Norwich describes himself as an agnostic Anglican, and he is not primarily interested in theological questions except in so far as they influenced the historical course of events. In essence the book tells the story of how the popes became the temporal rulers of Rome and indeed of quite large parts of Italy, but then progressively lost control of their territorial possessions and temporal power, becoming in the end confined to the Vatican. So for much of their history the popes were making and breaking treaties, intriguing and negotiating, using their armies to fight battles (occasionally even leading them in person) and, in short, behaving exactly like the secular rulers of the time.
But another strand in the narrative is the changing fortunes of papal religious authority, which at first extended over the whole of Christendom but later became increasingly restricted, first by the split between Eastern and Western Christianity, then by the Protestant Reformation, and later by the rise of secularism after the Enlightenment. But in spite of these losses the papacy has maintained or even increased its authority over the Roman Catholic church, with over two billion members who constitute half of all the Christians in the world.
Although not formally divided into sections, the book describes a number of fairly distinct epochs. The early chapters are about the evolution of the papacy in the declining Roman empire. Here we see Leo the Great defending Rome against the Huns and the Goths, Leo III laying the crown on the head of Charlemagne (and hence inaugurating the Holy Roman Empire), and the struggles of Gregory the Great and his successors against that Empire for supremacy—a struggle that was to continue for many centuries.
When we reach the Middle Ages we encounter scenes that will probably be familiar to many readers, since the Borgias have been the subject of much fiction and drama. But even before this we encounter the scandalous pontificates of the late ninth and early tenth centuries. "Pope Joan" (?855-7) has a short chapter to herself; Norwich is obliged to conclude, regretfully, that she never existed. We then get a century and a half in which the standard of the incumbents dipped drastically. One, John VII, was assassinated by priests from his own entourage. He was the first pope to die in this way but by no means the last; a number of his successors at this period met a similar end at the hands of rivals.
It wasn't just a matter of assassinations that disgraced the papacy at this time. The tenth century was the period of the "papal pornocracy". The worst pope of the time was John XII, who succeeded to the throne at the age of 18, thanks to the influence of his beautiful but notorious mother, Marozia. "He allowed the city—indeed, he encouraged it—to slide into chaos, using its wealth as well as that of the Papal States to gratify his own passion for gambling and for every kind of sexual licence." He died at 27, either of a stroke brought on by excessive exertions in bed or at the hand of the lady's furious husband.
Nepotism was a major failing of many popes, though few took this as far as the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who was concerned to promote not just his nephews but his sons. If events had followed their intended course the papacy would have become in effect a hereditary monarchy, at least for a time. But Norwich finds that, in spite of the legendary wickedness of the Borgias, Alexander's pontificate was not wholly negative for the papacy.
Quite apart from the personal failings of many of the popes at this time, the Middle Ages saw at least two disasters for Christendom: the Great Schism between the eastern and western branches in 1054 and the appalling Fourth Crusade, in which there occurred in 1204 "the most unspeakable of the many outrages in the whole hideous history of the Crusades: the brutal sacking and near-destruction of Constantinople - capital of the Roman Empire and Christendom's most vital outpost in the East." The Byzantine state never properly recovered and so the Fourth Crusade was ultimately responsible for the loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks nearly two centuries later.
The papacy had to contend not only with political and military threats of various kinds but also with developments in how people saw the world. One of these came, in 1517, with Martin Luther's revolution, which for the first time suggested the possibility of a form of Western Christianity that was not headed by the Pope. And in the eighteenth century came the Age of Reason; there were now religious sceptics abroad in Europe, although still very few would openly admit to being atheists.
As a reaction to the Reformation the Catholics launched their own Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Jesuits were at the forefront of this movement but in the eighteenth century they encountered considerable opposition in the Bourbon states of Portugal, France, and Spain. They were expelled, and many thousands found themselves homeless and destitute. They finally reached the Papal States but were hardly made welcome. The Pope, Clement III, eventually allowed them to stay but they were forbidden to enter Rome without special permission.
In the twentieth century the most important events were the two World Wars, and particularly the response (or lack of response) of Pius XII to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Norwich has little good to say about Pius. He quotes from letters written by the Pope well before his accession which express a considerable degree of anti-semitism, and he finds such attempts as Pius made to moderate Hitler's actions during the war to be equivocal and spineless at best. The Pope also did little to prevent the Nazis' mass arrests and deportation of Italian Jews after the Allied invasion and the fall of Mussolini.
The only partial exception to this pusillanimous behaviour he identifies is a curious episode that occurred at the beginning of the war. In November 1939 Pius was approached by a group of German conspirators who were plotting to overthrow Hitler but wanted a guarantee that the Allies would not take advantage of the resulting confusion to impose humiliating terms on Germany like those that followed the First World War. They asked the Pope to act as intermediary with Britain. Pius agreed but remained uneasy. He told the British Minister to the Holy See that he did not endorse the conspiracy but was simply passing the information on; he then said that he wanted the Minister to forget that he had ever mentioned the matter, which the Minister refused to do. The plot, in any case, came to nothing. Norwich sees the episode as evidence of the Pope's basic anti-Nazi feelings and his willingness to take a dangerous decision, which he then had second thoughts about.
The most notable event of the post-war years was the Second Vatican Council under John XXIII. His pontificate marked a new attitude of the Church to the modern world, other Christian churches, and the Jews. John's reign was short—only five years—but his work continued under his successor, Paul VI. Under him, the second session of the Council proved to be "the most revolutionary Christian phenomenon since the Reformation". A very visible mark of this was the replacement of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass with a vernacular version, in which the priest now faced the congregation instead of the altar.
How far Paul might have gone, had he lived longer, is unknown. Norwich seems to think he might have approved the use of contraception by Catholics, But he was found dead in bed on Friday, 29 September 1978, after having been in office for only 33 days. Many have thought he was murdered. Norwich himself believed this for a long time but now he thinks on balance that this was not the case.
Paul was succeeded by the Polish John Paul II, who was considerably more traditional in his thinking. He also enormously increased the number of canonisations, something Norwich disapproves of—especially since Pius XII was one of those scheduled for recognition in this way.
The book concludes with the accession of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI in 2005, The beginning of his pontificate was marked by a number of damaging faux pas, but his visit to England was a remarkable and unexpected success. Norwich is unlucky in that he finished writing this chapter in 2010; if he had waited a little longer he could have concluded with the news of Benedict's dramatic and unexpected resignation. If there is a second edition of this book—and I think there deserves to be—I hope he will update it to include this.
21 April 2014