Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit
by Garry Wills
New York: Doubleday, 2000
(304 pages; $25.00, cloth)
by James Hitchcock
Ours is an age of cynicism, sometimes with good reason, and in countless “thrillers” the hero can never tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys until the end. Not surprisingly, a new book on the papacy by Garry Wills is titled Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.
There are enough real-life examples of deceit to make suspicion plausible. Paradoxically, democracy and the mass media have probably increased the propensity for deceit, since in earlier times those in power felt no need to justify themselves to “public opinion.”
The long history of the Church provides numerous examples of deceit, mostly connected with various power struggles. However, those who read Wills’s book expecting an exposé of ecclesiastical lying in the usual sense may be disappointed, because what they will mainly learn is that Wills is angry.
What he is angry about turns out to be a familiar list—Catholic teaching with regard to abortion, contraception, homosexuality, celibacy, the non-ordination of women, and a few other things. Anyone who pays $25 to read about those things yet again must indeed be ill-informed, since all of it has long been available for free on television, even on the Internet.
Wills is a typical disgruntled liberal for whom the Church has not changed fast enough, and he is entitled to his opinion. The irony is the fact that he is more guilty of deceit than any of the people he criticizes. Religious believers are often condemned for being “judgmental” and warned not to ascribe bad motives to others. But Wills is not content to assert that certain church teachings are wrong; he insists that they amount to conscious lying. In the entire book there is scarcely a single favorable comment about John Paul II, for example, and a reader who knew nothing else about the present pontiff would come away thinking that he is a bad man indeed.
Wills was trained in classical languages, although he has also published highly misleading accounts of American history, and he never misses an opportunity to assert his competence in the early history of the Church. But what he offers readers here are a few very narrow slices from the Fathers of the Church. In a blatant violation of scholarly integrity, he uses his knowledge to conceal from readers whatever he judges they ought not to know, since he wants to persuade them that the modern popes have been unfaithful to the ancient traditions.
The second dishonesty is in his treatment of those doctrines he does not like. In each case he picks the weakest argument he can find, reduces it to caricature, then proclaims its intellectual bankruptcy. Presumably he knows that there are highly competent and sophisticated theologians who have addressed those subjects, not least the present Holy Father himself, but that too is something Wills conceals from unsuspecting readers.
Asserting his authority as an expert on early Christianity, Wills insists that the modern papacy has systematically lied to conceal its departures from authentic Catholicism. Odd for a liberal—a Catholic who is supposed to be committed to the “development of doctrine”—for the logic of Wills’s position is that the Church of 2000 ought to look exactly like the Church of 200.
But, as I have noted, his main objections to church teaching turn out to be exactly those things that bother present-day secularists. If the Church were “faithful to its heritage” in the ways Wills prescribes, its teachings would largely echo the editorial page of the New York Times.
Surely any half-reflective writer would at this point begin to wonder about his own assumptions, asking himself if he really bows to authentic Catholic tradition or rather to contemporary secular norms. But it is the final dishonesty of the book that Wills shows not the slightest sign of such reflection.
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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