266 popes in 565 pages

By  Wayne A. Holst, Catholic Register Special
  • October 2, 2009

{mosimage}Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy by Roger Collins (Basic Books, softcover, 565 pages, $40.50).

Roger Collins believes trying to describe in a single volume the entire history of the papacy — which covers nearly 2,000 years — is probably far too ambitious an undertaking.

Nevertheless, the author of Keepers of the Keys of Heaven, a medieval specialist and honorary fellow at Edinburgh University, ably demonstrates he has a solid grasp of his subject. To bring such vast material and the stories of 266 popes into one volume is evidence of his competence.

The task for the serious reader is equally daunting. The 565 pages of text, footnotes and other supportive documentation is a huge challenge. A major slice of Western history is covered. To understand the story of the popes tells us more fully what it means to be part of contemporary Western culture.

Each of the book’s 21 chapters covers a century or a significant era since St. Peter.

Not every section is of equal significance or merits equal attention.

With this book, it is possible to skim through the centuries and focus on selected periods. For example, as a Protestant I sought a better understanding of the formative ethos of the papacy, the Reformation from a papal perspective, modern global Catholic missions and a better background on Vatican II. I wanted my biases challenged and assumptions critiqued from a point of view other than my own.
It is also possible to read this book as a grand narrative — the sweeping panorama of a religious institution older than any other in the West, to which more than a billion living humans offer allegiance and with which all humanity must in some way come to terms.

Collins is eminently fair in his presentation. He moves his readers beyond stereotype and offers good background to the historical circumstances that produced the theological and  structural patterns modern Catholics call their tradition.

We are given basic information on most every pope who has occupied the seat of Peter. Even when the evidence is thin and sometimes not all that accurate, Collins keeps us connected to his script.

At times, the papal story soars majestically. At other times it descends into hell. Yet the entire narrative is linked and infused with a clear Catholic thread.

Readers, Catholic and non-Catholic, will conceiveably wince at the way the papacy sometimes debauched itself in worldliness. Pius IX (1846-1878), who called Vatican I, believed “temporal power is necessary to this Holy See, so that for the good of religion it can exercise spiritual power without any hindrance.”

These same readers may agree with Collins when he suggests that temporal power is not the purview of the papacy. Collins assesses the loss of papal estates, armies and entitlements when Italian nationalism confronted papal politics during the 19th century. 

“There was no support inside Italy or beyond for a return of clerical rule and enormous opposition to it,” he writes.  “However, the pope’s spiritual authority would be enhanced just as his temporal sovereignty was finally extinquished.”

The book helps us better appreciate the transformation of the modern papacy, bereft of its former aristocratic status. Collins shows us the enormous moral influence the papacy currently commands. He describes how, more recently in its long history, the papacy has been transformed from an agency of earthly power into a global conscience.

We live in times of strong anti-institutionalism. The modern papacy has both the challenges and the blessings of a long-established institution. Experience accumulated over the last two millennia can help the church and humanity navigate the future.

In truth, the more things change, the more human nature remains the same.

Will the papacy still exist at the end of the third millennium? Collins believes that during the 20th century changes in human society and thought have disturbed the popes more than at any previous period, at least since the Reformation. He closes provocatively with insight borne of church history experience.

“The papacy may need to adapt to the changing circumstances and demands of the new millennium,” the author concludes, “but if its history suggests anything, this will be done slowly, reluctantly and with a firm denial that anything of the kind is happening.”

(Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)

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