Petered Out

Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy
by Roger Collins
Basic Books, 2009
(576 pages, $35.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Ryan Sayre Patrico

Writing a history of the papacy is notoriously difficult, and scholars have traditionally taken one of two approaches to the task. The extreme of the first approach is the Liber Pontificalis, which documents in nearly endless detail each pope, one by one in their proper succession, and marks every major, and most of the minor, events of the pontificates all the way back to Peter himself. The second approach is the breezier one—exemplified by, say, Eamon Duffy’s 1999 papal history Saints and Sinners—in which huge swaths of history are summarized in a paragraph or two, and quick vignettes are used to capture the essence of individual pontificates.

The latest entry in the genre of papal history is Keepers of the Keys of Heaven, Roger Collins’s attempt to find a middle way and provide a history that is both a precise account of the individual popes and a broad narrative of the world’s oldest institution.

Two-Fold Failure

Unfortunately, it fails at both. The book runs to almost 600 pages—200 longer than Duffy’s Saints and Sinners—yet, in one sense, it is too short: We need many more details than Collins provides if we are going to know everything about the popes. In another sense, however, the book is too long. It focuses too much on details—who needs to know that prefects in eleventh-century papal processions wore one red and one golden sock?—and too little on the over-arching themes and patterns of ecclesiastical history.

Not that details can’t sometimes help us form a picture of a particular era and a particular pope. At its best, Collins’s book gives the reader an up-close, almost visceral impression of papal history. The chaos and disorder that surrounded the papacy during the Middle Ages, for example, are vividly rendered in the book. By focusing on specifics and choosing his details well, Collins, a medievalist at the University of Edinburgh, shows how tumultuous the Middle Ages actually were.

Much of the time, however, he gets so bogged down in the details of ecclesiastical history that he cannot provide the context necessary to understand why, for example, the medieval papacy was so tumultuous. Surely the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the resulting lack of centralized authority would go a long way toward explaining the wild ride both secular and religious leaders experienced during the ninth and tenth centuries. Collins mentions this, but his comments are drowned in a constant stream of papal successions and royal coronations. We can’t see the forest for the trees, or, to put it more literally, we can’t see the papacy for all the popes.

And then, when Collins turns to address modern times, the problem of the book is suddenly inverted. Instead of having too many details and too little plot, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven becomes aggressively driven by narrative. To make matters worse, the narrative Collins chooses is well worn and tiresome: Since the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church has been divided into thoughtful, intellectually superior liberals and reactionary, dogmatic conservatives. Leo XIII, for example, was “scholarly, if conservative”—as if there were some natural contradiction that he oddly overcame.

Meanwhile, Pius X, with his “repressive mechanisms of control,” could not support the idea that “because the Bible was not divinely inspired it could contain errors”—a proposition, Collins states, that is “self-evidently true” for “biblical scholars of almost any denomination.” Similarly, John Paul II is described as a “traditional and authoritarian pope,” under whose watch “theologians were silenced . . . to a degree unparalleled since the Modernist controversy.” Collins’ constant swipes are distracting, which is a shame, because the marked transformation the papacy has experienced in the past 200 years deserves more thoughtful reflection.

Lacking a Theme

The book eventually peters out with Benedict XVI, without summary or conclusion. Keepers of the Keys of Heaven gives us a clear example of the difficulty that historians face when they try to balance the general with the specific. Collins sometimes does specifics well, but he’s never able to arrange the individual histories into a coherent whole—mostly because he has no general theme with which to tie them together.

As it happens, the popes do have something in common. Despite their incredible range of personalities—from the devout Gregory the Great to the decadent Alexander VI—each of them has been entrusted with the authority to bind and to loose, to carry the keys of heaven. Collins, despite the title of his book, seems to forget this fact. How, then, could he ever unlock a deep understanding of the world’s most enduring office? •

Ryan Sayre Patrico is a Junior Fellow at First Things. He attends the Church of Our Savior in New York City.

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