A Canticle for Leibowitz: A must-read for any true SF fan

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsscience fiction book reviews A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr

It’s the Dark Ages again. A 20th century nuclear war spawned a “Flame Deluge” which destroyed human civilization’s infrastructure and technology, killed most of the people, and created genetic mutations in many of the rest. Then there was a backlash against the educated people of the world who were seen as the creators of both the ideas that started the war, and the weapons that were used to fight it. They were persecuted and killed and all knowledge was burned up. After this “Simplification,” people took pride in being illiterate and the only institution that seemed to come through intact was the Roman Catholic Church, just as it did during humanity’s first Dark Ages.

Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three parts, which were originally published as three separate stories. In the first story, “Fiat Homo,” which takes place 600 years after The Simplification, we find a cloister of monks who are applying to New Rome to have their martyred patron, an ex-electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, sainted. Leibowitz’s monks have been collecting, preserving, and copying fragments of the Earth’s previous civilization. As keepers of pre-Deluge history, they attempt to piece together knowledge and history, without knowing for certain what they’re looking at. One day, while maintaining a vigil of silence in the desert around the abbey, Brother Francis stumbles upon the entrance to Leibowitz’s fallout shelter containing precious relics, such as a circuitry blueprint and a deli shopping list. These relics cause quite a stir in the abbey.

“Fiat Lux” begins 600 years later. Genetic mutations caused by the fallout are still affecting mammalian DNA, and the monks of St. Leibowitz occasionally wonder whether there really ever was an advanced civilization on Earth, but progress is gradually being made. This is especially true in the abbey of St. Leibowitz where the monks are safe from the tribal wars that are common in surrounding Texarkana. Their studies of the fragments they’ve been collecting have prepared them to ignite a new renaissance.

Another 600 years pass. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” humans, though still affected by “genetic festering,” have reached the pinnacle of civilization and culture, progressing beyond what had been experienced before the nuclear war in the 20th century. But there’s been a cold war going on for 50 years between the two world superpowers and they both have nuclear weapons. At the abbey of St. Leibowitz, the monks wonder if humans are destined to repeat the cycle and, as keepers of the world’s knowledge, what is the abbey’s responsibility to humankind?

Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? …. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion… Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen… They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason. Then they did it, and then they saw it… Only a race of madmen could do it again.

Obviously, the main theme of A Canticle for Leibowitz is the repetitive cycle of human history and the role of our advancing knowledge and technology in our own destruction. This provides the reader with plenty to think on, but Miller also addresses issues that the Roman Catholic Church has tackled during its history, such as its role in state politics and its insistence that euthanasia is a sin. While the novel is meant to be a serious consideration of these ideas, and while its predictions and warnings are frightening, A Canticle for Leibowitz still manages to be amusing and agreeably quirky all the way through. Though there’s a powerful and unforgettable message here, it is the irreverent, eccentric humor that makes it so enjoyable to read.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a classic piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that had mass cross-genre appeal when it was published in 1960, won the Hugo award in 1961, and has never been out of print. Thus, it’s a must-read for any true SF fan. I recently tried the audio version which was just released by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Tom Weiner. Audio readers, even if you’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz before, you won’t want to miss Blackstone Audio’s first-rate production of this imaginative, chilling, and humorous novel.

~Kat Hooper

science fiction book reviews A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz is a book that defies standard categorization. I suppose it has enough future-world, post-apocalyptic concepts that it falls in the science fiction realm, but it’s not your basic laser beam and alien fare. This story goes much deeper.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is made up of three stories that span thousands of years. Each story focuses on a distinct time period, looking progressively further into a post-apocalyptic future. The setting is the same abbey in the American West, founded to protect and preserve the learnings of the pre-apocalyptic society. Specifically, they’ve developed a myth around a martyred scientist named Leibowitz.

The first story revolves around Brother Francis who accidentally discovers certain original papers created by Leibowitz, including the blue prints for a technological device. The second story centers on a new technological awakening where future theorists come in contact with ancient (modern) technology. The sequence comes full circle in the third story as our future world is faced again with mutual mass destruction.

Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in the late ’50s when World War II and the atomic bomb were still visible in the world’s rearview mirror and the cold war threat was very much a reality. Much of Miller’s discourse is on the cyclical nature of cultures and societies, the interconnections between religion and science, as well as death and politics. It’s clear that much of the evocative emotion stems from Miller’s time in the military and a youth grown up during a World War.

The story is at times light and humorous but threaded with a very heavy and serious undertone throughout.

The root story I found very interesting — how this future-world’s archaeology is our modern world’s past. I felt that the first two segments of the book were strongest and was only saddened that each couldn’t have more ink themselves. In reflecting upon the discoveries of their past, and their promises of hope for the future, Miller writes:

For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded… Truth could be crucified, but soon, perhaps a resurrection.

The development of religion, while always founded in Christianity, morphs over the course of the story and we see a mythology grow over time. A Canticle for Leibowitz is successful on many levels… as simply an intriguing story with attractive characters, and as literature built upon a foundation of religion and war. It’s solid story telling at its best, with heart, emotion and intelligence layered on top of the tale from start to finish.

~Jason Golomb

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. science fiction book reviews(Update: July 20, 2015.  I have revised and expanded this review after extensive feedback and discussion with readers.)

This 1959 Hugo-winning SF classic from Walter M. Miller is certainly an odd fish in the genre. A Canticle for Leibowitz’s s central character is the Order of Saint Leibowitz that survives after the nuclear holocaust (the Flame Deluge), and the story spans over a thousand years as humanity seems determined to repeat its mistakes and destroy itself over and over, with the help of science and technology, while this small group of monks strives to preserve ancient knowledge amid the collapse of civilization.

Many readers consider this book a powerful cautionary tale warning against nuclear conflict and the dangers of science. It is certainly well-written, and there are many light-hearted moments in the monks’ lives that belie the serious moral themes of the story.

The first part of the book, “Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man), is the best in my opinion: the story of the small abbey in the American Southwest desert dedicated to Isaac Leibowitz, an engineer who secretly preserved books and knowledge and was martyred in the backlash against science following the Flame Deluge. Young novice Brother Francis discovers an ancient fallout shelter that contains many relics that may have belonged to Leibowitz himself.

This discovery causes an uproar as it may interfere with the canonization process of Leibowitz, and results in New Rome sending investigators to examine the relics, and eventually Brother Francis himself is sent to convey these relics to New Rome and present them to the Pope. He encounters a number of setbacks along the way, but manages to make it to New Rome. He learns something of the power structure of the Church, and is tasked with returning to retrieve something that was taken by thieves, but again things don’t work out as planned. The ending of this story is both tragic and ironic.

The second part, “Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light), takes place over five centuries later, as the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz continues to preserve the various pre-Deluge documents, although they are poorly understood. In the 32nd century, mankind is just starting to rediscover scientific knowledge, and the story revolves around Thon Taddeo, a secular scholar who is intensely interested in the relics and other knowledge preserved by the abbey of St. Leibowitz. He asks the abbey to pass the Memorabilia to his care in the city-state of Texarkana, which is ruled by the ambitious Hannegan. The abbey refuses, insisting that Taddeo come to study them.

Reluctantly he agrees to come and meets Brother Kornhoer, who has independently developed a treadmill-powered electrical generator to power a lamp. This is one of the funniest images, of a group of sweating monks pumping away at the generator to provide enough electrical light for Thon Taddeo to study documents in the library. The clash in attitudes between the knowledge-hungry Taddeo and the innocent scientific experiments of the monks forms the main part of the narrative, but the remainder features all the political scheming of Hannegan to dominate the surrounding city-states by playing them against each other. These political machinations were tedious and distracted from the story of Taddeo and the monks.

The third part, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done), I disliked intensely and it negatively affected my view of the whole book. We move forward six centuries and mankind has again developed advanced technology including spaceships, colonies on other planets, and nuclear weapons. The world is dominated by two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, who have been locked in a cold war for many decades. This time our main characters are abbot Dom Zerchi, who recommends to New Rome that the Church put into motion a secret plan to send a group of priests into space to carry on the mission of the Church in case the world is destroyed again by nuclear conflict, and Brother Joshua, the man tapped to lead this mission.

As tensions rise, a limited nuclear exchange occurs, producing thousands of fallout victims. Many of these are taken into the abbey of Dom Zerchi, who has a heated debate on euthanasia with a secular doctor treating the refugees, who insists that it is more merciful to administer death to those suffering from fatal dosages, while Dom Zerchi refuses to go along with this, insisting that lives are sacred even when there is no hope, regardless of the physical suffering. His attitude really upset me, since I strongly sympathize with the doctor’s position and can’t understand the religious arguments against euthanasia.

The three sections of the novel each mirror separate stages of our own history, with “Fiat Homo” showing the Church preserving knowledge even as society falls into chaos and savagery. In “Fiat Lux” we see the rebirth of knowledge and culture, and in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” we see developments akin to our current world, highlighting our infatuation with material wealth and technology, along with a decline in spiritual belief. A Canticle of Leibowitz certainly is a skillful depiction of the cyclical nature of history, as humanity grows in knowledge and technology, only to overreach itself and destroy what has been so carefully built up.

However, despite the undeniably ingenious structure of the stories and skillful writing, I strongly disagreed with the ideas and conclusions of the author. First of all, it’s hard for me to see the Catholic Church as the last protector and repository of science and knowledge as secular society crumbles around it. It’s ironic that the book lovingly describes the noble efforts of these selfless monks to preserve civilization for millenia, but is that the role played by the Church in Europe over the last dozen centuries?

When I first posted my initial review of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I got a spirited response with a lot of dissenting opinions, specifically that I did not understand the Catholic Church’s role in the history of Europe, and I’ll be the first to admit that I am fairly ignorant in that area. While I have since been informed that the Church and monasteries preserved many kinds of knowledge for centuries during the Dark Ages, I wonder at what point that role diminished, since universities (both religious and secular) have taken over that role over the past few centuries. Is the author suggesting the Church has always been firmly on the side of wisdom and intellectual freedom, whereas science and technology have done more harm than good? What about the Church’s treatment of Galileo and Copernicus, not to mention the atrocities committed by the Church’s during the Crusades and Inquisition?

Another important point raised by other readers was that I should make a distinction between the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, since even if the Church may claim to be the only legitimate church of Christ, Protestants pursue their faith in a different way, without all the sacraments, Eucharist, confessionals, and a Pope dictating what people should believe. I am an atheist without any attraction to religion, but I would be far more receptive to the Protestant belief in a direct relationship with God than having to go through some intermediary in order to be baptized and avoid burning in the fires of Hell.

So for me this book is marred by what I view as its anti-science, pro-religious agenda. It’s still not clear to me whether the author is promoting Catholicism. Or was he contrasting individual belief with organized religion? The various monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz are depicted in a very sympathetic light, while secular governments and politicians are shown as power-hungry and destined to bring mankind to destruction amid nuclear holocaust. Does that mean we should abandon secular government in favor of religious rule? Would anyone in their right mind want either the Roman Catholic Church or any of the Islamic states to have control of world affairs? I’d rather be dead and gone before that comes to pass.

That’s what makes this book so confounding. Miller seems to have a very dark and despairing view of mankind’s inability to avoid destroying itself, which was a very topical subject when it was written during the Cold War, but grafting on this story of Catholic monks valiantly protecting the flame of knowledge in a post-apocalyptic future just didn’t work for me at all.

I can agree with Miller that science always presents the dangers of wielding powers that can destroy us, but it is up to us (not a divine being who, even if it does exist, seems to be indifferent to our sordid affairs after that initial burst of creation) to harness science to positive use. Whether our current materialism is due to a lack of spirituality is certainly a valid debate, but for me I seek beauty in the natural world, and find much to admire in human endeavors, not the least of which are literature and art, and much to despise as well. But I choose not to seek betterment through religion. I like the approaches of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, who both have found a form of spirituality in their observations of our incredible universe and the quantum world, which inspires an awe in me that could be viewed as spiritual.

There are an infinite number of future outcomes for global civilization, but the events of A Canticle for Leibowitz do not strike me as plausible. I would highly recommend Edgar Pangborn‘s Davy as a counter-argument to this viewpoint. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is also a very different take on this, with learned monks surviving many millennia into the future preserving knowledge, but with the twist of mostly being dedicated to science and mathematics rather than religion. In fact, I see an extremely interesting discussion arising from a comparison of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Anathem, but this would require that I try again to read Anathem to write a comparison review. Anyone care to take on that challenge?

I wonder if the current religions of the world can take a leading role in bringing greater peace and prosperity in the coming centuries and millennia? I don’t think so personally, but the majority of the human race still claims belief in organized religions, so they may hold out greater optimism. In my opinion, science and technology are only as beneficial as those who control them, so responsibility for their use lies completely in our hands. Considering that we have managed to survive for almost 70 years since the atomic bombings of WWII, we’ve done remarkably well despite the warnings of a generation of SF writers.

Our current world faces a host of problems, including environmental destruction, overpopulation, climate change, and continued religious conflicts, but we have certainly avoided the most egregious scenarios imagined by writers after WWII. That doesn’t negate the warning of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it suggests that our future path will be different and perhaps better.

~Stuart Starosta

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. I’ve been meaning to read this forever. Great review. I definitely want to bump it up on my TBR list now.

  2. One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels. I highly recommend it. Excellent review, Kat.

  3. It’s nice to see a review of this classic. Thanks, Kat.

  4. Thanks, guys!
    Definitely one of the best audiobooks put out this year.

  5. I have to admit, this has been on my must-read list for far too long. I remember starting it a few times back in highschool, but just not getting into it. I definitely need to give it another shot.

  6. Yesterday The New Yorker published an interesting article about A Canticle For Leibowitz: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/science-fiction-classic-still-smolders

  7. I’ve got to totally disagree with you on this one, Stuart. :)

    I loved this book and I didn’t at all read it as pro-Catholic. I think it was more likely somewhat ironic, though I haven’t read what scholars think.

    I’m not Catholic, but I am a Christian. I agree with you that many atrocities have been committed by the Catholic church. They have apologized for this, which doesn’t make it right, but shows that they realize they made mistakes and are managing to get their theology lined up with what the Bible actually says rather than what their past politically-motivated leaders said. (Which is why we need a separation of Church and State, which is another theme of Miller’s novel.)

    I think peaceful Christianity (which is what is actually taught by Jesus Christ) has done much to make the world a better place, especially in areas like philosophy, science, education, charity, and human rights.

  8. April /

    I think I disagree with you on this one too Stuart. Though I read this too long ago to be absolutely certain, I was under the impression that the actual care and thoughtful knowledge hoarding was from a very small portion of the church, not the church as a whole.

    I actually felt that the tale was very much anti-church and pro-religion, if that makes any sense to you.

  9. Stuart, I think you need to check your prejudice against religion, and read up on the history of the Catholic Church. Fact, without the monks Europe would know nothing about the science of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

  10. Thanks for all your feedback. I’ll be the first to admit I have an axe to grind against the Catholic Church, which extends far beyond the parameters of discussing this book. I also agree we need to distinguish between the Catholic Church and Christianity, particularly the Protestant belief that individuals don’t need any intermediaries (priests) between themselves and a higher being. In fact, Kat and April’s assertion that Canticle is not necessarily pro-Catholic is an intriguing one – and that it might be anti-church and pro-religion at the same time was something that I didn’t take from my reading but now I can see that in the first two parts, but less so in the third part.

    Certainly this book is open to many interpretations both pro- and anti-religion, science, etc. That’s what makes it an interesting litmus test for readers, and really unearths our own beliefs and prejudices. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that Christianity or any other religion has had a uniformly bad influence on civilization’s development, but the Catholic Church was very much a political organization that dominated large stretches of European history and it’s legacy of the Crusades and Inquisitions strike me as indefensible with the claims of acceptance and love for all mankind that (I believe) the teachings of Jesus are about. I’m much more amenable to that side of Christianity, no question.

    • The Catholic church has greatly evolved since those times, probably due to the separation of church and state and the availability of the scriptures to everyone. Before these events, the pope was a political leader who had complete authority and control (and needed to keep them) and who kept his people ignorant of what the scriptures actually say. Contrast those early popes with recent popes. It’s a world of difference. I think it’s unfair to keep bludgeoning the Catholic church for its past sins.

      I’m enjoying this conversation! :)

  11. April V. /

    One of the greatest things about books is that we all get something different out of them. That is why discussing them is so fun!

  12. I’m enjoying our chat as well! Incidentally, not all the Churches sins are in the past: child abuse by priests is a persistent problem, and more egregious to me is the Church’s opposition to contraception, which in my mind is a major factor behind chronic poverty in developing countries. I would be more forgiving for past sins, except that the Church claims to represent Christian virtues and rules of conduct, and yet it has behaved much like any other political organization: sometimes virtuously, other times badly. That casts doubt on any claims to a higher calling, IMHO.

    • I agree with everything you say here. However, the bad behavior of some priests is not condoned by the church. They have apologized for it, which does not make it acceptable, but shows that they know they have a problem and they’re trying to fix it. The church is made of sinners. I hope they’ll let priests marry. I think it would go a long way toward solving that problem.

      As for contraception, I completely agree with you. However, the reason they are against contraception is not because they want people to be impoverished, but because they believe (wrongly, in my opinion) that it is sinful. They are sticking to their beliefs, which is different than purposely impoverishing people. (Their motives are good.)

      Whenever we judge an organization by the actions of its members rather than what it stands for and tries to accomplish, we will be disappointed.

  13. If I were pushed in a corner, I would call myself an agnostic. But I still appreciate A Canticle for Leibowitz. While Catholicism certainly plays a role in the novel, I thought the larger issue under discussion was knowledge vs. the application of knowledge – something that transcends religion and remains pertinent to this day.

    I once took a novel to task (I forget which) for failing to acknowledge the Catholic Church’s involvement in repressing knowledge and the Inquisition. One kind commentator politely informed me how wrong I was, that in fact the Church was one of the main preservers and purveyors of knowledge in a time when Europe needed them most. Many scientific theories were discovered and human knowledge was advanced. I looked a little further into the matter, and sure enough, the Dark Ages are not as simple as rumors and assumption (like yours and mine) make them out to be. Yes, the Inquisition is a black mark the Church will never live down, but their overall stance and involvement with science is not as black and white as you may have heard. Have a look.

  14. Thanks for weighing in on this with a new angle, Jesse. I certainly am basing my opinions of the Church on a very biased and limited sampling of pet peeves I’m aware of, and the Churches’s role in Europe to preserve knowledge is unknown to me. I’m happy to hear from others on this subject. I’m sure a Jesuit could dance circles around me. Perhaps one of the merits of Canticle is that it does present a lot of ambiguity about the use of knowledge and the role of religion in a civilization bent on its own destruction. He seemed to be very pessimistic in the end, or was my reading of it wrong?

    • I cannot say what is a right or wrong way to read the ending, but I can say that Miller left me with the impression humanity ought to watch how it applies what it knows – perhaps one the greatest truly science fiction agendas a science fiction novel can have, no? :)

  15. A Reader /

    As an actual historian, graduated in 2012, I find it “utterly absurd and a glaring denial” that you think the Catholic Church has never acted as the defender of civilization in the past. Clearly you are not a historian, which I don’t fault you for, but it does irk me that you -act- like you are learned in history.

    The Catholic Church was the only repository of Roman/Greek literature in Western Europe for over a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Catholic Monks lovingly translated and passed on the works of the Classical greats to future generations at a time when Europe was trying to find itself. Not only that, it acted as an anchor of stability around which civilization rebuilt. It set laws of succession, money lending, warfare, social policy, and kept a firm hand on the tiller when it came to mitigating continent-spanning wars.

    Really, people who weren’t educated about history shouldn’t pretend to be an authority on it. It only makes you look silly to learned people and it contributes to the general public being perpetuating incorrect “facts” about history. It’s fairly irresponsible of you.

  16. I accept your criticism that I’m quite ignorant of European history in the Middle Ages. In my defense, I don’t think I tried to represent myself as a historian at any point, and since posting my review I’ve certainly got a lot of similar comments that I just don’t know what I’m talking about. I actually did write a more extended review elsewhere that addressed the book in more detail, but your point is well taken.
    While I grant that the Catholic Church apparently had a very important role in preserving knowledge and science in the Middle Ages, that still does not address the wrongs committed by the Church such as the Crusades and the Conquistadores. I also mentioned several present-day policies of the Church I take issue with.
    But we should get back to the review itself, which was to give my impression of A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’m entitled to my own opinion in that regard, and I welcome other dissenting (or better-informed) opinions. Having generated a lot of discussion and criticism, I would certainly write a more balanced review. You can see some very pointed discussion above.
    But again, I fully acknowledge that I need to improve my knowledge of European and Church history much more before I issue sweeping statements as I have above.

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