Thursday, October 27, 2016
Book Review 374: Papal Sin
Garry Wills is an American who shares the opinion about papal authority of rightwing hero Lord Acton. But since Wills is an American, he, unlike Acton, does not let the pope silence him.
This has led to some entertaining books although his impact on the Catholic Church has been approximately nil.
Only one part of “Papal Sin” has much relevance to non-Catholics, the first part about the church’s (by which we mean the Curia’s) attempt to falsify its role in the Holocaust. Writing from a Catholic perspective (although he is considered a heretic by rightwing Catholics, Wills has not been condemned by the Holy Office or even his rightwing bishop in Chicago), Wills manages to glide past the most relevant facts.
The ones he chooses to engage are disturbing enough. He focuses on the canonization of Edith Stein, born a Jew but converted to Catholicism and killed by the Nazis. The church argues that Stein was killed for her faith, making her a martyr. Wills says, convincingly, that the intention of the murderer, not the victim, is what makes a martyr; and the Germans did not murder Stein because she was a Catholic but because she was, in their reasoning, still and always a Jew.
By claiming a phony martyr, the popes could say, “See, we too were victims of the Nazi crimes,” except, of course, Catholics were not victims of the Nazis. Catholics trying to cover up the crimes of the church against the Jews also like to point out the numbers of priests who were jailed or shot by the Germans; but what they don’t ever say is that, like Stein, they were not killed for being Catholics but for being nationalists.
Polish priests were killed in plenty, but that was because they were Polish patriots not because they were Catholic priests. German priests were not rounded up and shot.
Wills, usually fearless, really does pull his punch here. He says he does not need to enter the debate about whether Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope.” Of course he was, and Wills even provides the most striking evidence that proves it: He notes, without explaining its significance, that in December 1942 Pius called for an end to the fighting. This is presented by Catholics as a pastoral duty of a pope to oppose violence and as an unpolitical, moral stance.
Baloney. Wills certainly knows what the map of Europe and North Africa looked like in late 1942. Hitler’s conquests reached their maximum in October. In November the antifascists counterattacked and it was obvious they were regaining the ascendancy. Pius intervened immediately to try to assure that Europe remained Nazi.
In the rest of the book, Wills demolishes the lies and tortured reasoning that the papacy uses to oppose contraception, abortion, women priests and married priests. He mocks John Paul II for arranging things so that the church ended up with a mostly homosexual priesthood, much diminished in numbers (down 90% in the United States), so that many parishes don’t get even a gay priest.
What Wills predicted in 2000 has come true, and then some, since. However, it is of no consequence to non-Catholics whether women can be ordained or not; and as for contraception, even Catholics pay no attention to the church’s teaching about that.
They do, to some extent pay attention to the teaching about abortion and that is of interest in non-Catholics because of its impact on secular politics; but Wills notes that Jesus never said a word about abortion. (There is nothing about it in the Torah either.) His deconstruction of the church’s teachings on the subject are worth reading, even if you are not Catholic.
Likewise his brief history of the despotism of Pius IX, whom he blames for trapping the church and future popes into structures of deceit that require them to lie to the faithful about what is in — or not in — their own Holy Scriptures. This is somewhat unfair to Pio Nono, who was every bit as bad as Wills paints him but who hardly invented papal despotism.
Then there are two chapters about St. Augustine’s views about truth. Wills has always been a big fan of the old demon-hunter but he is led far astray this time, following Augustine down a path that leads to indifference to destruction of human beings. Wills does not notice that these chapters end up contradicting his chapter on abortion.
In the last chapter — which particularly enrages popolatrous Catholics — Wills rather gives the back of his hand to Jesus’s talents as a preacher. It turns out — according to Wills —that Jesus was so unclear that it took a 20th-century French philosopher to finally work out what he was getting at.
Wills is always an interesting writer and he personifies the odd position of most American Catholics, who give money and profess allegiance to the teachings and preachings of the pope in Rome but whose actual behavior is hard to distinguish from that of American Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and Muslims.