My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was interesting in parts but very long. I guess I’m not as interested in early history, because I enjoyed everything from 1600 on more. There were definitely some good popes, but there were also a lot of bad ones – it was surprisingly common to use the position for personal gain (making nephews cardinals and such), although this stopped around the 1800s.
While Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was against Nazism by the start of World War II, the author presents pretty good evidence that he was anti-Semitic, and he spoke out against the Holocaust much later and more mildly than he should have. Indeed, when the SS sent some Jews from Rome itself to Auschwitz he did not speak out against it, nor did he ever apologize.
It sounds like John Paul II was a pretty good pope – he certainly did a lot of good for Catholicism’s image, although he missed an opportunity to review old Catholic teachings on the ordination of women, birth control, and gays. Sad.
– Best part of the book – the papal conclave of 1159. All but three of the 30 members voted for Cardinal Roland. One of the three, though, was the pro-imperialist Cardinal Octavian. Just as they were about to crown Roland with the papal mantle, Octavian lunged at him, snatched the mantle and tried to put it on himself. A scuffle ensued, during which his chaplain produced another mantle (clearly indicating this had been planned), and Octavian put it on (backwards), ran to the throne, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. He then ran off and ordered some clergy to acclaim him as Pope.
This lead to a schism for a good while. There were 30 such “antipopes” throughout history…although it’s been over 500 years since the last one!
– One of the only popes to abdicate (in 1292), Celestine V was encouraged to do so by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who “introduced a secret speaking tube” into Celestine’s cell and “simulated” the voice of God telling him to resign or face eternity in Hell. Then Caetani became the next Pope (Boniface VIII)…so I guess that worked out for him!
– In 1329, supporters of German King Louis IV (who opposed the pope) formally condemned a straw effigy of Pope John XXII (attired in full dress). As the author dryly notes, “This bizarre performance did little to enhance the reputation of either emperor or antipope”…
– For a brief while in 1409 there were three popes! The successor of one, John XXIII “reduced the Papacy to a level of depravity unknown since the days of the pornocracy in the tenth century”. Apparently he seduced at least two hundred women, “to say nothing of an alarming number of nuns”…
– Pope Alexander VI (1492) fathered eight children by three different women. And he made five family members cardinals!
I enjoyed the book on balance, but 2000 years of history is really a lot to cover.