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  • The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History by Frank J. Coppa
  • José M. Sánchez
The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History. By Frank J. Coppa. (London: Reaktion Books. Distrib. University of Chicago Press. 2014. Pp. 304. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-78023-284-3.)

This is a selective history of the papacy from the pontificate of Pius VI before the beginning of the French Revolution to the resignation of Benedict XVI in 2013. Despite the subtitle, it is not only a political history, for “it explores the development and transformation of the papacy not only in the religious realm, but also in the political and diplomatic world, as well as the social arena” (p. 25). Frank J. Coppa discusses each of the popes, highlighting the major controversies and accomplishments of their pontificates. Naturally, in such a short work, much has to be left out.

The pontificates of the popes are handled in a workmanlike manner. Coppa obviously feels more comfortable dealing with popes that he has written about before. Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti/Pope Pius IX comes off well, with all of the pros and cons of that stormy papacy, although Coppa does not mention the Mortara affair—a serious matter that polarized non-Catholic opinion against the papacy.

Coppa labels the chapter on Achille Ratti/Pius XI “The Crusade of Pius XI Against Anti-Semitism.” Coppa’s hero in previous writings has always been Pius XI, and he takes great pains to absolve him of any antisemitism. But with this emphasis, we get a slanted view of his papacy. All the other problems faced by Pius—the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican revolution, and attacks on the clergy in the Far East—are not mentioned; yet Pius was deeply concerned about the clerical persecutions involved. Continuing the question of antisemitism, Coppa contrasts his hero with Eugenio Pacelli/Pope Pius XII, who was a brake on Pius XI’s tempestuous nature during his service as secretary of state. Although the two differed in their approach to most political problems, Pius XI was certainly his own man, and he spoke out when he wanted to do so. Coppa says, “Ratti did not know how committed Pacelli was to appeasement” [of Nazi Germany] (p. 157). Given the events of the late 1930s, this is difficult to believe. Later, he says, “Pacelli dared not openly challenge the Pope lest he be fired like his mentor” [Cardinal Pietro Gasparri] (p. 159). There are no citations for either statement.

Whereas Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI receive a sympathetic portrayal, the emphasis for both is on the Second Vatican Council. Coppa handles this well, but he does not mention Humanae Vitae in regard to Paul. In discussing Pope John Paul II, the narrative breaks down into a listing of his encyclicals. Of course, it is [End Page 901] difficult to deal with recent history, especially with so controversial a pope; on the other hand, Coppa handles Pope Benedict XVI particularly well.

Some editing would have helped this work. There are too many repetitions and nonsequiturs. On the whole, this is a good introduction to the history of the modern papacy for readers who have a limited knowledge of the institution.

José M. Sánchez
Santa Fe, NM


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pp. 901-902
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