By: Thomas Cahill (Penguin Lives, 240 pp.)
Concerning: The brief, progressive, wonderfully anomalous papacy of John XXIII (aka Angelo Roncalli), who initiated the Second Vatican Council, placed in the context of papal history. From the author of How The Irish Saved Civilization.
Quotation: "Just as banks can make people poor, hospitals make them sick and schools make them ignorant, Churches can make them evil -- and the history of the papacy is embarassingly full of examples."
Verdict: Quite good. I picked this up because I've read many of the other books in the Penguin Lives series, and I wanted to put the current, infuriating Catholic sexual abuse scandals in some kind of context. This book really did the trick: the first 70 pages summarize the evolution of the papacy, the Catholic hierarchy and its various schisms, and the last 30 pages look at the institution in John XXIII's aftermath. Cahill's clearly a huge fan of John XXIII as a Pope and as a person, and has plenty of anecdotes about him as a short, corpulent, humble figure with an easy sense of humor. Of John Paul II, Cahill says: "Whereas the pontificate of John XXIII gave us a pope who more and more spoke not only for the world's two billion Christians -- a third of the planet -- but for humane aspirations everywhere, this pope [still alive at the time of the book's writing] in his contentiousness has found it harder and harder to convince anyone that he speaks even for the world's Catholics." (Cahill even makes a couple of mentions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and was probably horrified when he became Pope.) John XXIII provides an example of a Vatican leader who doesn't just serve the institution. I like that pope.