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Catholic Review of: Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis)

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This item received 4 stars overall. (10/15/2009)

Orthodoxy: Completely orthodox.
Reading Level: Advanced

 Catholics United for the FaithBy Catholics United for the Faith (OH) - See all my reviews


An Early Record of the Papacy Back in Print

Evaluator Comments

Last spring, our family was among those blessed to be able to attend the "St. Peter and the Vatican" exhibit while it was at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Decked out with headphones, visitors were walked through the history of the papacy from the time of Peter himself all the way up to the present day. Replicas of places, vestments and relics, and photos and documents fleshed out the drama of this ancient yet modern institution, vindicating Christ’s words to the fisherman: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

The exhibit was magnificent. Different things, of course, jumped out at different people. I personally spent quite a while transfixed by a film clip of Pius XII, the staunch anti-Nazi humanitarian transformed by the magic of revisionist history into a collaborator with Hitler. Each visitor was, however, touched in his or her own way. It is impossible to be brought to consider the full sweep of the papacy in human history and not to come away pensive at the very least. Not everyone was able to attend this splendid exhibit, but everyone now has a special chance to get in touch with the history of the bishops of Rome.

Evolution Press has recently come out with an English translation of the Liber Pontificalis, or The Book of the Popes. Compiled by various hands over a period of centuries, the Liber Pontificalis (originally published in 1916 by Columbia University Press) chronicles each papacy from Peter to Pelagius II (AD 579-90). "Throughout the Middle Ages and until comparatively modern times," writes translator Louise Ropes Loomis, "the Liber Pontificalis was accepted as not only the oldest but as also the most authentic existing history of the papacy." Yet few Catholics today have even heard of it. Evolution Press has done us all a great service in making the text accessible as the third volume of its Christian Roman Empire series.

Of course, "accessible" is a relative term. Readers are likely to experience understandable reluctance at the thought of tackling this archaic, if significant, work. Like the eager Biblical scholar who bogs down during his first reading of the Book of Leviticus, the person picking up the Liber Pontificalis for the first time is liable to become bewildered among the unfamiliar names, places, and worldviews the book describes. The format itself appears forbidding. There is almost as much space devoted to the microscopically-typeset footnotes as there is to the text itself, as indispensable as those footnotes prove to be. The text is often broken up into columns (on some pages, as many as six) representing the variations that present themselves to the translator. There is no back matter of any description, either, to assist the intrepid denizen of the modern age in his daunting task of intellectual navigation.

Our carefully cultivated scientific sensibilities will also, no doubt, be offended by the translator’s ready admission that, "although still admitted to be the oldest of all local church histories, based upon records earlier yet and of undoubted genuineness, the Liber Pontificalis is itself a mesh of veritable fact, romantic legend, deliberate fabrication and heedless error." One is tempted to judge contemporary indignation on this point as highly suspect, though. After all, mistaking Cletus and Anacletus for two separate popes rather than two forms of the same name is a considerably more understandable inexactitude than, say, ascribing anti-Semitic sensibilities to the Führer’s highest-profile opponent. Still, for all these drawbacks-some avoidable, others not-this latest version of the Liber Pontificalis is worth whatever it takes to extract from it a sense of its abiding riches.

The volume will easily become a spur to further research, prompting questions ranging from, "Who was Novatian, and what was the nature of the schism he sparked?" to, "What is the deal with all the dolphins, anyway?" The central value of the Liber Pontificalis has not, however, essentially changed at all. This list of successive papacies, like the ones from which it is derived, was originally compiled in order to defend the "validity of the Roman form of doctrine." It stands to serve this same noble purpose today. For more information on the Christian Roman Empire Series, see

- Helen M. Valois, M.I.(from Lay Witness magazine.

You can purchase this title here.

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