Absolute Power by Paul Collins

Theologian Paul Collins has chosen to concentrate in his latest book on one of the most remarkable periods in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church: its transformation since 1800 from the last of the Renaissance duchies (one whose hobby was religion) to one of the first of the West's multinational corporations (one whose product is religion). As its title indicates, Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World not only looks at the transformation of the organization but also the transformation of its leader from prince to CEO.

The sheer complexity of carrying out this kind of broad procedural reconfiguration while still remaining the core of a living religion followed by a billion people properly deserves far more than the 350 pages Collins gives it here, and since Collins clearly knows this, Absolute Power concentrates more on crafting a study of charisma and its challenges – challenges which have most often been internal, stemming, as Collins puts it, from the difference between “a theology that is rooted in and contextualized by history and one that ignores or bypasses historical context and simply sees church teaching as a kind of timeless, abstract exercise without roots and context in a particular age and place.”

Collins puts humans faces on these internal factions: his book is a chronicle of the centuries-long struggle between conservative and reformists cardinals and theologians. He turns this into surprisingly involving reading mainly because he makes no pretense of personal neutrality – his narrative of generations of interpretational schism plays out against a backdrop in which one side is clearly right and the other wrong:

Once you develop a genuine historical sense and understand theology and doctrine in context, you realize that church teaching really makes sense only in its own time and place and that it must be constantly reinterpreted in each era for it to make sense within a new cultural context. This is what [many theologians] simply don't get; they live in an abstract world in which articulated belief is divorced from time and space. They don't understand that the church is constantly in process, that doctrine is not merely “handed down” in an antiquarian sense, but something “handed over” in a transformative sense.

This understandably colors his portraits of the great and good Popes who are the star actors in his drama, with strict conservatives like Pius X (whose 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis thunders gloriously against the “enemies of the cross of Christ” who are trying to destroy the Church from within) and, much more recently, Benedict XVI on one side and charismatic progressives like John Paul II and the great John XXIII (architect of Vatican II) on the other. The miniature biographies Collins gives of these men and their colleagues are uniformly entertaining and well-researched, although even in the best of cases they sometimes give the impression of being convenient vessels for the author's own clear preferences. He's entirely correct, for instance, when he writes of Pope John that people discerned in him “something deeply human,” but his elaboration feels a touch heavy-handed:

“What John XXIII seemed to understand, almost instinctively, was that much more would be achieved by reaching out to people rather than by hectoring them.”

Perhaps this is unavoidable in a book about the modern Papacy written by a theologian, but it may disappoint readers who come to these pages looking for a good deal more about “how the Pope became the most influential man in the world.” Collins might argue that this is precisely the how of it: modern Popes gained their current cache of “soft power” by reaching out to the faithful, by being flexible enough to shape doctrine to the times. Fortunately, even Catholics who side more with the conservatives will find Collins a lively enough guide to keep them reading and disagreeing the whole time.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.