Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

By Watt, Richard M | The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy


Watt, Richard M, The Christian Science Monitor


The story of the power of the Papacy - and how it has waxed and waned over the centuries.

In Matthew 16 (18-19) Jesus says to his first disciple, Simon Peter, "....you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."

After Jesus's death it must have become apparent to Peter that it was absolutely necessary for him to transfer his ministry to Rome - the Imperial capital of the world. And once in Rome he would take up the position of head of the Christian church. Well, we don't know exactly how or when (or even if) Peter arrived in Rome but we assume that he did and after having been given some office similar to the Bishop of Rome, he was killed in about 64AD. Peter was never actually a "Pope," as the title did not exist until adopted by Siricius (584-399), but for almost 2,000 years he has been considered the first Pope.

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy is the story of the Popes - by whatever title - as they have supposedly passed from Peter in an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession. It is the story of all the Popes which poses a problem for the reader, as it must have been for the author, because so many of the Popes, particularly the earlier ones, were downright dull, stupid, and uninteresting or else we simply know nothing about them.

The author of "Absolute Monarchs" is John Julius Norwich, a productive and respected British author whose specialty is the history of the Mediterranean world during the first millennium AD. Norwich was the son of a titled Conservative British politician and diplomat, Duff Cooper. Consequently, his heir Norwich is also a lord - the Second Viscount Norwich.

An Old Etonian, Norwich served in the Royal Navy, studied languages at Oxford, joined the British Foreign Service and then left it to become a writer. Norwich has done it all - he's been the host of a radio game show, the writer and narrator of 30 television documentaries on historical subjects, and the author of travel books (a genre the British seem to own) as well as a half-dozen quite distinguished histories set in medieval times. Norwich is an old - and skillful - hand at historical story-telling.

The Popes, as "Absolute Monarchs" tells us, were at one time simply nominated and pushed into office by a powerful ruler or a wealthy family. Not until 1059 did a Pope propound a decree which placed the selection of the Papal office squarely in the hands of the cardinals - who were, of course, themselves selected by the Pope.

When the naming of the Pope had been largely the prerogative of wealthy Italian families such as the Medicis, the Borgias, and the Tusculums, the latter family was able to name three successive Popes starting in 1012. A problem arose for the Tusculums. None of the men the family backed as Pope was even a member of the clergy. …

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