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The Most Successful Institution

Monday, 25 February, 2013

“The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.”

So wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay, one of Britain’s greatest historians, in an 1840 review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes. Macaulay continued:

“The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour.”

And he finished the review, titled “The Roman Catholic Church as the Most Successful Institution that Has Ever Existed“, with a glorious flourish:

She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

Macaulay understood the value of taking the long view. Sic transit gloria mundi he would have warned His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien.

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