THE POPES, by Friedrich Gontard, translated by A. J. & E. F. Peeler (Barrie & Rockliff 60s.)
Reviewed by LAURENCE COTTERELL
BAD Popes. licentious Popes, murderous Popes, even three Popes at a time ... Selective propaganda in this country once harped intensely on these themes. And today we see, in the non-Catholic press, an undiscriminating surge of falsely sentimental sludge lapping around Pope and Monarch and Beatle alike—perhaps more dangerous in the long run than the former overt hostility.
Good and bad labels have little meaning unless they are brought into proper perspective. Some acts and attitudes we think of as "good" today might have been singularly misplaced in medieval times: and what we see, looking back into the Middle Centuries, as "bad" was often mild, sensible and comparatively moral by the standard of its day.
is that it presents (in 630 large, well-packed pages of text) not just the known facts and general reputations of the Popes, but also the main political, demographic and personal factors influencing their history. Considering the ground the author has to cover, there is an impressive amount of detail here on the interaction between Papal and secular society, and on the interweaving threads of ecclesiastical and political history.
Herr Gontard is not a Catholic, and it seems sometimes that he has over-imbibed the heady ecumenical spirit to a point at which his objectivity as a chronicler is threatened, for he leans over backwards to be more than fair. He does not so much express his own opinions as select representative contemporary views, and while this works out admirably for the most part, it leads very occasionally to a whitewashing process that Catholics themselves no longer need to apply, and to an unnecessarily dark portrayal of the Church's critics.
Luther. for example, obviously possessed great qualities, however misdirectedthey were, and few would doubt his lonely courage, but no cause or argument is furthered by emphasising only his less attractive characteristics.
The author seems also to have misunderstood the basis of the worker-priest movement in France and the objections of the authorities to some of its manifestations, and his error stems from being somewhat out of date in his social assessments, although here again he has striven to give an objective picture.
Having said this, one has to admit that the passages which grate on the mind are few and far between. The greater part of the fascinating narrative strikes true notes from its beginning in the Beduin tents of Israel 30 centuries ago to its.conclusion in the room from which Pope Paul can broadcast to the world. There is no conclusion to the. Papal story, of course, while mankind lasts, and it is hoped that this text will be revised and brought up to date at intervals.
The centuries of Witness and the life and death-on-earth of Our Lord are dealt with in what is by way of an introduction. This Christian story begins with Peter, the first Pope, and with a suggestion of James the Less being the first anti-Pope.
SECOND COUNCIL Herr Gontard sees another great Reformation taking place very early in the history of the Church, when the major controversy was whether the new faith was for Jews alone or for all men. This Reformation was complete when what had been an exclusively Jewish Christianity opened its doors to Gentiles without circumcision, as the author shows so lucidly.
Pope Paul VI is the 262nd occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, and this book is sufficiently up to date to give a brief account of his accession, his earlier career and his characteristics. The Second Vatican Council is brought into historical perspective in a short but masterly chapter which includes observations of a penetrating and sometimes disturbing nature.
Perhaps Herr Gontard makes too much of the difficulties of absorbing new Catholics from the emergent, non-white countries — both at layman level and in the hierarchy—but in his sections on "The flight from the Church" and "The Latin coat no longer fits the Church" he shows an unusual gift for the potted yet comprehensive summing-tip.
Most Catholics, whether highbrow, lowbrow or middlebrow, know all too little about the majority of their 262 popes, and even less about the background to each reign. And it is this "background knowledge" particularly which helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable (and sometimes seemingly inexcusable) behaviour of various pontiffs. No Catholic should have to argue about the Inquisition or the cultured decadence of Leo X in isolation.
All too often we meet the attacks of anti-Catholic intellectuals on the small piece of favourable ground they have chosen, when we could, with more self-briefing, widen the front of the argument and get specific "accusations" into proper, balanced perspective on a much larger map.
Writing as a Catholic layman with no academic qualifications and no deep knowledge of history, religion or any associated subject, I find this the most helpful and informative work on the Popes and the Papacy I have ever come across. A priest, a theologian or an historian would review this book quite differently and much more expertly—but would find in it much less that he did not know already than I and most readers of the CATHOLIC HERALD will find.
ILLUSTRATIONS When I read a Protestant putting things as clearly as Friedrich Gontard does in the following passage. I take great heart, and see some things more clearly than I did before :— "The religious and political evolution of Israel as a province of the vast Roman Empire points logically to the appearance of Jesus Christ. Israel remains the earthly kingdom. The roots of the later Church of the Popes. which has taken over the commission of Christ in the eyes of the world, reach deep into the history of the land.
"The Catholic Church speaks of the revelation of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. God ordained the people, the place and the point of time when His Son should appear on earth. It is the climax of a great historical evolution in which the people of Israel have the biggest share, and at the same time the starting-point of a religious and political power which will find its fullest expression in the Church of the Popes.
"The petty objections concerning the authenticity of literary and archtrological sources, which accompany our entire study of the roots of the Papacy, fail to imprecs if the spiritual aim is kept in mind" (my italics). • All this being said, the wise scholar too will not scorn such a compact, well-ordered compendium of facts, viewpoints and illustrative anecdotes culled from the archives of the ages.
The illustrations naturally form a great feature of the book, bringing it well into the gift-belt. There are 169 of them, some full-page, ranging from the earliest depictions of Our Lord and Saint Peter to photographs of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI,
There is a good index and a commendable appendix on the 21 Ecumenical Councils of the Church. And what will be tremendously valuable (in schools particularly) isthe catalogue of all the Popes with their vital statistics —a list I have never come across in so convenient and comprehensive a form elsewhere.