A Quill Pen

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

by Garry Wills

October 2004 book review
by Collie Collier

It's easy to write a critique of a book you disagree with. It can be easy as well to critique a book you agree with, when you're quite familiar with the research and premises, but feel the author misinterpreted a particular point or two. However, when you stumble across a book on a subject you've done some research on, and about which you feel strongly -- and find a whole new field of inquiry which even more closely supports your views... well, it can leave you a bit speechless with excitement.

It's always wonderful to find a perceptive and clearly communicated point of view, and even more exciting when it introduces you to a new angle of approach to what was formerly a somewhat worn subject. As a consequence, I found Will's book Papal Sin fascinating and absorbing. Ordinarily I start reviews with a quick paragraph or two describing the subject matter. However, I think this selection, written by Wills himself in his Introduction, puts it best:

The truth, we are told, will make us free. It is time to free Catholics, lay as well as clerical, from the structures of deceit that are our subtle modern form of papal sin. Paler, subtler, less dramatic than the sins castigated by Orcagna or Dante, these are the quiet sins of intellectual betrayal.

Wills begins his book with a quick review of the (probably healthy) historical and medieval understanding that clergy, popes included, are human and thus prone to all the same frailties of the flesh we 'mere mortals' suffer from. He laments the modern-day loss of this understanding, then proceeds to describe convincing examples of "the quiet sins of intellectual betrayal."

Wills takes on three dishonesties, as he terms them, within the modern catholic church. The first is the Church's appalling historical record of casual abuse and violence towards Judaism.

For a religion based on a Jewish messiah, you'd think they'd have a somewhat less viciously judgmental view on their parent religion -- especially considering modern scholarship's discoveries regarding the entire inserted story of Judas as a post-crucifixion fabrication to appease any potential guilt on the part of new Roman converts. You'd also perhaps think things would be better today, in a world where tolerance supposedly doesn't automatically equate to weakness -- but that's not how the church sees it.

As an example, Wills traces the sorry creation process of the church's much-vaunted document on the Holocaust, titled "We Remember." He regards as extremely unfortunate the Church's belief that this document closes the entire issue, and clearly exemplifies this dismay by quoting the perceptive Rabbi David Polish, who referred to the document as:

"a unilateral pronouncement by one party which presumes to redress on its own terms a wrong which it does not admit."

To put it bluntly, the church has apparently decided the Holocaust, which they a) stoutly maintain they had nothing to do with, b) don't want to talk about, and c) define as not really that bad anyway... must've been a real bummer for those poor Jewish folks.

Wills then addresses what he calls the church's doctrinal dishonesties. There are a dismaying number of them, which one might wistfully wish sheer common sense would have cleared up by now. These range from the rigid insistence of pleasurable sex -- even within marriage -- equating to sin; the zero-tolerance ban on both birth control and abortion (sort of a "punish 'em both coming and going" attitude, I guess?); the historically immediate establishment of the doctrine of papal 'infallibility' and historically recent exclusion of women from the clergy; and the disturbing forced celibacy, shrinking numbers, frequent and repeated sexual deviancy, and increasingly caste-like separation of the clergy from their laity.

Sadly, most of these issues are not new, and have not permitted historical rectification of their poor application. Regarding the recent establishment of the doctrine of so-called papal infallibility, for example, the Englishman John Henry Newman is quoted:

"We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it."

Those words were written in the mid 1800's, but I believe they are precisely applicable to the current pope as well. Newman goes on to state his view, based on scriptural readings, that the pope by definition cannot be infallible when he contradicts the will of the Church, which Newman fascinatingly defines as the people -- not the clerical hierarchy!

Wills also addresses the disturbing and increasingly male view of the deific, coupled with the loss of the entire (and somewhat female) concept of the Holy Spirit -- for a narrow, rigid, and hierarchical viewpoint on both the nature of the Body of Christ, and how to attain grace and salvation.

An unfortunate side effect of this is the increasingly disempowered, marginalized view of Mary, Jesus' mother, as the pure but helpless virgin who must intercede between us poor sinners and an angry god. What sort of role model is an utterly sexless, submissive woman pleading constantly with an abusive male to not beat his children any further?

With clear, understandable references to history, biblical passages, and the writings of early church fathers, Wills shows the inapplicability of continuing to maintain such outdated and monstrously ridiculous superstitions. I can deeply sympathize with his pain in seeing his beloved church clinging fearfully and ineffectually to antiquated and long-disproven ritualistic beliefs. It must hurt to see one's church become an institution insulting to the intellect, one which demands active lies and constant self-deception in order to "believe" church dogma.

A particular quote from a priest during the Second Vatican Council resonated quite strongly for me, while reading about this self-imposed clerical resistance to any possible change or application of common sense:

"What then with the millions we have sent to hell if these norms were not valid?"

What breath-taking arrogance. Statements like this go a long way in convincing me of the absolute lack of relevance the church has on modern life. Do they truly believe they've claimed deific perogative, or are they just too stupid to understand the ramifications of what they're saying?

Wills concludes his book with a wonderful segment on truth and the potential of what the church could be. I am not a fan of the rigidly misogynistic, hierarchialized, reality-hostile modern-day church. However, the church Wills postulates, which he bases on careful, thoughtfully critical reading of biblical passages and the writings of other religious church leaders, is one which resonates to me. Wells quotes Simone Weil as saying,

"Christ likes us to prefer truth to him, because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go to the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

I don't know if that's actual truth or not, but I do know that's a version of religion I can espouse, right along with the concept of a church based on truth and intellectual honesty -- one which does not insult either my brains or my gender, which is unafraid of new scientific discoveries, and which can face a changing future without violent insecurity or shrinking insularity.

As is noted in the bible itself, in Wisdom 1:11: "A lying mouth murders the soul." I don't like the concept of a god which demands we brutally murder an innocent in order for him to be appeased, and I'm equally sick of churches which demand you sacrifice/murder your soul in order to safely "belong."

As you can probably tell, I found Wills' book startlingly compelling. Since it directly addresses the dismaying separation between spirituality and organized religion, I've made it the book review for the same month as my Firestarter article What is spirituality, as compared to religiosity?

Why compelling?

So why is the book so riveting? There are several reasons I found it so. Firstly, it's always fascinating to read the thoughts of the religiously devout -- who can also see the terrible attrition of belief due to the lure of secular power.

I have to admire the courage of a man who truly believes in the organization he is a member of, who can also openly admit faults within the group, and call for reform. It is lamentably far more common for minorities to close ranks against any possible outside criticism by refusing to see or admit to any wrongs.

However, for someone who self-identifies as a devoutly conservative Catholic, Wills demonstrates a fierce dedication to both intellectual independence, and to the actual writings of the early Church. This is not your usual public variety of Catholicism! To brave not only possible outside criticism, but also the probable attacks of those who feel he betrays the organization and goals of the Catholic Church, takes heart and courage indeed.

I also found compelling the clearly explained and new (to me) point of view Wills espouses on religious exegesis. The entire concept of Jesus' teachings as the "Light of Truth" is rather fascinating. In some ways it reminds me of Spong's exciting book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die in its reliance on individuals of integrity joined in a search for a religion which -- of critical importance to many nowadays -- doesn't insult one's intelligence.

Even within this view, to me Wills appears to have an astonishingly relaxed view on most of the "Catholic hot buttons" of the day. He does not shrink from coming to logical conclusions on the basis of his own readings, and he's obviously quite capable of clearly laying out the complex details of his reasoning.

As an example, take the catholic dogma concerning Peter, who after the death of Jesus was supposed to be the unquestioned leader of the Catholic church, and later the first pope in Rome. Not coincidentally, this belief also self-justifies the church's assertion of the Roman popes being the ritual spiritual centers of Christian hierarchy.

However, Wills himself notes there was from all appearances some extremely acrimonious dogmatic arguments in the ten or twenty years immediately after Jesus' death, and there seems to be evidence of Peter in Rome only as a soon-to-be-executed prisoner. Nevertheless, Wills does not shrink from this embarrassingly contentious predicament within the early church -- unlike the Catholic Hierarchy, which still stoutly maintains Peter was the unquestioned leader/pope of the early church.

Interpreting some of the church fathers

Wills both refuses to simply swallow dogma unquestioned, and manages to find a lesson in the difficult "birthing pains" of the new little cult. Believing the Catholic church's deceptions start here (with the present-day-justifying stories about the apostles), he presents the Truth -- no matter its form! -- as more important than fragile human egos.

It does not matter to him if the truth referred to is the sacred "Truth" of Jesus' teachings, or simply actual occurrences within the early Church. In both cases Wills is fiercely determined to seek out the truth, to question until we learn and know, to unflinchingly face reality -- in order to better know and exemplify Jesus' Light and Truth in his own life.

In this Wills seems true to his intellectual hero, St. Augustine. I'll freely admit, Augustine's horrible misogyny (which Wills himself confesses was "vile") has caused me to give this Church "father" extremely short shrift over the years. It's not particularly illuminating, after all, to repeatedly read about what are obviously mentally disturbed men who constantly screech about women in general (and you in particular if you're female) as being both less than them, and yet also somehow responsible for their short, brutish, stupid lives. It's patently obvious many of these religious fruit bats are well off their assorted rockers.

Frankly, that sort of nonsense smacks of a (perhaps unwitting) psychological set-up to me -- guys got to make up and tell all the stories, so it's no surprise they ended up blaming all their mental and emotional issues on women. All I can say regarding this virulent scapegoating is it's certainly a miracle there are any women left at all, let alone christian ones.

But I digress -- let's stick to Wills' excellent book, wherein he was kind enough to more politely agree with my views on the so-called "christian" viewpoint on women. Regarding St. Augustine, Wills is also wise enough to note these peculiar views on women were a cultural artifact of the time. One might have hoped the fledgling christian cult would have paid better attention to its roots (i.e. "there is no male or female in Jesus Christ," etc.), but hey, at least after 2000 years we're finally figuring that out. Somewhat.

Anyway, apparently even though Augustine was an unfortunate reflection of his times concerning women, he does seem to have some fascinating things to say about Jesus' teachings, which he describes as the Light of Truth. I've not read these writings yet, but I think I'm going to have to seek them out. Anyone who can set an incredibly high personal standard, recognize he's asking almost for the impossible of himself, and yet still strive incessantly to live up to it... is someone with something really thought-provoking to say. In fact, if the writings are half as interesting as Wills suggests, I may have to revise my beliefs on truth.

After all, belief in some deity is no prerequisite for living a live of decency, morality, honesty, and integrity, but it does seem to help some people do so, and it has provoked some truly wonderful art and writing. If there is wisdom to be found, it is a foolish person indeed who spurns it because it came from someone not completely like them.

I did a casual perusal of the web after I finished the book, mostly because I wished to see for myself if Wills was indeed a conservative. His relaxed attitudes about, for example, homosexuality, women as priests, marriage in the clergy, and other topical subjects which are shattering the bridge between the laity and the clergy in the Catholic church, are nothing less than shocking, even to someone who believes all these are good things. In a culture which increasingly demands lip service to simplistic binary interpretations of difficult issues which haven't been resolved in the last 2000 years, it's startlingly refreshing to find someone unafraid to hold a thoughtful and sophisticated viewpoint concerning these complex issues.

It is therefore unsurprising to find critics whose attitude concerning Wills' book can be summed up as a hostile, "If you hate the Church so much, just quit!" Also unsurprisingly, the issue is not that simple. If a beautiful song were being performed consistently wrong or out of tune, someone who truly loved music would try to help, would they not? If a sleek sports car were being driven by a person who was generously grinding the gears, someone who loved driving would most likely attempt to demonstrate a better way to drive.

Just so with Wills -- it is obvious he cares deeply for, and believes in, his religion. He may be wincing in pain at the horrors being perpetrated in its name, but he cannot simply abandon it at first sign of distress. He has to at least try his best to help, or he would not be true to his own beliefs.

Another critic I found on the web saw double standards in Wills' book -- a desire within Wills to dispense with ritual even as he promoted it. However, the critic's examples of this which I read demonstrated a double standard only if the "Church" is equated to the current ritual-bound, hierarchical institution which is the very target of Wills' critique!

To state the church is in submission to god's teachings according to scripture, as this critic does, is simply naive -- and Wills clearly demonstrates the falsity of this statement in his textual explorations of both scripture and church fathers. It would appear, at least from the examples given, the critic could not see the churchly forest for the hierarchal trees.

Another reviewer had an interesting perspective on the whole issue, referring to the "philosophical triple crown -- what is right, what works, and what does it all mean?" As far as I could tell, this critic was not unduly religious, nor particularly partisan. He was actually discussing a talk Wills gave on the nature of leadership. His perception on Wills' speech reflects Wills' authorial perception of the leadership of Catholic Church as it is now constituted -- a pragmatic realization that it is failing miserably to address the needs of the laity.

This rendition of Catholic leadership is clearly not right, not working, and is becoming increasingly meaningless in this world. That being the case, trying something new (or rather, newly trying the original teachings), such as Wills espouses, couldn't hurt any more than what's happening now, and might actually bring integrity back to this sad and steadily more irreligious institution.

As I was reviewing the web for conservatism, Wills, and leadership, I stumbled across the following brilliant comment on a web page which I think decries the failings of idealism in the leadership of the US today (I'm still reading it, which is why I'm unsure of its final conclusion):

Just now, every last defect of the American character is on display in our leaders' speeches, in our media, and in the responses of the general public. These include mawkish sentimentality, corrosive innocence, intellectual insularity, and technical-scientific know-it-all-hood combined with a striking ethical, historical, and sociological empty-headedness.

Perhaps it's only coincidence the current Catholic pope and his upper level hierarchy are well described by the above statement as well. Idealism and a dedication to truth is certainly a handicap as much in US politics as it is in Big Religion. It's a frightening shame to realize, in a time and world as complex as this one, we still have a pope who apparently believes in his own myth of infallibility -- who, when faced with the great tragedy of 9/11, can think of nothing more perceptive than to blame the brutal murders of thousands in the Twin Towers on... wait for it... legalized abortion.

In the end I'm not surprised Wills calls so sternly for sweeping changes in his church. It must be embarrassing to have one's leader be a mentally failing old man who makes grandiose, sweeping statements on, say, sexuality, which have no grounding in experience or bearing on reality. Admittedly, while I feel Wills' desired religious revisions are well past due, I don't expect to see them in my lifetime.

Sadly, this generation of upper level Church bureaucracy appears to be far too deeply in love with secular power, to heed the increasingly weakening calls from the parish priests and laity to return to the sacred. It's my guess even as the Church fails financially and numerically (likely in the next generation or three), the upper bureaucracy will still be determinedly clinging to their ship of dogmatism as it sinks, stridently refusing to see any perspective but their own.

Reader Comments

05.01.01: Don's thoughts

(and my replies)

I hadn't heard anything about the Judas story being added subsequent to the original gospel. Can you tell me more?

I can certainly direct you to the first book I found on the subject. It's titled Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don't Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith by Uta Ranke-Heinemann. It's a really fascinating review of the emotional and cultural baggage which has been attached to what I believe was originally a thought-provoking and inspiring story of seeking and finding one's deity.

In the short form, the Judas story was added to move blame for the crucifixion from the Romans (who were the largest group converting to the new and fragile little cult), and point it at the Jews, who did not form a significant percentage of new converts.

The author of the above book is somewhat acerbic in places, which I can rather understand considering she was told to keep her research discoveries silent or be excommunicated. However, it's not her sharp wit which appealed to me so much as the research itself -- it's quite illuminating on several bible stories which had always given me that nagging, "something's wrong here...?" feeling.

Just spent some enjoyable moments reading your book review on Papal Sin. And submitted a comment. Enjoy the Times article. It's one of the more thoughtful op-ed pieces I've seen.

P.S. We've gotta get that book!

I'm so pleased you liked the review! Hope you enjoy the book as well. I'll have to keep an eye out for the Times article -- do you know what the title was? Knowing that will make it easier to search for on the web, I think.

The full NY Times article was "The ends of the world as we know them" by Jared Diamond, and appeared in the op-ed section today, Jan. 1st. Sounds pretty apocalyptic, but it's well worth reading. It refers to the rise and fall of civilizations, but is equally applicable to institutions, like the church.

Oh, Jared Diamond -- he's a good read, yes! Check out his book Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies if you get a chance. Also, I linked in a reprint of the article on the title above, since the Times requires registration. If that doesn't work, try here.