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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 277-278

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The Early Modern Papacy. From the Council of Trent to the French Revolution 1564-1789. By A. D. Wright. [Longman History of the Papacy.] (London; Harlow, Essex: Longman. 2000. Pp. ix, 335. Paperback.)

While the Council of Trent did not issue any decrees relating to the office of the papacy, the Council left the interpretation of its decrees to the pope. In many ways, this bolstered the position of the papacy, which had suffered in the wake of the Protestant challenge. Yet, the common view of the papacy from the conclusion of the Council of Trent to the outbreak of the French Revolution has been one of decline and stagnation. It is this interpretation of the papacy that A. D. Wright challenges. Looking back from the ability of the papacy to emerge from the post-Napoleonic era renewed and vigorous, Wright believes that the conventional view of the early modern papacy warrants reconsideration.

This study rests on a reassessment of historical interpretations that have colored the way in which the papacy has been viewed. Critiquing the view of the papacy presented by Ludwig von Pastor as incomplete, Wright takes exception with the interpretation of Paolo Prodi, to which this book is a direct response, and Adriano Prosperi. Wright questions Prodi's insistence on the role of the local history of central Italian territories as the "key to the whole cycle of papal history" (p. 4). This perspective is too narrow for Wright and fails to take into account the universal concerns of the papacy. Thus, Wright presents a more comprehensive understanding of papal policies than one finds in Prodi's argument. Similarly, Adriano Prosperi's emphasis on the Roman Inquisition as the source of the pope's authority is problematic for Wright since such a view is not applicable outside of Italy and betrays a narrowness in scope. Responding to such views, this study argues that the early modern popes were "conscious of the wide range of their functions and responsibilities, well beyond Rome, Italy, and even Europe" (p. 12).

In demonstrating this view of the papacy Wright focuses on the diversity of roles that the popes of the early modern period assumed—Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan of the Roman ecclesiastical province, primatial head of the Italian Church, patriarchal leader of the Catholic Church in Western Europe, Supreme Pontiff, and ruler of the Papal States in Central Italy. Analyzing the extent to which the popes of this period were able to exercise the authority associated [End Page 277] with these varied dimensions, Wright effectively portrays the paradoxical nature of papal history between 1564 and 1789. The extent and limitations of papal power not only differed between one pontificate and another, but also within the same pontificate. Wright demonstrates this by examining both ecclesiastical considerations such as the problem of the relationship between the papacy and the College of Cardinals, and the political constraints which stood in the way of the papacy's ability to exercise a uniform authority over all Catholics in Western Europe. While Wright contends that the exercise of these multiple roles did not always meet with success, he provides sufficient evidence to suggest that the post-Tridentine popes enjoyed considerable achievements, such as the general centralization under Roman authority. Its successes and failures notwithstanding, Wright concludes that the papacy during this period enjoyed the loyalty of the people, who recognized the pre-eminence of the Apostolic See.

Wright provides the reader with a comprehensive examination of the early modern papacy that places the office and its individual holders within a broad context, both geographically and chronologically. While the details and information provided throughout the book can at times become overpowering, especially to those with little understanding of papal history or the political dimensions of the era, Wright effectively challenges the accepted view of the exercise and development of papal authority as simply a reflection of the absolutism of the age. Wright provides the reader with a fresh and compelling...


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