Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II
written by Richard P. McBrien
published by HarperCollins, 1997
442 pages of text; 78 pages of notes and index


One of the few points in favor of this book is that McBrien makes his agenda fairly clear on its very first page, as he dedicates his book to "John XXIII (1958-63), the most beloved pope in history." Under the guise of writing a scholarly work on the history of the papacy and its occupants, McBrien, a professor at Notre Dame University, has in fact written a lengthy screed against those who do not share his views about the theological and pastoral issues raised at the Vatican II conference.

From a scholarly standpoint, perhaps the most disturbing elements in McBrien's book are his lists of good and bad popes. Using a device better suited to cheesy newspaper articles than to a serious work, McBrien expresses his prejudices about which popes were "outstanding," which were "good," and which were "the worst."

McBrien also sees fit to litter his text with anachronistic asides such as "The Liber Pontificalis [...] reports that [Pope St. Soter] ordered nonordained monks not touch altar cloths or offer incense in church -- an indication that pastoral micro-management is not an exclusively modern phenomenon." By taking such snippy shots at his theological opponents, McBrien demeans his work.

Lives of the Popes seems designed more to provide rhetorical ammunition for liberal American Catholics than to provide a serious look at the history of popes and the papacy.


Review posted: 4 September 1998

Revised: 31 July 1999