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July 09, 2011

Papal Populism

Not quite sure about this one.  The author, a self-described non-scholar and "agnostic Protestant" (that seems intended as oxymoron but it comes across more as swellingly proud redundancy) takes a drag race through 2000 years of Church history, coming around full circle to report, as the reviewer tells it, that "the popes who achieved greatness . . . were outnumbered by the corrupt, the inept, the venal, the lecherous, the ruthless, the mediocre and those who didn’t last long enough to make a mark."  This finding is preceded by the reviewer's warning that "[i]f you were raised Catholic, you may find it disconcerting to see an institution you were taught to think of as the repository of the faith so thoroughly deconsecrated."  I don't feel especially disconcerted or deconsecrated, but I haven't read the book.  But I suppose the reviewer must believe in earnest that this book is really doing a great service by explaining the papacy to Catholics -- notoriously innocent as we are of both history and culture  [eliminated, since there seemed to be confusion about whether I think Catholics don't know a lot about history and culture].  I'm reminded of Bernard-Henri Lévy's anthropological expedition through the American south; he, too, thought that America was best explained to Americans through the medium of realist popular zoology.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on July 9, 2011 at 10:37 AM in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink


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I have read almost all of John Julius Norwich's historical works, and they are wonderful. He is a fabulous writer, and his books appeal to a lot of people. They are not academic histories, but they do not claim to be. His work on the history of Byzantium, for example, is rife with the various scandals that shook the various courts throughout its long and often ignominious history.

I have obviously not read this book yet, as it comes out on Tuesday, although I have already ordered a copy. I have read a lot of books about the Popes of various eras, and they were a remarkable lot. (Think about Alexander VI, for example. Remarkable is not the right word for him, now that I think about it.) I think that Catholics can take some pride in the fact that the Church has survived as long as it has, whether its survival is because of its mundane leadership or despite it. I also think that Catholics tend (as Marc pointed out) not to know a lot about the history of the institution to which they belong. Teaching Papal history of the sixth through ninth centuries to Catholic college students for whom the period was entirely new was eye-opening for them and for me.

The Church is, after all, a worldly and political institution, run by very human people, a lot of whom, having fought their way to the top, are a lot more human than others. I don't know of many scholarly Catholics who would argue to the contrary.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Jul 9, 2011 2:42:09 PM

Hi, Professor Wertheimer. Gee, I didn't think anyone would take my comment about Catholics being notoriously innocent of history and culture seriously, but I see that you did. I'll have to fix that portion of my post to make it plainer that, actually, I really don't think that at all.

It's surprising to me that you would believe that Catholics "tend not to know a lot about the history of the institution to which they belong," since you know many of the same Catholics I do, and since many of them are extremely cultivated, intelligent, and well-informed people. But perhaps you are referring to other Catholics that you know and whom I do not know.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jul 9, 2011 3:00:45 PM

I appreciate your comment. I was certainly not speaking about my colleagues or about anyone else I have encountered in academia. The vast majority of Catholics, however, like the vast majority of humanity generally, is not in academia. During my youth, I knew a great many Catholics well, many of them extremely devout. The majority had never read the Bible in any detail (if at all), and knew nothing about Catholic history and little to nothing about Church doctrine outside the Mass itself. Their Church educations simply did not include such information. Even with this experience now many years ago, I was astonished at how little the college students in my much more recent class knew about Church history, something I mentioned in my post.

I apologize if my post was unclear. I thought that my reference to undergraduates would have made it clear that I was not speaking about any of my colleagues, or indeed about anyone whose career lies within any academic institution. Many undergraduates at a place like Villanova meet Church history, doctrine, and Catholic social thought for the first time when they arrive here--something that I view as a crucial part of their educations.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Jul 9, 2011 4:29:50 PM

I don’t know about the book but Keller’s review is fatuous in the extreme. Keller appears to endorse the view that the point of Norwich’s comment about being an “agnostic Protestant” is that Norwich has “no axe to grind.” What universe is Keller living in? While I don’t know anything about Norwich in particular, only the most obtuse do not know that “agnostic Protestants” in England are quite often virulently hostile to the Catholic Church. Think Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. They are not anomalies.

If the review is accurate at all, the book amounts to nothing more than a recitation for the nth time of the bad deeds that are always trotted out when an attack is being leveled at the Catholic Church: popes who had mistresses, the Crusades, Galileo, and the alleged anti-semitism of Pius XII. For Keller, and judging from the review, for Norwich too, this pretty much sums up the history of the papacy. Apparently Keller felt that the book forgot to include in the recitation of bad deeds sufficient due to the sex abuse scandal. Keller corrects this omission by citing past sexual misdeeds as grounds for scolding the current bishops for having “recently blamed the scourge of pedo¬phile priests on the libertine culture of the 1960s” (in fact, what Keller is referring to is a conclusion not of the bishops but of the John Jay study (whose authors included non-Catholics)). Keller appears to relish recounting the details of sexual perversity that is recounted in the book. Big surprise then when Pope John Paul II must be taken to task for “retrograde views on matters of sex and gender.” According to the review, the assessment of Pope Benedict XVI – one the greatest thinkers alive today – is that he is off to a “shaky start.” Profound.

In short, if Keller’s review is accurate, this book is devoid of analysis and insight and is instead nothing more than a rehashing of material that has been the staple of anti-Catholic diatribes since Elizabethan times. I think I’ll pass.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 10, 2011 10:07:04 PM

Why would someone in reviewing this book recount details of sexual perversity by members of The Church and then take the leader of The Church to task for "retrograde views on matters of sex and gender" because The Catholic Church refuses to condone sexual perversity? Oh what a tangled web...

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jul 10, 2011 11:20:27 PM

I'm neither Catholic nor an agnostic Protestant, and I'm fairly sure I have no axes to grind, but I found the review wholly unimpressive. Many Catholics probably don't know the history of the popes, but many do, and not knowing their own history is certainly not a particularly Catholic trait. The book itself, as reviewed, seems a light historical tour for the most part rather than a screed, but neither, on Keller's reading, does it have much that's novel or substantive to say. Although it's true that anti-Catholics have harped on the bad popes, it's equally true that there have been bad popes, unsurprisingly enough given human nature and history, and I don't think it's necessarily anti-Catholic to write such a history, especially since the review says the book also focuses on what the author thinks are the great popes. It would have been nice (and perhaps it's true; I'm only going off the review) if the author had pointed out the number of popes who were neither great in a worldly sense nor wicked and hypocritical, but just quiet prayerful pontiffs. Nor do I think it wrong or anti-Catholic to focus on the modern popes and in doing so to be critical of the world war-era popes and of the Church's move to canonize at least one of those popes; that has been the subject of both internal debate within the Church and broader debate elsewhere. The problem, to me, is ultimately the terminally light tone of the review.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 11, 2011 7:29:39 AM

Thanks to all for comments. I just want to note that I did not say that the review (or the book, of course, since I haven't read it) is anti-Catholic.

What I object to is the reviewer's idea that books like these will remove the scales from believing Catholics' eyes about the history of the papacy. I guess unlike Professor Wertheimer, whose own experiences I certainly respect, my own experience is that Catholics are only too aware of the flaws and foibles of their own Church's history, as they should be. Certainly, some may not be, but many are (and here I agree with Paul, and with nearly all of his comment). But being aware of that history -- complicated, magnificent, difficult, and rich as it is -- should not, in my view, and as the reviewer puts it, be disconcerting or make Catholics feel that their faith is any less real, true, or sacred. Quite to the contrary. In fact, I think it quite silly and rather puerile to suggest that being let in on these putative secrets of history ought to make Catholics feel any such thing.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jul 11, 2011 8:18:52 AM

At the very least, the executive editor of The New York Times did not do his due diligence as the tale of Pope Joan is a complete fabrication and the outrageous charges that Pope Pius XI and Pius XII (along with, according to the author, The Church because of it's long streak of anti Semitism) were enablers of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, is not backed by any substantial evidence.

Since it is clear that Mr.Keller did not feel it was necessary to do his due-diligence, it would be logical to assume that his intention for reviewing this book was most likely to use these tales of scandal as a way to discredit the Popes and thus the teaching Magisterium of The Church.

Although Mr. Keller, towards the end of his review, refers to The Catholic Church's teaching on sex and gender as a retrograde view, his claim that with the accession of every succeeding pontiff, the progressives have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the Day- on homosexuality, on contraception, and on the ordination of priests, Mr.Keller's reasoning is counter- intuitive, since, be they a Saint or a sinner, with the accession of each succeeding pontiff, The Church's teaching on homosexuality, on contraception, and on the ordination of women priests, has remained consistent.

At the end of the Day, we cannot transform The Truth of Love, Christ transforms us.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jul 11, 2011 11:44:17 AM

As a non-agnostic Protestant, I largely shared Paul's reaction to the review. The book interested me because I've liked Norwich's earlier work, but the NYT review dampened my interest precisely because its narrative and the one it attributed to the book are so conventional by now: there were lots of corrupt Popes especially in the Renaissance, good ones over the centuries, flawed ones today because they're "retrograde on matters of sex and gender," etc. I grant Ellen Wertheimer's point that history needs to be retold to new generations; moreover, the book may offer more than the review indicates. But I got no sense from the review that the book probes any interesting, less often-discussed questions raised by the history that complicate the "bad popes" narrative. To take just one example, the Renaissance popes were in touch in many ways with the spirit of that secular age in art, politics, etc.: when is it good for the Church to take a lead from the surrounding culture (as critics today claim it should), and when is it bad? Or another: Can we learn anything from papal history about which elements of institutionalism--the strong institutional emphasis in Catholicism--are negative (allowing more room for corruption among leaders), and which elements are good and necessary (providing a strong structure across the centuries for preserving beliefs, standing up to other powerful institutions, and facilitating worldwide works of service and mercy)?

Posted by: Tom Berg | Jul 12, 2011 3:55:28 PM

Sorry about the mutual praise here, but I agree with Tom's post. And I think one point he makes is worth underscoring: one of the things we can learn from these kinds of histories (not necessarily Norwich's book, which I haven't read, but others in a more serious vein) has to do with the institutional structure of the Church over its history. To do this without seeming to ignore the spiritual aspects of the Church may be difficult, but to assume the perfection of the Church in an ahistorical and institutionally indifferent way (not that any Catholics necessarily do that) without considering its institutional structure and history also leaves something important out of the picture. The history of the Popes, and of the Church, can lead to a richer understanding of both the Church as an institution and of institutions more generally. Insofar as the Church is an institution that seeks to exist and survive in the world, and in which human motives as well as more prayerful ones are at work, then it may be useful in considering how the Church has managed to survive and thrive, what institutional factors contributed to this, and -- as Tom says -- what institutional factors might either encourage or constrain self-serving or wicked behavior. Certainly institutional factors can contribute to an analysis of why the Church has recently been eager to canonize recent popes, even if spiritual as well as institutional factors figure in that trend. It seems to me that analyses of this kind must be respectful but clear-eyed, willing to criticize but not simply hostile or critical for its own sake, and must simultaneously adopt both an internal and an external perspective in thinking through these issues.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 13, 2011 7:48:03 AM

It appears that both Tom and Paul agree that the problem with the review is ultimately "the terminally light tone of the review". With all due respect, I am wondering how a review which falsely accuses The Catholic Church of being anti Semitic and enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco and attacks The Catholic Church's teaching on the Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, referring to The Church's teaching on matters of sex and gender as "retrograde", would not be considered " simply hostile or critical for it's own sake", since the review seems neither respectful nor is it "clear-eyed", to begin with.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jul 13, 2011 9:22:29 AM

No one is arguing that the faults of popes should be airbrushed out of a history of the papacy. The question is whether those faults are blown out of proportion for the purpose of undermining the Church's credibility. Norwich himself raises the issue in the introduction where, apparently, he claims that his status as an "agnostic Protestant" means he has "no axe to grind." The claim is so transparently false that it refutes itself. Keller's review adds to the impression that the book is a hatchet job.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 13, 2011 6:17:29 PM

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