Ten Popes Who Shook the World

Jonathan Wright savours a breezy rundown of some of the most influential bishops of Rome

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Reviewed by: Jonathan Wright
Author: Eamon Duffy
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £14.99

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These essays were delivered as radio talks in 2007, which accounts for the delightfully breezy tone. They also drip with the authority of one of Britain’s finest historians.

Duffy faced an unenviable task – choosing just ten out of more than 260 popes – but his selections were astute. He advises us that these are not necessarily the ten “best” holders of the mighty office but they encapsulate key aspects of papal history.

Many popes have been devoted to two abiding objectives: asserting authority and unifying the beliefs and practices of the Catholic faithful. This certainly holds true of the figures in this book.

There is Leo the Great in the fifth century, who tried his best to clarify debate about Christ’s divine and human natures; Gregory the Great, whose hundreds of surviving letters reflect a commitment to the twin goals of papal primacy and Christian unity; and Gregory VII who, during the 11th century, tried to root out corruption and scowled at lay rulers intervening in ecclesiastical affairs.

A key tool for stressing papal influence was the church council, even if these meetings could sometimes become the vehicle for dissent and disgruntlement. Many of Duffy’s subjects are most famous for the councils that they convened: Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215; Paul III and the belated response to Reformation at the Council of Trent; Pius IX and the First Vatican Council; John XXIII and Vatican II.

There is humour here (Paul III is “the last of the partying popes”) and a wealth of common sense: the adjudication of Pius XII’s role in the Second World War is critical but even-handed, and describing John Paul II as “both an unashamed populist and a vigorous authoritarian” sounds about right.

It will only take you a couple of hours to read this book but you’ll learn a great deal.

Jonathan Wright is the author of Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
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Jonathan Wright reviews The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich