The Magazine


Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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P. G. Maxwell-Stuart


Chronicle of the Popes


Thames & Hudson, 240 pp., $ 22.95


Eamon Duffy


Saints & Sinners

A History of the Popes

  ale University Press, 256, pp., $ 35


Richard P. McBrien


Lives of the Popes


HarperSanFrancisco, 448 pp., $ 29.50

Histories of the papacy are not your everyday sort of histories, if only because the office of the pope is so much older than any other institution with which it has temporarily overlapped. Empires, anarchies, kingdoms, republics, and dictatorships have come and gone -- but whether it fought with them or compromised with them or embraced them or transformed them, the papacy has outlasted them all.

Given this almost sempiternal perseverance over two thousand years, one wonders why publishers in the one year of 1997 felt compelled to present American readers with three new papal histories. This sudden gusher increases the number of "Lives of the Popes" during the last century by about 20 percent.

The answer, I think, lies in the extraordinary importance of Pope John Paul II as the end of the millennium approaches. Even ignoring his discussions with non-Catholic Christians, his improvement of relations with Jews, and his great spiritual importance for Catholics (through his encyclicals, his personal appearances around the world, and his promotion of a new catechism), this Polish priest's influence on the Cold War alone places the papacy at the center of contemporary history: Beginning in 1978, at the depths of the Cold War, John Paul II's pontificate had as one of its express aims the breaking of communism, which it achieved, astonishingly, within its first dozen years. Is there anyone -- Catholic or non-Catholic or even anti-Catholic -- who does not admit that the papacy is an institution very much to be reckoned with? It's been a long time since anyone repeated Stalin's mocking question about how many army divisions a pope possesses.

These three new books take three very different approaches to the immensity of their historical task. There have been 262 popes, and to give even a page or two to each would itself fill a book. That is essentially the path chosen by P G. MaxwellStuart in Chronicle of the Popes and Richard McBrien in Lives of the Popes. In the third history, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy describes groups of popes in their historical contexts.

The volume by Maxwell-Stuart, a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, is succinct in its biographical accounts. A Protestant writing in large part for Protestants, he nonetheless seems able to present the papacy in the ways both Catholics and Protestants see it, without lingering over those points at which they diverge. His aim -- like Duffy's and unlike McBrien's -- is history rather than theology, and his technique is to mention almost in passing how Protestants have reacted to this or that historical moment in the papacy, without asking the reader to argue the underlying theological issues.

Maxwell-Stuart turns out to be particularly good at conveying the historical fascination of the papacy: There can scarcely be a place on earth, he observes, that has not at some time been changed, for better or worse, by a pope's words or actions. And he manages to convey as well the sheer fun of studying papal history:

Seventy-eight [popes] have been declared saints as well as, oddly enough, two antipopes; eight have been pronounced "Blessed." There have been seventy- seven Roman popes, one hundred Italian, fourteen French, eleven Greek, six German, six Syrian, three Sicilian, two Sardinian, two Spanish, two African, one English, one Dutch, one Portuguese, and one Polish. Fifteen have been monks, four friars, two laymen, and one a hermit. Four have abdicated, five have been imprisoned, four murdered, one openly assassinated, one deposed, and one subjected to a public flogging. One died of wounds he received in the midst of battle, and another after a ceiling collapsed and fell on him. The sheer variety of the ways they began and ended is riveting in itself.

With his charts, maps, timelines, and illustrations, he finds highly imaginative ways to compress immense amounts of information for the reader. Decorating his pages with quotations from diffcult-to-find sources, as well as with fascinating catalogs of popes arranged by nationality, background, and length of pontificate -- Maxwell-Stuart has produced what is in many ways (particularly for beginners and for classroom use) the most successful of the three new papal histories.