The Oldest Living Institution

Book cover
Keepers of the Keys of Heavenby By Roger CollinsBasic Books. 576p $35

One may question the need for a new one-volume history of the papacy so soon after Eamon Duffy’s widely acclaimed Saints and Sinners (1997), but Roger Collins’s book can stand on its own merits. Although Keepers of the Keys of Heaven lacks Duffy’s literary panache, it is a well-researched and eminently readable account of the history of the oldest living institution in the Western world. The author’s spartan prose, reminiscent of the style of J. N. D. Kelly’s classic Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, enables him to condense an enormous amount of information into 550 pages, including 39 pages of endnotes.


A seasoned historian, author of several books on medieval Europe and research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Collins consistently demonstrates an evenhanded approach to the most controversial issues in papal history. An unusual and welcome feature of this book is the author’s penchant for interlacing his narrative with a running evaluation of his sources, inviting the reader to share his own role as scholarly detective.

This technique also enables Collins to explain the complicated and not necessarily rious role of forged documents in the early centuries of papal history. Unaware of their tainted origins, later generations often accepted these forgeries in good faith and used them as the basis for church reform. For example, the golden age that Leo IX and his advisors attempted to restore in the 11th century was largely an illusion concocted from spurious sources, but it led to one of the great reform movements in church history.

Collins has a keen eye for the apposite quotation that suggests a contemporary reference. Bernard of Clairvaux offered a succinct definition of collegiality when he told his former pupil, Pope Eugenius III, that the pope was “not the lord of the bishops, but one of them.” He also warned Eugenius that one of his cardinals was surrounding himself with handsome young men and showering them with favors. Contemporary enthusiasm for the election of bishops may be tempered by the realization that bishops were often chosen from the upper classes because of the social prestige that they brought to the office.

Collins is instructive in tracing the persistent influence of the Roman senatorial class on the papacy as well as the development of the new Roman Senate, the College of Cardinals, including the curious office of the Cardinal Nephew, which was filled by several scapegraces and at least one saint, Charles Borromeo. The author’s fascination with the etiquette of the papal court adds a human dimension to the evolution of a divine institution. Since the time of Gregory the Great, popes have called themselves “the servant of the servants of God,” but this did not prevent 17th-century pontiffs from requiring visitors to kiss their foot (bishops were allowed to kiss their knee) and prescribing that letters to the pope should conclude with the phrase, “Most humbly, I kiss your holiness’s holiest feet.”

Collins provides revealing and ironic glimpses of the foibles of some of the better known pontiffs. Innocent III, an accomplished canonist, decided to settle a complicated and interminable legal case himself and got it wrong. Another impatient pope, Sixtus V, issued his own definitive edition of the Vulgate, only to have it withdrawn by his successor because it was full of errors. On his deathbed the irascible Barberini pope, Urban VIII (Galileo’s nemesis), unleashed a torrent of barnyard imprecations against dissenting Venetians that cannot be quoted in a family magazine. The vocabulary of Benedict XIV, the author of the standard work on the canonization of saints, was so coarse that it was likened to that of a trooper.

Although Collins devotes almost a fifth of his book to the last two centuries, the coverage of this period sometimes seems thin and hurried, if only because the landscape is so crowded and the sources are so abundant. There is no mention of the modern liturgical movement, the rise of Christian democracy in Western Europe after World War II, the nouvelle théologie and, more surprisingly, the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” and “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” The reference to Baltimore as the primatial see of the United States is also ambiguous. Although Baltimore was the first American diocese, on three separate occasions in an age of creeping ultramontanism, Rome rejected the request of the American bishops to give the archbishop the title of primate.

Collins maintains his evenhanded treatment of the pontiffs right up to the present. It seems unlikely that any new evidence will alter his assessment of Pius XII as “a good Vatican diplomat rather than a natural leader of men in time of crisis.” While recognizing the many merits of John Paul II’s pontificate, he wonders how many of the achievements of Vatican II have survived and how many have been reversed. He remains guardedly optimistic about Benedict XVI, noting the end of the cult of personality in the papacy and (more questionably) a greater receptivity to episcopal collegiality.

No one can possibly be an expert on the 2,000-year history of any institution, but Collins has done the second best thing. He has used a comprehensive array of the best primary and secondary sources to produce a surefooted précis of papal history that deserves a place on the shelf next to Duffy and Kelly.


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9 years 6 months ago
Monsignor Shelley may be correct that Rome three times rejected the request of U.S. bishops to declare the Archbishop of Baltimore the Primate of the United States ("The Oldest Living Institution," May 4, 2009); nevertheless, on July 19, 1858, a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, approved by Pope Pius IX, gave the Archdiocese of Baltimore "Prerogative of Place." According to the Official Catholic Directory, by the words of this decree, the Archbishop of Baltimore takes precedence over all Archbishops (not cardinals) of the United States in councils, gatherings and meetings of the hierarchy regardless of their seniority in promotion or ordination. Whatever Rome's reasoning or intention, it seems the Archbishop of Baltimore was made the primate in all but name.
9 years 3 months ago


As a simple student of Scripture and Tradition, I thought the book Keepers of the Keys of Heaven would be enlightening. After reading the first 20 pages of the book, I began to wonder of what faith is the author Roger Collins.  How would his professed religion influence his writing?  On page 15 and 16 the author discusses the "house-churches" in Rome in the 1st and 2nd century. He stated: "There was also no individual, committee or council of leaders within the Christian movement that could pronounce on which beliefs and practices were acceptable and which were not."  Although controversial, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (1st century), could have provided the “house-churches” a written guide or "pre-Catechism" regarding beliefs and practices of the early Christians.   Collins goes on to say "Different Christian teachers and organizers of house-churches offered a variety of interpretations of the faith and attracted particular followings, rather in the way that modern denominations provide choice for worshipers looking for practices that particularly appeal to them on emotion, intellectual, aesthetic or other grounds."  It seems to me that the author might be making a subtle attempt to justify the diversity of interpretations of modern Christian denominations (30,000 denominations).  Additionally, in the preface to the book, Colllins refers to the Papacy as "Few if any other human institutions have survived so long and played so continuously important a role not just in the history and affairs of Europe but also of the wider world." One could interpret this to mean that the Papacy was totally contrived by humans without any divine guidance. 
Do you wonder as I do that there might be any faith related presumptions that could have influenced Roger Collins writing?  


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