Wills on "Papal Sin": A Review

Once-upon-a-time conservative Catholic writer, columnist and 1993 Pulitzer Non-fiction Prize Winner (for his Lincoln at Gettysburg) Garry Wills has recently gained new notoriety with his New York Times listed non-fiction best-seller Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (NY, Doubleday, June 2000).

Wills begins, in Part I, with what he calls recent "Historical Dishonesties" concerning Vatican claims regarding official Catholic silence in the face of the Nazi holocaust. He details the subtle antisemitism that distorted European churchmen's rewrites of the American Jesuit Fr. John LaFarge's original draft of what became Pope Pius XI's "lost encyclical" against the Nazi's racial policies, as well as scoring the diplomatic and prudential cautions that over-ruled any urges Pius XII may have had to denounce by name those who were perpetrating the horrors he knew very well were going on. Wills also thinks he detects some subtle bending of the facts, as well as more blatant bending of the rules, when it comes to making sure that some Catholic victims of the Nazi death camps, especially the philosopher-nun Edith Stein, are considered "martyrs" to the Catholic faith, when it is obvious that Stein was singled out as a Jew. In contrast, even when apologizing for the past, it is always individual Catholics -- including ranking churchmen, but never the Pope -- who are seen as having been sinners or at least mistaken as individuals, but never the Church as such. Indeed, in an article in the New York Review of Books, ("The Vatican Regrets", May 25, 2000) citing the most recent Vatican apologies, published as Wills' book was going to press, Wills shows that even when trying to make amends for these less than exemplary Catholics, the Vatican cannot resist the temptation to toot its own horn to call attention to its own constant devotion to the truth!

Next Wills goes on (in Part II) through a list of "Doctrinal Dishonesties" involving birth control, priestly celibacy, clerical homosexuality, the status of women, the cult of Mary, and the issue of abortion, showing how the official Church positions and decisions on such issues, even when not involving overt claims to doctrinal infallibility, nevertheless follow a consistent pattern -- one of denial that the official teaching office of the Church (the "magisterium" to use its Latin title) has ever been or ever could be wrong. Instead, every time any correction or adjustment is made to Catholic teaching, it is done in such a way that things are always made to look as much as possible as if somehow the newer teaching has always followed naturally from what was taught in the past.

How this applies, for example, to the radical switch on the admission of legitimate interest-taking (even diocesan offices charge interest on loans to parishes) when early and even medieval Christians were denied Christian burial for having charged interest, is hard to explain. Citing the legal scholar John Noonan's study of that issue, and Noonan's parallel study of the shift in Catholic perceptions regarding birth control, serious questions can be, and should be, raised regarding the Vatican's claim of an unshifting certainty regarding the evil of birth control. So too the Church's vehement condemnation of all abortions, at least when couched in terms of claims for the presence of the soul in the just-conceived embryo, when compared to the much more sophisticated reasoning on this matter employed by Aquinas and the other medieval theologians, shows puzzling gaps. At the very least, thinks Wills, the Vatican could admit a bit more uncertainty and respect for the past.

When it comes to disciplinary issues, such as the celibacy of the priesthood, or the ban on even the discussion of women priests, Wills gives no quarter to what he believes to be the absurdity of such reasoning, especially in the face of the massive denial of reality that has for so long held ground in the face of scandals plaguing the priesthood and the dwindling of vocations to the religious life. In these matters, in particular, Wills sees the same corrosive evasion of the truth ("cultivated ignorance") as being perhaps even more widespread on the diocesan or local church level than it is in Rome. He sees it in terms of a self-serving clerical sub-culture that reaches down to the lowest levels -- even though he might have said even more about how far it reaches up, through the system of clerical preferment and hierarchial ladder climbing, to the very top.

A major reason for most, if not quite all of this -- clerical corruption having been with the church from the earliest times -- is, of course, as Wills correctly discerns in Part III, the legacy of Pope Pius IX who during his thirty-two year reign (1846-1878). As this pope changed from being what seemed at first to be a liberal enthusiast of modernity to reactionary conservative, he managed to solemnly define as a doctrine (the Immaculate Conception of Mary, in 1854) against which there was no "heresy" (the usual reason for such doctrinal definitions), then issue (in 1864) a "Syllabus of Errors" (some eighty of them!) ranging from such heresies as allowing people the freedom of choice when it comes to religion to urging the pope to "come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization" and finally, in 1870, to convene an Ecumenical Council (Vatican I) "for the reform of the Church and consideration of modern errors." But, as it turned out, the main purpose of the Council, carefully hidden at first, was to be the declaration of papal infallibility -- despite strong reservations from a large portion (roughly one-fourth) of the six hundred thirty bishops present out of the thousand or so invited to attend. When the final vote was taken only 553 votes were in favor of the definition, and although there were only two dissenting votes, at least 55 bishops had found excuses to make themselves absent rather than displease the pope. To Wills, this seems hardly the kind of moral unanimity one might expect to greet a doctrine that was claimed to be central to the faith!

As Wills sees it. this legacy of all this has haunted the Church ever since. The scattergun approach of Pius IX's "Syllabus" mutated into Pius X's new list of errors ("Lamentabili") in 1907 followed by the hard-line encyclical ("Pascendi") and, in 1910, the "Oath Against Modernism" which emptied Catholic seminaries and other educational institutions of all forward-thinking intellectuals and set back Catholic biblical scholarship nearly half a century. But worse yet, the aura of "infallibility" was to cast itself over nearly all doctrinal decisions even when the conditions for its exercise outlined by the Vatican I definitions are only questionably met. Only the declaration of Mary's Assumption in 1950 met the criteria spelled out by Vatican I. Yet, the present Vatican office in charge of overseeing Church teachings (the "CDF" or "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", formerly "The Holy Office", and before that, "The Roman Inquisition") is presently claiming that according to Vatican II -- which was not intended to solemnly or infallibly define any doctrines -- that even the more ordinary non-defined teachings now have to be accepted equally either as matters of faith or as, in the case of certain philosophical presuppositions, necessary for correct understanding of it. So even while, by all accounts, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical "Humani vitae" was not meant to be taken as an infallible teaching regarding the ban on the use of contraceptives, still, the present position seems to be that it must or at least should be taken as such.

The result, in this matter as well as others, according to Wills, is a headlong descent by Rome into an ever-deepening crisis of credibility in which the gap between "The People of God" (as Vatican II described the Church) on the one hand, and its hierarchy -- especially in its official "magisterial" or teaching function -- can only grow worse. Almost every poll taken shows that no matter how personally revered the present Pope may be, the directions his teachings and policies, such as his ban on even discussing the possibility of women serving as priests, have taken are taken less and less seriously by the laity at large. Meanwhile, other, more provisional efforts to ameliorate the situation, such as the importation of foreign priests to solve the current clergy shortage in many countries, are seen by many as either counterproductive or, as in the case of "annulments" to solve divorce and remarriage problems, as disingenuous -- "a Catholic divorce" under a name designed to save the Church's face. Granted that it is the Church's job to uphold the ideal of life-long monogamy, still, when that ideal cannot always be met, true compassion requires the situation be dealt with honestly, and not be means of a often degrading canonical subterfuge.

What to do? At this point (Part IV), Wills turns somewhat philosophical, discussing, under the form of a recounting a late fourth century debate between saints Jerome and Augustine, the nature of truth, or more exactly, the definition of a lie. Wills particularly cites, with apparent approval, Augustine's insistence that a lie is only committed when there is an intent to deceive -- a position he came to when Jerome, the great scripture scholar and translator, kept pointing out errors, contradictions, and even outright lies in the scriptures, even when employed in the service of the truth. That scripture might include error of any sort was unacceptable to Augustine (here Wills might have included Augustine's famous "mysterium non mendacium" reply to Jerome over the story of Jacob's deception of his blind father Isaac: for Augustine the disguise -- Isaac posing as his brother Esau to gain the first-born's blessing -- in other words, a mystery and not a lie!).

In any case, it seems to me that the kind of complete openness or "parrhesia" that Wills calls for in the Church would not be advanced by the definition of the truth advanced by the hero of his 1999 book on St. Augustine. Jerome may have been guilty of his own form of spin-doctoring the scriptures, but admitting that deception has sometimes been used, even if unwisely, in the service of the truth is something that the "magisterium" will sooner or later have to own up to if it is ever to reclaim whatever credibility it once had. Not telling the truth, or at least the whole truth, in order to protect a "higher truth", as Wills says Augustine might have defended, simply will not do -- at least not in this day and age.

It also seems to me that one of these admissions will eventually have to be in the form of an open recognition that the definition of papal infallibility drawn up at Vatican I, especially its claim that the papal definitions are "irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church" has been superseded -- and not just balanced -- by the collegial approach to the Church's teaching office outlined by Vatican II. That at Pope Paul VI's insistence the Vatican II document "Lumen Gentium" was emended to claim there was no conflict between the two approaches -- an obvious fiction considering the present conflict -- is perhaps a sign that it will take a Third Vatican Council to accomplish this.

Paradoxically, there can be little doubt that such a redefinition would be tantamount to an admission that the Church's teaching office, even when exercised collectively, is not infallible after all or that at most, it is "indefectible" -- a term used by Cardinal Newman and later on by Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian now barred from Catholic institutions -- but only if by that later term we mean that after having made a mistake, that sooner or later, sanity will reassert itself in the Church. But if that is what it takes to restore people's confidence in the official "magisterium" then it is, no matter how costly, the necessary price that must be paid.

True, such an admission will be shocking, especially to older people who grew up during the pre-Vatican II era, when all were expected to fall into obsequience whenever the Pope speaks. After all, they have spent a whole lifetime trying to believe in this manner, even while common sense told them much of it did not make sense. More recently raised generations, if they care at all about the Church's credibility, will perhaps have even a greater problem trying to believe that after all they have heard, that the Church has finally "gotten real".

But look at it this way -- from the view-point of the life-span of Christianity as a whole. The ninety-eight years that passed between the definition of the Pope's infallibility in 1870 and the ill-fated 1968 encyclical forms roughly only a twentieth-part of Christianity's history so-far. As every year passes, that era will be seen increasingly as an ever smaller part. Who among us has not gone "off the track" and been involved in some kind of craziness to some extent for at least a few years during our lives?

No doubt some, particularly those whose academic specialties run to patristics and early church history, will find some of Wills' arguments debateable and some of his generalizations too sweeping. His over-reliance on Augustine as a witness to the way things were done or ought to be done suffers a bit from the same imbalance that over-reliance on Augustine -- who never intended to be a systematic theologian but who attempted to come up with answers as pastoral questions demanded solutions -- has produced for the Western Church in general.

Nevertheless, I think we would be mistaken not to take this book with great seriousness. The fact that Wills, trained at first to become a Jesuit, wrote his 1972 book, Bare Ruined Choirs, in what seemed to be a kind of lament over the demise of the pre-Vatican II church and for many years wrote as an identifiably conservative Catholic layman, even as a collaborator with the arch-conservative William F. Buckley, should command our attention, perhaps even our respect. Indeed, perhaps it is wrong to even think of this most recent expression of his thought as being "liberal" at all. Perhaps it is more accurate to see him as a "radical conservative" in the same sense as were the "Old Catholics" who followed the theologian Döllinger in his break with Rome following the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. True, the Old Catholics soon took the route of what was then seen as liberal innovations, such as married clergy, democratically elected bishops, etc. But even these "innovations" were a return to the practices of the ancient Church. So should we, or Wills, follow suite?

I don't think so. And apparently neither does Wills. For all its bluster, and its investigations of theologians, the Vatican really has been able to do very little to stop the tide. No doubt, people like Küng and Curran -- the moral theologian dismissed from Catholic University of America for his outspoken criticism of the 1968 encyclical -- will continue to lose their church-approved teaching positions, especially after the latest Vatican decree demanding official "mandates" from local bishops for all those who teach theology in Catholic institutions, but that will hardly succeed in them losing their voice. Even threats of excommunication, like the CDF used to try to bring the Sri Lankan theologian, Tissa Balisuriya, into line, pretty much backfired in the Vatican's face. Short of burning people at the stake -- a tactic that did not work for long either -- it is pretty hard to bar people from telling the truth as they see it, or from participating in the democracy of common sense. Although no doubt Wills will be maligned, and even now is being assailed, for having told the truth so boldly, it is clear now that those who, like Wills, really love the Church and are addicted to its better lights, are prepared to fight rather than switch.

R W Kropf
Aug 17, 2000


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