On this Crock

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, by Garry Wills, (2000) Doubleday, 328 pages, $25


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When Pope John Paul II summoned Catholics to a “purification of memory” by facing up to faults, he spoke of a process that should engage us all. This stripping away of delusion and self-deception will be difficult, but it will be enormously beneficial to the Church in the end.

It is, then, one’s sense of an opportunity not just lost but squandered on ideological games that makes Garry Wills‘s Papal Sin such a ghastly disappointment. Wills sets out to call the Church to account for dishonesty on issues from annulments and sex to infallibility and relations with the Jews. Whatever one thinks of his choice of topics, there is potential value in this sort of probe. But the results are valueless or worse.

Take clergy sex abuse. Although bishops are more sensitive in responding to this problem than they used to be, the continued emergence of new cases 15 years after the crisis first came to light raises the question of whether, even now, the authorities have fully confronted the evil. There is serious need for honest, broad-based discussion of this matter.

But Wills is no help. Whatever good his indignation might have done is spoiled by linking pedophilia to celibacy. Pedophilia, as he remarks, is “a crime of deep compulsion,” tending to repeat itself over generations and often practiced by people who themselves were abused as children; and one of the most notorious clerical pedophiles, Rudolph Kos, had been married before he — God knows how! — got himself admitted to a seminary and ordained (“He has a problem with boys,” his wife told a tribunal official during the annulment process). Yet Wills implies that celibacy causes pedophilia and marriage cures it. Is he serious or, as seems more likely, is it just that anything will do for attacking celibacy?

It is axiomatic that someone who wants to impugn the truthfulness of others should be impeccably truthful, but this indictment of dishonesty in the Church has a multitude of dishonesties of its own. Unlike the author in his j’accuse, I do not suggest that Wills is guilty of “structures of deceit” (whatever these may be) but only of false reasoning, shoddy scholarship, and overuse of polemical rhetoric intended to slant the argument his way in the absence of compelling evidence.

Wills accuses John Paul II of offending against truth by designating St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — Edith Stein — a Catholic martyr. Stein was no martyr for the faith, he argues, since she died at Auschwitz in 1942 for being a Jew; the pope’s unworthy aim was to enter a symbolic claim to Holocaust victimhood status on behalf of Catholics.

At the time of the relevant events, however, Stein was living in a Carmelite convent in Holland. The Nazis were rounding up Dutch Jews but had exempted Christians of Jewish descent. The bishop of Utrecht published a pastoral letter denouncing the deportations, and the Nazis retaliated by canceling the exemption. It was then that Stein was seized and sent to her death at Auschwitz — for being a Jew and a Christian.

As for the notion that John Paul wanted to co-opt the Holocaust, it is merely contemptible. By now, it is clear to all but the incorrigibly bigoted that eradicating Catholic anti-Semitism was a crucial priority for the pope. Edith Stein’s symbolic role in this noble project is Christian-Jewish reconciliation through the shared experience of redemptive suffering.

Wills’ s book very likely will be praised for scholarship by some who don’t know any better (and probably by some who do), but its scholarship is more often show than substance. The treatment of Vatican Council I and the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility is a case in point.

Wills accuses Pius IX of rigging Vatican I and coercing the bishops to get the definition he wanted. But even Hans Küng, in Infallible? An Unresolved Enquiry, his book-length effort to deconstruct the dogma, dismisses that idea, saying, “There was freedom of speech (there was often more plain speaking than at Vatican II) and freedom of voting.” Klaus Schatz, in his carefully researched Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, says the position of critics like Wills “ignores the facts.” Küng’s book was published in 1970, Schatz’s in 1990. Wills says nothing about either.

That is typical. His footnotes brim with references to secondary sources, journalism, and works that support whatever case he is trying to make. Scholars who do not agree with him are usually ignored.

Wills is good at sneering. Implicit in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the idea that Mary’s “very flesh was…like kryptonite, unable to die.” Someone who thinks human embryos possess personhood presumably believes that, via spontaneous abortions, “God himself [is] sending them by the millions to limbo.” The Church’s view of the papal magisterium is that “the Pope alone…is competent to tell Christian people how to live.” Pius IX was “a soft man, lachrymose [who] could almost be said to have wept himself into power,” and Paul VI had “sad sunken eyes in…smudgy Italian sockets.” And so forth.

This is not the language of someone bearing the lamp of truth, or even of someone who trusts in facts and arguments. It is the coarse rhetoric of a man on a self-appointed mission to slash and burn — to overcome opponents by humiliation and bullying.

Often, Wills talks nonsense: “Today…people think the host could be desecrated if handled by anyone but a priest” (lay eucharistic ministers abound); the New Testament refers to a woman apostle (Romans 16:7 speaks of an Andronicus and Junias –arguably, Junia — as “apostles” but in a generic sense and plainly not in the sense of the Twelve); St. Paul was married (see 1 Corinthians 7:7); Paul had no theory of natural law (see Romans 2:14-15); there were women at the Last Supper, but they are systematically “censored out of” paintings of that event (and also, one might note, out of the Gospels). The silliest statement of all may be the claim that “truth is a modern virtue,” and untruth is something moderns have “little tolerance” for. This, in the Age of Spin!

Neither in the past nor in the present has Church leadership always deserved high marks for truthfulness and openness, and the politicization of much Catholic academic theology in the service of ideology is one of the tragedies of the day. These matters definitely need airing. But Papal Sin is a setback to the cause of truthfulness it claims to champion. When the International Theological Commission published Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and Faults of the Past, its secretary, Fr. Georges Cottier, O.P., observed: “First of all, we must speak of the faults that really existed. When speaking of the Church’s past, many things are said which are often calumnies or myths. Historical truth is the first requirement.” Too bad Garry Wills wasn’t listening.


This review first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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