The papacy is the oldest and most complex ecclesiastical and monarchical institution in Europe. Thus writing what Paul Collins describes as ‘the remarkable story of the last two centuries of the papacy’ is no easy task. It is also not necessary if your primary objective is to show how ‘the pope became the most influential man in the world’. A history of the papacy since the election of Pius IX in 1846 would have sufficed to achieve that end. Moreover, most of the contextual detail relating to European history could have been omitted. Collins would certainly have carried forward his underlying arguments rather more effectively if he had restricted his coverage of the pre-1958 period to detailing the most important developments, such as the proclamation of papal infallibility in 1870, the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929, the reforms undertaken by the absolutist-minded Pius XII (reigned 1939–58), and so on, which combined to give the pope ‘absolute power’.
Unfortunately, the first few chapters are marred by factual errors: his statement that Austria declared war on Bosnia in 1914, rather than Serbia; his misspelling of the name of the Catholic party in interwar Italy as the Partito Populare Italiano; his misnaming of the first British minister to the Vatican