Good books normally arise from good ideas, skillfully realized in print. Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners is an example of a very good book in the service of a very questionable idea. A renowned Cambridge University scholar, Duffy was invited by S4C, the Wales television company, to produce a volume to accompany its six-part series on the papacy. As a rule, scholars should refuse such invitations, especially if their field is religion, because one is required to “dumb down” the material, making it appealing to the broadest possible audience. From the start, commercial motivations may dominate. The papacy is ultimately a theological artifact, not justified by its venerability or practical value but by what one makes of Matthew 16:16 (“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”), other scriptural passages, the evolution of authority in the early centuries of the church, the Reformation, and the rival claims of the Eastern Orthodox. For those who cherish the pope and acknowledge his authority, “empirical” and “historical” data always will be secondary. Foremost is the “imagination” of the pope’s identity—the willingness to see him as Peter’s successor, the vicar of Christ on Earth, and to offer obedience to the church he represents.
Duffy appears to ignore all of this when he explains that this book “is not a work of theology” and that he has “not thought it my business to justify or defend” the evolution of the institution. Readers are thus prepared for a “neutral” history appealing to everyone—and therefore to no one, except perhaps those who want yet another diverting entertainment drawn from the past. Recall, however, the subject: the popes. Can tolerant liberal secularism have become so powerful—and the papacy so irrelevant—that it can afford to offer portraits of its worst historic enemy? Has the institution the West once died fighting for (or against) now become so benign as to be settled comfortably alongside Masterpiece Theater?
Fortunately, Duffy delivers much more than his statement of intent implies. Acknowledging his own devotion to Catholicism, he confesses that “the story of the popes is a crucial dimension of the story of the providential care of God for humankind in history, the necessary and (on the whole) proper development of powers and responsibilities implicit in the nature of the Church itself.” Furthermore, Duffy reports that in writing the book he has become more deeply aware that the papacy, even in its worst moments, has “again and again helped ensure that the local churches of Christendom retained something of a universal Christian vision, that they did not entirely collapse back into the narrowness of religious nationalism, or become entirely subordinated to the will of powerful secular rulers.” Finally, Duffy wonderfully reneges on his promise to keep theology at a minimum; rather, he lucidly supplies such theology as is necessary to comprehend issues such as Donatism, Arianism, the Conciliarist position, justification by faith, Modernism, and the other defining arguments by which the Catholic tradition was formed.
Not only is Saints and Sinners sustained by strong conviction; clear and lively writing also make the volume extremely appealing. Additionally, the work—printed in Italy—contains superb photographs, maps, reproductions of art, and satirical cartoons. Nearly oversized, it will inevitably take up room on many Catholic coffee tables, but those who ignore its text pay a huge price.
“Upon This Rock,” Chapter 1, takes readers from the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome through the gradual recognition of the apostolic claims of the bishops in Rome, the changes wrought by Constantine’s conversion, and the aggressive assertion of Rome’s primacy by Leo the Great, pope from 440 to 461. For Leo, who opposed the Eastern view that Rome was but the senior member of “the Pentarchy” (the five patriarchates after the Council of Chalcedon in 451), “the coming of Peter to the centre of empire had been a providential act, designed so that from Rome the Gospel might spread to all the world.”
Chapter 2, “Between Two Empires,” covers a period that non-Christians call “the dark ages” (461-1000) but that saw foundational developments in the history of the church. Duffy ably narrates the Western dispute with the Byzantine Empire’s pronounced tendency to elevate the emperor to the status of Kosmocrator, lord of the world and church; the era of Gregory the Great (590-604), “arguably the greatest Pope ever,” which included the mission to England that resulted in the demise of Ireland as an independent center of Christian authority; the melding of Greek and Latin-Roman elements in Rome, creating a “vibrant and solemn religious culture which fascinated and dazzled the newly Christianized peoples of Europe”; the growth of the papal territories; and the emergence under Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire, whose head had to receive its crown from the pope in order to possess authority.
“Set Above Nations, 1000-1447” details the rise of “papal monarchy” and the elevation of the institution to full spiritual and temporal primacy in the West. For Protestant readers accustomed to the idea that it required Martin Luther to set in motion the purification of Christianity, Duffy’s characterization of the eleventh century as the beginning of the era of papal reform will come as a surprise. Duffy’s tangy prose captures well the need for reform after the...
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