"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." --from the Introduction
From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills comes an assured, acutely insightful -- and occasionally stinging -- critique of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy from the nineteenth century to the present.
Fans of Wills, one of America's foremost writers on religion, were mildly disappointed with his 1999 biography of Saint AugustineDnot because it was anything less than brilliant, but because it was so short. They needn't have worried. In his new book, Wills puts Augustine to work against the "structures of deceit" he sees built into today's Roman Catholic papacy. Wills postulates that the papacy in every era has its own besetting sin. In the medieval period, it was political power; in the Renaissance, money; today, he argues, it is intellectual dishonesty. Because the papacy is incapable of admitting error on doctrinal matters, Wills believes, it forces apologists into mental gymnastics to defend doctrines such as an absolute ban on birth control. Throughout, Wills weaves in observations from Augustine and other Church fathers, showing that the "unbroken tradition" on these issues invoked by Church authorities is an ideological, rather than historical, construct. Wills contrasts Augustine's love of parrhesia, or bold honesty, with what he sees as the papacy's habitual mendacity on issues such as the Holocaust, priestly celibacy, homosexuality and the political function of Marian devotions. He also suggests that the crisis of conscience engendered by a Church that asks its leaders to defend dishonest positions is an unacknowledged contributor to the priest shortage. Though his rhetoric is at times a bit sharp, and his historical formulae a bit too sweeping, Wills's passion is excusable since this is a philippic directed at the Church by one its ownDa sincere, faithful Roman Catholic. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 18, 2001
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Excerpt from Papal Sin by Garry Wills
Catholics have fallen out of the healthy old habit of reminding each other how sinful Popes can be. Painters of Last Judgments -- Andrea Orcagna (c. 1308-1368), for instance -- used to include a figure wearing the papal crown in the fires of hell, presenting the Pope as a terminal sinner damned forever. This was not only a topos (commonplace), but a preacher's topos -- a lesson of the faith, not an attack on it. Authoritative as a Pope may be by his office, he is not impeccable as a man -- he can sin, as can all humans.
Of course, there is nothing either new or important about saying that all human leaders are imperfect. If the sermons meant not much more than this -- and usually they did not -- then they were orthodox but not very searching on the nature of papal sin. But there have been times when the papacy's role in the world created a sustained bias toward a specific kind of sin, when structures of rule or teaching fostered or protected sinful ways, signifying something more than the failings of any individual Pope. The Catholic poet Dante thought that was true of the medieval papacy, whose overriding sin was greed, venality, the desire for wealth -- what medieval moralists called avarice. In the first part of The Divine Comedy, Dante sees two groups in hell -- the misers and the avaricious -- running toward each other along opposite sides of a circle. After they run into each other with a crash, they turn about and run back along the circle, only to crash again on the other side of it, and they continue this back-and-forthing through eternity. Prominent in the scene are shaven heads of clergymen:
Here Popes and prelates butt their tonsured pates, Mastered by avarice that nothing sates.