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  • The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History by Frank J. Coppa
  • James Ramon Felak
The Papacy in the Modern World: A Political History by Frank J. Coppa. London, Reaktion Books, 2014. 304 pp. £22.00 (cloth).

Covering the past 230 years, Frank J. Coppa’s book surveys seventeen popes dating to just before the French Revolution. The author, America’s preeminent historian of the modern papacy, combines his expertise in papal, diplomatic, and Italian history to produce an outstanding survey of the engagement of popes with the modern world, from Pius VI (1775–1799) to Benedict XVI (2005–2013). The book opens with a helpful background chapter discussing the challenges faced by the papacy during the early modern period, then examines the papal situation during the French Revolution and rule of Napoleon. The chapters on the nineteenth century focus on the pope’s ongoing battle with liberalism and nationalism, as well as the Vatican’s failed efforts to hold on to the papal states. The twentieth century especially emphasizes Rome’s engagement with Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and two World Wars, as well as the divisions in the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Coppa does a great job placing the popes into the Italian, European, and global contexts, as well as explaining the motives for policies such as the concordat with Napoleon, the doctrine of papal infallibility, or the wartime diplomatic “impartiality.” He demonstrates the underlying continuity between popes who seem very different (for example, Pius X and Benedict XV, or Pius IX and Leo XIII), while also keeping important differences in mind. On the other hand, he draws distinctions between popes who are sometimes lumped together, such as Pius XI and Pius XII, with the former considerably more assertive in his opposition to Europe’s radical right. Coppa also shows how popes can be conservative in some ways and reformist in others; for instance, Pius X was improving relations with the Italian state while cracking down on “modernism” in the Church.

Coppa’s assessment of the modern popes is accurate and balanced. His discussion of the wartime policy of “silence” in the face of Nazi atrocities by Pius XII is fair, and his depiction of the so-called Pius Wars between [End Page 184] that pope’s critics and detractors is spot on, a refreshing addition to a literature that is overwhelmingly misleading and polemical. Coppa is also one of the few authors who “gets” Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, a figure who many commentators read in a highly distorted and stereotypical way.

The book’s few sins are mainly of omission, not commission. The absence of Spain during the interwar period is perplexing. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most significant developments of the 1930s for Europeans, and especially for Catholics, yet it receives no attention. For the most recent period, little attention is paid to papal relations with Islam. Not much is said about John Paul II’s positive engagement with that faith (this is the pope who once publicly kissed a Qur’an), and nothing about Benedict XVI’s controversial lecture in 2006 at Regensburg that offended Muslims. A few other things deserve mention — the scale of violence in the Vendée during the French Revolution; the papal position on Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s; and the impact of the anti-contraception encyclical Humanae vitae on the pontificate of Paul VI.

In a book that does an outstanding job with each of the popes it considers, the least satisfying chapter may be the one on John Paul II. The author relies at times on journalistic hearsay instead of scholarship, and ends up repeating far-fetched allegations that John Paul II had threatened to man the barricades should the Soviet Union try to suppress Poland’s Solidarity reform movement in 1980–81. In fact, such a threat is incongruent with what we do know. John Paul not only played, as Coppa convincingly notes, a key role in undermining Communism, but his words and deeds helped insure that this collapse would come about peacefully. John Paul not only encouraged the regime to change, and Poles to press...


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pp. 184-185
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