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Old Song, Great Arrangement.

Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. New York: Doubleday, 2000. 326pp. $25.00 (cloth).

If the Vatican operated like a normal government or political party, a book like Papal Sin might have a lot of curial types quaking in their boots. But Catholics can't vote for their church leaders and popes don't hold press conferences; so whatever storm Wills's brilliant indictment may stir up will do no lasting damage. Rome takes a notoriously long-term view of these things. Where is Xavier Rynne? Where is Franz Dollinger? Where is Girolamo Savonarola? Anche questo passera.

Not that having Wills on your case isn't worrisome: one of the best serious journalists in America, an ex-Jesuit seminarian (and a practicing Catholic), a classicist-historian-political philosopher-theologian, awesomely well-read and scrupulously fair. Uh-oh. Wills's arguments are not new, but it is hard to imagine who else could have assembled them all in this daunting attack on historical and doctrinal "dishonesties."

Wills begins with an issue recently in the news: the Vatican's belated, faltering attempts to come to terms with the Church's role in the Holocaust. Some Jews have begrudgingly welcomed the pope's statements in Israel as an improvement on the past and better than nothing; but the record of what the Church did and has acknowledged doing is, of course, shameful. Everyone knows about Pius XII's cowardly refusal to condemn the Nazis, but Wills also recounts in detail the story of Pius XI's last-minute attempt to produce an encyclical on the horrors of Nazism, Humani Generis Unitas. The whole business was a nauseating farce: in 1938, even as the pope was dying, the naive liberal John LaFarge, S.J., and a pair of Vatican-approved ghost-writers drafted a document -- laced with anti-Semitism -- only to see the result, feeble and obnoxious as it was, sabotaged by the General of the Jesuits, Wladimir Ledochowski. Pope-to-be Eugenio Pacelli was presumably well aware of what happened. But then why be scandalized at such behavior when the longest-reigning (1846-78) and probably most influential pope of modern times, Pius IX, actively promoted the baptizing and kidnapping of Jewish children?

Pio Nono, in fact, emerges as the key villain, both real and symbolic, of the book: an ignorant, petulant-when-not-hysterical power-monger (he once made a group of liberal German bishops kiss his shoe in obeisance), Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti represents for Wills something like the outer limit of obscurantism and duplicity, culminating in his rigged definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Wills sees many of the popes since his day (though not John XXIII) as Pio Nono's heirs, and he portrays that legacy as a disaster. The complaints here are familiar: almost a century and a half after Pius IX's preposterous Syllabus of Errors, the Catholic Church still brands contraception as sinful (Wills vividly recreates the genesis of Paul VI's doomed Humanae Vitae) and all abortion as murder; still excludes women from the priesthood and any meaningful leadership roles in the Church; still insists on clerical celibacy despite plummeting vocations and skyrocketing priestly pedophilia; still treat s priests as all-powerful sacramental magicians while trashing collegiality and demeaning the laity; still exalts sentimental, unbiblical Marian devotion at the expense of the Holy Spirit; and still deliberately ignores both ancient tradition and modern theological and scriptural scholarship as it glorifies a Petrine office that never even existed in the early Church. The bottom line is that the Popes & Co. have not just been benighted or wrong-headedly pious: they have betrayed the Gospel they claim to serve.

We have heard these charges before, but not from a critic who is as much at home in nineteenth-century historiography as he is in Greek grammar, who can contrast the mendacity of Vatican ideologues dredging the New Testament for "proofs" of celibacy (or American prelates covering up for their sexually predacious curates) with the heartening honesty of Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton, and even--in fact, especially--that old grouch, St. Augustine. (Wills happens to have just written a biography of Augustine.) There is a noble ideal of Catholic honesty, Wills argues, but it crumbled (in high places anyway) out of fear of admitting mistakes and having to surrender ill-gotten power. It may shock some readers to think of John Paul II as intellectually dishonest, but Wills makes one wonder how the pope could have spent his whole adult life hawking wire-drawn justifications of the rhythm method while anathematizing pill-users unless he suffered from, at least, an advanced form of self-deception.

So what to do under such depressing circumstances? Other than celebrating the memory of Augustine and quietly offering his own example as a principled dissenter, Wills has no programmatic response. On some of the problems he discusses (contraception, abortion, and homosexuality) Catholics, both clergy and lay people, have already voted with their feet by doing and saying what seemed right to them regardless of their infallible monarch. On others (married clergy) Wills thinks demographic realities will eventually carry the day. Sooner or later the old hierarchical pyramid of the Church will come tumbling down.

But in the meantime -- and this is what bothers Wills the most -- Catholics are living in an oppressive atmosphere of bad faith, where in one way or another every non-rebel in "good standing" must be either telling or swallowing or enduring lies.

In this distressful situation Papal Sin sounds something like a trumpet call: solid, forceful, moving. Wills is a capable rather than a vivid writer, but he drives his points home. The lay-out of his case seems somewhat random; but he has a massive amount of material to cover and he does so expeditiously. There are a handful of minor errors (Wills twice says Mark's gospel when he means Luke's, and he extends Pius IX's pontificate by ten years--a Freudian slip?); but we never doubt for an instant that he knows this vast territory inside and out, or that he has got the goods on his papal sinners. Every serious Catholic should buy a copy of this book, read it, lend it to others -- and then check to see if any thunderheads are gathering on the horizon.

PETER HEINEGG is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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