Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

by Garry Wills

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"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


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"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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Garry Wills's Saint Augustine

"This brilliant biography, this excellent small book, presents with brio the life of a person who still stirs us, throws us off, speaks to us, heart to heart.  Garry Wills's agile mind matches the agility of St. Augustine.
New York Times Book Review

"Not often, but every now and then, a truly gifted film director takes up well-known material...  and turns a subject with which we thought we were thoroughly familiar into something once again strange and challenging...  Garry Wills's Saint Augustine has done this. Seldom has a long-familiar figure, whose works fill thirteen double-columned volumes in the standard edition, and whose life and thought have been debated for sixteen hundred years, emerged so fresh and challenging, from so masterful a 'director's' hand...  A deft and ingenious expositor set to work upon a great thinker."
The New York Review of Books

Richard E. Parent
Wills explores a variety of current Catholic issues, such as women and gays in the priesthood, birth control and abortion, explaining how the historical and doctrinal biases against each are now irrelevant. He then proceeds to show the Church's increasingly desperate attempts to maintain that the old positions are still valid. Wills asserts that it is the need to present the facade of an unchanged and unchanging Church that motivates the creation of structures of deceit, which force the Popes and everyone else in the Church to accept and proclaim myriad blatant and hurtful falsehoods.

Papal Sin delves into sexy issues such as the missionary position and priests having sex, as well as disturbing issues like the Church's involvement in the Holocaust and priests having sex with children etc. to frame and explore the Church's structures of deceit. Wills also provides fascinating factoids, such as the continued existence of the Inquisition.

Now known as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the new Inquisition (which is still has a creepy name) most recently published a declaration stating that the Catholic church is the only true way to God and heaven, and that Christian Protestant denominations are not even "churches in the proper sense." The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are the same folks who brought us the Pope's so-called "apology" for the sins of the past, a document which condemns much, yet claims that the Church is now and has always been completely faultless. It is these sorts of Church pronouncements that prove Wills' structures of deceit are real and dangerous.

As someone who was not familiar with the past 200 years' worth of popes, let alone their writings, I found Wills' book accessible and quite a page turner.

While Wills may not address a certain final issue as much as I would like, he does provide a wealth of juicy information about those naughty, naughty popes. If you've ever had a beef with the Holy See, or if you're simply curious about the dirty secrets that the Mother Church doesn't want you to know, you owe it to yourself to arm yourself with Wills' latest ballsy, no-holds-barred diatribe, Papal Sin.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Fans of Wills, one of America's foremost writers on religion, were mildly disappointed with his 1999 biography of Saint Augustine--not 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 own--a sincere, faithful Roman Catholic. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Pope John Paul II recently acknowledged past sins of the Roman Catholic Church and asked the forgiveness of God and humanity. While controversial, this unique confession also met with satisfaction. Wills's timely new work briefly introduces the blatant sins of murder, power mongering, and avarice characteristic of the medieval papacy while emphasizing the subtler "structures of deceit" we see in contemporary times. This sensitively written book is not in the attack genre but is a soulful and intelligent discussion addressing perceived ecclesiastical dishonesty and passive suppression of the Truth. Wills, author of Saint Augustine and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, considers the historical dishonesties surrounding the Holocaust, women, and sexual ethics, as well as 11 doctrinal dishonesties, including "Excluded Women," "Conspiracy of Silence," "Marian Politics," and "A Gay Priesthood." He concludes with two marvelous sections acknowledging the truth tellers (Augustine, Newman, and John XXIII) who have helped direct popes, pastors, and laity back to the liberating Gospel dictum that "the Truth shall set you free." All sections are skillfully argued and completely documented. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.]--John Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin, Platteville Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Wills (history, Northwestern U.) characterizes the modern papacy as steadfastly unwilling to face the truth about itself, its past, and its relations with others. Citing the Holocaust, discrimination against women, the assertion that natural law dictates its sexual code, and other matters, he argues that even when the Vatican tries to be honest, it ends up resorting to historical distortions and evasions. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
A devastating, no-holds-barred, indictment . . . He is startlingly frank on issues that most Catholic writers avoid . . . The momentum of his splendidly passionate polemic leaves him confronting the question: Would an ideally honest and free church of Christ still be a church?
The New York Times Book Review
Liz Marlantes
Although Wills can come down a bit hard at times, his argument overall is intriguing, and the book's many tidbits of history make for a fascinating read.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
Popes used to sin openly, and Catholics knew it, writes Pulitzer Prize-winner Wills (John Wayne's America, 1997, etc.) in his new study of contemporary Catholicism. Take Pope John XII from the tenth century. Because of family connections, he became pope as a "dissolute teenager" and died a few years later in a married woman's bed. But today Catholics are hung up on the idea that the Vatican can do no wrong—and that idea, says Wills, may destroy the church. In his briskly written polemic, Wills argues that the Vatican is out of touch. He is especially interested in the question of clerical celibacy: thousands of clerics have left the priesthood in order to get married, leaving the church with a disproportionate number of homosexual priests. Even those who have stayed wish the Vatican would allow priests to marry—and, Wills suggests, this may account for the high number of priests who do not keep their vows of chastity, but get involved in emotional and sexual relationships with women that they cannot really sustain. Wills also takes on abortion, questioning the Vatican's assertion that life and "ensoulment" begin at conception. But even when it seems the best thing to do, admits Wills, abortion is never ideal, and "It should be avoided, principally by all safe measures of birth control—the one effective anti-abortion measure the Vatican will not allow." An invigorating read that is sure to spark controversy.

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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 someChristians 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.1

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 (16).

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 (17-18).

So this document--which the Pope commends for calling "memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future" (7)--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.2

1 Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Vatican translation (Pauline Books, 1998), p. 14. Numerical references in my text are to pages of this edition.

2 Charles R. Morris, American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church (Times Books, 1997), p. 239. John F. Morley, a historian who is also a priest, concluded, on the basis of the extensive diplomatic correspondence between Orsenigo and the Vatican: "Whether aware or not, Orsenigo was indifferent to what happened to the Jews. His superiors in the [Vatican] Secretariat of State, however, were well informed, and yet they manifested no concern for the Jews." Morley, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust, 1939-1943 (KTAV Publishing House, 1980), p. 128.

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