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  • The Roman Catholic Church: An Illustrated History
  • John Vidmar, O. P.
The Roman Catholic Church: An Illustrated History. By Edward Norman. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007. Pp. 192. $29.95. ISBN 978-0520-25251-6.)

This has all of the appearances of a coffee-table book, on the order of Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: it is oversized, is called "an Illustrated History," has lots of images, and features a beautiful cover. But it is not a coffee-table book at all. The text is something quite different—complicated, written in a difficult English full of semicolons and parenthetical phrases, unconventional, and very interesting. I began by disliking this book and finished it thinking it was brilliant—perhaps not accessible to the average reader, but certainly a statement about the Catholic Church's history that needs to be heard.

The illustrations are well chosen and support the text, and often add interesting notes not found in the text, but they are not the main show. The text is what this book is all about, and that is why it is so conflicted. A picture book should be about the pictures, and this book is far more interesting for its text. Edward Norman, the author, was Margaret Thatcher's unofficial "historian," now an emeritus professor at Peterhouse College in Cambridge, and a long-time Anglican long interested in the Roman Catholic Church. He has written several books on the Roman Church in Ireland and in England, and it is no surprise that he has recently converted to the Roman Catholic Church. His text belies his devotion to the authority of the papacy and its inherent continuity and integrity.

The book attempts to show the tension between the secular authority and religious authority, as exhibited through the societies of the various ages of the Church. Norman follows an intelligent division of the Church's history, based on the six ages first proposed by Christopher Dawson. The Church always comes across better than modern secular historians would like, and Norman is quick to point out the differences. In fact, this is what his book is best at doing: highlighting the past as opposed to the present. In mentioning the Crusades and the Knights Hospitallers, Norman notices that Hospitallers "employed nursing sisters in their enormous Jerusalem hospital a thousand years before Florence Nightingale" (p. 62). In describing Moorish Spain, Norman observes, "All those placid courtyards and sparkling fountains, that poetry and art, rested upon the existence of one of the largest slave populations the world has ever seen" (p. 67). We tend to dote on the beauty and regret its passing in Muslim Spain, but conveniently forget how it got there. Norman also draws provocative [End Page 740] connections between eras, claiming that the Spanish Inquisition was "a Moorish legacy"(p. 68), and that the crusading spirit ran to the conquest of the Americas. Ponce de León, after all,was a commander at the Fall of Grenada.

Unlike many commentators on the history of the Church,Norman gives the French Revolution and its aftermath a lot of attention. (Roland Bainton, in his two-volume history of the Church, did not even mention the French Revolution.) But Norman recognizes it, and its ideological roots in the Enlightenment, as key to the next two hundred years. He is not so concerned with details—he does not spend much time on the details of the interaction between Nazi Germany and the Vatican—but he delves into the ideological issues at length. He is insistent that there is an admirable theological consistency running from popes Pius IX to Benedict XVI—namely, a defense of universal truth in the face of relativism or the tyranny of reason—and sees that new crises are nothing more than old crises revisited under different rubrics. Norman seems glad that there is a Church out there, with a long history of fighting those battles.

There are a few blips. Norman says that American Catholics did not really participate in the American Revolution. Besides the diplomatic work (and courage) of Charles Carroll, who defied the governor of Maryland and was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence...


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