The Struggles of an Objective Historian

by Michael Potemra


A couple of days ago, I received a copy of prominent British historian John Julius Norwich’s new book, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. In his introduction, the author refers to “the odiously anti-Semitic Pius XII,” and declares a page later that “I can only say that as an agnostic Protestant I have no ax to grind, still less any desire to whitewash [the Papacy] or to hold it up to ridicule.” In the publicity materials for the book, he says the following:


I have my reservations about John Paul II. Obviously he was instrumental in the end of the Soviet Union. For that he deserves nothing but high praise and respect. But there was absolutely no give on homosexuality or abortion. And then he did this idiotic thing, making 483 saints. No previous pope had made more than about two. Suddenly we have saints like other people have mice.


All that I wish to say about this is that I’m immensely relieved that Lord Norwich has no ax to grind, nor any desire to hold his subject up to ridicule; because the last thing we need is yet another historian who recycles tired attacks on the Catholic Church based on little more than discredited smears and politically correct postures.

Okay, sarcasm off now. The only reason I haven’t thrown this book on the trash pile yet is that Norwich, a historian of Venice, got to know personally — and became fond of — one of my favorite figures in history, the late Pope John Paul I (who had served as patriarch of Venice). Norwich writes: “I’m not a religious man at all, but [John Paul I] seemed to radiate happiness and sanctity. He had one of the loveliest smiles you’ve ever seen.”  I suspect I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this book, but Norwich is undeniably right in this statement about the late Albino Luciani.

UPDATE: Many thanks to commenter “Harry C” for catching the typo! Much appreciated.

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