Popes 101: A History of 12 Papacies

Book Pick: Good Pope, Bad Pope


Their Lives, Our Lessons

By Mike Aquilina

Servant Books, 2013

136 pages, $14.99

To order: FranciscanMedia.org


When Giovanni Boccaccio described the papacy as the best proof that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, it was no compliment. Given the state of the papacy in Boccaccio’s day, the Church had to be of divine origin if it could survive the popes of the times and keep the faith whole.

This book tells the stories of 12 popes, starting with Peter and ending with John Paul II. They ran the moral gamut: the holy and brave (Leo the Great), the venal and impure (Benedict IX), the timid (Celestine V) and the broken (Liberius). 

Author Mike Aquilina seems to want to show that, despite personal shortcomings, they all preserved the faith intact.  As with all of us, there is a greater or lesser gap between the kinds of men they were and should have been, but they kept faith as guardians of the deposit of faith. 

The popes Aquilina profiles “show how the papacy developed and how Christ keeps his promise to the Church, not only in her health, but in her sickness. The great [popes] advanced our understanding of Christian doctrine, and what’s even more remarkable, the worst ones could do nothing to damage the teaching of the Church.” 

Aquilina wants to show that when we speak of papal infallibility, we are saying nothing about the moral virtue of the papal incumbent: Being pope does not necessarily make one good. What it means is that Christ preserves his Church in truth, even when its leader personally fails morally. 

Consider Peter. Impulsive yet cowardly, ready to proclaim Christ yet cowed by what others think, but — no matter what — in love with Christ, he listened to his conscience:

“Peter was the one who tried to walk on water and failed, the one who babbled incoherently at the Transfiguration, the one who would never deny Christ and then did it three times. If there was a way to botch being an apostle, Peter found it and did it. None of this makes Peter an ideal candidate for [the] position of leader of the Church. But there’s another side to gung-ho Peter. His recklessness also makes him open to saying the things no one else is ready to say, seeing the truth no one else is ready to see. It may be that the very thing that made Peter unreliable is in fact what makes him the obvious choice to lead the Church. If the movement is going to succeed, it needs someone who will plunge forward boldly, putting all his trust in the Lord, instead of his own competence.”

If God writes straight with crooked lines, Aquilina shows just how much bad penmanship the Lord must sometimes correct.            

Aquilina’s vignettes into the papacy provide interesting insights. That said, this reviewer has certain problems with this book. Aquilina’s dozen popes (out of 266) do not clearly show “how the papacy developed”: An overview of the history of the papacy would have helped. 

The reviewer’s primary issue, however, is not being convinced the book is opportune. I am unsure of the value of washing one’s dirty laundry in public. Accepting the Church and the papal teaching office as under divine protection is a matter of faith; those who do not share that faith may in fact be confirmed in their belief about Catholic gullibility. When Aquilina argues that God draws good out of evil — e.g., how Alexander VI’s “scheming and open immorality” lead to “a shower of blessings ... on the Church after Alexander” — he sounds Pollyannish. It’s good to recover after cancer; it’s better not to get cancer in the first place. Perhaps a matter of taste, I confess to not being partial to Pollyanna. 

               John M. Grondelski writes from

 Shanghai, China.

Clockwise from top left: Donnelly College, Thomas Aquinas College East, Wyoming Catholic College, the University of Dallas and the Augustine Institute are among the faithfully Catholic colleges that are featured in our annual ‘Catholic Identity College Guide.’

The Case for Catholic Colleges

EDITORIAL: Faithfully Catholic colleges know a personal and mature relationship with Jesus is the only sure guidepost to a life of integrity and holiness today — a life that will continue to mature and bear fruit well after graduation.