Rocks of Ages

Book cover
Ten Popes Who Shook the Worldby By Eamon DuffyYale Univ. Press. 160p $25

Eamon Duffy’s latest book originated as a series on BBC. That fact alone should be enough to persuade you to buy it. Not only is Duffy an elegant stylist; he is the best qualified person in the English-speaking world to write on the subject. You will not, therefore, be disappointed in these 10 sketches that begin with St. Peter and end with John Paul II. In between are five of the usual suspects—Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Gregory VII, Innocent III and John XXIII.

Less obvious as world-shakers are Paul III, Pius IX and Pius XII. They are also the most problematic. Of the three, the one I know best is Paul III (1534-49), who, among his other claims to fame, can boast patronage of Michelangelo. He is best remembered, however, for finally, after overcoming seemingly insuperable obstacles, convoking the Council of Trent. But he also gave impetus to a renewal of Catholic spiritual life by approving several new religious orders, of which the most important were the Ursulines and the Jesuits. Some scholars see in his pontificate, therefore, the beginning of modern Catholicism. Duffy in the few pages at his disposal is able only to hint at Paul’s dark side and at the disruptive machinations of his children and grandchildren that marred his record.


Pius IX (1846-78) remains a controversial figure in Italy because of his opposition to Italian unification. He is controversial more broadly, despite his recent beatification (2000), because of his reactionary pronouncements on church policy. No doubt, however, his convocation of Vatican Council I (1869-70) and his vigorous promotion during it of the doctrine of papal infallibility left an indelible mark on the church.

Duffy’s treatment of Pius XII was for me the most intriguing in the book. Ever since Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” opened in Berlin in 1963, the pope has been accused time and again of complicity in the Holocaust because of his failure to denounce it. This accusation has just as many times provoked vigorous defenses. The guns are still blazing from both sides. To write on Pius is to enter a battlefield. Duffy is judicious, but I was a little surprised, which does not necessarily mean displeased, by his stance. (I won’t give the plot away!)

Before I opened the book, I tried to make my own list of 10 popes “who shook the world.” I came up with only one, Gregory VII (1073-85). He made Duffy’s list, as he would make the list, I think, of just about any student of the history of the West. Then I wracked my brain and came up with four more—Stephen II (752-57), Leo III (795-816), John XXII (1316–34), and John XXIII (1958-63). Of these four, on only John XXIII did our lists coincide.

What a cantankerous lot, we historians! But in this case I was not so much being cantankerous as interpreting “shaking the world” in a more literal sense than Duffy. He understood the expression to mean that each of these popes encapsulated one important aspect of what the papacy has come to be. Understood thus, my list would come to look a lot like his.

In his introduction, however, Duffy with an impish touch derails both his list and mine by quoting a provocative, half-serious passage from a book by P. J. FitzPatrick, in which FitzPatrick singles out the “six founders of the Roman Church as we know it”: the Emperor Claudius, Gregory the Great, the Prophet Mohammed, Martin Luther, Napoleon and Sir Charles Wheatstone.

I hope you’re tantalized.

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7 years 1 month ago
O'Malley, a Jesuit, publishes earlier this year a book about the popes from their beginning to the present. Martin, a Jesuit, writes of  O'Malley's book that, "There can be no better guide for the educated reader to the story of the popes than Father O'Malley." O'Malley thereafter reviews in America, a Jesuit publication,  Duffy's book about ten of the Popes, saying of Duffy that he is the most qualified man walking the earth competent to write about the popes. Am I witnessing two Irishmen dancing around an innocent Englishman?

7 years 1 month ago
I repent of my above error. I am witnessing two Irishmen dancing around an

Irishman educated in the main in England. 
david power
7 years 1 month ago
Harry, none of them are  Irishmen.You have two Irish-Americans and an Anglo-Irishman.Three good writers nonetheless.
7 years 1 month ago
David, You say that Duffy is "an Anglo-Irishman". Duffy, however, referring to his nationality in his Confessions of a Cradle Catholic, states that "I was born in 1947 in the Irish east coast town of Dundalk, a strongly nationalist community just south of the border." (It is an area in  which my paternal grandfather's family lived.) Duffy in his Confessions states that his family's history in Ireland "came to an end for me in June, 1960, when the family emigrated to Birmingham". So we end with two Irish-Americans and my one Irishman, Duffy.
Ellen P
7 years 1 month ago

Blessed Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict must be on any top 10 list worth reading.

They promulgated the very needed "CATECHISM of the CATHOLIC CHURCH, Second Edition" and "YOUCAT" Youth Catechism respectively.

The CCC is a must read or re-read for everyone over age 16. YOUCAT is age appropriate for ages 12 - 16. (The Baltimore Catechism for children under age 12.) No Catholic home should be without a CCC.

We all must know our faith and teach our faith without human error.

The CCC should be a required text at all Catholic Universities, all Seminaries, and for Seniors in High School. Americans are literate, and there are no excuses. I even recommend the CCC to my non-Catholic friends so they will know the truth of what the Church teaches and what all Catholics are required to adhere to.

In addition, please read: "The Ratzinger Report, an exclusive interview on the State of the Church" expecially the pages on "a shattered catechesis".

david power
7 years 1 month ago
Harry , fair enough. Duffy is a very good historian and I have enjoyed somethings that I have read by him.
I would not be interested in this book for the simple fact that I am tired of the worshipping of Wojtyla in all forms and the silence over his role in the cover up of sexual abuse of children.
Maybe Duffy confronts that but most people who depend on the Church for a living have to play by the rules.
Anyway, 2-1 it is. 
Craig McKee
7 years 1 month ago
Alongside the actual figures mentioned above, I would add my own "dream team" of 3 fictional popes from literature and cinema:

Hadrian VII

Kiril Lakota

Il Papa Melville

Given the historical papacy's checkered past, I can't imagine the church being in any worse shape today if any or all of these had actually occupied the petrine cathedra, however briefly.


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