Christopher Lascelles, Pontifex Maximus: A short history of the popes, Crux Publishing 2017.
E-book $AU 8.99
Years ago, while teaching French, I showed my Year 9 students some slides of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon. ‘This,’ I declared, ‘was where the Popes lived when there was more than one Pope.’
Two girls, my best students, were aghast. ‘But the Pope must live in Rome,’ they said. I
knew that these students were Roman Catholics, so I suggested they should check the story out with the nuns that visited the school. Next lesson, they returned with an ‘official’ list of Popes, and were intrigued that this list did show that Clement V, Innocent VI, John XXII and Urban V, all ‘proper’ Popes established their Curia in Avignon.
Rome has good reason to police papal history. The papacy has been a fallible institution, and Rome would prefer an official list that presents the story that God was working through sinful men.
Christopher Lascelles’ new book, Pontifex Maximus, is not the story that Rome prefers. Lascelles is the author of A Short History of the World, and in both books, he gives evidence-based history. The style is journalistic and accessible, but it is not flattering to the papacy.
Popes are shown to be quarrelsome, ambitious and self-serving. Some rode at the head of papal armies. Some sponsored their children and nephews into rich positions as Cardinals or Archbishops. Some, like Pius XI (1922-1939), supported Mussolini. Lascelles shows how Pius was even implicated in the rounding up of Jews, naively believing Mussolini was a good Catholic because he had promised favourable treatment for the Church. Once trapped into the deal, he continued to believe that the advantages to the Church outweighed the evils of Italian Fascism.
Lascelles rightly makes the Gospel of Jesus the standard by which he judges Popes. He identifies three only that lived the Gospel and had the opportunity to reform the Church – Gregory I the Great being the prime example. Gregory refused to accept the title of Universal Bishop, and exemplified Christian values as he saved Rome from a series of disasters.
He believes that the new Pope Francis may also serve the Gospel well.
There were times when I felt that Lascelles was unduly critical. For example, he criticises the political power that Innocent III (1198-1216) amassed for himself, without showing the good for the Gospel that he also achieved.
Overall, this is an entertaining and informative run-through of the history of the papacy. I considered myself reasonably well-informed and learned many new things in the reading. Above all, Lascelles makes the story of the papacy interesting.
It is clearly written for a general audience, for readers who would rather not be fobbed off by pious propaganda. I doubt there would be teachers brave enough to set it as a text in Catholic schools or tertiary institutions, but it would be a rich resource for senior students.
In all, to cram so much history into such an accessible book is a praiseworthy achievement.