The Roman Catholic Church

INDEPENDENT   6 April 2007

THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH an illustrated history by EDWARD NORMAN (Thames & Hudson £25.00)

No institution has exercised a more profound influence on Western civilisation than the Roman Catholic church.  The phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code attests to the power it continues to wield over men’s minds and imaginations even when it no longer does so over their bodies and souls.

Edward Norman’s concise, lucid and thought-provoking history of the Church is therefore both welcome and timely.  Norman, a former Dean of Peterhouse, is said along with his former Cambridge colleagues, Maurice Cowling and Roger Scruton, to have provided a philosophical basis for Mrs Thatcher’s policies (a charge he himself vehemently denies).  Despite his reputation as a controversialist, his position here is impeccably orthodox.  He is clearly one of those who ‘believe that the Church as Christ’s body on earth participates in its indefectibility.’

Since leaving Cambridge, Norman has been Chancellor of York Minister and is currently curate of St James’s, Garlichythe.  Yet, while he remains an Anglican priest, his sympathies are plainly Roman.  Indeed, he cannot resist wicked digs at his own denomination as when he describes Montezuma’s suggestion to Cortez  that Aztec idols should stand on one side of a temple with the Cross and Virgin on the other as an ‘Anglican-style compromise’. 

He regards the Roman Catholic church as directly ordained by Christ and imbued with his authority.  ‘To be a Christian is to be part of the original apostolic tradition conveyed to the world by those appointed by Christ himself.’  He has no problem with the doctrine of papal infallibility which, while accredited since earliest times, was only codified in 1870 during the pontificate of Pius IX, who conveniently declared ‘Before I was pope, I believed in the Infallibility… now I feel it.’

Norman has boundless sympathy for his subject.  This is not the place to look for an account of the decadence of the Borgia popes, still less of the controversy over Pius XII’s conduct during the Second World War.  He even manages to shift the blame for the Inquisition by depicting it as a legacy of the twelfth century Islamic heresy courts and insisting that it was far more enlightened than the secular courts of its time, with its ‘excesses’ largely the product of Protestant propaganda.

The book offers a clear chronological history of the Church, from the early councils through the growth of monasticism and the schism between East and West (which, while officially occurring in 1054 over an arcane theological dispute about the Holy Ghost had effectively occurred centuries earlier), to the Reformation and Counter Reformation.  It convincingly shows how the Church’s contraction in Europe was matched by an expansion in Asia and the Americas which both revitalised it and made it truly universal.

Norman has no truck with contemporary notions of political correctness.  He rightly asks why the Church is being asked to apologise for the Crusades while no such demands are being made of Islamic bodies regarding their own invasion of the Byzantine provinces and the Holy Land three centuries earlier.  It was Moslem barbarity and its threat to sacred Christian sites (most notoriously Caliph al-Hakim’s destruction of Christ’s tomb in 1009) that largely inspired the Crusading ideal.

He is on shakier ground in his account of the Conquistadores.   He dismisses the myth of a pre-conquest Golden Age and points out how the missionaries ended mass human sacrifice (just as they later secured the abolition of the suttee rites in India), but, while noting the admirable attempts by religious orders, particularly the Jesuits, to protect the indigenous people and their culture, he makes no mention of the deaths of an estimated 150,000,000 Indians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the greatest genocide in human history and one that took place in the name and, at times, with the connivance of the Roman Catholic church.

That Church could not wish for a more accomplished apologist than Norman.  He offers a sharp, well-argued and witty account (feudalism as ‘a species of protection racket';  indulgences as ‘hire-purchase redemption’).  He dismisses ecclesiastical and monastic failings as inevitable in institutions run by human beings and not angels, thereby begging the question of why those institutions themselves show such little compassion for human frailty.  

While admiring Norman’s scholarship, it is nevertheless possible to disagree with his conclusions.   I closed the book more convinced than ever that revelation is not to be found in any institution, let alone one that derives its authority from a gospel passage designed to settle a power-struggle in the early church, before turning in relief to Christ’s own words that ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’