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John W. OMalleyJuly 01, 2000
Papal Sinby Garry WillsDoubleday. 328p $25

Perhaps, as Garry Wills states in his opening sentence, Catholics have fallen out of the healthy habit of reminding one another how sinful popes can be. Yet many Catholics I know have watched enough television to know that Julius II, armor-clad, led his troops into battle and that Paul III made his grandsons cardinals. That’s for starters, without even mentioning the many bastard children of Alexander VI, Roderigo Borgia. Catholics feel they can smile indulgently at the sinful popes of the past because they know that’s all behind us noweliminated by the Council of Trent or something like that.

Wills agrees. The vices of the sinful popes of the pastavarice and lust, for instancedo not sully the record of modern popes, several of whose causes for canonization are in fact under way. Wills writes about a different kind of sin, more subtle and insidious, a sin that is a manifestation of a system or a "structure" rather than of personal weakness and folly. The sin is dishonesty. Its recurring pattern is of "truth subordinated to ecclesiastical tactics." It is pervasive because systemic. It is, moreover, relatively recent, a style of thinking and speaking that first clearly manifested itself with Pius IX in the 19th century. The popes since him have, with few exceptions, perpetuated and promoted it. As the very mention of Pius IX suggests, a papalcentric ecclesiology undergirds the phenomenon: The Holy Spirit speaks only to the pope. Control is what it is all about.

The book is an indictment of "modern" popes and the structure of deceit they have created. Its 21 chapters read like 21 articles of impeachment, marshaled by a zealous prosecutor. This is not, then, a dispassionate analysis by a disinterested observer but a blast of hot fire from a Catholic who is, rightly or wrongly, fed up. J’accuse!

In the first section of the book, "Historical Dishonesties," Wills deals with the Holocaust, with papal attempts to "usurp" it and with the sweet talk that has tried to cover up any Catholic complicity in it. It begins with an analysis of "We Remember the Shoah," the document on the Holocaust, long in preparation, issued two years ago by a papally appointed commission and recommended in an accompanying letter by Pope John Paul II. In the document, according to Wills, the church seems for a moment ready to beat its breast only finally to "point at some other fellow who caused the trouble." If Nostra Aetate of Vatican Council II ignored the history of anti-Semitism, the new Vatican document "rewrote it," whitewashing its religious origins.

Wills goes on to tell of how Pius XI’s plan in the 1930’s to publish an encyclical against racism was frustrated, principally by the superior general of the Jesuits. He then skips back a century to Pius IX’s role in the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy whom a Christian maid baptized without his parents’ knowledge or consent. This bizarre but fully authenticated story, an international cause célèbre in its day, dramatizes the ongoing tradition of anti-Semitism that "We Remember" forgets. More to the point, Pope John Paul II’s canonization of Edith Stein resulted from a determination to find in Stein a Catholic victim of the Holocaust, despite the fact that she was killed because she was a Jew and despite the inconclusive medical testimony for the miracle required by the canonization process. Pope John Paul II overrode all opposition in his determination to declare Maximilian Kolbe a martyr, a victim of Nazi hatred of Catholicism, even though the commission he appointed specifically to deal with this question ruled otherwise.

"Doctrinal Dishonesties," the next section of the book, is by far the longest, with 10 chapters. "Doctrine" here means, as if we needed reminding, teachings about sex. Wills rehearses the history leading up to Humanae Vitae and the fallout afterwarda familiar story but told here with details of which I was unaware. He analyses the "doctrine" that women cannot be priests and exposes what he calls the "biblical fundamentalism" employed in official pronouncements to support it. He does the same for the teaching on obligatory celibacy for priests and denounces the unfortunate consequences in the "priestly caste" that it helps foster, among which are the "conspiracy of silence" and the devout lies that have covered up sexual abuse by clergy. Perhaps an even more serious consequence is that the laity is being deprived of the sacraments because of the shrinking number of priests. The celibacy requirement has increased disproportionately the number of gays in the priesthood, while church teaching on homosexuality makes gay priests live a lie. "No divorce in the Catholic church"a sham, pitifully obvious behind the annulment process! The hard-line teaching on abortion is inconsistent. Even Marian doctrines are manipulated to support the Vatican’s sexual politics.

"The Honesty Issue," the third section, deals essentially with the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. Pius IX, while putting up a show of allowing the council freedom of discussion, forced the issue of infallibility. Wills here relies especially on the careful and fair-minded studies by Roger Aubert and Giacomo Martina, which, sad to say, have never been translated into English. In the final section, ironically entitled "The Splendor of the Truth," Wills presents Augustine as a model of honesty and truth-seeking and, as such, an incriminating witness against the self-serving and mendacious pieties of the past 150 years.

As the cliché goes, Wills needs no introduction. In 1993 he won a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize for his Lincoln at Gettysburg. His recent biography of St. Augustine is a wonderful book. He has written on Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and, yes, on John Wayne’s America, as well as many other subjects. He holds a doctorate in classics from Yale. His range and intelligence are stunning. He is one of the few Catholics who has made it big in the broader stream of American cultureand still remained a practicing Catholic. As especially the final chapters of this book demonstrate, he is, to say the least, theologically literate. Though the author of Confessions of a Conservative, in Papal Sin he adopts a stance generally calledstigmatized asliberal.

Wills sometimes overstates his case. He ascribes motives. He gives no quarter. He loses focus, so that at moments the book threatens to degenerate into a grab-bag of grievances. These flaws suggest, moreover, the larger question: What good will come of a book like this, whose impact on those it criticizes will almost inevitably, according to the book’s own tenets, cause them to dig their heels even more firmly into the ways the book wants them to change?

The good is that somebody has forcefully spoken the truth as he sees it. In the Christian dispensation, it seems to me, that is not nothing. Wills has spoken his truth, as well, with formidable argument and, even in his fierce passion, with a scholar’s respect for sources. This is, then, a serious book by a serious author that must be taken seriously. Among other things, it exemplifies the alienation of many thinking Catholics from the behavior in speech and deed that they observe in many high churchmennot a healthy situation!

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