Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World

In This Review

Absolute Power: How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World
By Paul Collins
PublicAffairs, 2018
384 pp.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel need not panic. Collins, a former priest, never advances the hyperbolic claim in this book’s subtitle. His more modest aim is instead to show how popes have consolidated their hold within the Catholic Church itself since the turn of the nineteenth century. In the process, he argues, the papacy has suppressed reformist elements, local parishes, and women everywhere. Yet this blinkered vision of the church treats papal power as resulting entirely from infallible theological pronouncements and the bureaucratic influence of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s administrative body. The reader gets little sense of even the most obvious social and cultural trends that surround and shape any religion. Such developments have transformed modern Catholicism beyond recognition. The declining number of active Catholics in Europe and North America, for example, has left more developing-world believers, who tend to be more conservative, in control. South America is now home to more Catholics than any other continent, and Catholicism is growing most rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa. For a full understanding of the church’s role in the world, readers should look elsewhere.

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