Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

by Garry Wills


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Look out for a new book from Garry Wills, What The Qur'an Meant, coming fall 2017.

"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.

Papal Sin in the past was blatant, as Catholics themselves realized when they painted popes roasting in hell on their own church walls.  Surely, the great abuses of the past—the nepotism, murders, and wars of conquest—no longer prevail; yet, the sin of the modern papacy, as revealed by Garry Wills in his penetrating new book, is every bit as real, though less obvious than the old sins.

Wills describes a papacy that seems steadfastly unwilling to face the truth about itself, its past, and its relations with others.  The refusal of the authorities of the Church to be honest about its teachings has needlessly exacerbated original mistakes.  Even when the Vatican has tried to tell the truth—e.g., about Catholics and the Holocaust—it has ended up resorting to historical distortions and evasions.  The same is true when the papacy has attempted to deal with its record of discrimination against women, or with its unbelievable assertion that "natural law" dictates its sexual code.

Though the blithe disregard of some Catholics for papal directives has occasionally been attributed to mere hedonism or willfulness, it actually reflects a failure, after long trying on their part, to find a credible level of honesty in the official positions adopted by modern popes.  On many issues outside the realm of revealed doctrine, the papacy has made itself unbelievable even to the well-disposed laity.

The resulting distrust is in fact a neglected reason for the shortage of priests.  Entirely aside from the public uproar over celibacy, potential clergy have proven unwilling to put themselves in a position that supports dishonest teachings.

Wills traces the rise of the papacy's stubborn resistance to the truth, beginning with the challenges posed in the nineteenth century by science, democracy, scriptural scholarship, and rigorous history.  The legacy of that resistance, despite the brief flare of John XXIII's papacy and some good initiatives in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council (later baffled), is still strong in the Vatican.

Finally Wills reminds the reader of the positive potential of the Church by turning to some great truth tellers of the Catholic tradition—St. Augustine, John Henry Newman, John Acton, and John XXIII.  In them, Wills shows that the righteous path can still be taken, if only the Vatican will muster the courage to speak even embarrassing truths in the name of Truth itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385494113
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 622,494
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Garry Wills is a historian and the author of the New York Times bestsellers What Jesus MeantPapal SinWhy I Am a Catholic, and Why Priests?, among others. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other publications, Wills is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt


Remembering the Holocaust

We Remember

The debilitating effect of intellectual dishonesty can be touching. Even when papal authority sincerely wants to perform a virtuous act, when it spends years screwing up its nerve to do it, when it actually thinks it has done it, when it releases a notice of its having done it, when it expects to be congratulated on doing it—it has not done it. Not because it did not want to do it, or did not believe it did it. It was simply unable to do it, because that would have involved coming clean about the record of the papal institution. And that is all but unthinkable.

A good example is the long-awaited document on the Holocaust, We Remember, issued by a papally appointed commission on March 16, 1998, and recommended in an accompanying letter by John Paul II. This document had been in preparation for over a decade. It was supposed to go beyond the Second Vatican Council's assurance, in 1965, that Jews cannot, after all, be blamed for the death of Jesus (an assurance that We Remember refers to). Though expressions of sympathy for Jewish suffering are voiced in the new statement, it devotes more energy to exonerating the church—and excoriating the Nazis for not following church teaching—than to sympathizing with the Holocaust's victims. The effect is of a sad person toiling up a hill all racked with emotion and ready to beat his breast, only to have him plump down on his knees, sigh heavily—and point at some other fellow who caused all the trouble.

The key distinction labored at through the text is between anti-Semitism, as a pseudo-scientific theory of race always condemned by the church, and anti-Judaism, which some Christians through weakness succumbed to at times but not "the church as such." The former is a matter of erroneous teaching—which the church is never guilty of. The latter is a matter of "sentiment" and weakness, sometimes using misinterpreted scriptural texts as a cover for prejudices of a basically nonreligious sort:

In a climate of eventful social change, Jews were often accused of exercising an influence disproportionate to their numbers. Thus there began to spread in varying degrees throughout most of Europe an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious.

Since the "sentiment" was not really religious, that lets the church off the hook. It never caused "anti-Judaism," though individual members of the church succumbed to it on their own. Thus the document can direct its animus against scientific racism (the real anti-Semitism) and present it as the common enemy of Christian and Jew:

At the level of theological reflection we cannot ignore the fact that not a few in the Nazi party not only showed aversion to the idea of divine Providence at work in human affairs, but gave proof of a definite hatred directed at God himself. Logically, such an attitude also led to a rejection of Christianity, and a desire to see the church destroyed or at least subject to the interest of the Nazi state. It was this extreme ideology which became the basis of the measures taken, first to drive the Jews from their homes and then to exterminate them. The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity and, in pursuing its aim, it did not hesitate to oppose the church and persecute its members also.

Did Christians have anything to do with the persecuting? Well, only in the sense that some did not oppose it quite as strenuously as they ought to have done:

Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews? Many did, but others did not. Those who did help to save Jewish lives as much as was in their power, even to the point of placing their own lives in danger, must not be forgotten. During and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. Many Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity have been honored for this reason by the State of Israel. Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has recognized, alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ's followers. We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence.

So this document—which the Pope commends for calling "memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future"—establishes three entirely separate categories:

1. Those who caused the Holocaust—irreligious Nazis with a godless scientism about race, who were anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish.

2. Those who opposed the Holocaust—Pope Pius XII and bishops and other authorities encouraging their followers to act in accord with the church's teaching.

3. Those who did not oppose the Holocaust enough—Christians too fearful to follow their brave leaders. It is only in the name of this last category that the document expresses "penitence."

What is left out of this picture? To begin with, the bishops and priests who were supportive of the Nazis are expunged from the memory that Pope John Paul says is supposed to guide us into the future.

The [papal] nuncio to Berlin throughout the war, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, was a Nazi sympathizer, and far from the only friend of the Nazis in the hierarchy. The rector of the German College in Rome, Archbishop Alois Hudal, who was useful in dealing with the Nazis during their occupation of Rome, was another, and many members of Hitler's government, like Ernst von Weizsacker, the ambassador to the Vatican and an old acquaintance of the Pope [Pius XII], professed to be good Catholics. When Weizsacker was credited to the Vatican in 1943, the papal limousine that took him to his audience flew the papal flag and the swastika side by side, "in peaceful harmony," as Weizsacker noted proudly.

There may (or may not) have been extenuating circumstances for some of these collaborators. But to pretend—nay, to assert—that they did not exist is to remove We Remember from any serious consideration as an honest confrontation with a complicated history. Its "memory," far from being useful to the cause of true understanding that would prevent another Holocaust, is useful only to the fictions that the Vatican wants to maintain about itself. It can take such a fanciful approach to the historical record because it is imposing on that record a theoretical template that has three parts—"the church," and "science," and the relations between church and science.

First, we are told that "the church" as such cannot have been involved in the Holocaust since it has never taught any theoretical difference in the races. I attended a Jesuit seminary whose oldest building was erected, in the nineteenth century, by slaves owned by the Jesuit order—men who were the property of the whole order since individual Jesuits had all taken a vow of poverty. That building is concrete evidence for a practical treatment of the races as unequal, no matter what theoretical propositions were being formulated at the time. But the main problem here is not historical but theological. What is the church? The Vatican authorities continue to use the term in ways that the Second Vatican Council rejected. According to the Council, the church is the people of God, the body of believers baptized into the life and death of Christ. The church, no more than the Pope, can be impeccable. If the concrete reality of the historical church has been involved in the guilt of slavery, inquisitions, and conquest, we cannot say that this does not count because it was not the real church that was sinning—that it was just lay churchmen, or nonhierarchical elements, or people who could not claim the teaching authority (magisterium) of the church, as if the magisterium were itself the whole people of God.

The Vatican reverts, in We Remember—and in many places—to the older usage that equates the church with its highest organs of doctrinal statement. That is what is meant when we hear that Catholics no longer follow "the church," or are defying "the church." How can they defy themselves? Was the church guilty of the Holocaust? No, says the Vatican, since the magisterium never advocated it or defended it in a formal teaching. If Catholics singly or in groups were implicated in the crime, this was something the magisterium could not be convicted of.

Let us apply that kind of thinking to a current situation. The teaching church says that abortion and contraception are mortal sins and crimes against human persons. Is the church guilty of those crimes (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they are such)? No, says the Vatican, because the Pope has condemned them. On the other hand, polls confirm that a majority of Catholics (88 percent in 1993) accept contraceptive methods in theory, and those in a position to act on that acceptance do so. Catholics are also no different from the rest of the population in the number of abortions they undergo. The church, then, is "committing" abortion and contraception, though its leaders say that they must not. In the same way, Catholics were active in the Nazi state, even though their leaders (some of them, some of the time) told them not to be.

Second, the blaming of science is something with a long history in Vatican documents. We do not have to go back to Galileo to see that ecclesiastical authorities have been suspicious of science, of human knowledge when that seems to run counter to scripture or tradition. Authorities with a large body of changeless truth to maintain tend to look with apprehension on anything so vertiginously changeable as the experimental sciences. Apprehension deepened to entrenched acrimony under Pius IX (a hero to Pope John Paul), an acrimony that lingers in some curial enclaves. Whenever evil views can be attributed to science, that effectively removes them from the sacred domain the church authorities are protecting. That is why We Remember is careful to pick up National Socialism with tongs, as it were, and drop it into the sterile confines of a laboratory:

At the same time, theories began to appear which denied the unity of the human race, affirming an original diversity of races. In the twentieth century, National Socialism in Germany used these ideas as a pseudo-scientific basis for a distinction between so-called Nordic-Aryan races and supposedly inferior races.

We are supposed to conclude that any form of thought so distant in ethos from a Catholic mentality could not mix with it easily or at all. But prejudice regularly mingles contradictory items, so long as they can be made to pull in the desired direction. The anti-Semite draws readily on science, faith, legend, history, or law—on any snippet of fact or theory that hatred can fuse into a rationale for action.

This is a picture very far from the neat little schema of three disparate types offered by We Remember. That document tries to draw a clear line of demarcation between secular anti-Semitism and "sociological" anti-Judaism. But empirical studies show that the two reinforce rather than fight each other. The most thorough proof of this was made, so far as America is concerned, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith commissioned a major series of studies from the Survey Research Center of the University of California at Berkeley. The survey was commissioned while the Vatican Council was sitting, and carried out after it was dissolved. Pollsters first set up categories of orthodox belief among Christians—categories in which Catholics, as expected, scored higher than Protestants. Then they tested those who scored high in these categories with the range of secular anti-Semitic views. They found that "the respondents' anti-Semitism varies in direct relation to their positions on this measure [of orthodoxy] . . . the more the religious beliefs are subscribed to, the greater the anti-Semitism" (emphasis added). Orthodox beliefs are in fact "a powerful predictor of secular anti-Semitism." The degree of secular anti-Semitism is often linked to specifically theological positions—e.g., that the Jews are a cursed race, guilty of rejecting their own Messiah, responsible for killing Christ. That view is still powerful, despite the assurance in We Remember that the church has denied its legitimacy. The ADL study found, even after that official denial, that 11 percent of Catholics in America still agreed with this statement: "The reason Jews have so much trouble is because God is punishing them for rejecting Jesus." An amazing 41 percent said that they were not certain about the curse, but they considered it a possibility. History is not easily altered by a single decree, especially one that comes out of the blue, as Vatican II's did.

Vatican II (1962-65)

We Remember quotes a 1997 speech by Pope John Paul II: "In the Christian world—I do not say on the part of the Church as such—erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long". The Pope can clean the skirts of "the church as such" only in the highly technical sense (and by the theologically narrow definition of "the church") that the supreme magisterium never infallibly said that the Jews are deicides, cursed for their killing of Christ (though it never authoritatively denied it, either, until 1965). Besides, this Pope likes to emphasize that encyclicals, though they may not be infallible, are authoritative, are "the church's teaching," and Pius XI said in a 1937 encyclical that "Jesus received his human nature from a people who crucified him"—not some Jews, but the Jewish people. And the same Pope suppressed a Catholic organization, the Friends of Israel, that tried to discontinue the charge of deicide. Furthermore, Catholic preachers over the centuries have continually made the deicide charge, and seminaries taught it, and biblical commentaries explained it, and persecutions were based on it. In finally rejecting this claim, the Second Vatican Council said nothing about the church's past record. It did not express penitence for official encouragement of such a view, or for pogroms and other actions taken on the basis of it. The price of getting the statement through the Council's sessions was that it not admit that the church had ever said or done anything wrong.

Table of Contents

IHistorical Dishonesties11
1.Remembering the Holocaust13
2.Toward the Holocaust29
3.Usurping the Holocaust47
4.Claims of Victimhood61
IIDoctrinal Dishonesties71
5.The Tragedy of Paul VI: Prelude73
6.The Tragedy of Paul VI: Encyclical87
7.Excluded Women104
8.The Pope's Eunuchs122
9.Priestly Caste132
10.Shrinking the Body of Christ151
11.Hydraulics of Grace166
12.Conspiracy of Silence175
13.A Gay Priesthood192
14.Marian Politics204
15.The Gift of Life221
IIIThe Honesty Issue231
16.The Age of Truth233
17.Acton's Reckless Truth246
18.Newman's Cautious Truth261
IVThe Splendor of Truth275
19.Augustine vs. Jerome277
20.Augustine vs. Consentius293
21.The Truth That Frees303
Key to Brief Citations313

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Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book when it first came out two years ago. As a former Catholic, it was engrossing because it reinforced my belief that the institutional church had lost its way, and that there is a gap between the structure of the church and the laity. In addition, I knew that at some time the panoply of sexual issues would implode upon a church that prides itself on self-preservation at all costs. If I were to return to the church, I would concentrate on its religiousness and not on its religion. There is a difference, and therein lies the tragedy...a church that spends more time on its institutional rather than on its spiritual preservation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a recently returned Catholic, I found Wills' historical approach helpful in understanding how and where the hierarchy of the Church had gone so wrong. Reading his analysis of the decision process behind such doctrines as papal infallibility and contraception helped me feel better about my skepticism on these and other pronouncements.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a devasting revelation of Roman Catholic Church goings-on since its early institutional inception (c. 350 AD). It should be read mostly by those in the institutional church to understand the ground upon which they walk. For the Catholic laity, it should be an awakening to reassert their 'Christian' heritage in the personal freedom that Christ intended for His followers. As Moses said to the Pharoes, 'Let my people go.' It is not 'Christianity' that is in need of renewal but the institutional church that must return to christian principles or it will become irrelevant now and in the future.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Willis provides an excellent examination of the past exploits of selected Catholic priests and the popes - both good and bad. His examination is thoughtful, insightful, straight-forward, and quite refreshing when considering previous examination of similar material. His work should be required reading for all Catholics
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wills is right on target when he writes about a Vatican unwilling to face the truth about its role during the Holocaust, and the dastardly episodes of abuse by priests - many of whom still hide behind their false cloaks of respectability. His heartfelt work joins two other books by another author who was daring enough to expose the Vatican: (1) The Last Pope, and (2) Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Zev. Both novels are by Jerry Marcus.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a forthright and correct writing on the problem in the Catholic Church still run by Romans. I couldn't agree more with this book and give praise to the author who wrote it so well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's truly about time someone wrote a book about the internal taboos and mishaps of the Roman Catholic Church with facts that were so strong and accurate, than would make any fundamentalist want to cry.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sex, Lies, Murder, Deception, and nepotism...I couldn't put the book down. Wills presents an intellectually honest expose describing in detail the current flaws inherent in the administrative sector of the Roman Church.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Papal Sin' should be required reading for the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy,clergy and laity. Fortunately for Mr. Wills, he does not live in the fifteenth century. These 'revelations' might have endangered his existence (cf, the Galileo et al). The incredible realities exposed in this book should have some effect on the daily 'operations' of the Catholic bishops. However, the emotional and moral coersions exerted by that same bureaucracy upon the Catholic laity, will probably allow the same conditions of which the author speaks - to continue. But Roman Catholics cannot declare 'ignorance' of the facts so definitively and objectively presented by the author. Congratulations to Mr. Wills for his courageous work.
gmmoney on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was fascinated by this book and the bureaucracy surrounding the decision making process in the Roman Catholic church. Reading this book really sheds light on the recent revelations in the church and the reaction that has followed.
Grandeplease on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Disclaimer: I am neither a practicing Catholic nor was I raised as a Catholic.I noticed this book on the bargain table at a local book store, read the jacket and the table of contents and I was intrigued. The book is divided into four sections: Historical Dishonesties; Doctrinal Dishonesties; The Honesty Issue; and The Splendor Of Truth. I recommend using the "search inside this book" option to review the table of contents and the first chapter.I found this book a challenge. I read a chapter or two and then did not pick up the book for weeks. At times reading Papal Sin was laborious, yet like physical exercise the mental exercise was beneficial. Of particular interest were the chapters on women (Excluded Women), celibacy of priests (The Pope's Eunuch's and Priestly Caste), priests as sex offenders (Conspiracy of Silence), homosexuality (A Gay Priesthood) and contraception (The Gift of Life).To a non-Catholic, Papal Sin is educational and fascinating. To a devote Catholic who believes in the infallibility of the Pope, this book is likely blasphemous.
neurodrew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gary Wills indicts the papacy for failing to admit that its teachings in the past may have been in error. He is particularly referring to issues such as infallibility, clerical celibacy, contraception, and relationships to the Holocaust. He relies on readings of the Bible and Church fathers, particularly Augustine, to demonstrate that the Curial teaching on these issues is not well supported by tradition, and argues that the main reason for the perpetuation of these teachings is the reluctance of the Papacy to admit to past error. He is enlightening on the politics behind discussions of contraception at Vatican 2, and the promulgation of infallibility at Vatican 1. The discussions were well done, compact chapters of wellsupported arguments, but it is hard to know exactly who the book is aimed at; one suspects the clergy will not find it convincing. He is very alarming on the issues of celibacy, and the molestation of young men by priests. He argues convincingly that the priesthood is becoming largely a gay organization. Read mostly on the train to New York for the ANA conference
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book came as a recommendation to me. Unfortunatley, I was expecting something that was enlightening from an alternative perspective. What I got were close-minded, poor arguments about why I should take Gary Wills' perspective verses that of 2000 year of church history, including good and bad events, and the experiences and education of thousands of church clergy that have dedicated thier lives to the study and support of this religion. The first error I noticed in Wills argument was the he pretty much expects the reader to believe everything the church does is deceipt while everything he says is the truth. I have dealt people that approach life in this way. They often try to get people to support them by turning them against everything else. Eventually, they always turn out to be the deceiver themselves. It is actually funny that Wills attempts to claim that he is a Catholic, since he really supports nothing that is Catholic. Really, I'd say Wills is more a product of the 60-70s generation more than anything else. Unfortunately, I'd say he hasn't pursued a very balanced approach to his priveleged position in education and as a writer. All you've really got to look forward to in this book is one-sided arguments that totally attempt to deceive the reader into ignoring the pursuit of the truth. Maybe that is suppose to be his goal- finding truth through deception. If you're looking for enlightment, save your time and money on this one.