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.
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.
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."