Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit
By Garry Wills
Doubleday, 304 pp.

If Garry Wills had lived in Wittenberg in 1517, he no doubt would have handed nails to Martin Luther as he pounded those 95 theses into the castle church door. Wills, like Luther before the dust-up, is a practicing Catholic who cares deeply about his church. He is also, like Luther, a respected professor with knowledge and interests in many fields, a disciple and fan of St. Augustine, and a firm believer that church leaders should tell the truth. Unfortunately, says Wills, they generally don't. In fact, they probably can't. "To maintain an impression that Popes cannot err," writes Wills, "Popes deceive." At the very heart of today's papacy, according to Wills, is deceit-structured, systematized, institutionalized, and vigorously defended dishonesty in service of the notion that the church, when acting officially, can never make mistakes. To avoid admitting error, the church rewrites history, covers up evildoing, promotes bad theology, oppresses whole classes of people, and bullies its own bishops and priests. It is not news, of course, that not all Catholics are happy campers. Whenever John Paul gets into his popemobile, reporters intersperse event coverage with interviews of the disaffected: Catholics for a Free Choice, the Women's Ordination Conference, backers of a married clergy or full acceptance of gays or contraception.
Nor is it news that not all journalists accept the official church line on, say, Pius XII's actions during World War II or various bishops' attempts to exonerate putative pederasts among their clergy. It would be possible to leaf through Wills' chapters and conclude that his book, which covers all the contemporary neuralgic issues, is just a litany of the usual complaints. This would be, however, to misread Wills entirely. Wills' contribution is not to delineate the problems but to point to their root cause. "I am not attacking either the papacy or its defenders," he says. He just wishes that a pope would stand up and say: We were wrong. The church was wrong. We may have acted to the best of our knowledge, or we may have been malicious, but whatever our intentions, we made mistakes. These are our mistakes. We are sorry. We will not make those mistakes again. But instead of acknowledging mistakes, asking forgiveness, and starting afresh, popes have built structures of deceit in various ways. Their response to the Holocaust illustrates several approaches, from Pius XII's outright lies to John Paul II's heartfelt attempts to apologize without admitting the church's guilt. "The effect," says Wills, "is of a sad person toiling up a hill all racked with emotion and ready to beat his breast, only to have him plump down on his knees, sigh heavily--and point at some other fellow who caused all the trouble." Structures of deceit are evident not only in papal proclamations, but in defective doctrine and dishonest power grabbing. Recent popes have knowingly embraced bad theology in order to shore up, among other things, an all-male, celibate clergy and the ban on contraception. Such institutionalized dishonesty has to do less with sex than with power. It is what popes must do in order to maintain the illusion of infallibility, defined by Pius ("I am the church") IX in 1870 over the opposition of most bishops and theologians.

But rather than increasing the church's actual power, its lies have led to a diminishing number of priests, a willingness to tolerate and cover up priestly misbehavior, a widening gap between clergy and people, and a shunting of the Holy Spirit to the sidelines.

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist whose career is based on a high regard for truth, is saddened and outraged: "[Augustine] would have said that the new papal sin, of deception, is worse than the vivider old sins of material greed, proud ambition, or sexual license. It is spiritual sin, an interior baffling of the Spirit's access to the soul. It is a cold act, achieved by careful maneuvering and manipulating, a calculated blindness, a shuttering of the mind against the Light." Faced with massive and heavily guarded structures of deceit, what can the individual Catholic do? Wills rejects leaving the church; perhaps the nearly five centuries since Luther's break with Rome have shown him that there are no greener pastures.

He also rejects living in an imagined paradisiacal past: "There were no good old days of the faith apart from what faces us today." Wills is furious, but he is also realistic--and hopeful. Christ is the truth, and the truth will out. The Spirit is at work "wherever the divine call is heeded." She calls us all, unworthy as we are. "She even calls the Vatican," Wills says. "All Christians need to respond to that soliciting. Including Popes."

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