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Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.

London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000, 334pp., 12.95 [pounds sterling].

Written by a Pulitzer prize-winning Catholic author whose previous books deal with topics ranging from Richard Nixon and John Wayne to Abraham Lincoln and St Augustine, this book is a publisher's dream. Wills takes aim at liberal Catholicism's usual suspects: Catholic antisemitism, papal infallibility, clerical celibacy, church teaching about the indissolubility of marriage and the attempt to mitigate this through the annulment process, the rejection of women priests, the condemnation of contraception, abortion, and homosexual acts.

The book will put heart into the dwindling ranks of liberal Catholics, scandalize the pious, and confirm the familiar indictment of the church by secularists who hold that there is no such thing as truth, only different opinions. "Catholics have fallen out of the healthy old habit", Wills writes at the outset, "of reminding each other how sinful popes can be." In the middle ages Dante performed this service for his fellow Catholics, castigating popes for greed, venality, and the quest for power and wealth. The sins of modern popes, Wills contends, are more subtle: continuing to defend positions that are no longer tenable, because admitting change could be tantamount to conceding that the church, which claims to be the divinely guided teacher of truth, had been wrong.

"The irony is that the very attempt to prove that the church has never changed leads to innovating arguments, to modern adjustments or additions, that just show how ill they accord with the monument they are trying to shore up. When ancient props for certain moral stands are removed, or crumble of themselves, the thing they upheld is not allowed to fall with them. New jerry-built contrivances are shoved under them to keep them in place ... a rickety makeshift that tries to pose as an eternal truth" (p.7f.). Responsible for this "structure of deceit", Wills charges, are the modern popes and their sycophantic helpers: "not men who lack intelligence themselves, though it sometimes seems that they believe all others do" (p.6). Let no one suppose that Wills is not skilled at polemic.

Many of Wills's concerns, in particular his insistence of truthfulness in the church, are shared by Catholics whose loyalty to the church is beyond dispute. Like many polemicists, however, Wills spoils his case by overstatement. Moreover, none of his criticisms are new. Herewith a few examples of Wills's own jerry-built contrivances.

His chapter on contraception never once mentions natural family planning (NFP), a major advance over the long discredited "rhythm method" (justly dismissed as "Vatican roulette"). Practitioners of NFP, which has been taught successfully even to illiterates, testify that it strengthens their marriages by making family planning the joint responsibility of both spouses, thus promoting communication between them. It respects the natural functioning of women's bodies, rather than interfering with it, and has none of the negative side effects of the contraceptive pill. If NFP remains little known, this is because no one makes any money out of it. That an author as erudite as Wills seems never to have heard of NFP is difficult to excuse.

Disturbing also is Wills's failure to confront the bitter fruits of the sexual revolution which the contraceptive pill did so much to unleash. By giving free rein to the erotic motive in sexual encounter it has caused untold emotional damage, especially to the young. Freed of responsibility, sex too easily becomes predatory, a means of personal gratification devoid of commitment. Was Pope Paul VI wrong to warn of this danger? Is his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which contains this warning and which Wills attacks with such abandon, evidence of a "structure of deceit"?

Some of the arguments in Wills's chapter on abortion merit his own condemnation as "so intellectually contemptible ... as to make a sophomore blush". Thus he charges defenders of the unborn with inconsistency because they are unwilling to prosecute for murder women who have their unborn children killed. Has Wills never heard of compassion?

In attacking the church for denying priestly ordination to women, Wills never once mentions Pope John Paul II's rejection, in his aptly titled apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, of previous subordinationist interpretations of scriptural texts which denied equal dignity to women. Instead, following the proof-text method which he condemns when used by popes, Wills cites gospel texts to show that Jesus violated the social conventions of his day by accepting women as his companions and disciples. He shows no awareness that John Paul II cited the same texts in Mulieris Dignitatem to support a quite different conclusion: that Jesus' willingness to reject the second-class status of women in his day makes it all the more significant that he did not include them among the Twelve to whom he gave, at the Last Supper, the command to "do this in my memory". Appealing to the fact that Jesus was never called "priest" by his contemporaries, Wills rejects the very idea of priesthood--thus denying not only the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews but with it the whole idea of doctrinal development and tradition, both central to Catholicism. In exalting prophecy over priesthood, and charism over church office, Wills jettisons Catholicism's attempt, down through the ages, to hold these things in unity despite the tensions which this inevitably involves.

The book's most disturbing chapter is the one on priestly pedophilia, a deeply shocking account of clerical misconduct, both by the perpetrators and by church officials who closed ranks to conceal or excuse these crimes. Connecting this with papal "structures of deceit", however, is possible only by arguments every bit as tortured as those used, according to Wills, by modern popes and their helpers to defend positions he deems indefensible.

"My heroes", Wills writes, "are the many truth-tellers in Catholic ranks, pre-eminently Saint Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton and Pope John XXIII." With the barely possible exception of Acton, every one of these men would have rejected this book out of hand. They knew that the church, and church teaching, were far more complex than the black-and-white account of them given in these pages. They would have found the author's unwillingness to acknowledge intellectual respectability to any other views but his own deeply offensive.

John Jay Hughes is a priest of the archdiocese of St Louis, USA, and the author of several books.
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Author:Hughes, John Jay
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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