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Historian attacks his Church.

Gary Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

New York, Toronto, Doubleday Publishers, 2000, 326 pages, $37.95 (Cdn.)

Part I: Review by Fr. Leonard Kennedy, C.S.B.

This book is a chronicle of alleged papal sins of deceit, an account of popes who are said to have deliberately used arguments which they knew to be specious, or have otherwise sinned, often in order to cling to past tradition. Some of the topics at issue are the relation of the Church to the Jews, contraception, the ordination of women to the priesthood, clerical celibacy, episcopal control of who can be ordained a priest, auricular confession, clerical sexual sins, clerical homosexuality, the Blessed Virgin, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and papal infallibility. Wills also claims that the Catholic clergy on the whole are aware of what has happened, and are secretly ashamed of their Church's doctrines. And he states, tongue in cheek, "I am not attacking the papacy or its defenders."

Wills, who claims to be a Catholic, condemns the teaching of the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae that contraception is sinful. He doesn't mention the consequences of his dissenting position which Pope Paul VI lists in Humanae vitae, which have all proven true, or a further consequence that contraception is the chief cause of abortion, which it often causes even in marriage. Besides, he thinks that abortion is not always wrong:

"But even though abortion is not murder, it is not a thing that can be proposed as an ideal. It should be avoided, principally by all safe measures of birth control--the one effective anti-abortion measure the Vatican will not allow. Though the fetus may not be a person, it is human life, it has the potential to become a person. It is something that should not be lightly done away with or deprived of all respect."

One wonders how much respect for the child can be present when the child is deliberately killed. One must think also that Wills is not aware that the chief cause of abortion is contraception. (Wills thinks, too, that, because St. Augustine a bout the year 400 didn't know when the fetus receives a human soul, we cannot know today.)

He contradicts the Church concerning the morality of in-vitro fertilization, the ordination of women to the priesthood, clerical celibacy in the Latin rite, the practice of bishops alone being responsible for calling candidates to priestly ordination. He seems to say that auricular confession should not be required, and here especially uses language insulting to the sacrament of penance and to the doctrines of grace, prayer, and indulgences.

He resembles a modern-day Arian heretic who uses scripture texts to disprove the divinity of Christ, which the Church decided forever in the fourth century. For many of the doctrines Wills denies (for example, concerning contraception, abortion, and the ordination of women to the priesthood) are now definitively settled, as was the divinity of Christ, long ago.

One soon becomes convinced that Wills has lost the Catholic faith. He finally claims that there is no true religion but that the Catholic religion is the best we can find. He must think that God wanted us to live perpetually in grave religious error.

Part II: Review of the reviewers by Fr. Al de Valk, C.S.B.

On June 10, the book section of the Saturday Globe and Mail devoted two long articles to Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit by the American Catholic historian Gary Wills. The first was a review by former nun and lapsed Catholic Karen Armstrong, today a well-known writer on religion. The other was a compilation of extracts on contraception from Wills, meant to impress but, in fact, rambling in their disjointedness.


As Armstrong sees it, Wills is not dealing here with what she calls the "murdering" and "fornicating" popes of yesterday but with what is much worse--a series of popes over the last 150 years who have brought about a "denial of biblical scholarship, common sense, and simple charity." "This", she states, "amounts to a spiritual death, a rejection of Christ who claimed to be the Truth."

As her own contribution in showing the evil in the Church, Armstrong relates how, as a beginning member in the cloister, she was asked to write an essay on the Resurrection of Christ. She presented it as a rock-solid fact, she said, but when she offered personal doubts about the veracity of it all, her nun teacher reassured her by agreeing with her, but asking her "not to tell the others." Where is this nun now? Armstrong doesn't say. Meanwhile, she's quite content to present her as a representative for a lying and deceitful Church.

Canadian Press

The Globe's coverage presented Canadian Press with an opportunity to spread the Wills attack right around the country, with its review quoting Wills as saying, "The arguments for much of what passes as current church doctrine are so intellectually contemptible that mere self-respect forbids a man to voice them as his own." (For example, the North Bay Nugget, June 17: "Book accuses Catholic Church of lying to protect its credibility"; Moncton Times Transcript July 1, 2000).

National Post

The National Post's review (June 24), no doubt lifted from its British sister paper The Daily Telegraph, was also written by a former Catholic, Anthony Kenny, now at Oxford. Kenny abandoned the exercise of the priesthood over Humanae vitae, after 1968. He presents Wills' list of topics mentioned above without additional comments, but he does wonder at the end "why Wills himself remains attached to an institution which he thinks has gone so badly astray."

Prairie Messenger

Another Catholic priest who quit his priesthood over the 1968 encyclical, the American Eugene Kennedy, writes a regular column, which in Canada is published in the Prairie Messenger, Saskatchewan's Catholic weekly. He proceeds in a cynical way, first raising Wills to sainthood (another John the Baptist whose head will roll) and then damning any possible critics as "heresy hunters," the very source of political correctness. You get the picture!

Toronto Star

A fourth reviewer, this one in the Toronto Star (July 1), Stephen Bede Scharper, was perhaps the worst of them all. Scharper teaches in the Religious Studies Department in the University of Toronto. He is an occasional contributor to the biweekly Catholic New Times.

In this long review, he tells us that "Wills slices through modern magisterial teaching on clerical celibacy, exclusion of women from the priesthood, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, papal infallibility, contraception, homosexuality, and abortion, unveiling a grand mosaic of official mendacity, twisted biblical exegesis, distorted historical facts, and outright prevarication."

Wills, he says, "has done a marvellous job of chronicling the papacy's structured deceit." Then he criticizes Wills for examining the issues from the theological aspect when he should have investigated their perversions from their social, political, and economic context. According to Scharper, that's the real source for these "webs of deceit."

Scharper, too, would have us believe that Wills remains a Catholic. Is this because Scharper, too, thinks of himself as a Catholic?

Is Wills a Catholic?

The Globe's extract concerned contraception, which is really at the heart of Wills' fury. The two sections in the book which are devoted to this subject centre on the 1968 encyclical which, as argued so often in Catholic Insight, is the great watershed in modern Catholicism. The idea that Paul VI acted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in virtue of his office is, of course, never acknowledged. The very idea of divine guidance appears foreign to Wills and his reviewers. Wills has nothing good to say about the encyclical. He calls it "the most crippling, puzzling blow to organized Catholicism in our time, . . . a most disastrous document" (p. 73).

The two essays seem to have been written some time ago, perhaps ten years or more, because while Wills traces the support of Pope John Paul II for Humanae vitae, he stops midway in the nineteen eighties and, for example, never mentions Evangelium vitae (1995).

What is much more revealing, however, is that he never quotes from these encyclicals, including Humanae vitae, with one possible exception. It suggests that he may have never read them, or read them long ago. The end-notes all refer to secondary sources (or what other people have to say about the documents or events). This may explain Wills' sentence that Humanae vitae "is not really about sex. It is about authority" (74). This judgment totally misses the true concerns of the encylical, not to mention that Pope Paul's insights on sexual matters were very perceptive, so much so that, over 30 years later, his four prophecies about the dire consequences of the contraceptive mentality have all come true (see CI, July/Aug., 2000, p. 20).

Wills' book is ultimately about his faith, or the lack thereof, rather than about papal deceit.


The source of his attack on the Catholic Church, I believe, may be found in his very last chapter, "The Truth that Frees." Here he explains a friend's theory that "the whole fabric of social life is essentially a structure of deception, beginning with self-deception" (304). That is the reason, he adds, why Jesus calls Satan the prince of this world, the "father of lies" (Jn 8:44). Jumping from St. Augustine's idea that spiritual sins are worse than bodily ones--lying is worse than fornication--he concludes that the popes of modern times and the whole Church with them, have distorted the pure Truth of Christ, in other words poisoned the well.

Thus the book has become an interpretation of history, the essence of which goes beyond the surface events he discusses, to a denial that the Church is the guardian of the truth revealed by Christ. Gary Wills is no longer a Catholic because he no longer understands the Church Christ founded. He resembles the Pharisees who, when Christ cured a dumb demoniac, accused him of casting out devils by the Prince of devils (Mt 9:34).

P.S. The American Jesuit magazine America carried an approving and admiring review of the Wills book by John O'Malley, S.J., professor of church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass. In 1968, America rejected Humanae vitae and since that time has dissented regularly from Catholic teaching, of which this review is further evidence.
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Title Annotation:Review; Gary Wills' 'Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit'
Author:Kennedy, Leonard
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:March of Women: Part III.
Next Article:Mulroney and Machiavelli.

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