paul Johnson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Monica Foot

The Birmingham Post (England), February 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

Looking Back on the Papal Legacy; the Papacy. Edited by Paul Johnson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Monica Foot


Weighing in at just under 4lb on my kitchen scales, this massive tome is an eclectic mix of heady ingredients.

Clearly, piety is in the frame, for Paul Johnson who introduces and has edited the volume, is perhaps Britain's best-known Catholic lay writer. There is sensationalism aplenty - what could be more remarkable than the saga of the Medieval and Renaissance popes?

Culture and art are prominent. Papal patronage helped shape the art and architecture of the Western world, with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo as probably the most famous example.

"The papacy," writes Johnson, "is the last of the ancient autocracies; the only one where the autocrat himself has preserved his essential powers intact. Caesars and tsars, kaisers and Holy Roman Emperors, mikados and sultans and moguls have vanished or shrunk into more constitutional functionaries, no more significant today than the high priests of the Israelites or the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

"But the Pope is still there, and a larger congregation than ever before - over onebillion people of all races - acknowledges his spiritual sovereignty."

Johnson advances three main reasons for the enduring nature of the papacy, leaving aside the spiritual factor. The first is place: "Rome means the papacy, and the papacy is essentially Roman." Indeed, Johnson points out that of 263 popes so far (not counting anti-popes) no fewer than 124 "were actually born in Rome and counted themselves Roman through and through".

The second source of papal strength, according to Johnson, is its internationalism or, at least in aspiration, supranationalism. Latin, the language of the Vatican was after all the ligua franca of commerce, art and learning until relatively recently, only yielding to English in the early 18th century.

A third reason why the papacy has survived, continues Johnson, is "the variety and capacity of its long sequence of rulers". And, he adds: "It is a fact the most `progressive' popes have tended to be welorn, while the `popes from the people' have been traditionalists and anti-reformers."

Contributions from eminent historians follow. The Rev Professor WHC Frend writes on the origins of the papacy, concluding his studies with the year 440. …

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