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Reviews > Book reviews >

PRIESTS, PRELATES AND PEOPLE: A history of European Catholicism since 1750

by Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett

I. B. Tauris £25 (0-86064-665-4); Church Times Bookshop £22.50

* THIS is a history of the Roman Catholic Church in modern Europe, with a particular emphasis on the Church’s place in European social and political history. It is also an extended attack on the Church’s opposition to social, political and intellectual liberalism.

As this liberalism, from the 19th century, was countered by the Ultramontane movement exalting the authority of the pope, most of the work could be indexed under its phrases "Rome’s defects and obscurantism" and "the reactionary impulses of the papacy".

Thus the authors do not really like their subject; and if hagiography is the danger of overcommitment, the opposing danger is a failure of the historical imagination in writing about something that one dislikes.

Criticism is, of course, right and proper, but this work lacks a balance between criticism and understanding the heart of the matter, the populist Ultramontane energies that were the soul of the modern Church’s resistance to a sometimes murderous revolutionary atheism and anticlericalism, and to encroaching liberal, and later communist, states.

Ultramontanes opposed what they saw as worldly values. They inspired new popular devotions, pilgrimages, martyrs, missionaries, visionaries, and conversions. They developed a social teaching that was both anti-capitalist and anti-communist. Ultramontane Catholicism sent Thérèse of Lisieux to Carmel and Fr Damien to the lepers, and sustained the post-revolutionary Catholic revival in Europe and the world.

A higher critic might find here the occasional penetrating passage from the pen of one author rather than the other, as in the opening paragraphs on the pontificate of Pius IX. This benevolent papal Dr Jekyll, however, quickly disappears into Mr Hyde, as the haste surrounding the Pope’s Syllabus of Errors is compared to that of concocting Stalin’s first five-year plan (under which millions died); and so we go back to the theme of black "conservative reaction" .

This coldness to the Church may reflect ignorance as well as conventional liberalism. Neither of the authors is Catholic, as appears in such odd expressions as "taking the mass" and the "use of Benedic-tions", and the use of "episcopacy" for "episcopate".

There are also howlers, such as the assertion that there were more than four million Irish Catholic converts to Protestantism (the record shows 3360 such converts over 40 years after 1731; and, though this is an under-estimate, the total population of Ireland in 1791 was less than four-and-a-half million).

More numerous, however, are comments that miss the mark by vagueness or imprecision, such as the statement that the Cathars were "late-medieval"; or the impression given that French émigré clergy founded the English colleges of Ushaw and Oscott; or that the Greg-oriana (or properly Gregorianum) was a seminary rather than a uni-versity; and so on.

The work is essentially an anthology of hostile judgements on individual popes such as the 18th-century Pius VI ("weak, timid and egotistical"). We hear of a succession of papal ailments, from Pius VII ("a serious urinary infection" ), Leo XII ("excruciating piles"), Pius VIII ("herpes of the neck") and Gregory XVI (" a bright red clown’s nose" and "tumour of the face" caused by excessive snuff-taking), to the "pusillanimous" and "hypochondriac" Pius XII, who is spared no humiliation, up to the hiccups of which he died. The reader will find here the case against him, but not the case for him.

The authors’ conclusion is that, under John Paul II, "the Vatican itself remains immured in a ghetto of its own making." For an armoury of historical arguments against the modern Roman Catholic Church, and Rome especially, stated with a baldness lacking qualification or nuance, the reader need look no further.

Dr Gilley is Emeritus Reader of the University of Durham.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

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