Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial recent visit to Britain and his attempt at rewriting history by claiming that World War II was in reality a war against atheism provided a good opportunity to reflect on the near-total loss of moral authority which the Vatican has suffered since Benedict took over from his equally conservative, but more charismatic predecessor five years ago. This is, however, only the latest development in the two thousand years of papal history and, when one considers what the Papacy gone been through during those millennia, it feels almost inevitable that it will come through its latest moral crisis as well.
No institution has played such a great role over such a long time on the stage of European history as the Papacy. Yet its influence has been almost constantly changing throughout its long and complicated history, which has seen schism resulting in as many as four rival popes at the same time and reigns whose lengths have ranged between twelve days and 32 years.
It is thus a daunting task Roger Collins has taken upon himself in attempting to tell the history of the Papacy’s 2000 years in a single volume of some 500 pages. Yet, in Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, which was published last year and is now available in paperback, he must be said to have succeeded.
The book is lively and engagingly written and the centuries fly past as one reads. At such a pace it is almost unavoidable that the reader might occasionally find it a bit difficult to keep all the popes, antipopes, emperors and kings apart and sometimes the author himself makes mistakes in names, titles or dates.
It is also a given that the author cannot delve particularly deeply into it all, so that even the Reformation is only accorded a few paragraphs, but I cannot see how this could have been done differently without making the book swell into one of those tomes of 1000 pages or several volumes.
Collins’s book virtually ends in 1978 as he considers it too early to evaluate the impact of John Paul II’s long papacy and therefore restricts himself to suggesting what might be considered the strongest and weakest aspects of his reign. And the paedophilia scandals which have engulfed the Papacy recently were mostly revealed after the book went to print, thus making it impossible for the author to dwell upon the contrasts in the Papacy’s moral standing on the world scene during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
As the book is mostly narrative rather than analytical I do miss a final chapter where the author could have summed up and given us his thoughts on the ever-changing role and influence of the Papacy throughout its existence. Nevertheless it works very well as an introduction to or a survey of the history of this longest-lasting of the central institutions of European history.