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Wise As Serpents?,
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This review is from: Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Hardcover)
It is a hard time to be a compassionate, intellectually disciplined, forward looking Catholic. The papacy of John Paul II has grown increasingly humorless, pessimistic, autocratic, and fideistic over the years. In recent weeks alone the Vatican declaration on the supremacy of the Catholic Church, coupled with the trial balloons involving canonizations of the Piuses IX and XII, have caused thoughtful Catholics to wince in embarrassment.
Reformers in the Church need a rallying point. As it becomes more politically dangerous for career pastors and theologians to lead such a renewal, the task may very well fall to a new breed of Catholic thinker, the lay philosopher-theologian beyond the pale of ecclesiastical harassment or sanction. Gary Wills is certainly such a candidate. His passion, his research, his breadth of insight, and his religious faith are beyond question.
But Papal Sin? A provocative title, to be sure. Too many Catholic reformers over the past half-century have discredited themselves from the starting block by letting their angers gestate whining diatribes that, for all their erudition, sound like the ranting of petulant teenagers. Papal Sin teeters on the edge. This is an angry work which portrays the popes of the past two centuries as constitutionally incapable of leading the Body of Christ with beatific purity of heart. For Wills the papacy has consumed its best energies in a titanic effort to preserve its own past, heaping generations of misrepresentation, disingenuous readings of Scripture and history, and outright lying.
A scathing indictment, yes. But his arguments are, at the very least, salient. The first section of Papal Sin is devoted entirely to Catholic relations with the Jews. The timing of this could not be more fortuitous, given the recent Vatican declarations on world religions and the recent appearance of a spate of books defending Pius XII. [One might include here the nomination of Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic candidate for the vice-presidency, for that matter.] Wills avoids getting snagged into the tedious arguments of what Pius XII did or did not do during World War II. Rather, he traces the behaviors of the popes toward Jews through Pius IX, citing among other examples Pius IX's "kidnapping" of Edgardo Mortara through John Paul's motivations for the canonization of Edith Stein. Pius XII's behaviors are examined in this fuller historical context. Wills divines a cultivated attitude of Catholic hegemony in its behavior toward the Jews, as when he views the canonization of Stein as a papal effort to hijack the Holocaust from the Jews and establish a cult of Nazi persecution of Catholics.
Much of this work, however, is an in-house examination of the papacy's management of birth control, priestly celibacy, the shrinking numbers of ordained ministers, annulments, priestly pedophelia, homosexual priests, excesses of Marian dogma and devotion, abortion, and infallibility. In nearly all of these chapters Wills draws attention to the discrepancies between papal practice and the evidence of Scripture and history. His research is provocative and colorful, but there is little new ground broken here. Intellectual Catholics have lived with this discrepancy for centuries. What is distinctive is the author's bluntness in charging that the recent popes have been guilty, at the very least, of culpable ignorance, and in some cases, worse. John Paul II in particular, perhaps the most gifted thinker of the past two centuries, appears to be singled out as the pope who really should have known better.
Not for three hundred pages do we find the spiritual soul of this book. While John Henry Newman gets honorable mention, not surprisingly it is Wills' hero, Augustine, against whom modern popes pale. Papal Sin describes Augustine's ten year battle with Jerome for intellectual honesty in interpreting the Bible, and his straightforward handling of a case of mishandling of funds entrusted to his stewardship in his own diocese. There is in this section an almost desperate desire on the part of the author for a pure and dependable teaching authority, a hint of Luther's passionate search for bedrock of confident faith. The Newman-Augustine treatments put into context Wills' sense of outrage at the pragmatic modus operandi of the Vatican bureaucracy.
There are theological flaws here. Wills venerates honesty as something of a beatitude, forgetting that in theory and practice the Church has approached the beatitudes as ideals, not institutional operational principles. He appears to have difficulty with another of Augustine's teachings, that of pervasive original sin. [Jesus' dictum that his disciples be wise as serpents would not cut the mustard in this book.] Wills complains that standard Vatican language carries the message it is above the Church, not part of it. But if the papacy is indeed of the common clay of the church militant, then it should come as no surprise that popes share the sinfulness and duplicity of its members. Wills shows great sympathy for the "victims" of papal dishonesty, particularly loyal parish priests. But would not modern psychology have something to say about those who choose to live in chronic victimhood? Nor does Wills put forward anything resembling a self-reforming model of church leadership. [As a graduate student, I asked my canon law professor how a more democratic might look. "Like the 1972 Democratic Convention," he quipped.]
Papal Sin is not a banner for discouraged Catholics. It is the sincere outcry of a Catholic layman who wants better example from those who would lead his communion of faith. It is not an unreasonable request.