Pontifex Maximus

A Short History of the Popes

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Christopher Lascelles
  • London, England: 
    Crux Publishing
    , May
     2017.
     404 pages.
     $17.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781909979451.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

An “Author’s Note” closes this book. Above it Christopher Lascelles quotes Bertrand Russell saying, “Look only, and solely, at what are the facts.” Lascelles regards this, I think we are meant to understand, as a statement about what he believes he has been doing in the pages of his “short history” of the papacy. But this claim is highly questionable. For example,  chapter 20, “Restoration,” is introduced with a quote from a letter sent by Lord Acton to, as Lascelles writes, “the Catholic archbishop, Mandell Creighton.” Creighton, a distinguished 19th-century church historian, was not an archbishop. More to the point in this instance, neither was he a Catholic—not even as an adherent to the Catholic party within the Church of England. Indeed, he tended to regard British Roman Catholics, of whom Acton was of course one, as disloyal subjects of the Crown. Creighton is one of Lascelles’s favored sources (along with another 19th-century Protestant historian, Philip Schaff), so his misapprehension is not unimportant in a book about a central feature of Roman Catholicism.

Many such mistakes pepper the pages of this volume. The author apparently believes that it was the papacy that invented the Index and that it was a pope who first consigned Jews to a ghetto, neither of which is true. He attributes the “Two Swords” theory of government to Pope Damasus, which is also inaccurate. He claims that the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, was founded to teach and to combat Protestantism, neither of which is true, as a glance at any history of the Society would reveal. Though both goals emerged in the lifetime of the Society’s founder, they were no part of Ignatius’s original intention. He also goes on to claim that the Jesuits amassed considerable wealth. When Louis XV suppressed the Society in France in November 1764 its enemies no doubt expected to find these riches; instead they found only debts. And speaking of the Jesuits, one would not think, when reading in these pages about the divine right of kings, that the Society’s theologians had been teaching from the 16thcentury that although all authority came ultimately from God, that of a monarch was derived via the people.

While there are many more “facts” that Lascelles gets wrong, there are also many facts he simply ignores. When writing of the illiberal popes of the 19th century, he does not ask what “liberalism” meant to the various pontiffs—namely anti-clericalism and atheism. He finds the Council of Trent “a distinct disappointment” (215), which is not a fact but a judgment, and one at odds with that of many historians of the period. He condemns Sixtus V but makes no mention of his thoroughgoing reform of the papal curia. He warms slightly to Leo XIII and Pius XI, but dwells on their failings and omits any mention of their important social encyclicals. He is not enamored of canonizations but is wrong to claim there is no definitive list of saints: he appears not to have heard of the Martyrologium Romanum. He resorts to innuendo, apparently suggesting that Paul Marcinckus was rewarded in 1981 for his failure at the Vatican Bank by promotion to the rank of Archbishop. This is nonsense. He was created an Archbishop in 1969.

This book, then, is in no way a history of the papacy as a scholar would understand it. It is rather a polemic against the papacy as it has been exercised down the ages. It is therefore something of a relief to discover a reference, when Lascelles is discussing Leo X, to The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford University Press, 1986) as “generally an unbiased source of information” (196). Full disclosure: since the death of its begetter, Professor J. N. D. Kelly, I have been responsible for revisions of this work, and for additional material. I am therefore curious about the use of the word “generally” and would be grateful for enlightenment. But The Oxford Dictionary of Popes is, as the name suggests, in dictionary format and is not a narrative account. In place of Lascelles’s distinctly biased version, I suggest those wanting a narrative history should turn rather to Professor Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press, 2002)Lascelles mentions it in his bibliography. He should have paid it more attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael J. Walsh is Fellow of Heythrop College at the University of London.

Date of Review: 
August 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Lascelles studied modern languages and history at St Andrews University in Scotland. His first book, A Short History of the World, became a New York Times and Amazon bestseller and was translated into seven languages. He is currently writing A Short History of the Future. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Keywords: 

Comments

Christopher Lascelles

Author response

Michael Walsh’s review bears a reply. Here it is: 

An “Author’s Note” closes this book. Above it Christopher Lascelles quotes Bertrand Russell saying, “Look only, and solely, at what are the facts.” Lascelles regards this, I think we are meant to understand, as a statement about what he believes he has been doing in the pages of his “short history” of the papacy. But this claim is highly questionable. For example,  chapter 20, “Restoration,” is introduced with a quote from a letter sent by Lord Acton to, as Lascelles writes, “the Catholic archbishop, Mandell Creighton.” Creighton, a distinguished 19th-century church historian, was not an archbishop. More to the point in this instance, neither was he a Catholic—not even as an adherent to the Catholic party within the Church of England. Indeed, he tended to regard British Roman Catholics, of whom Acton was of course one, as disloyal subjects of the Crown. Creighton is one of Lascelles’s favored sources (along with another 19th-century Protestant historian, Philip Schaff), so his misapprehension is not unimportant in a book about a central feature of Roman Catholicism.

> I admit that I was wrong about Mandell Creighton. I thank Mr Walsh for pointing this out and it has now been corrected. I continue to welcome corrections. But how Mr Walsh got the opinion that Creighton is one of favoured sources I don’t know, as I only refer to him twice in the entire book and one is the recipient of a letter. That is very different to a favoured source! I do quote Philip Schaff a number of times as he wrote an eight-volume History of the Christian Church which I read as part of my research. But to have concerns about the credibility of this professor of Church history suggests that either Mr Walsh has not read it or he knows little of Philip Schaff. Schaff strove to promote Christian unity, praised the positive values of Catholicism and his works helped set standards for scholarship in church history. He is an excellent source for papal history. It seems that Mr Walsh seems to discredit Schaff’s scholarship simply because he is not a Catholic. 

Many such mistakes pepper the pages of this volume. The author apparently believes that it was the papacy that invented the Index and that it was a pope who first consigned Jews to a ghetto, neither of which is true. 

>> The Index of Forbidden Books was published under the direction of the papacy, and specifically on the orders of Pope Paul IV, an intolerant, autocratic and bigoted fanatic. There may indeed have been other lists of forbidden books in world history, and more local ones, but I don’t see how my statement is incorrect. Interestingly, Mr Walsh recommends Professor Eamon Duffy’s excellent book, “Saints and Sinners” for an unbiased history of the papacy. It seems that Professor Duffy supports my view. I quote: ‘In 1557 Paul IV introduced the Roman Index of Prohibited Books. This was a ruthless document that banned anything that was not rigidly Catholic’. I’d be interested to know who Mr Walsh thinks came up with the Index of Forbidden Books. I’m always ready to be corrected.

>> I don’t claim that it was a pope who first consigned Jews to a ghetto. I do state that Paul IV issued a bull, “Cum nimis absurdum” (1555), that forced Jews in Rome into a ghetto. Pius V expelled then from the papal states entirely. Pius VI thought it monstrous that the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791 benefited people who are estranged to the church such as infidels and Jews. Pius IX forced Jews in Rome into the ghetto again thinking of them as dogs who deserved no better. La Civiltà Cattolica  – the Jesuit newspaper set up with the encouragement of Pope Pius IX, called the Jews ‘obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses and pests’. The point here is that Mr Walsh’s comment could be seen to imply that as long as the popes were not the first or the only people to consign Jews to the ghetto, then they should not be criticised for doing so, or at least not singled out. The same goes for the Index: as long as others institutions came up with lists of banned books, then why single out the popes for coming up with a list of banned books? On the contrary, I believe they deserve to be criticized for doing so.

He attributes the “Two Swords” theory of government to Pope Damasus, which is also inaccurate. 

>>I do not attribute the Two Swords theory of government to Pope Damasus. Any reader can see that I attribute this to Pope Gelasius (see page 65 of paperback edition)

He claims that the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, was founded to teach and to combat Protestantism, neither of which is true, as a glance at any history of the Society would reveal. Though both goals emerged in the lifetime of the Society’s founder, they were no part of Ignatius’s original intention. 

>> I agree that this is incorrect. The founding goals were of a missionary and pastoral nature. But the Society was approved only 23 years after Luther and other reformers started causing trouble. Countering the Protestant threat would have became a major objective especially as their loyalty was to the pope, many of which in the 16th century were fanatics determined to snuff out heresy.

He also goes on to claim that the Jesuits amassed considerable wealth. When Louis XV suppressed the Society in France in November 1764 its enemies no doubt expected to find these riches; instead they found only debts. And speaking of the Jesuits, one would not think, when reading in these pages about the divine right of kings, that the Society’s theologians had been teaching from the 16thcentury that although all authority came ultimately from God, that of a monarch was derived via the people.

>> I don’t agree that the Jesuits were always poor; one only has to look at the huge estates and haciendas the Jesuits had in South America. I’m not saying that they were all wealthy and greedy. Mr Walsh also probably believes that the Vatican Bank has never been used for evil ends, and that the bishop of Rome has always been morally upright. The reality is that these institutions were, and are, run by fallible people and that the Society of Jesus, like the rest of the Church, undoubtedly had its fair share of members for whom monetary gain was the prime motivating factor. 

 

While there are many more “facts” that Lascelles gets wrong, there are also many facts he simply ignores. When writing of the illiberal popes of the 19th century, he does not ask what “liberalism” meant to the various pontiffs—namely anti-clericalism and atheism. 

>> That I don’t spell out that liberalism may have meant something else to the 19th century popes has nothing to do with facts. I don’t claim to be above man, but the popes did, and as such, then it’s only fair for their actions to be measured against such claims. If people claim to represent God in earth, I for one would expect them to be above the greed, lust, anger, ignorance and general narrow-mindedness that inhibits the potential of the rest of us humans. Sadly the popes repeatedly came out against freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press and every other freedom the pursuit of which has led to progress. Mr Walsh wants facts. There they are. 

He finds the Council of Trent “a distinct disappointment” (215), which is not a fact but a judgment, and one at odds with that of many historians of the period. 

>> Trent was undoubtedly a wasted opportunity. Members of the church had been calling for reform of the church for over a millennium. Here was a real chance for the church to take a good look at itself, to burn off some of the dross and to show that it had not forsaken all the core teachings of Christ. Even Emperor Charles V hoped that reform would be high on the agenda. However, the popes envisaged the council merely as a way of responding to (condemning) the doctrinal challenges made by Luther and the other reformers. Sadly, the Church has traditionally been more about suppressing error than exploring truth. When the pope’s wishes were ignored, he simply suspended the council. I can assure you that this would have been a major disappointment for many of the attendees. At the end of the council, the Church doubled down on what it had always done: hurl anathemas at anyone who dared challenge it. Hardly the success it could have been. No doubt Mr Walsh and I would be at odds with each other also when it comes to the Donation of Constantine, Martin Luther, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Pius XII, and Vatican II, to name just a few subjects.

He condemns Sixtus V but makes no mention of his thoroughgoing reform of the papal curia. 

>> Again, Sixtus V deserves to be condemned. His bloodlust led to him being recalled from Venice as inquisitor. When he became pope he issued innumerable death sentences, forgetting perhaps that his very saviour had been sentenced to death. He demanded the execution of clergy and nuns who were found guilty of breaking their vows of chastity. And when Sixtus died, his statue was torn down. Any success Sixtus had with reforming the Curia was temporary. I’d be delighted if Mr Walsh can enlighten me as to why Sixtus V should not be condemned.

He warms slightly to Leo XIII and Pius XI, but dwells on their failings and omits any mention of their important social encyclicals. 

>> I don’t warm to Leo XIII and to Pius XI at all. How can one warm to a pope who said that Catholics owe complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman pontiff ‘as to God himself’ and ‘We hold upon this earth the place of God almighty’? Leo XIII was totally deluded and deserves to be put in the same camp as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and L. Ron Hubbard. Pius XI was surely not a bad man but a simple one, and his good deeds were overwhelmed by the idiocy of signing concordats with the rabidly anti-Catholic Mussolini and Hitler Mussolini had compared priests to tuberculosis microbes and Hitler had written that he intended to kill all the Jews in the world. Far worse than this was the removal of Pius XI’s support from the Catholic Center Party in Gemany which removed the last obstacle to Hitler’s rise to power. My objective in the book was to highlight the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of the men who claim to be above man. Of course, many popes were good people and did good things, but that’s to be expected. It’s when they start veering wildly off the narrow path that they become truly interesting. 

He is not enamored of canonizations but is wrong to claim there is no definitive list of saints: he appears not to have heard of the Martyrologium Romanum.

>> I am most certainly not enamoured of canonisations. I think the entire idea of saints is absurd. I have indeed heard of the Martyrologium Romanum, but it is not a definitive list of saints, nor is Mr Walsh’s own book on the subject: A New Dictionary of Saints.

He resorts to innuendo, apparently suggesting that Paul Marcinckus was rewarded in 1981 for his failure at the Vatican Bank by promotion to the rank of Archbishop. This is nonsense. He was created an Archbishop in 1969.

>> I do nothing of the sort. Marcinkus was simply the wrong man for the wrong job. He admitted as much, and was also implicated in several financial scandals. He should never have been promoted and protected and sadly he never faced justice. To this day the Vatican strives to protect its own over letting them face justice. 

This book, then, is in no way a history of the papacy as a scholar would understand it. It is rather a polemic against the papacy as it has been exercised down the ages. It is therefore something of a relief to discover a reference, when Lascelles is discussing Leo X, to The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford University Press, 1986) as “generally an unbiased source of information” (196). Full disclosure: since the death of its begetter, Professor J. N. D. Kelly, I have been responsible for revisions of this work, and for additional material. I am therefore curious about the use of the word “generally” and would be grateful for enlightenment. But The Oxford Dictionary of Popes is, as the name suggests, in dictionary format and is not a narrative account. 

>> The Oxford Dictionary of Popes is a super reference tool and both Professor Kelly and Mr Walsh have done a great job in compiling and editing it, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to go through it looking for any errors, by all accounts one of Mr Walsh’s favorite pastimes. 

In place of Lascelles’s distinctly biased version, I suggest those wanting a narrative history should turn rather to Professor Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press, 2002)Lascelles mentions it in his bibliography. He should have paid it more attention.

>> On this point Mr Walsh and I agree. I recommend Saints and Sinners wholeheartedly, and one can always pay more attention to two thousand years of history!

I’d be delighted to answer any questions from readers, including Mr Walsh, at info@lascelleshistory.com

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