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Marvin R. O'Connell


Not Infallible

Two histories of the papacy.

The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity; but the republic of Venice was modern when compared to the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigor.

So wrote Macaulay more than 150 years ago. The occasion for this memorable essay, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1840, was the appearance of an English version of Leopold von Ranke's The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Neither Ranke nor Macaulay entertained any intrinsic sympathy for the Church of Rome; both were Protestants, though it is probably safe to say that Ranke took his Lutheranism rather more seriously than Macaulay did the evangelical Anglicanism in which he had been reared. Macaulay at any rate tempered his appreciation of the papacy's "youthful vigor" with puzzlement: "The stronger our conviction that reason and scripture were decidedly on the side of Protestantism, the greater is the reluctant admiration with which we regard that system of tactics against which reason and scripture were employed in vain."

More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that both men, in quite different ways, stood at the cutting edge of the writing of history in their day, both represented the first generation of historians who consciously modeled their work on the inductive method of the physical sciences. Taking as their exemplar the physicist in his laboratory, this new breed of researchers into the past pulled away the straitjacket of moral uplift into which their discipline had been bound ...

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