A meticulous history of Vatican’s politics

“Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy” by John Julius Norwich

Once upon a time, being a pope was the most politically powerful position in Europe. Back then, Vatican was a turbulent place with power struggles, territorial disputes, greed, coups, and betrayals. And scattered throughout the papacy’s history exist a role called antipope that functioned like an opposition leader, but with some antipopes eventually became more powerful than their respective reigning popes.

Back in those days the popes did not practice celibacy like today, some have mistresses, others were suspected to be gay, while one had a son whom later also became a pope. Indeed, controversies are in abundance in Vatican’s history, from one pope that was strongly suspected to be a woman, to the monetisation of sins (which ignited the protestant movement by Martin Luther), their complicated relationship with science (and its scientists such as Galileo), to the many volatile problems caused by the Knights Templar.

Moreover, although the Vatican and their 227 popes and 39 antipopes represent the leadership structure of the Catholic religion, their long history is more of a political history rather than a religious one, as they operate like any other monarchies across Europe. And more often than not, they played the central role in the continent’s geopolitics, such as approving the appointment of kings, getting kidnapped by Napoleon, exercising careful diplomacy with Hitler, and granting Spain the permission to colonise the Americas and Portugal to colonise Africa.

A line in the first paragraph of the first chapter in the book captures the essence of it all: “After nearly two thousand years of existence, the Papacy is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world. To countless millions, the pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the infallible interpreter of divine revelation. To millions more, he is the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies of Antichrist. What cannot be denied is that the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is the head, is as old as Christianity itself; all other Christian religions—and there are more than 22,000 of them—are offshoots or deviants from it.”

Love the institution or hate them as you may, but one thing is certain: the story of this long-reigning monarchy is so complex and interesting. Their survivorship puts the other monarchies into shame, they still keeps their darkest secrets unspilled even today (which in turn inspired so many conspiracy theories), and their wealth and power over one of the largest religions in the world are subject to awe and envy. And this 626 pages book covers their history so meticulously.