Book Beat November 11 2000 (1)
?Papal Sin is the title and target of Lincoln at Gettysburg author Garry Wills, but he’s not decrying the transgressions you might suppose. The Renaissance popes were notoriously steeped in corruption — they could be the subject of an Aaron Spelling TV series — but theirs are not the sins that have Wills up in arms.
Instead, the historian’s critique and castigation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy have more immediate relevance. Wills charges the papacy with deliberately opposing truth and intellectual honesty in order to make its own views seem consistent, preferring to remain in error than admit its mistakes. Wills asserts that Vatican City is increasingly divorced from the real world, clinging to the notion of papal infallibility and clinging to beliefs that make it increasingly untenable to be a progressive Catholic, to say nothing of a practicing priest.
Wills is a close reader and sharp prosecutor, and in clear measured prose he illustrates the extent to which the church’s “patterns of deceit” have for centuries advocated papal assertions, in spite of both practical realities and scriptural evidence. Wills is most incisive when addressing hot-button issues such as celibacy, women priests and contraception, and finding in the Church’s official positions all manner of flaws and logical lapses.
For instance, he argues that neither Biblical nor historical evidence supports the view that the Apostles were solely men and solely unmarried, yet the Church clings to flimsy interpretations in favor of a celibate, all-male priesthood that has consequently seen its ranks dwindle in recent decades. Wills offers devastating examples of official cover-ups of molestation cases and is no less effective in showing how the Church presents its role during the Holocaust in an unrealistically favorable light. Wills has particular ire for popes Pius IX and John Paul II.
The author makes some strange choices in focus for Papal Sin, skirting the seemingly pertinent topic of the equivocation of the Jesuits. But he spends an inordinate number of pages on a pair of “case studies,” one involving his hero St. Augustine, the other on Pius IX’s disastrous document called the “Syllabus of Errors,” which explicitly placed Catholicism in opposition to 19th century rationalism.
The phrase “Cafeteria Catholics” refers to the faithful who receive the sacraments yet choose to ignore the less convenient aspects of the Church’s teaching, such as the opposition to contraception. Wills probably doesn’t like that expression, but he lays the phenomenon squarely at the feet of the Pope and his predecessors. Papal Sin’s charges are ultimately so passionate and convincing that you wonder why Wills himself even bothers practicing Catholicism, and you wish that, after his attacks on the structures of deceit, he offered some balance through his personal structures of faith.