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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2011
I suppose as general history for the layman, this book can be entertaining, but it's not scholarship and Norwich is only as good as his (secondary) sources. He also has an annoying habit of reusing lines from them without attribution (this witty remark is from Ostrogorsky. This other one is by Runciman. Et cetera.).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2014
This book isn't flawless: I'd argue with some of the characterizations of various historical events. However, in the main, it's a excellent account of the papacy through history, with its regular descents into corruption and impotence, and its equally regular recoveries to renewed greatness. It's also fascinating to see the pageant of the last two thousand years of history from a 'Pope's eye view.' Obviously, much has to be omitted in a book covering such a sweep of time, so there are many things one is left wondering about, but that's unavoidable. This book leaves you interested in learning more about the various events and developments it touches on. That's perhaps all that can be reasonably asked of it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2014
Mr. Norwich is able to tell his story in an understandable way without passing judgment on whether anything was right or wrong. That is a fine line that is sometimes hard to abide by. John Norwich managed to walk that line well. Reading the book and now seeing the papacy of Pope Francis makes me hope that John Norwich might write a book about Francis' papacy as Francis has set the "Absolute Monarch" model of the papacy on its head. Imagine a pope doing his own laundry! An excellent read, hard to put down. Read it!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2014
Thoroughly mesmerizing history of the papacy from the very beginning. Just the facts about the men - and possibly one woman - who have occupied the Throne of St. Peter's. Seeing the men in their unvarnished state is extraordinary and the author is even handed in his treatment. Most interestingly it ends with the papacy of Benedict XVI; how much I would have enjoyed hearing an accounting of Pope Francis. A good read for anyone interested in this nearly 2000 year old institution.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2014
This book was simultaneously fascinating and boring. There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, things I didn't know and didn't expect from the papacy. They were sprinkled in just frequently enough to keep me going. Three popes at one time? Who knew? Popes who actually lead armies into battle? Who knew that? Popes who apparently didn't believe in Christianity? Popes who were homosexual? Orgies with the cardinals? Well, that's all in there. But the book is also cursed with the scourges of history: dates, places and names. They all sound alike after a while. The places are frequently no longer in existence and it was hard for me to imagine where they were or what they were like. And the names, well let's just say that popes tend to have the same name. A lot. A whole lot. Who can remember the difference between Pope Paul the XIX and Pope Paul the XXI? (I'm not sure those are real popes, but you get the picture.)

The book is certainly worth reading although I don't know how anyone could take the Roman Catholic Church seriously afterward.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2014
It covers a tremendous canvas of history in broad brush strokes as it gives a useful overview of the history of European Western society. The papal involvement is integral to European history, but so are the absolute monarchs in each age. The interaction is outlined in a very interesting tale of evolving history. It is especially interesting to read how the papacy evolved in the early church and how it supplanted Roman power in the Middle Ages. Many popes were absolute rulers with unchristian tendencies, and there were those who really tried to be good shepherds of their flock. All of them were trapped by temporal power in a role that should have been spiritual. The author gives an objective, secular look at all of these events. It's a long, sometimes repetitious and tedious read, but worth the journey to get a prospective of the history of Western society.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2014
First let me say that I am a cradle Catholic. Having said that I have never been under any illusions about the papacy. This book gives a clear and, in my opinion, unbiased summary of the Papacy from St Peter up to Benedict XVI. The author doesn't sugar coat it. I knew there were some bad popes but I never realized, until reading this book, just how many bad ones theer really were. The author tries to fit the papacy in the geoplitical context of the time and in that he does a good job; sometimes too much so. I gave the book only 4 stars becasue sometimes he goes into a little TOO MUCH detail about the politics in play to the extent he covers the reigning monarchs almost as much as the sitting pope. This sometimes makes the book a little tedious to plow through.

In summary, a good read but a little too long.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2014
My wife is still reading this long book, which is more historical than theological. If you watch "The Borgias" and think it is extreme, this book will disabuse you of that notion. The papacy, being a human invention, has been as deeply flawed as any human venture. Going back to the beginning, and reading through the middle ages, Crusades, etc., show the folly of many policies and "Crusades," and she wonders how different the world would be now if some of the misadventures of the Catholic Church had gone differently (or not been put into action at all). Still, even if you are agnostic/atheist, it is a fascinating and at some times almost unbelievable history of Western and Middle Eastern worlds for the last two millenia. She looks forward to finishing it and coming up to present day.
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21 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2011
Due to space restrictions I limit myself in this customer comment to merely one aspect of John Julius Norwich's "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy," realizing that such a focus often elicits negative responses for its lack of comprehensiveness. Yet such concentration is necessary to adequately substantiate my points.

I first learned of Norwich's "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" when I encountered Bill Keller's gleeful review featured on the cover of "The New York Times Book Review" (7 July 2011 online; 10 July 2011 in the print edition). Keller was the Executive Editor of "The New York Times" from July 2003 until September 2011 and has described himself not as a lapsed Catholic but as a "beyond lapsed" Catholic. In his review, Keller wrote that Norwich provided "a disheartening chapter on Pius XI and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church's long streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich's view, redeemed himself by his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis." Keller continues: "But [Norwich's] indictment of Pius XII -- who resisted every entreaty to speak out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the Jews of Rome to Auschwitz -- is compact, evenhanded and devastating."

YET THE REPORTING and analysis of as little as a single wartime source - ironically "The New York Times" - shows that Pius XII condemned the Nazi atrocities against Jews and others and moved significantly to mitigate them while also opposing the threat of Communism. This wartime reporting provides evidence readily available in many libraries (and perhaps online) to overturn Norwich's indictment of Pius XII (and Keller's affirmation of it). But more recent vintages of "The New York Times" have often soured to vinegar against the Catholic Church, prompting the Catholic League to hold up a mirror to "The Times" - an advertisement defending Pius XII (10 April 2001, "The New York Times") with some of the wartime reporting harvested from "The Times" itself, disinfecting Norwich in sunlight (and Keller in the vinegar of his own making). Here are excerpts from that ad which the Catholic League drew from "The Times:"

* "If the Pope in his Christmas message had intended to condemn Hitler's system, he could not have done it more effectively than by describing the `moral order' which must govern human society." (editorial, December 25, 1940)

* "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas." (editorial, December 25, 1941)

* Catholic Church leaders "are virtually the only Germans still speaking up against the Nazi regime." (news article, June 8, 1942)

* "This Christmas more than ever he [Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent." (editorial, December 25, 1942)

* Vatican Radio is quoted saying, "He who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God's commands." (news article, June 27, 1943)

* Commenting on the 1,200 German priests interned at Dachau, the Times says, "The arrests are linked with strong anti-Nazi and anti-war movements in the predominantly Roman Catholic section of Germany." (news article, August 13, 1943)

* Remarking on the German bishops' pastoral letter condemning Hitler (which ended by thanking Pius for his leadership), the Times says, "The letter abounds in sly but fearless thrusts at the false god and Nazi tenets." (news article, September 6, 1943)

* When a Soviet house organ tries to tag the Vatican pro-Nazi, the Times goes ballistic: "Of all the incendiary literary bombs manufactured in Moscow...and thrown with such lighthearted recklessness into the unity of Allied nations, none is likely to do greater damage than Izvestia's unjust and intemperate attack upon the Vatican as `pro-Fascist.'" (editorial, February 4, 1944)

* After Rome was liberated, the chief Rabbi of Rome, Israele Anton Zolli, formally expressed the gratitude of Roman Jews "for all the moral and material aid the Vatican gave them during the Nazi occupation." (news article, July 27, 1944)

* When the war ended, the Times ran many stories detailing the praise that Jewish leaders bestowed on Pius. Included was the one which recorded a gift of $20,000 to the Vatican by the World Jewish Congress "in recognition of the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecution." (news article, October 11, 1945)

ONE MAY WONDER WHY Norwich offers no words about the Catholic clergy and other Catholics killed in the Nazi death camps. Has it not occurred to him that if Pius' denunciations might have spared Jews, the same denunciations might have spared many Catholics? Pius XII's alleged silence is often attributed to his alleged anti-Semitism, and Norwich goes even further writing of Pius' "innate anti-Semitism" (p. 447 in the 2011 hardbound edition); was Pope Pius XII also anti-Catholic (innately or otherwise)? To be lucid, if anti-Semitism was why Pope Pius XII failed to sufficiently protest atrocities against Jews, was anti-Catholicism why he failed to sufficiently protest atrocities against Catholics? Rather, a much more fitting explanation is that Pius was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Catholic but likely learned that overt actions to combat Nazi crimes were met with reprisals and were counterproductive: the Nazi reaction to conspicuous protests by Catholic clergy in defense of Jews in the Netherlands, for example, included arresting and killing Jewish converts to Catholicism.

ONE MAY ALSO WONDER, given such experience with reprisals, if Pius XII had been more vocal and acted more overtly, whether Norwich would now be condemning him as - and my words are suggested by media critic James Bowman's review of "Amen" (26 January 2003) - "Pope Preening Popinjay" or a whited sepulcher more concerned with his reputation than in rescuing victims or an "innate" dunce for not recognizing the stupidity of his "help."

With Norwich as his judge, I believe that Pius XII would be damned if he hadn't and damned if he had.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2014
Gives a great history of the Popes. A real eye opener that is not a shining star for the Catholic church. You can see how far the church has come in becoming a more well rounded vehicle for people and their beliefs. Loved this book and sorry that Pope Frances can't be included as he is a true example of what a Pope should be. I highly recommend this book.
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