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Examining the structures of papal deceit

By Garry Wills
Doubleday, 304 pages, $25


Fans of historian and author (and erstwhile NCR columnist) Garry Wills were a bit disappointed in his 1999 biography of St. Augustine, not because it was anything less than brilliant but because it was so short. At 152 pages, Wills seemed to be just warming up.

We needn’t have worried. In Papal Sin, Wills puts his extensive knowledge of Augustine, and the rest of church tradition, to work illumining the “structures of deceit” he sees built into the Roman Catholic papacy. His thesis is that every era of papal history has its own besetting vice. The medieval papacy was consumed by lust for political power, as the Renaissance popes were consumed by avarice for riches.

Today, Wills argues, the structural sin characteristic of the papacy is intellectual dishonesty.

Because the papal system is incapable of acknowledging error, Wills believes, it drives apologists into mental gymnastics to defend doctrines for which there are no good arguments. For example, women were barred from the Catholic priesthood because of antique beliefs about ritual impurity and masculine superiority. Since it is no longer possible to invoke those principles, defenders of the ban today are forced to claim that because Jesus did not ordain women, the church cannot, an assertion that even conservative Biblical scholars reject on the grounds that the historical Jesus had no concept of founding a priesthood, let alone excluding women from it.

Official positions on women’s ordination and other issues -- such as contraception, the church’s role in the Holocaust and mandatory priestly celibacy -- are so deficient in intellectual credibility, so disingenuous in their abuse of historical evidence, that “a man condemns himself in his own eyes if he tries to claim that he agrees with it,” Wills writes. This inner conflict, he suggests, is an unacknowledged factor in today’s priest shortage.

A case in point offered by Wills is the 1998 document “We Remember the Shoah,” which was supposed to move Catholic-Jewish relations forward by acknowledging the complicity of the church in fostering anti-Judaism. Yet the document is mostly devoted to exonerating the church, as opposed to some misguided believers, and blaming the Nazis for not following the church’s teachings.

The truth, Wills argues, is that the church was shot through with anti-Jewish attitudes for centuries. He points to a 1928 decision by Pius XI to suppress a Catholic organization called the Friends of Israel. The pope complained that the group did not take adequate note of “the continual blindness of this people” and that its approach was “contrary to the sense and spirit of the church, to the thought of the Holy Fathers and the liturgy.” The mention of the liturgy was almost certainly a reference to the notorious phrase “perfidious Jews,” repeated during Holy Week until John XXIII removed it.

Pius XI drew a distinction between religious anti-Judaism, which was acceptable, and its secular form, which was not. As Wills points out, the most tragic aspect of this sorry episode is that a few years later, when Pius XI asked the American Jesuit John LaFarge to prepare a draft encyclical denouncing racism, the decree on the Friends of Israel was the closest thing to a denunciation of anti-Judaism LaFarge could find in the entire corpus of 1,900 years of papal writings.

So it goes through a host of current hot-button issues within Catholicism. The Vatican claims it cannot administer Communion to remarried divorcees, for example, because that would compromise the integrity of a sacrament founded by Christ; yet Wills shows that for the first four centuries of church history, we had no concept of marriage as a sacrament. Augustine, for one, discusses the characteristics of a valid marriage in detail without ever mentioning acknowledgment by the church. (Augustine also had no concept of penance as a sacrament, an ironic point for the author of the Confessions.)

This is in many ways an angry book. Wills writes with the passion of a faithful Catholic frustrated that his church, which has fostered such heights of intellectual virtuosity, is also capable of such obvious duplicity. This passion sometimes leads Wills to overly sweeping conclusions and fingerpointing that seems excessive, but if so, it is the excess of prophecy. This is not Wills’ best book, but it may prove to be among his most important.

Wills will face accusations of disloyalty from Catholics steeped in the ideology of the imperial papacy, for whom deference to the pope is the sum and substance of their faith. Yet in his deep desire to see the church realize its better self, Wills offers the loving criticism that only arises from real faith.

As a young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger put it in 1962: “What the church needs today are not adulators to extol the status quo, but men whose humility and obedience are not less than their passion for the truth: men who face every misunderstanding and attack as they bear witness; men who, in a word, love the church more than ease and the unruffled course of their personal destiny.”

Nothing could better express what Wills is after in Papal Sin.

John L. Allen Jr. may be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000