Michael Walsh fills a substantial gap in Church historical scholarship with his latest volume, The Cardinals: Thirteen Centuries of the Men Behind the Papal Throne. The only general history of cardinals in English that the author could find, Kittler’s The Papal Princes, he considers “a work of pious devotion to the Holy See rather than a critical discussion of the role” of cardinals throughout their history (1). With his latest offering, Walsh looks to bring a clear-eyed perspective to the history of the cardinalate, key figures who were elevated to that office, and their impact on Church and world events.
The introduction of the book provides a valuable overview of the cardinalate: its origins, development, changes in size, role and makeup, and a final page speculating on its future. The body of the text is broken up into eleven categories, each one of these having a short introduction to try to give a bit of historical context to the men spotlighted in the section. Some areas covered include: cardinals who just missed becoming pope (those who are legitimately considered successors of Peter are not given their own biographies); cardinals known for great scholarship; cardinals particularly saintly in their conduct; cardinals with great political influence; and cardinals who renounced the red hat or had it taken from them. Nearly seventy short biographies, ranging from less than a page to up to six pages, are found here. Men like Baldassare Cossa (the antipope John XXIII) highlight the most unscrupulous characters (and there were many to a greater or lesser degree). Others, like Robert Bellarmine, listed as a scholar, but who is also a canonized saint, represent the best of those raised to the purple. Various characters provide many interesting stories; among the most fascinating is the tale of a cardinal (Châtillon) turned Calvinist nearly thirty years after receiving the red hat.
This is a work of unquestioned scholarship as the author covers substantial ground with an impressive amount of detail considering the relatively small space devoted to each cardinal featured. But it will be useful and of interest almost exclusively to Church historians alone. Of necessity, many references to persons, places, and events – and intrigues – cannot be provided the level of context necessary for the casual, or even interested but non-expert, reader. The author often relies on the reader’s knowledge of various periods (both in relation to the Church and the world) to gain a full appreciation of the events he is describing and the terminology (e.g.,” benefices” and “swapping titles”) he is using. In order for the book to be more widely accessible (and, in turn, substantially thicker) the cardinals’ stories would have had to have been woven into a broader flowing narrative of Church history.
Now a word on the men Walsh selected to feature. With over four thousand cardinals in the history of the Church, inevitably there may be questions regarding why some were chosen, but more likely, why others were left out. There will always be quibbling of this nature with any non-exhaustive list. But the absence of John Henry Newman – with his fascinating conversion story, his leading of the Oxford Movement, and his immense scholarship – is puzzling. Also, cardinals of more recent vintage are scarce: only four who lived into the second half of the twentieth century are given space. Here, Terence Cooke, who was Archbishop of New York, and whose cause for canonization is under way, and Avery Dulles, the recently deceased prominent theologian and prolific author, are conspicuously absent.
The Cardinals may be helpful as a supplemental text in a Church history course and certainly useful to scholars and students doing related research. The extensive bibliography and detailed index will be appreciated by researchers as well.