Crises, Tidings, & Revelations: The Literati vs. the Pope

Contemporary Catholic problems have been exacerbated, if not caused, by members of the intellectual elite, both inside and outside of the Church, who make it their business to challenge and ridicule authoritative teaching at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, the media willingly provide forums for these self-styled defenders of reason against the so-called irrational prejudices of authoritarian-minded Roman clerics.

A recent example of this may be found in the December 22 issue of The New York Review of Books, where the literary intelligentsia were treated to a feature review by Garry Wills of Pope John Paul II’s recent books. He takes primary aim at the pope’s best-selling book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. For Wills, the pope can be “so intellectually probing and honest yet so closed and simplistic on certain matters (all having to do with sex).”

Wills champions women’s ordination by questioning the pope’s “fundamentalist” argument that since Jesus did not choose women priests, neither should the Church. Wills responds by asking why the modern priesthood is not restricted to married, Aramaic speaking, Jewish men? That the Jewish messiah would choose his disciples from within his immediate community makes immense sense to all but the most narrow-minded feminist ideologue. The fact that the men Jesus chose would make the same sort of distinctions about ordination requirements as John Paul II is never considered.

Nor does he foresee the internal contradictions his arguments produce. For instance, Wills finds the pope’s “sexism” reflected in his image of Mary which is “one of submission.” Given Mary’s supposed role as an icon of feminine submission and the pope’s call to all Christians, including himself, to model their lives after her, Wills’ line of reasoning unwittingly leads to the improbable conclusion that the pope’s “almost scary” devotion to her makes him behave as a submissive woman.

Wills’ predictable attempt to explain away the Church’s teaching on contraception borders on willful ignorance. He describes the Church’s teaching in this manner, “the sex act must always be ordinated toward procreation, and never to pleasure alone.” He then tries to trip up the pope with this clever analogy: “By this logic, eating and drinking must always be ordinated toward self-preservation, never to pleasure.”

Now, it is possible to imagine contraceptive sex inhibiting procreation. However, can the consumption of food and drink for pleasure alone conceivably inhibit self-preservation? It is possible that some pleasure-seeking drunkard would end up destroying his liver, which would imperil his survival. If the Church frowned on such behavior, would Wills be offended? Or would he show as much compassion for the alcoholic as he does for pleasure-seeking contraceptors? In any case, the analogy is false because eating and drinking for pleasure alone generally does not impede self-preservation, whereas contraceptive sex does indeed impede procreation.

He laments the fact that “The great mysteries of faith have become, for many inside the Church as well as outside, the ‘doctrines’ on contraception and abortion.” Wills partly blames the pope for this. In response to a question about the “right to life,” John Paul II discusses abortion, rather than criticizing, as he has in the past, “just war” theory and capital punishment — positions Wills favors. Why should the pope feel compelled to oppose war and the death penalty as often as abortion? Indeed, why should he when abortion takes far more innocent human life and is hardly a debatable question for the Church? Apparently because opposition to “just war” theory and capital punishment is highly favored by the cultural elite, while being anti-abortion is not. Perhaps to please his peers, Wills takes his stand against a pope who denies being “obsessed” with abortion, but “certainly encourages that obsession in others.”

Sexual matters were not the sole area of disagreement however. Like a conspiracy theorist, Wills attacked the secrecy he sees surrounding Opus Dei. He challenges the “candor” of the book claimed by journalist Vittorio Messori whose questions comprise its foundation. Though the journalist noted how open the pope had been in answering the questions, Wills charged that the obvious ones were never asked, particularly about the pope’s “secretive and authoritarian Opus Dei movement.” This, writes Wills, is not surprising since Vittorio is friendly with the papal press agent Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who is a member of Opus Dei. Near the end of the review, Wills speculates as to how the pope, who can be so open in many ways, “harbors those who hide in the Opus Dei.”

Wills shows no interest in seriously probing the questions he raises. Why not ask about Opus Dei? Perhaps it never occurred to Vittorio to ask. Perhaps he didn’t think readers would be interested. Perhaps other questions took greater precedent. Perhaps, in the final analysis, Vittorio is not as obsessed with Opus Dei as Wills appears to be. If Wills really wanted to know who they are, perhaps he should join to find out first hand. Or, as one friend suggested, he should “just ask them.” But once he found out how harmless they are, he could no longer use the group as a weapon against the pope.

And for Wills, opposing the unfashionable teachings of John Paul II seems to have been his intention all along.


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master's in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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