The return of ""Xavier Rynne""--that shrewd observer of papal politics whose New Yorker reports on Vatican II delighted liberals and dismayed conservatives--in something less than top form. This sensible, informative survey of the lives and times of all the popes from Plus IX to John Paul II shows Rynne-Murphy's historical breadth and even-handed, courageous (for an author who is not just a Catholic but a Redemptorist priest) assessment of Rome, but it gets mired at times in boring details: Who's Who in the curia, tempests in various clerical teacups, etc. Murphy argues, in brief, that despite its supposed infallibility and habitual intransigence, the Vatican is changing. Pius IX and his namesakes may have been stalwart reactionaries, but ever since Pope John's Pacem in Terris the papacy has been leaning to the left and consistently (well, almost consistently) speaking up for social justice. In other areas--Church reform, sexual ethics, the whole process of aggiornamento in liturgy, theology, the missions, and so on--progress has been fitful, but Murphy is hopeful if not optimistic. He laments Plus XII's anti-communist phobias and John Paul II's benighted attacks on contraception, among other papal follies, but he remains confident that the Vatican will eventually catch up with the realities of modern life. And in the meantime, despite its failure to denounce Hitler and its paternalistic treatment of the Third World, the papacy ""has served as the conscience of Western civilization."" Whether or not that is precisely so, both it and the Catholic church are, as Murphy says, liable to survive for quite some time. If they do, it will be partly thanks to intelligent members of the loyal opposition like Murphy. A solid account, partisan but honest.