Eamon Duffy, Ten Popes Who Shook the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 151pp.
The papacy is a lightning rod for passions pro and con. Historical evidence for its first hundred years is sketchy, theological claims of power are dubious, its wealth is unimaginable, and some of its morality unquestionably repulsive. Nonetheless, the papacy and the church of a billion Catholics it oversees is the world's oldest perpetual dynasty. Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, published a 500-page tome with the apt title Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes in 2006. This marvelous little volume originated as a series of ten talks that Duffy gave in 2007 on the BBC radio.
Duffy's scholarship is meticulous and his approach fair minded. His brisk narrative begins with a short introduction about the papacy, allots about 8–10 pages per pope, and includes forty illustrations. All the popes were people of their own times. Popes oversee a vast and complex bureaucracy; Duffy compares it to the "EU headquarters, the United Nations and the International Court of Human Rights all rolled into one." Leo the Great (440–461) "invented the papacy as we know it." Innocent III (1198–1216) was the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, and therefore the most powerful man in the world. He oversaw the Crusades, the slaughter of Cathars in southern France, and the ransacking of Constantinople, but also gave his blessing to the newly organized Dominicans and Franciscans. Even his treatment of the "moral cowardice" of Pius XII under Hitler requires nuance, but at the end of the day Duffy concludes that "when the helpless were being slaughtered, the most powerful voice in Christendom faltered."
The current Pope Benedict is the 262nd vicar of Christ to fill the chair of Peter, so Duffy makes no claim that the popes he considers are the best or even most influential ones. Rather, each one "encapsulates one important aspect of the world's most ancient and durable religious institution." Yes, some of them were saints and some were sinners, but all of them enjoy a fair shake at the hands of one of the faith's best historians.