Jun 21, 2000

Papal Sin

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  • Between 1983 and 1987 reports of Catholic priests sexually abusing children were calculated at a rate of one per week. No diocese in the United States has been without a pedophilia case.
  • Other casualties of the misdirected sexuality of Catholic priests are great numbers of women who "tempted" the priests only to be disgarded and in many cases pressured into terminating the resulting pregnancies.
  • The Vatican's stance on birth control is so unrelenting it will not even permit the use of condoms by married heterosexual couples in which one partner has AIDS.
Gary Wills portrait of the contemporary Catholic church conveys a top heavy institution whose leaders are embarassingly out of touch with the modern world and their own laity. They remain smug in their self-righteousness and continue to uphold a system rife with corruption and hypocricy. For this Wills does not blame the Catholic faith or the entirety of the church, of which he is a part.

At first glance Papal Sin may look like the angry polemic of a disgruntled lapsed Catholic, but it proves to be something completely different. It is Wills's love for the Catholic church, its core beliefs and rich history, that inspire his plea to the Vatican to admit its own errors, both present and historical, and respond to the majority of its members changing world views.

He takes the church authority to task on its torture of scripture and convoluted theories on "natural law" to justify its positions on birth control, abortion, celibate priesthood, refusal to ordain women, and homosexuality. These and other issues, he contends have increased the divide between the Vatican and lay Catholics, radically reduced the number of ordained priests, and led to inevitable hypocricy on the part of clergy all the way to the top.

His logic is sometimes muddled, as when he attempts to demonstrate the failure of the recently released papal document We Remember to adequately address the Holocaust. He opens this section by stating:

The debilitating effect of intellectual dishonesty can be touching. Even when papal authority sincerely wants to perform a virtuous act, when it spends years screwing up the nerve to do it, when it actually thinks it has done it, when it releases notice of having done it, when it expects to be congratulated on doing it -- it has not done it. Not because it did not want to do it, or did not believe it did it. It was simply unable to do it, because that would have involved coming clean about the record of the papal institution. And that is all but unthinkable.

Granted, it would be a vast undertaking to demonstrate just how cowardly a document this was, but Wills loses his best points by dwelling on some of the smallest and most ill-defined. In We Rembember the Vatican equivocates that it could not be held responsible for any Nazi complicity because such Catholic sympathizers were not part of the church hierarchy and were acting outside its authority. Wills argues that "all" Catholics are the church, not just the magisterium. This would seem to me to be an entirely separate argument. The more germaine point would be the blatant falseness of that position. Not only were there highly placed church dignitaries, such as Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, who were Nazi sympathizers but it could easily be argued that it is the church's long history of documentable, institutionalized anti-semitism that led many Catholics among both clergy and laity to varying degrees of Nazi complicity. When the author does get around to making such points, the facts speak for themselves and they are disturbing.

A chapter on Mary worship is fascinating if only for what it does not say. Wills goes to great lengths to demonstrate how off the mark the deification of the Virgin is from a Biblical perspective. All true. Mary was not, in fact, a major player in the early church, and yet, she has since become the voice of compassion and a figure equal to Christ in modern Catholicism. Here Wills is missing the broader context responsible for this actuality. The Virgin Mary is one of the most noticable vestiges of the Pagan cultures overtaken by the expansion of Christendom. She is what is left of the Mother Goddess and one of the most likable aspects of modern-day Catholicism.

For all its tangential logic and emotional reactiveness Papal Sin is a compelling read. Wills shakes all the skeletons out of the papal closet and fixes an unflinching eye on its moral transgressions. He is a knowledgable historian and an aggressive reporter, but his devotion to Christian principals make this book more a call conscience than an attack on an anachronistic institution. It would seem his only agenda is to see his church saved from its own self-destruction.