Like it or loathe it, you can't really ignore the papacy. It's the world's oldest dynasty, and it commands the loyalty of nearly a fifth of the world's population and the attention of a great many more. More than 260 incumbents have witnessed, and frequently shaped, the unfolding of countless world events, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of communism. Furthermore, whether popes have described themselves as "Servant of the servants of God", or - less humbly - "Vicar of Christ", they have claimed authority in a moral and spiritual dimension above the obligations of secular rulers, touching the lives of ordinary people in a way politicians never can. Whether or not you believe in Christianity, you have to acknowledge that these men have an extraordinary ability to influence the world in consequence of the office they hold, their virtues all the more inspirational, their vices and mistakes all the more damaging.
Eamon Duffy has selected just 10 individuals as the subject of this book (which grew out of a series of radio broadcasts) to produce a lively, informative, balanced and entertaining account. Leaving aside the rather unfortunate title, it is eminently readable. Scholarly elements are applied with a light touch, and the vignettes of each papal life and reign are short, spicy and satisfying. There are many fascinating details: Leo the Great melting down the church plate given by the Emperor Constantine to provide altar vessels after the Vandals looted Rome; Paul III putting his mistress, mother of his four children, into retirement in order to pursue Church reform; Pius IX overcoming the fears of his predecessor to let the railways into the Papal states.
There are some more serious points made here as well. Duffy argues that St Peter's significance was that he marked a crucial departure from a Roman understanding of religion, which served worldly ambition, towards a Christian philosophy that rejected the pursuit of power, wealth and pleasure and instead preached love and self-sacrifice. Subsequent popes may have lost sight of this at points, but the foundations were still there buried in the Christian consciousness just as the small, nondescript monument to Peter's crucifixion from AD160 lies deep below St Peter's Basilica. Leo the Great portrayed Rome's primacy as God's pragmatic appropriation of the communications network of the Roman Empire. Gregory the Great converted England; Gregory VII fought a bitter battle against state power; Innocent III launched the Fourth Crusade, but he also acknowledged the Dominicans and Franciscans, and the moral force of holy poverty. Paul III in the 16th century made his grandsons into cardinals, and had his portrait painted by Titian, but he also began purging the Church of the excesses that had made Martin Luther's message so compelling.
The medieval popes are colourful; the modern ones more contentious. Pius IX did not react well to the loss of the Papal states and to the advance of the modern state. Cardinal Newman lamented: "We are shrinking into ourselves...trembling at freedom of thought, and using the language of dismay and despair at the prospect before us." By 1939, Pius XII was no less exercised by how to respond to the modern world. He will always be remembered as the pope who failed to condemn the Holocaust. Duffy weighs the evidence carefully, but still concludes that "in the face of one of the most terrible crimes in human history, impartial diplomacy and agonised calculation do not seem an adequate response from Christ's vicar on earth".
The book ends with the warm, eccentric goodness of John XXIII and the towering figure of John Paul II. The first called the Second Vatican Council in an attempt to bring about a rapprochement between modernity and Catholicism, and was equally prepared to reach out to both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to keep peace in the 1960s. His successor remains legendary. Controversial, charismatic, a key figure in the defeat of Communism, he was both ecumenical and authoritarian, promoting loving reconciliation and blinkered orthodoxy. He witnessed perhaps the Church's greatest failure, as the abuse of children and its institutional concealment came to light, but he also did public penance for the Church's sins, including centuries of anti-Semitism. The most moving portrait in this book is of John Paul II approaching death, carrying his infirmity "as a final witness for the vulnerable, a manifesto against utilitarian measurements of human worth". This institution, claiming spiritual authority, can do so much harm and so much good; both extremes are thoughtfully depicted here.
Ten Popes Who Shook the World
By Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press
Published October 2011