Saints and Sinners

by Eamon Duffy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2269

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 degradations of the previous century. In theory, the popes were world-orderers; in practice, they “were strictly and often humiliatingly subordinated to the power of the local Roman aristocracy, or to the German ruling house.” The venerable idea that no one could judge the pope was belied by the fact that popes often were regularly appointed by an emperor or nobility. As for moral character, the picture often was unbelievably bleak. Benedict IX (1032-1048) “was both violent and debauched, and even the Roman populace, hardened as they were to unedifying papal behavior, could not stomach him. . . . With the help of his family’s private army, he was briefly restored in 1045 amid bloody hand-to- hand fighting in the streets of Rome.” Thus it was that Emperor Henry III initiated a reform movement that would shortly result in the most famous moment in the history of the papal institution: the humiliation of Henry IV by Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077, when the former begged absolution, standing barefoot in the snows of the Apennines. The pontificate of Innocent III (1198- 1216) marked the high point of papal power and influence, when “the finger of the papacy lay on every living pulse” and the claim that popes could release the faithful from their duty of obedience to secular authorities was most decisively asserted. Duffy skillfully shows how the Cluniac reform and other efforts at renewing monastic life lay behind this remarkable development.

Appropriately, “Protest and Division, 1447-1774” is the book’s longest chapter. Duffy’s intention is to balance the received picture of the Renaissance papacy by detailing the practical challenges to be faced after the Great Schism (a period in which multiple claimants to the office “ruled” simultaneously), the Conciliar movement, and the exciting appearance of Humanism. Duffy does not omit the lurid details of Roman corruption—far from it. Readers are reminded that Alexander VI (Roderigo de Borgia) “flaunted a young and nubile mistress in the Vatican, was widely believed to have made a habit of poisoning his cardinals so as to get his hands on their property, and . . . ruthlessly aggrandized his illegitimate sons and daughters at the Church’s expense.” Julius II (1503-1513), Michelangelo’s great benefactor, donned silver armor and led his own troops against towns that challenged his sovereignty. Also wanting his readers to understand the immense achievements of the Renaissance popes, Duffy focuses more attention on men such as Nicholas V (1447-1455), a great Humanist, the rebuilder of Rome, founder of the Vatican library, and a diplomat who did much to restore peace and unity to the church.

What of Luther, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and other symbols dear to those who have contempt for the papacy? Here Duffy’s determination to keep the book a broad survey will disappoint many. That the church needs constant reform is a persistent theme; Duffy therefore agrees with Luther’s attack on indulgences and the penitential system, faulting the popes of the early Reformation period for their failure to grasp the urgency of the situation. Thus, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which squarely addressed the abuses denounced by Luther, “came a generation too late, a generation during which the split in the Church had widened and hardened.” With this he passes on to other matters, noting that the historian can detect “a dialectic of reform—creativity versus conservation.” “Conservation” is surely too weak a term for the Inquisition that interrogated Galileo and killed Bruno, but that is the heading under which Duffy places this demonic papal institution. The infamous Torquemada is never mentioned. At the same time, he emphasizes that Copernican science had enjoyed the support and patronage of the papacy, which encouraged the new astronomy and was not inclined to reject the heliocentric theory. Galileo’s mistake was that of not allowing the church to introduce the new teaching slowly and in its own time; he forced the “conservative” side to show its face. Concludes Duffy, “The contrast between the earlier toleration and indeed lionizing of Galileo and the injustice of his condemnation was an eloquent sign of the rigidity of Baroque Catholicism.”

Chapter 5, “The Pope and the People” (1774-1903), follows Duffy’s account of Clement XIV’s formal abolition of the Jesuit order in 1773. Caving to pressures exerted by Spain, France, Portugal and Austria—which resented the way the Society thwarted colonial aspirations and “hindered the consolidation of the absolute rule of the monarch within his own domains”—Clement thus banished the primary instrumentality of the Counter-Reformation church. (It would be restored in 1814.) For Duffy, this was the papacy’s “most shameful hour,” the sign of its powerlessness in the new order established by the absolute monarchies of Europe. The French Revolution would, of course, take the cause of the state to unimaginable lengths in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, making priests agents of the regime and requiring of them an oath of obedience. This was only a passing phase; in 1794, the cult of Humanity and the Supreme Being was introduced, and the Christian calendar abandoned. Napoleon had master plans that did not include respecting the papal territories. Pius VI negotiated the humiliating Peace of Tollentino, allowing French occupation of Italy. Duffy notes that although this “weak, vain and worldly” man was not a good pope, it is hard to see what goodness in this historical moment would have looked like, for “the monarchies of Europe had hijacked the Church, and pressed religion into the service of the absolute state.”

The nineteenth century would witness unimaginable transformations in the relation of the church to governments, cultures, and peoples. The long reign of Pius IX (1846-1878) found the papacy in full-scale reaction against liberalism and the modern state, as the Italian Risorgimento ensured the end of the pope’s temporal estate and the elimination of all remnants of political medievalism. At the same time, the Romantic movement had rediscovered the bewitching loveliness of that era; within Catholicism, a fresh sense of the pope’s transcendent authority emerged (Ultramontanism). As well, a newly ardent devotion to Mary, the maturation of the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the rediscovery of Gregorian chant, the phenomenon of Lourdes, and liturgical revival all signified spiritual renewal in the midst of apparent political defeat. Pio Nono’s famous “Syllabus of Errors” condemning the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism, and recent civilization” culminated in the First Vatican Council (1869) and the promulgation of the decree on papal infallibility. Duffy’s account is quite detailed here as he attempts to show the sort of severe limitations that hedge this doctrine and the way the process meant defeat for the extreme papal faction. “It is some measure of these restrictions that, since 1870, only one papal statement has qualified as infallible,’ the definition of the Assumption in 1950,” he points out.

The modern shape of the papacy was worked out by Leo XIII (1878- 1903). The Vatican came to terms with its loss of territory, its historic resistance to democracy and the liberal state, and its need to become a spokesman for the worker in the face of rampant industrialization. Leo’s successors, the eight popes of the twentieth century, are the subject of Duffy’s final chapter, “The Oracles of God.” Here he treats the controversial matter of the papacy’s relations with Nazism, fascism, and communism; the work of Vatican II; and the remarkable pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The latter is the 261st successor to St. Peter and inherits an institution possessing, in Duffy’s words, “a spiritual status and prestige greater than at any time since the High Middle Ages.” To many, John Paul II seems a backward-looking authoritarian; to others, he is a strong beacon of order and certainty in a confused age. What will the near future bring? Duffy’s answer is equivocal: “Only time, and the next Conclave, will reveal which of these directions in their long walk through history the heirs of St. Peter will take.”

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. December 20, 1997, p. C2.

Booklist. XCIV, November 15, 1997, p. 525.

Commonweal. CXXIV, November 7, 1997, p. 24.

The Economist. CCCXLIV, September 6, 1997, p. S16.

Library Journal. CXXII, November 1, 1997, p. 78.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, December 7, 1997, p. 48.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 27, 1997, p. 70.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, December 14, 1997, p. 13.

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