Papal Sin, by Garry Wills

The Introduction to this 2000 work is marvelous. It should be required reading for all Catholics. It is not concerned with the personal sins of past popes: the sins of power, avarice, and concupiscence. That era has passed, Garry Wills says. What should concern Catholics now is the Church’s defense of its recent institutional acts.

He cites Pope Paul VI, who negated the decision of his commission on birth control, because he was persuaded that the Church could not admit it had been wrong in the past. That such an admission would expose to challenge all its doctrines of the past. Which is self-defeating, he says. For such thinking has driven both the clergy and laity away from the Church. It has led priests who stay in the Church to ignore the doctrinal messages from Rome (such as on contraception, abortion, celibacy), for they are too intelligent to pass on such teaching to the laity, and they know the laity is too intelligent to accept it. “This is a neglected factor in the many discussions of the way vocations to the priesthood have fallen off so drastically in recent years.”

He adds that, “the young, idealistic person, the kind who want to be priests, are just the people for whom matters of honesty with themselves are bound to be most challenging. How can one aspire to a high calling and yet accept low standards for his own truthfulness about what he really believes?”

Wills challenges the idea that “the whole test of Catholicism, the essence of the faith, is submission to the Pope….To maintain an impression that the Popes cannot err, Popes deceive—as if distorting the truth in the present were not a worse thing than mistaking it in the past.”

Wills subtitles his book Structures of Deceit. Because it is not the Popes who are the continuing sources of these decisions, it is the Vatican, it is in the structure of the Church.

Wills says he is not attacking the papacy or its defenders. “My book is a tribute, in part, to he honesty that has led so many priests to keep silent under the burden of deceptiveness called for by their superiors—and it is a plea that the weight be removed.”

What matters here is that this is not a book about the papal sins of history. (He covers that in another book.) This is about the Church today, about its history following World War II. It is not a history to be proud of, and the results can be seen in the empty seminaries, novitiates, and pews.

And its causes can be read in the papacies that followed John XXIII, when the windows were shuttered on the breath of fresh air. Fear drove the Church, as the Curia feared it would lose its influence, the popes feared they would lose their power, and the hierarchy feared change would be an admission that in the past they had been wrong. Meanwhile, the laity feared the Church’s failure to understand both the practical and spiritual issues they faced.

This book is about truth and honesty, about the failure of the Church to meet those criteria. Which is so contradictory for a Church that claims to be descended from the most holy man in history. But it is an organization of men, that is the rationale we hear today, and has been for 2,000 years. Which I can understand regarding the personal conduct of popes and cardinals of the past. But much less so when it comes to spiritual matters being addressed by the institution today.

But what troubles me most of all, and for which I have no answer, is how this Church can have been under the watchful eye of the Holy Spirit throughout its history, and yet conducted itself the way that it has: its defensiveness, its fear of change, its culpable Curia, even its alternation between liberal popes and conservative popes who seem to contradict one another. Perhaps it is more a human institution that we think, particularly if Wills is right and Christ did not make his apostles priests, and their successors did not themselves create new priests for four centuries.

I shall follow here my practice of summarizing a work when I find it both refreshing and convincing. These are ideas that needed to be expressed, and Wills supports them with pertinent quotations from scripture and history. He especially spells out instances in which the Vatican misuses or distorts the meaning of a scriptural passage.

Wills begins his book with the Holocaust.

He cites the 1998 document, We Believe, issued under Pope John Paul II. He says it separated anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, claiming the former was a scientific matter not under the Church’s jurisdiction and the latter was a human failing not connected to the Church. Actually, he says, both fed on the other. The report also ignored millions of Catholics who supported the Nazis (claiming they were afraid not to), and cited only Church leaders who objected.

Wills makes the interesting point that since the Jew Jesus died for all mankind, his death should not be a source of racial confrontation, and discrimination, but of racial solidarity. He also points out that Vatican II, while it said the Jews of today were blameless for the death of Christ, did not acknowledge a past in which Christians persecuted the Jews. After a bitter dispute in the Council, a compromise omitted this historic fact.

Even before this, in 1938, an ill Pope Pius XI asked the American John LaFarge to draft an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism. But LaFarge felt he had to work through his order, and the Jesuit head and the Vatican Curia sabotaged the encyclical. It never reached light, dying with the Pope.

Instead, the Vatican emphasizes that Catholics were also victims of the Holocaust, an example of the structures of deceit. Wills cites the case of Edith Stein, a Jew who became a Carmelite nun. He tells how the Church dishonestly claimed she was executed not as a Jew but as a Catholic. And made her eligible for sainthood by attributing to her a miracle recovery from drug poisoning, a poisoning that her doctor said resulted in recovery 91 percent of the time.

Wills also exposes false attempts to claim that Pius XII criticized the Holocaust

Wills next tackles the encyclical of Paul VI on birth control. He said it was not about sex, but about authority, about a denial that Church teaching could change. However, he points out that earlier, when the rhythm method was approved, it marked the first time that it “put a sacrosanct mechanics of sex above the motive of the actors, reversing the normal priorities of moral reasoning.” Indeed, the reasoning of St. Augustine.

I have read before Wills’ views on Humanae Vitae. He describes how the Curia and Ottaviani tried and failed to control the Commission, that the final vote was 54-12 in favor. What I did not know was that his encyclical also condemned artificial fertilization, and yet his successor, Pope John Paul, who lived only a month, congratulated the “English baby girl whose conception was produced artificially. As for her parents, I have no right to condemn them….They could even deserve great merit before God.”

How unfortunate that that Pope was succeeded by John Paul II, who immediately and strictly enforced Humanae Vitae. While for Paul it was a matter of authority, for John Paul II, Wells says, it was a matter of authority and sex, that the new Pope considered himself an authority on sex. He cites this Pope’s commitment to the Virgin Mary and her virginity. “He wants to introduce the aura of virginity even into marriage, where concupiscence toward one’s own wife is forbidden.”

On women as priests, John Paul II’s answer, Wills says, was “that the twelve apostles were men so all priests must be men. But all had wives, Wills claims, so could not today’s priests be married. He contrasts the presence of women at key moments in Christ’s life and death, how he cured “unclean” women, associated with prostitutes, and how they were the ones who announced his death. He traces the negative portrait of women and their qualification to subsequent centuries in which men said that they were inferior to men from the moment they were conceived, that they were not clean (they menstruated), and that they were not made in the image of Christ. He concludes: “But not to realize it now, when the evidence is so overwhelming, when the opportunities for redress are available—to perpetuate the wrongs to women as a way of maintaining that the church could not have erred in its treatment of women—that is the modern sin, and it is a papal sin.”

On married priests, Wills cites the letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul says, “Have I not the right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers, and Stone (Peter)?” Which Paul VI ignored in his encyclical on married priests in 1967. ”Omission of this most relevant text, just because it is inconveniencing,” Wills says, “is an example of the intellectual dishonesty his book is studying.”

To further separate the priest from worldly life, Wills cites the priest’s need to say the mass, even by himself, the Latin language that few understood, the communion rail that separated the clergy, and the priest alone causing the consecration of the bread and wine. He says that originally what was meant was that the congregations receiving the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, not that the bread and wine itself does.

Thus, there was resistance at Vatican II to the priest saying mass in the vernacular and turning to face the laity, and to the laity shaking each other’s hands—all took away from the mystical rite of the mass. Which, in turn, challenged the ritual purity of the priest himself, and his need to be celibate. Finally, Wills challenges the “greater availability” to the laity claimed for unmarried priests. He compares it to a married doctor’s availability, a married teacher’s, a married rabbi’s, even a married politician’s, including our president.

Wills cites the decline in the number of vocations, and traces it to the Vatican’s insistence that priests follow its prescriptions regarding contraception, homosexuality, married priests, etc. He contrasts this with the early centuries of the Church, when it was the community, the faithful, who created its own priests and bishops. Indeed, he says there is no scriptural claim that the original 12 apostles were priests, that Rome assumed that prerogative gradually, as political leaders began appointing church leaders and bishops.

After a long presentation of pedophilia, in which he describes how the Church concealed and transferred the perpetrators, and defended its treatment of them, Wills discusses all types of sexual activity by priests: “Whatever one thinks of the morality of any of these acts, such [research] figures are obviously related to the thesis of this book, that the life of the church authorities is lived within structures of multiple deceit.” And: “My point here is not to judge the priests but to return to the dissonance [the gap] between papal claims and lived reality.”

Wills next discusses gay people and the Virgin Mary. Of interest to me was only the matter of Mary’s immaculate conception, that she was conceived without original sin. How, Thomas Aquinas then asked, can she be considered as part of the line of David, all born with original sin, from which line Jesus claims descent? Pius IX ignored such thinking, Wills says, when he proclaimed her Immaculate Conception; it was a power move, he says.

Of great interest is the chapter on abortion. For Wills, it comes down to when the soul is infused into the person. Is it done all at once, or gradually? Is it done when the egg is fertilized, at some point in its development, or when the child is born? Wills points out that we do not baptize a fetus when it miscarriages or is aborted. He seems to conclude that since we do not agree on when the human soul enters the body, that a woman should have the right to control what is happening inside her body. I am not persuaded. While I favor birth control, as Wills does, I cannot accept abortion. My basic belief is that this fetus is a person. If we do not know when it obtains a soul, but agree that it does, I prefer to err on the safe side, at the point the egg is permanently fertilized in the woman’s body, when the being there can become nothing else.

Wills ends stating that “woman have the legal right to decide whether to have an abortion,” but that women still must face “a moral decision-making task that goes deeper than the law.” To make his point, he adds: ”I cannot be certain when personhood begins, any more than Augustine was certain when the soul was infused. But against all those who tell us, with absolute assurance, when human life begins, we should entertain some of his knowledge of our limits.” And he quotes Augustine: “When a thing obscure in itself defeats our capacity, and nothing in Scripture comes to our aid, it is not safe for humans to presume they can pronounce on it.”

Wills offers interesting history on how Pius IX got his Vatican Council I to pass the dogma of papal infallibility. He tells it largely through the viewpoint of Catholic layman Lord Acton, who strenuously opposed it. Highly respected and close to many bishops, Acton quickly lost the respect of the Pope and the Curia, whom he saw as acting dishonestly when they curtailed all debate and steamrollered the process. He remained a Catholic, but the multiple excuses given for condoning dishonorable action, Wills says, “offended him in the church because it should be the friend of truth, not an enemy”

Wills contrasts Lord Acton with John Henry Newman, Acton was aggressive in his opposition, Newman cautious. In the end, Newman accepted the dogma, when he felt the Church as a whole accepted it, not just the Pope, and that when the Pope claimed infallibility he was acting for the Church, not just for himself.

Wills begins his conclusion by addressing a dispute between the apostles Peter and Paul in order to discuss lying and any possible validity.

This has a thematic connection to the rest of this book, because the book itself is charging the Vatican with lying to further its mission. He concludes: “The greatest betrayal is to lie about the truths of religion.” And he compares St. Augustine’s adherence to the truth with the conduct of today’s bishops and popes, such as how the Vatican dealt with the Holocaust, the contraception issue, the celibacy issue, the infallibility issue, the banking scandal, the role of woman, the celibacy issue, the pedophilia scandal, etc.

He finishes: “Christ, Augustine said, is the way to the truth and is the truth….that is why the church lie was the worst lie in his eyes—the falsehood to proclaim the truth. He would have said that the new papal sin, of deception, is worse that the vivider old sins of material greed, proud ambition, or sexual license. It is a spiritual sin, an interior baffling of the Spirit’s access to the soul. It is a cold act, achieved by careful maneuvering and manipulating, a calculated blindness, a shuttering of the mind against the Light.”

In sum, this is a remarkable book, a truth-telling book that in former days would undoubtedly have ended on the Index of Forbidden Books. It not only challenges the Church, it does so effectively. It uses the Church’s own words and its own actions to expose its dishonesty. Moreover, there is context here, to show that the words and actions are not being taken out of context. One hopes, that in the era of Pope Francis, Wills will be inspired to continue his challenge to the Church’s position on a wide gamut of sexual issues, plus further promote the fact that the Church is its people, its faithful, and is not its hierarchy. (July, 2014)

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