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Too reverential for its own good
on 5 July 2010
Historical books can quite often come undone when an author is blatantly taking sides. "Let the facts speak for themselves" is almost always the best approach, however for a history of the Papacy there are simply too many facts to create a meaningful narrative. This is something that the author admits in the foreword. So there has to be a conscious choice about what facts to use and how to present them.
What we have here is a brave attempt to summarise 2,000 years of religious and political history in about 400 pages. As an overview it's not bad however it is the biased selectiveness that really lets it down. You cannot fit all the good or bad things the Papacy have done in the name of Jesus in 400 pages but what I cannot allow (and this why it gets 2 stars from me) is the bias towards reverence. This book is called "Saints and Sinners" and yet it is about 90% saint and only 10% sinner. Many appalling crimes are ignored completely or glossed over and virtually every cynical move made by the papacy is given a mitigating circumstance. According to this book no pope ever acted in a greedy way or was bellicose they were always forced into it, or it was a final option- so letting them off the hook.
Here is the entire summary of the first crusade-
"By 1099 Jerusalem had been taken and the Muslim population massacred." That's your lot, on this occasion it's actually factually wrong because the crusaders massacred everyone, Christians and Jews too but not a moment is spared to question the fact that a man who was supposed to understand the teachings of Christ had gone so far from "love thy neighbour" that it was now ok to wage a war at his instigation.
Here is the summary of the inquisition-
"...under its fierce scrutiny Catharism shrivelled and faded." Well that's one way to put it. There is one mention of burning heretics but nothing about incarceration of people who have yet to be convicted of anything and no mention of torture. Apologists have pointed out that contemporary kings did worse (which is true) but there is something odious about priests allowing people to be treated this way in the name of Jesus Christ.
Both of the above have been formally apologised for by Pope John Paul II which surely means the author can come down on these crimes harder.
Eamon Duffy spends more time on the Holocaust and has to concede some ground there but implies the Papacy had no real option but to remain neutral and try and help with peace efforts- really? In the face of such obvious evil now is the time for moral equivocation?
He follows up the whole Holocaust and the Papacy debate with this line-
"Even while Europe was plunged into total war, however, theological renewal had begun..."So that's ok then.
It is telling that in the index there is no listing for the inquisition nor the holy alliance (the Vatican's secret service with an illustrious history of espionage and assasinations).
What is in this book isn't quite a whitewash, or factually all wrong, the major problem is the writer has not been as unbiased as they should or could have been. There needs to be far more balanced information for this to be a history book because at the moment this is a hagiography of 262 (mainly) old men, some good, some bad and a healthy amount incompetent. That's the story that needs to be told, not this one.
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