Absolute Power

How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World

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Paul Collins
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Absolute Power, Australian historian-theologian Paul Collins takes his readers on an eye-opening journey through the last three hundred years of papal history. Collins shows how the papacy rose from the ashes of near-extinction at the beginning of the 1800s to the zenith of being the most influential institution in the world. 

Part 1 (“Extinction?”) begins with the sorry tale of Pius VI, buried in unconsecrated ground in 1799. This death, symbolic of the papacy’s demise, was “probably the lowest point in the history of the papacy” (11), according to Collins. From there, we see the rise of ultramontanism, the mentality that fed straight into Vatican I (1869-1870), which was, in turn, the event that—Collins maintains—forms “the basis of modern papal power” (26). The council went on to define papal infallibility, as well as establish papal primacy, “the strongest support for enormously increased papal power … [and] also the most intractable problem that Catholicism has inherited from Vatican I” (49).

Part 2, “From ‘Supreme Power’ to Supreme Pontiff,” begins with Leo XIII’s reign (1878-1903), a cautious opening to contemporary developments. His Rerum Novarum becomes the foundation on which all future Catholic social teaching (CST) would be built. Collins considers CST “the most important papal use of soft-power influence in the modern world” (77). Pius X (1903-1914) instead had a generally negative attitude about most modern developments. To purge the church of modernism, he encouraged what was tantamount to a “secret espionage association” (105). This papacy is rated by Collins therefore as “an absolute disaster” because “it set a pattern that turned the church inward for another fifty years” (104). 

Just before his death in 1939, Pius XI “was prepared to act prophetically and confront the evils of Nazism and anti-Semitism” (148), but his successor, Pius XII (1939-1958) was more ambiguous. As to whether the pope was anti-Semitic or even “Hitler’s pope” as debated in the “Pius wars,” Collins offers a “cautious no” (151). Pius XII, Collins claims, feared that dealing head-on with Nazi atrocities against the Jews would result in the institutional church being attacked. Hence, he chose the church’s security over speaking out on this burning issue (157). Collins evaluates Pius XII’s first eight years as theologically open (163) but after that, a backlash against the nouvelle théologie resulted in a mini-modernist crisis leading to Humani Generis (1950) which “tragically paralyzed Catholic theology for another decade” (165).

Part 3, “Rolling Out and Rolling Back Vatican II,” is arguably the book’s most important section. It tells the story of how “Good Pope John” convened Vatican II, what transpired during the council, how Paul VI continued and concluded Vatican II, and describes the tumultuous post-conciliar years under him.

Absolute Power cannot be properly understood unless one keeps in mind that Collins is both a historian and a “theologian.” Although history is fascinatingly described in every page, it is woven through with Collins’s theological perspectives. A case in point: in contrasting John XXIII and John Paul II (JPII), Collins points out that John, although traditionalist in some ways, was also a church historian familiar with “historical change, the mutability of human affairs and the relativity of things.” Thus, “he knew that the church had to adapt its pastoral methods, attitudes, structures and teaching to changed societies,” which in turn led to aggiornamento (180). Contrasting John XXIII’s historical sense with the lack of it in other key figures in modern Catholicism, Collins muses, “church teaching really makes sense only in its own time and place and … it must be constantly reinterpreted in each era for it to make sense within a new cultural context. This is what Ratzinger and Balthasar … lacking a feeling for history, simply don’t get; they live in an abstract world in which articulated belief is divorced from time and space” (181). There one finds perhaps Collins’s key hermeneutical principle in this book.

Chapter 9, about JPII, is probably this work’s climax. Collins argues that the papacy reached its highest point in JPII because he “embodied the fullness of supreme power” (250). The popes generally use “soft power” in relationship to political and international affairs but choose “hard power” in the interior life of the church. JPII’s papacy was “the most influential … in history,” mainly because he knew how to exploit to the full the possibilities of the media (229-30). This resulted in an “omnipresent papacy,” with JPII himself becoming de facto “bishop of the world” (235-36). 

Yet Collins is also critical of JPII. He remarks that some key points of his thinking are “profoundly flawed” (221), and that he came to the papacy with a “dominant personality, an absence of self-doubt … [and] a messianic conception of himself as a kind of savior” (227), rooted in an “inherent narcissism” (228). He writes that “his vision … alone was normative” (240), and that, in a sense, he never really embraced Vatican II (235). 

Part 4, “The Smell of the Sheep” seems like “falling action.” Collins is critical of many features related to Benedict XVI (2005-2013): his concept of a “remnant flock”; his generous accommodation of certain more traditionalist groups while being harsh toward other more progressive movements; his “reform of the reform” in the liturgy; and his favoring of a “hermeneutics of continuity” in interpreting Vatican II.

Collins ends on a hopeful note though, with a generally positive evaluation of Francis’s tenure. Collins approves of Francis’s belief that doctrine should be dynamic, responsive to circumstances, and open to the world. He praises Francis for “shifting power and authority out of Rome to the peripheries” and emphasizing “the pastoral and ministerial rather than the dogmatic and ideological” (302). In Collins’s opinion, Francis has “restored the fortunes and reputation of the papacy in the wider world after the overbearing John Paul and the maladroit Benedict” (302). Collins concludes that Francis “has pointed the church in the right direction” (313).

The last chapter deserves a careful reading, particularly by those interested in theology. Here Collins draws lessons from his survey of papal history, such as the importance of “soft power” as seen concretely in CST (315), and the need for a less centralized system and the development of more democratic, consultative, accountable structures in the church (319). The most vexing question of all though is given Catholicism’s “attachment to power” (314), how can it reconcile the contemporary papacy of “absolute power” with Jesus, who abandoned all power and authority on the cross (xv)? Since this Jesus is the ultimate test for the papacy, “it (the papacy) will be true to itself only when it is true to him” (328).

Absolute Power is an enriching and thought-provoking read. For the historically interested, it is replete with fascinating details, some of them little-known. What makes this book unique for me are the theological reflections with which Collins peppers the book. I happen to agree with most of them, but there will be quite a few who may be put off by Collins’s frank and unapologetic positions. Hopefully, the book’s rich historical content might persuade even those who don’t ideologically agree with Collins to continue reading and clarify for themselves why they do not agree with his interpretations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julius-Kei Kato is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at King's University College.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Collins is a historian and broadcaster with degrees from Harvard and the Australian National University. He has worked as a religious commentator for Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, PBS, and more; as a teacher of theology and history; and as a Catholic priest. In March 2001, he resigned from active ministry due to a doctrinal dispute with the Vatican over his book, Papal Power. He is also the author of The Birth of the West, published by PublicAffairs in 2013.


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