KEEPERS OF THE KEYS: A History of the Popes from St. Peter to John Paul II by Nicolas Cheetham

KEEPERS OF THE KEYS: A History of the Popes from St. Peter to John Paul II

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A careful, sympathetic, but (necessarily) very dense chronology of the papacy. Cheetham, a British ex-diplomat and historian (Mexico, Medieval Greece) briskly reviews the lives and times of some 270 popes and two dozen anti-popes from a moderately pro-Catholic standpoint. Actually he takes an almost neutral approach with the earliest pontiffs (who were not popes in the usual sense), all the way up to the Reformation. But at that point he goes on the defensive--downplaying, for example, the repressive effects of the Council of Trent, the definition of papal infallibility (1870), and Pius X's assault on ""modernism."" On the other hand, he airs all the charges now being brought against Pius XII for what looks like spineless deference to the Nazis--and, for whatever reason, the photos of Eugenio Pacelli chosen for this volume verge on the repulsive. For the first 14 centuries of the papacy Cheetham works his way judiciously, emphasizing the leading figures (Leo I, Gregory I, Nicholas I, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Boniface VIII, et al.). He makes no bones about the careers of such papal blackguards as Stephen VI, who tried and condemned the corpse of his predecessor Formosus, or John II (""he consecrated a ten-year-old boy bishop; he ordained a deacon in his stables; he had a cardinal-deacon castrated; he called upon the old Gods to help him at dice""). He views the ""Babylonian captivity""--so mourned by devout historians--with detachment: Avignon was safer and more centrally located than Rome. But Cheetham treats many modern popes too generously: Plus IX's ""Syllabus of Errors"" was a reactionary folly, not a mere conservative apologia, and his absurd symbolic stand against the army of General Cadorna cost not ""a few lives,"" but 70. Leo XIII wasn't really ""a great Dante scholar,"" etc. Despite this imbalance, a generally solid piece of work.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Scribners