Theologian and Vatican commentator Collins (The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, 2013, etc.) delivers a critique of the last two centuries of papal history.
When Pope Pius VI died as a prisoner in France in 1799, the Catholic Church was at a low ebb, battered by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In this comprehensive history, the author explores the fierce intellectual battles over doctrine and liturgy that marked the papacy's transition from spiritually marginalized ruler of the Papal States to telegenic moral tutor of global stature, progress about which Collins appears somewhat ambivalent. His title seems to refer to the Vatican I decree Pastor aeternus (1870) declaring that the pope is vested with "the absolute fullness of supreme power," about which the author writes, "There is something almost demented about such a claim." It obviously doesn't refer to temporal power, and Collins rejects its application to spiritual power as well, as incompatible with the life and message of Jesus. Alongside internal political conflicts, this well-researched narrative presents struggles over subtle points of doctrine that may baffle or weary general readers but have been effective in harassing and suppressing would-be reformers. Throughout, the author rails against the hierarchical, centralized, legalistic church promoted by most recent popes as compared to the more collegial, decentralized pastoral church advocated by Pope Francis. Collins has little use for any of the popes in this period except John XXIII and Francis, believing that the others either acted directly to enhance the power and centrality of the papacy or were ineffectual place holders who permitted conservative cardinals to do the same. He is utterly contemptuous of the Curia, the Vatican's administrative arm, a "bureaucratic incubus [that] should be summarily swept away." The author concludes with a series of recommendations for reform of the church, focused largely on devolution.
A thoroughly researched but tendentious history in support of a call for a radically different papacy and church.