Wills could never be accused of faintheartedness. He argues that celibacy was imposed on priests in the fourth century to compete with the authority of desert ascetics; that women were excluded from the priesthood based on Greek and Jewish notions of female inferiority and impurity; and that bans on contraception are not supported by Scripture.
The papacy, he insists, is more concerned with preserving consistency than recognizing truthful teachings. Such a "structure of deceit'' is creating a Catholic majority that loves Pope John Paul II but ignores his dictates on contraception, abortion, and masturbation, he contends.
In conversation, Wills speaks gruffly and sparingly. He praises his Catholic education, although he says, "The church gave the impression to me it never changed an iota, that everything we did in the parish was done in the early church. That's so absurd it's easy to make fun of it.''
Not only has the church changed, it has changed without losing credibility, Wills says, citing the switch from the Latin Mass.
Wills decided to write ``Papal Sin'' while finishing a recent biography of St. Augustine, whom he considers a model of truth-telling, and while following the case of a Texas priest accused of molesting children. He devotes a chapter to his claim that institutional deceit made it difficult for priests to police themselves, writing: "Looking the other way is a deeply ingrained habit and necessity, a tactic of survival, for men whose lives are honeycombed with furtive acts.''
Wills described Pope John Paul II as "an engaging, courageous person'' who has fostered openness toward other faiths. But he argues the current pope's allegiance to the past has put him at odds with social and cultural change. For example, he said, John Paul's "conception of Mary is what makes him think that women should be subordinate. Mary was obedient. He said women shouldn't want to be priests because Mary wasn't a priest.''
However harsh his critique, Wills believes he is a good Catholic. "Papalism is not Catholicism,'' he says. "It never occurred to me to leave the church.'' Wills doesn't pull any punches in his new book, ``Papal Sin,'' as these excerpts show:
On excluding women from the priesthood:
"It is not so much that women are clamoring to become priests (especially as the priesthood currently exists), but the perpetuation of this ban keeps alive the whole ideological substructure on which it is based. It is the last fierce bastion where the great Christian lie about women has entrenched itself."
"Almost all the priests who left in the massive hemorrhage of 1970's and 1980's left to marry. The homosexual priests stayed, which meant that their proportion of the whole went up even when their absolute numbers stayed the same. And now even that absolute number is rising. Many observers suspect that John Paul's real legacy to his church is a gay priesthood."
"Most people thought that New York Cardinal O'Connor's opposition to the distribution of condoms for AIDS prevention was aimed at homosexuals. It turns out it is meant to threaten the life of married people as well. The condom is more sinful than even death by AIDS."