Absolute Power

How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World


By Paul Collins

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The sensational story of the last two centuries of the papacy, its most influential pontiffs, troubling doctrines, and rise in global authority

In 1799, the papacy was at rock bottom: The Papal States had been swept away and Rome seized by the revolutionary French armies. With cardinals scattered across Europe and the next papal election uncertain, even if Catholicism survived, it seemed the papacy was finished.
In this gripping narrative of religious and political history, Paul Collins tells the improbable success story of the last 220 years of the papacy, from the unexalted death of Pope Pius VI in 1799 to the celebrity of Pope Francis today. In a strange contradiction, as the papacy has lost its physical power — its armies and states — and remained stubbornly opposed to the currents of social and scientific consensus, it has only increased its influence and political authority in the world.



I FIRST BECAME intrigued with the way the papacy uses power back in the mid-1990s when I was preparing two books, one on the history of the papacy and another on the way authority has been understood in the church. One of these books, Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium (1997), was “delated” (reported) to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, the Vatican department that guards orthodox doctrine.1 This led to an “investigation” of Papal Power by the CDF that dragged on for more than three years that led in the end to my resigning from the active priestly ministry. Interestingly, the CDF was no longer interested in the book once I rejoined the Catholic laity, and I heard nothing more of the investigation. As a result, I now apply the legal dictum qui tacet consentit, literally “who keeps silence consents” or “silence denotes consent,” and assume that the book is perfectly orthodox.

The subtitle of the book, A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, explained my real intention in writing the book: I wanted to suggest ways in which Catholicism might continue to realize in church life something of the renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). You need to remember that the mid-1990s was a difficult period for progressive Catholics, as the Vatican II vision of a renewed church was being slowly whittled away. John Paul II had been pope since 1978, and it was abundantly clear that he, supported by traditionalist Catholics, was aiming at a kind of “restoration” that had little to do with Vatican II and, as we shall see later in this book, a lot to do with his own idiosyncratic vision of Catholicism.

Papal Power was admittedly critically blunt about the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that supports—and sometimes controls—the pope. I described it as an “incubus” that smothers creativity in the church and said that the CDF employed incompetent theologians, was “irreformable,” and had “no place in the contemporary church and should be abolished.” Clearly, this was not going to win friends and influence people in Rome, but I was not really talking to those people. The book was addressed to English speakers, and as an Australian I tend to call a spade a spade. The book was a piece of popular theology written to suggest ideas to keep the renewal movement going. I was convinced that the time had come for clarity and directness because of the serious nature of the crisis that Catholics in the Western world were experiencing as people abandoned the church in droves. Clearly, Catholicism was not addressing their needs.

It is twenty years now since the publication of Papal Power, and, except for the election of Pope Francis, little has changed in Catholicism. For instance, the Pew Research Center found that the Catholic population of the United States dropped by 3.1 million between 2007 and 2015, with 13 percent of all Americans calling themselves “former Catholics.” It is Latino immigration that helps keep US Catholic numbers stable.2 The situation is the same in Australia, where the recent 2016 national census shows that between 2011 and 2016, the Catholic proportion of the population has dropped from 25.3 percent to 22.6 percent, a drop of 2.7 percent. While Catholics are still the largest religious group in the country, again it is immigration that has to a considerable extent maintained the Australian Catholic population.

There are many reasons people abandon Catholicism, but they are often scandalized by the imagined wealth of the papacy and the way in which power is used in the church. So I decided it was time to look again at the question of authority in Catholicism, specifically papal power and how it distorts the message of the Gospel. Christ is the litmus test for any institution that claims to be Christian because, as the Letter to the Philippians says, Christ “emptied himself taking the form of a slave… and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:7–8). The term emptied himself is a translation of the Greek word κενόω, the verb meaning “to empty.” The text is trying to say that Christ absolutely abandoned all the power and authority that accompanied his intimacy and equality with God and assumed not just the weakness of the human condition, but the utter powerlessness of a slave who, in the Roman world, had no legal rights and no ability to use the system; slaves were utterly powerless. The powerlessness of Jesus was reinforced by his death on the cross. Here he is stripped of everything, even of hope. The Gospel of Mark says that as he died, he “shrieked out” (this is what the Greek word really means), “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” (15:34). Thus, he dies as a common criminal on a cross, bereft of everything.

It is hard to reconcile this with the popes who from the early twelfth century until 1978 were crowned with a tiara of three crowns and addressed as “the father of princes and kings, [and] ruler of the world.” This ridiculous nonsense has, thankfully, now been swept away, but the fact that it was in use for almost eight centuries tells you that the papacy has forgotten Christ on the cross and become besotted with power. What I want to show in this book is that the modern papacy has risen from a near-death experience in 1799 at the end of the French Revolution to become more centralized and more powerful than even before in its entire history. Nowadays the papacy is one of the most influential institutions in the world and uses both “soft” and “hard” power with skill and ability.

That forces you to ask the question: What would Christ, the man who emptied himself to die on the cross and the final norm of everything Christian, really think?





AT DAYBREAK ON August 29, 1799, an eighty-one-year-old Italian, known to the French authorities as Citoyen Giovanni Angelo Braschi, died in the citadel of the city of Valence in southeastern France. His body lay unburied until late January 1800, when it was laid in unconsecrated ground in a local cemetery. Citizen Braschi was, in fact, Pope Pius VI (1775–1799), the man the French also called “the former so-called pope.” As the news of his death spread, the philosophes, the public intellectuals of Europe, rejoiced because they were sure the papacy was at last extinct. “The death of Pius VI has… placed a seal on the glory of philosophy in modern times,” boasted the Courrier Universel on September 8, 1799. The church and the papacy would be swept away with the rest of the detritus of the ancien régime by the progressive bourgeoisie of the French Revolution. When he died Pius VI had been the longest-serving pope in church history—twenty-four years. Even the most optimistic Catholic in 1799 must have felt that the papacy was finished.

The death of Pius VI as a prisoner was a fitting end to a century of ineffectual papal nonentities. No longer influential in European politics, the popes had retired to the Papal States, that odd principality straddling central and northeastern Italy, where they played the role of “enlightened” monarchs and covered up their weakness by pretending to be neutral in international affairs. Their influence in the wider church was also diminished. It reached its lowest ebb when the vacillating, weak, and depressed Clement XIV (1769–1774) capitulated to the European powers in August 1773 and suppressed the Jesuits, the order that had been the mainstay of the papacy for two centuries. The papacy had been in a slow decline since the late seventeenth century, and its ecclesiastical power had been weakened by theological theories that emphasized the dominance of the local ruler in the local church. The church in most of Catholic Europe was largely controlled by eighteenth-century enlightened despots like Emperor Joseph II who didn’t hesitate to use the church for their own ends. This is generically called “caesaro-papism,” when kings and rulers appoint bishops and restrict church government to the sacristy.

The eighteenth century was an age of strong, absolutist regimes in France, Prussia, Russia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Monarchical absolutism embraced the theory of the divine right of kings, which was characterized by the notion that not only was the king the source of law, but he also controlled the administrative machinery of the state and its judicial functions. The monarch also controlled the local church. There were three Catholic caesaro-papist theological theories that handed the church over to the control of the state: Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephism. Gallicanism, the most theologically sophisticated of these theories, was also the most ancient, with roots in the thirteenth century. It claimed for the French monarch authority to control the French church by appointing all bishops and restricting all papal interventions in France. While it theoretically accepted papal authority, it claimed that the pope was always limited by the absolute supremacy of a general council of the church. It accepted papal authority in matters of faith, while holding that papal teaching was binding only when the faithful accepted it. Febronianism and Josephism were really just variations on Gallicanism.

The eighteenth century was the age of the Enlightenment, which itself was characterized by a deep distrust of religious authority and tradition. The key characteristics of the Enlightenment were the development of science, empirical experimentation, skepticism, the emergence of theories of natural religion like those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke’s democratic theory of the people as the source of authority in society, Voltaire’s attacks on superstition and organized religion (particularly Catholicism), and Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. This was a cultural milieu that was deeply distrustful of the authority of the church. Thinkers tried to find a “natural” basis for ethics rather than a morality based on dogmatic principles. The Enlightenment is especially important for its political and social theory. English thinker John Locke (1632–1704) held that the monarch rules not by a God-given divine right, but on the condition that the people consent to the authority of the ruler, and he or she governs in the interests of the people. If power is abused, the people have the right to resist. Locke argued that the people enter into a contract with the government. He supported religious freedom, toleration, limited government, and separation of powers. This idea was picked up by Montesquieu in his vast outline of political science in L’ésprit des lois (The spirit of laws).

How did the church respond to the ferment of ideas that was the Enlightenment? Not very creatively, truth be told, but this must be seen against the fact that the rural population remained untouched by the influence of the philosophes, whose inroads were predominantly among the urban middle class, some of the nobility, and a minority of clergy. The vast majority of the rural population remained loyal to Catholicism. Pious religious literature still topped the best-seller lists. However, no significant theologian emerged from within Catholicism in this period to tackle the new culture creatively. The church had had an easy run for 150 years as part of the establishment, and it had become lazy and self-satisfied.

The final papal conclave of the eighteenth century elected Giovanni Angelo Braschi, who took the style Pius VI. Handsome, lordly, worldly, and strong, he was very vain. He faced a culture bristling with Enlightenment skepticism, atheism, and caesaro-papist theories of state control over the church. The Papal States were desperately poor and deeply in debt, one of the most backward regions of Europe. Trade and economic reform were constantly stymied by the corrupt and chaotic clerical administration. Most of the population of perhaps 3 million worked the land and were largely uneducated.

But what really mattered in the Europe of the last decades of the eighteenth century was what began in France between May and July 1789.

AT THE BEGINNING of 1789, France was on the edge of bankruptcy. King Louis XVI had run out of options, so he convened the Estates General, a kind of parliament representing the three major divisions of society, nobles, clergy, and commons—in English estates refers to classes or orders in society—for May 5, 1789. It had not met for 175 years. The financial crisis was symptomatic of a deeper malaise. From around 1770 economic growth stagnated, and crop failures in 1788 compounded restlessness, especially among the peasantry. The bourgeoisie resented their exclusion from positions of power, and many were influenced by Enlightenment ideas and the example of the American Revolution. They questioned the divine-right monarchy and noble privileges. The church was resented because it was perceived to be very wealthy. There was growing anticlericalism that focused on church tithes and the fact that religious orders and dioceses owned 6 percent of the land surface of France. These complaints featured regularly in the cahiers de doléances (complaint books) submitted to the Estates General.

When the Estates General met at Versailles, Louis XVI and his ministers hoped that the assembly would persuade the nobles and clergy to accept reforms and new taxes. Of the 296 clergy elected, 208 were curés, or parish priests, who usually came from the lower orders; only 47 were bishops. With almost 300 clergy out of a total representation of 1,200 (including 300 nobles and 600 commoners), the Estates General was far from anticlerical. The different estates met separately, but a group of curés “went over” to the commoners. Seizing the initiative, they declared themselves a “Constituent National Assembly.” The assembly decided to break with the nobles and the more traditional clergy, and they retreated to a royal tennis court and took the Oath of the Tennis Court (June 20, 1789), swearing to maintain their unity and independence as an assembly until a constitution was approved. By late June there was pressure on the assembly to disperse, and, as a warning, Swiss and German mercenaries were deployed in Paris. Fearing a royal counterattack and the danger posed by the proletarian mob, on July 14, 1789, a group of Paris tradesmen and businessmen formed a national guard to defend themselves and seized guns from the royal armory. Seeking gunpowder, they stormed the Bastille fortress, killing the guards and freeing seven prisoners. Riots began in the provinces, and manor houses were burned. Some of the aristocracy began to flee France entirely.

At Versailles the National Assembly had now taken over the Estates General. On one emotional night (August 4–5, 1789), feudalism and the tithe were abolished, and the last remnants of serfdom and class privilege were swept away, again with the support of many lower clergy. Then, on August 26, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The declaration balances universal principles with a concern for the interests of the bourgeoisie. Property was “sacred,” but there was no mention of the poor. On October 6 the palace of Versailles was stormed, and, under pressure, an unwilling king ratified the abolition of feudalism.

But France was still hopelessly in debt. It was an opportunist bishop who suggested the best source of revenue: the church. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, proposed that the resources of the church be placed “at the disposal of the nation” and that, in return, the nation provide for the upkeep of the church and the clergy. Adrien Dansette describes Talleyrand as “the most irreligious, corrupt and cynical of all the prelates of the old régime”; he was also the great survivor of the Revolution.1

To seize ecclesiastical revenue, the assembly proceeded to nationalize the church and radically redraw the relationship between church and state. Between October 1789 and February 1790, the religious orders were abolished and their property confiscated. Some seventy thousand priests and nuns were expelled from religious life. Over the next three years, ecclesiastical and religious-order property and lands came on the market, usually at cut-rate prices, and a whole group of middle-class men on the make gained a vested interest in maintaining the Revolution by buying up church assets at bargain-basement prices. A scandalous example of this is the destruction of the magnificent late-medieval buildings of Cluny Abbey, which were bought up by a developer from nearby Mâcon who then used the abbey as a quarry for building materials.

The state now controlled ecclesiastical finances, and the assembly realized that this was a golden opportunity to regularize church-state relationships in its favor. On July 12, 1790, the National Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It claimed that it affected only the civil aspects of the church, but these were inseparable from its spiritual side. Most of the bishops refused to accept the Civil Constitution and, despite their Gallican leanings, appealed to Pope Pius VI. Their appeal gained further traction with the imposition of an oath of loyalty on the clergy to the Civil Constitution in November 1790; if a bishop or priest refused, he forfeited his salary and position. The clergy were now divided into “jurors” and “nonjurors,” those who took the oath and those who didn’t. About 50 percent of priests swore the oath, but then many rejected it when Pius VI eventually condemned the Civil Constitution in early 1791. Because a large majority of bishops refused it, Talleyrand had to consecrate a whole new bench of bishops. Priests began joining the émigrés abroad. Clergy were now forced to marry, affecting many people: there were about ninety thousand diocesan clergy and about eighty thousand members of religious orders, including fifty-five thousand nuns. Celibacy was deemed “unnatural” because it prevented men (women were not considered) from fulfilling their natural role: having children to populate the state. The Civil Constitution redrew diocesan boundaries to conform to the borders of the new départments, and bishops were to be elected by citoyens actifs (active citizens). The pope was merely “notified” of their election. Curés were to be elected by the parish. The church was now an arm of the state, which was not all that different from the Gallicanism of the old regime.

Overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the Revolution, especially in Paris, the indecisive Pius VI remained cautious, waiting to see the reaction of the French church. Louis XVI, a genuinely devout man, hesitated, awaiting the pope’s decision. Eventually, on March 10, 1791, Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution as schismatic, suspended priests and bishops who had taken the oath, and denounced the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

By early 1791 the Revolution in France became increasingly radical, anticlerical, and antireligious. The choice was clear: Catholics split between those who supported the Revolution and those who didn’t. Religion was declared a private affair, and nonjuring clergy were increasingly identified with émigrés and enemies abroad and threatened with arrest and banishment. Then on the night of June 20, 1791, the king and royal family fled Paris in disguise, heading for the fortress of Montmédy, near the German border, which was controlled by loyal troops. The royal party got to Varennes, within thirty kilometers (eighteen miles) of Montmédy, but were recognized and returned to Paris as prisoners. Radicals called for the abolition of the monarchy, for the establishment of a republic, and for the king to be put on trial.

On September 30, 1791, the National Assembly was dissolved and elections held for a new legislative assembly. This was dominated by the “Left,” the Jacobins. In August 1792 the king, who had resisted all legal attacks on the church, was arrested with the royal family and the monarchy abolished. In response, proroyalist insurrections broke out in the Vendée, Brittany, and Dauphiné. The country descended into chaos, with no effective government. By mid-August Paris was in the hands of the local Commune, which was dominated by the Jacobins, led by extremists like Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, a lethal fanatic and idealist who could justify the execution of anyone who opposed his vision.

Austria and Prussia had already formed an alliance against France, and in response in April 1792 the French declared war on Austria and invaded the Austrian Netherlands. In turn, Prussia invaded France, and a ragtag French army surrendered at Verdun on September 2, 1792. Panic spread in Paris, which was already suffering serious food shortages. Inflamed by radicals who claimed that the prisons were full of counterrevolutionary priests and nobility, the September Massacres began on September 3, 1792, when 24 priest prisoners were killed by a frenzied mob. A kind of collective insanity spread as fear seized the population. Prisons were invaded. Feelings were so intense that the mob, many of them drunk, massacred defenseless people. Two-thirds of the 1,100 to 1,400 people killed that September were innocent civilians, common criminals, and prostitutes. All told, some 225 priests were killed in this week of madness.

On September 20, 1792, the extremist Jacobins assumed power, and the monarchy and the Christian calendar were abolished and Year I of the Republic proclaimed. Civil divorce was introduced. By November the French armies were successful on the northern front, and on January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed. Present in Paris throughout this period was a young, ambitious army officer, Napoleon Bonaparte.

By early 1793 discontent was seething in France, especially in Paris. The extremist Jacobins and the sans-culottes (a mixture of urban poor and lower-middle class) were making common cause. By early April they gained control of the Committee of Public Safety (effectively the acting executive government), and the Reign of Terror began. The most intense period of the terror was in June–July 1794. Some 18,000 people were executed. An anticlerical, anti-Christian campaign began. A revolutionary “cult of reason” was introduced, later modified into the “cult of the supreme being” when Robespierre was dominant. On June 8, 1794, the first “Feast of the Supreme Being” was celebrated. One who witnessed this was Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, a radical writer who was in Paris until mid-1794. She had little patience for it all. “On the principal church of every town was inscribed ‘the temple of reason’; and a tutelary goddess was installed with a ceremony equally pedantic, ridiculous and profane.” Describing the installation of the cult in Notre Dame in Paris, she says, “The Goddess of Reason was a fine, blooming damsel of the opera house, and she acted her part in this comedy… to the entire satisfaction of her new votaries.… Only one universal cry was heard ‘no more priests, and no other gods.’”2

The Jacobins were overthrown in the Thermidorian Reaction of late July 1794, bringing the terror to an end. Freedom of worship was decreed in February 1795, but persecution of Catholics, especially nonjuring clergy, continued. On November 10, 1799, the now general Napoleon Bonaparte pulled off the coup d’état of Brumaire, after which a three-man consulate was set up, with Napoleon himself as first consul and, given his military power, the dominant partner. According to the consulate’s “Constitution of the Year VIII,” the Revolution was officially over: “The Revolution is established upon the principles which began it; it is ended.”

BONAPARTE FIRST BECAME prominent in May 1796 when he took Milan from the Austrians and seized the Legations (the northern part of the Papal States, including Ravenna, Ferrara, and Bologna), the most prosperous part of the papal principality, from the pope. He demanded 21 million crowns in cash, one hundred works of art, and five hundred manuscripts as booty. This was the beginning of his cultural larceny that lasted until his fall. By February 1797 Bonaparte controlled northern Italy, and he forced the pope to sign the Treaty of Tolentino, imposing a further indemnity of 15 million crowns and more artworks. But Bonaparte didn’t occupy Rome; he recognized the obstinate soft power of the papacy. After his success in Italy, Bonaparte set off to campaign in Egypt.

By now Pius VI was old and sick. Except for Rome, he had lost the Papal States, and the papal government was fatally weakened. The French stirred up civil strife in Rome, and on February 9, 1798, the pope was deposed and a French-sponsored nonpapal régime established. The half-paralyzed pope was bundled out of Rome and across the Alps, eventually dying in Valence. The French government believed that the papacy was finished, and all contemporary evidence certainly pointed in that direction. The year 1799 was probably the lowest point in the history of the papacy. It had faced many difficulties in its long history, not least the corrupt popes and the dominance of the Mafia-like Roman clans in the tenth century and the Great Western Schism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when there were two, then three, claimants to the papal office. But in 1799 it looked as though the philosophes were right and the papacy was finally finished.


  • "A thoroughly researched but tendentious history in support of a call for a radically different papacy and church."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Convincing history... This trenchant work will be of primary interest to general readers curious about papal authority since the Enlightenment era."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Well-documented... An honest but critical analysis of the role of the papacy in both the church and the world in modern times."—Library Journal
  • "Fasten your seat belt for a rollicking ride through two hundred years of papal history culminating in a generally positive assessment of Pope Francis' new approach to the role. Paul Collins offers a broad and deep albeit astonishingly accessible read of the complicated, deeply fraught currents in the Roman Catholic Church. He wisely does not presume to predict what will be next. But scholars and interested observers alike will want this resource at hand to make sense of it as it unfolds."—Mary Hunt, codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)
  • "In this essential guide to the history of the papacy, Paul Collins dramatically traces the Vatican's near-death experience and remarkable restoration of power over the past two centuries. Absolute Power reveals how the history of the papacy affects--and distorts--our understanding of the church today, and offers a prophetic challenge to an institution that must evolve if it is to survive. Collins has given us an urgent, meticulous historical study that reads like a page-turner."—Jamie L. Manson, columnist and books editor, The National Catholic Reporter
  • "Extensively researched and well written, Collins' latest is a tour de force. If you want to have a deep understanding of the modern-day papacy and want to discover the deep roots of the challenges facing anyone (like Pope Francis) who seeks to reform it, then get this book. You won't put it down!"—Robert Mickens, English language editor, La Croix International

On Sale
Mar 27, 2018
Page Count
384 pages

Paul Collins

About the Author

Paul Collins is a historian and broadcaster with degrees from Harvard and the Australian National University. He has worked as a religious commentator for Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, PBS, and more; as a teacher of theology and history; and as a Catholic priest. In March 2001, he resigned from active ministry due to a doctrinal dispute with the Vatican over his book, Papal Power. He is also the author of The Birth of the West, published by PublicAffairs in 2013.

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