Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 27, 2009
Rich papal history
Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy , by Roger Collins, Basic Books (New York, 2009). 550 pp.
REVIEW BY BROTHER JEFFREY GROS, FSC
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint opened a “patient and fraternal dialogue” with fellow Christians on how best to renew the function of the papal office to serve the unity of Christian churches.
This invitation has generated a flurry of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox studies on the history, theology and practice of this office. This volume is a substantive critical Catholic contribution to the retelling of this fascinating tale.
The coming of television in the last half of the 20th century has made the papacy available to peoples worldwide in ways unimaginable for the bulk of its history.
In fact, today some Catholics may know as much about the current incumbent of the chair of Peter as they do of their own local bishop.
In history popes came and went without the majority of Christians knowing who the current occupant of the Roman See was. In fact, for a century the average Christian had no way of knowing who was a rightful claimant among the competing papal lines of Avignon, Rome and finally Pisa.
This is a well-documented, critical, but sympathetic portrayal of the story with ample notes and bibliography for further exploration.
It brings the narrative up to date, closing with Pope Benedict XVI’s election, and offers a balanced assessment, neither lionizing nor demonizing more recent servants of this ministry within the Church.
The author gives the legends, forgeries and myths that have been used to support papal claims. He provides a critical academic assessment, but the stories are all there, even when there is little or no basis in fact.
Those raised in the 20th century, Catholic or not, find it hard to image that it was only in 1870, on the eve of the liberation of Italy, that official clarification of the role of the bishop of Rome within the Church was begun.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has continued to clarify how modern Catholicism understands the structures of the Church and the papacy within it.
Indeed, in the era before the 16th-century Reformation it would have been hard to imagine a unified church with the papacy, clearly defined and limited, at its centre.
INTRIGUE AND CONFLICT
Those fascinated by intrigue, political conflict, economic manipulation and the quest for influence and power will find this an absorbing read. Those looking for a treatment of the role of the faith of the Christian people through the ages, however, will need to look elsewhere. The theological debates are treated to the extent that the papacy is involved.
The history of this institutional element within Christianity is important not only for Catholics and those interested in religious institutions, but also for the student of Western history because popes have been influential in the political world from the Constantinian developments of the fourth century through the role of Catholicism into the 21st century.
It has often been said that the survival of the Church in spite of the human sinfulness of its members is, indeed, a moral miracle. This volume certainly demonstrates how the office of the papacy verifies this testimony to the grace of Christ’s ability to shine through human failure and struggles for power.
(Christian Brother Jeffrey Gros is a professor of ecumenical and historical theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn., and a former staff member of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.)