book cover

Papal Sin
Structures of Deceit

Garry Wills
326pp, Doubleday

Structures of Deceit

The title is accurate inasmuch as the book deals not solely with papal sin but that of the entire institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Corruption of power in the Church has apparently a certain tradition, as evidenced by the inclusion by Medieval painters of images of the Pope burning in Hell. Sin by sin, Wills picks apart some of the fallacies on which modern Church doctrine is built, descending into detail to reveal their intellectually flimsy and ludicrously tenuous basis.

The power struggles at the very top of the hierarchy, and the lengths to which it goes to bend its own dogma to plaster over its past errors are to me strangely reminiscent of a similar self-protective autocracy of the Soviet Union which could stretch the infamous Article 58 to justify any kind of misbehavior. With disappearances of reports and committees that refuse to toe to the papal line, the book paints an institution that is much more concerned with power and control over the thoughts and deeds of its members than with their spiritual salvation.

It is not that difficult to understand why the Church is losing this control. Science begins almost from the standpoint of being wrong, and pours all its efforts and energies into continually correcting itself so that it becomes more True in time. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, starts with the premise of infallibility so every new papal proclamation or encyclical can only serve to add error into its dogma. Whereas Science is forward-looking, the Church becomes more and more preoccupied with the rearrangement of the internal inconsistencies of its past. The growing refusal of the laity (and even the priesthood) to endure self-serving reasoning on topics such as contraception, the status of women and homosexuals, or papal authority itself, simply reflects this tension.

The priesthood is changing face, as fewer train to become priests and heterosexual priests resign in droves, reporting seminaries that are almost three-quarters homosexual. The rate of death due to HIV/AIDS in the priesthood is four to eight times that of the general population, and one survey of priests reported an average of 226 sexual partners each. The failure of the Church to come to terms with this reality is further evidence of its disconnect from reality.

Wills reveals some rot also in the lower hierarchies of the Church, with priests easily covering up the most grotesque betrayals of their flock. In the name of their religion they condemn the victim and exonerate the abuser.

Another instance of this dishonesty (Wills gives many) is the manner in which Pope John Paul II acquits the Catholic Church for its treatment of Jews throughout history, in particular in World War II and the kidnapping of Jewish children in the late 19th century, letting itself off the hook on the legalistic technicality that any discrimination that may have occurred goes against Christian teaching, and is therefore by definition not perpetrated by Catholics. Adding insult to injury, there are now convents established at the very concentration camps where the horrors of the Holocaust took place.

At the conclusion of the book, it is not at all surprising to me why Wills found it necessary later to write a justification of his Catholicism, as I wonder how the edifice of the Catholic Church still bears the weight of its followers' trust. Wills hearkens back to a quite different kind of Catholicism practiced by Augustine, whom he clearly admires.

The book is at times quite technical. Certainly the Greek, Latin, and Catholic jargon make hard reading for this atheist, although it is likely to be more meaningful to someone brought up in the Catholic terminology. Nevertheless, it is an heroic effort and well worth reading.

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