Michael Walsh is a prominent Catholic author and Vatican commentator. His numerous books include The Warriors of the Lord: The Military Orders of Christendom; Opus Dei: An Investigation into the Powerful, Secretive Society within the Catholic Church; and Roman Catholicism: The Basics. He writes here about his forthcoming book The Cardinals: Thirteen Centuries of the Men Behind the Papal Throne and the importance of holding a historical perspective of the church.
Nowadays C. S. Lewis is best known for his Narnia series of children’s books, or perhaps for The Screwtape Letters, but he was also, of course, a don at both Oxford and Cambridge. As such he was often called upon to address undergraduate societies of one sort or another, and these occasional pieces were eventually collected together in They Asked for a Paper. Many years have passed since I read this book, but one sentence has stayed with me. Lewis wrote, “The unhistorical, without knowing it, are usually enslaved to a fairly recent past.”
This problem of a lack of historical perspective, it seems to me, at present grievously afflicts the Roman Catholic Church to which I belong. The fact that Catholics put great store by tradition makes this myopia seem peculiarly ironic. Much of the argument within Catholicism, the Catholic “culture wars” as they are often called, turns upon a failure to understand that “tradition” is always developing: the Church has not always been the way it is now. Many, if not all, of the books that I have written, edited, or translated over the past three decades or so reflect my concern to remind Catholics and other Christians of their past.
My latest volume, The Cardinals, is no exception. In it the, often surprising, lives of some seventy cardinals — selected from over 4,000 in all (though it depends a bit how you count them) — tell of the recent and more distant past of the Roman Catholic Church. I have also included a rather academic account of the development of the office. Most people will know that the main office of cardinals in the modern age is to elect a pope, a task that has been restricted to them since the middle of the eleventh century, but that is far from the whole story. Cardinals have been outstanding scholars, consummate politicians, and, perhaps most oddly, skillful military (and naval) tacticians. Very many cardinals were never in sacred orders: the rank of cardinal was often simply a means of garnering riches. Because they were never ordained it was possible for them to resign from the status, often enough to marry and sometimes to pursue the dynastic ambitions of their families. Thus there is a chapter on the “Exes.”
At about the same time I was asked to write The Cardinals I was also asked, by Oxford University Press, to revise their Dictionary of Popes. I decided to tackle the dictionary first, thinking that what I learned from that I could apply to the study of the cardinals. I discovered that the opposite was true: even though much less has been written about cardinals than about popes, an examination of the cardinals’ lives still throws a great deal of light on the papacy and how men come to be elected to that office.
The Cardinals is a history book rather than a theological treatise, but I hope the account of how offices have developed within Christianity will give theologians pause before uttering dogmatic statements. As a historian with a degree in theology, it has often struck me that Church historians know more about theology than theologians know about Church history.