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Why the Papacy Matters

Ten Popes Who Shook the World
By Eamon Duffy. Yale. Pp. 160. $25

The papacy is a big subject, and Eamon Duffy’s new book (based on a series of radio programs delivered on the BBC) does a good job of distilling two millennia of history into a short and manageable span. Duffy is a distinguished historian who is professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University. For those who are wondering, the ten popes selected are St. Peter, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Paul III, Pio Nono (Pius IX), Pius XII, John XXIII, and John Paul II. The list is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive, and Duffy concedes that out of the more than 260 popes a list of a different ten just as important as these could be assembled with little difficulty.

“The papacy is an institution that matters, whether or not one is a religious believer” (p. 9). The first line from Duffy’s introduction provides a strong indication of one theme of the book: the political and cultural relevance of the papacy. Though Duffy’s point is more broadly cultural it has a political dimension that emerges first in Duffy’s account of Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy. One editorial error: the short bibliography on Gregory VII has been omitted, no doubt having been confused by the proofreader with that of Gregory the Great!

Gregory VII led the struggle to reform the Church, especially in the key areas of the sale of clerical office, clerical marriage, and the right of appointment of Church leaders. All three practices tended to entangle the Church with money and politics, and hindered a more thoroughgoing reform of the lives and mores of the clergy. The crisis culminated in Gregory’s struggle with the German King Henry IV, over the king’s traditional right of appointment of bishops. Gregory prevailed in spectacular fashion, with the deposed king shivering in the snow at Canossa waiting for forgiveness, though only a few years later Gregory himself was driven out of Rome and died in exile.

This controversy took place at the very beginning of the emergence of the modern concepts of Church and state, and in some sense Gregory’s reform movement was responsible for the breakup of an older pattern of unitary sacral government exercised by a partnership of king and pope, duke and bishop, knight and priest, the Holy Roman Emperor as anointed ruler over all. What began to replace this pattern were more centralized models of both Church and state, set apart and distinct. Pope Gelasius I had centuries before outlined the different responsibilities of priests and kings, and both sides acknowledged that distinction while having different conceptions of the powers exercised by their own office. Gregory VII saw himself as the deposer of the Church’s enemies, even kings and emperors, by right.

Evaluation of the legacy of Gregory VII has long been disputed. Was he a fierce campaigner for the liberty of the Church or a clerical bigot set on aggrandizing his own power? Duffy comes down solidly on the side of the first view, with an additional but not unprecedented twist: whatever Gregory’s intentions, his upholding of the claims of conscience over state power meant that this clerical autocrat was advancing the cause of human freedom. This is a very sympathetic reading of Gregory VII’s legacy. If the Investiture Controversy is the story of human freedom, others will find its cause vindicated no less improbably by Henry IV, an upholder of his own jurisdiction against the claims of an all-encompassing papal power.

The political and cultural theme continues in Duffy’s account of Pio Nono, where he gives us a second signpost by accounting for the influence of the French Revolution on the papacy’s view of modernity. “The Catholic Church’s actual experience of the birth of democracy was not as enlightenment and liberation, but as a murderous attack on religion in general, and the freedom of the Church in particular” (p. 94). Pio Nono was at first seen as a liberal in comparison with his predecessor, Gregory XVI, who had banned the railway (that purveyor of modernity) from entering the Papal States. But as his reign went on, and the papal territory was absorbed by the new state of Italy, the claims of liberty, equality, and fraternity over against the witness of the Gospel and the prerogatives of the Church seemed most pressing. Pio Nono presided over an increasing confrontation between the Church and modernity, marked by the Vatican I declaration on papal infallibility, and the “Syllabus of Errors” that denounced free speech and religious liberty. Duffy’s point is that the proper context for understanding this is the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Now of course we also have the memory of the destructive World Wars that sprang from the same seedbed, so perhaps the suspicion is justified.

Mention of these conflicts brings us to another part of Duffy’s story, the pontificate of Pius XII, the diplomat who served successive popes as their representative in Germany and then was raised to the papacy himself. His predecessor Pius XI had issued the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, an attack on Nazi policies, but Pius XII is criticized for his failure to confront fascism directly or to speak out against the Holocaust. This failure is inexplicable given the tradition of Gregory VII, whose more immoderate exclamations against the German king would not have been misplaced against Hitler. Duffy acknowledges that Pius was more afraid of Soviet domination of Europe than he was of Hitler, but finds that explanation unconvincing as a defense for silence.

With John XXIII, as Duffy tells the story, “the ice began to melt” (p. 125) within a church that remained frozen in a confrontational stand against modernity. John was a reformer, intended perhaps to be a short-term pope, but one who succeeded in opening the windows and letting in some fresh air. Duffy tells the story of a pope without a fully fleshed out agenda, content to begin reform because something needed to be done, but who did not live to see the culmination of the actions of the Second Vatican Council that he had called. Vatican II initiated a reappraisal of the relationship between Church and society, but in some sense the implications of that reappraisal are still being explored, as Duffy indicates in the concluding sketch of John Paul II.

That pope’s role in the breakdown of communist rule in Eastern Europe is well known, but Duffy devotes as much if not more attention to John Paul’s stand against “the culture of death” prevailing in the West. Contraception and abortion, the death penalty, exploitative consumerist capitalism, and “mutual assured destruction” from nuclear weapons were all signs for John Paul of a culture that had turned from life to death and which the Church must oppose. Freedom and justice were part of the Christian inheritance claimed by John Paul II, but the commitments outlined by the pope implied a political agenda for the Church, both in relationship to Marxist regimes as well as to the liberal societies of the West. Duffy sees John Paul’s pontificate as an expression of a strong centralizing papacy that sought to revive the morale of the Church as it engaged the culture, and in doing so sought common ground with other Christians as well as other faith traditions.

There is a recognizable thread of vigorous cultural critique and political engagement in the Roman Catholic tradition that is well illustrated in these brief sketches of influential popes. The papacy is an institution that matters. Its failure in the case of Pius XII only underscores the more authentic line. The brief pontificate of John XXIII offers another contrast, but only in a certain reading, as later popes and theologians offer contrasting assessments of the true import of Vatican II’s call for the Church’s reengagement with society.

Whether this tradition of criticism is based on an insufficiently discriminating suspicion of modernity remains an open question. The practical relevance of these political and cultural threads over the centuries finds expression in our own political discourse, as healthcare is hotly debated along the lines of contrasting narratives of religious liberty and the justice of equal care. The shadow of Canossa still falls on our political life. Marxism has largely shuffled off the historical stage, but modern consumerist capitalism is alive and well. It is difficult to believe that Christian witness in this context is not strengthened by this vigorous papal tradition, even among those who may not arrive at the same answers to the multiple challenges of modernity.


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