Saturday, April 16, 2016

Papal Sin by Garry Wills

I’m going to assume this book is a bit of an anomaly. An anomaly in terms of its publication date. It’s either that or throw it against the wall.

Indeed, the state of the church is generally so much improved from the past that it might seem to have achieved impeccability after all. The level of scripture scholarship, of liturgical participation, of social concern, of personal holiness, is very high by every comparative measure we can call on. Is it a thing of the past even to think of ecclesiastical sin? One would hesitate to claim that in any case; and there are indications that some things are still not perfect.

That’s from page 2. And when the author, Garry Wills, writes there that the Catholic church is “so much improved,” it’s important to note that he’s talking comparatively about the papal sins of the medieval past.

Happily, those kinds of corruption no longer corrode the papacy. Though there have been financial scandals in the modern papacy (especially that having to do with its involvement in Michele Sindona’s Banco Ambrosiano), the spectacle of individual Popes amassing huge fortunes for themselves and their families is no longer the shame that caused Dante’s disgust. Similarly, Popes no longer have secular kingdoms for which they are willing to murder and torture and conquer, in ways that Acton illumined with the fierce light of his scholarship. Nor do sexual scandals reach as high up or as deep down as when papal bastards ran the church’s bureaucracy. In the tenth century a dissolute teenager could be elected Pope (John XII) because of his family connections and die a decade later in the bed of a married woman.

That is the sinful past that Wills has chosen as his comparison point. And it seems clear that the “still not perfect” things he intelligently sheds light on in his 2000 work, do not, in his opinion, rise to the level of papal sins excoriated by Dante Alighieri and Lord Acton.

But don’t they? I mean, think carefully. Is there anything the modern Catholic church, with modern popes at its head, has done that would compare to those tenth century atrocities? What about, say, the systematic physical and sexual abuse of generations of children?

And this is where the anomaly of Wills’s publication date comes into play. In 2000, evidence of sexual abuse committed by priests, even systemic abuse aided and abetted by a Catholic hierarchy, was widespread. Indeed, Wills will go on to document cases of abject horror in his book. But in 2000, John Paul II was pope, and his involvement in the conspiracy, if any, was limited to his appointment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the office from which, we would learn later, much of the conspiracy would be coordinated. And, of course, it wouldn’t be until 2005 that Cardinal Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI.

So forgive me if I see papal sin written all over the church’s sexual abuse of children, even though Wills does not. Wills’s outrage, righteous as is no doubt still is, is rather focused on the more abstract and far-reaching crime of modern popes lying to defend their outdated dogma.

This is what Wills leads off with, showing that church dogma, specifically the dogma of papal infallibility, has painted modern popes into a corner of greater and greater lies. Lies that grow so great that they become institutional, the “structures of deceit” that he chooses as his book’s subtitle.

Here’s what Wills says at the end of one of his early chapters, one that describes the lies the Catholic church told about its involvement in Hitler’s Holocaust.

Such a break is not easily accomplished, not for any institution, and least of all for an institution that claims never to have been wrong, never to have persecuted, never to have inflicted injustice. Given so much to hide, the impulse to keep on hiding becomes imperative, automatic, almost inevitable. The structures of deceit are ever less escapable--the cumulative product of all the past evasions, the disingenuous explainings, outright denials, professions, deferences, pieties, dodges, lapses, and funk. It is thought, no doubt, that to let the truth slip through this intricate outwork, this riddle of baffles and lattices and shutters, would embarrass the church. But to keep on evading the truth is a worse embarrassment, and a crime--an insult to those who have been wronged, and whose wrong will not be recognized. When truth lies blatant on the doorstep, the instinct is to lock oneself in behind the door and never look out. This is nothing less than imprisonment in the dark, done in feigned service to the Light of the World.

This is Wills at his best, diagnosing the problem with both clarity and subtlety. But this is also on page 45 of a 326-page book on the crimes modern Catholic popes, and I have to confess that I was already frustrated that there had so far been no mention of the most appalling sin of them all. And when Wills finally does get to it, devoting the entirety of Chapter 12 to the topic, my frustration only grows.

Why? Three reasons.

1. No one seems to know how bad the problem really is.

How many children’s lives have been destroyed by pedophiles disguising themselves as priestly public servants and by a papal bureaucracy more concerned with its reputation that the supposed souls of its followers? I was hoping Wills would be able to provide some real figures, or at least some authoritative estimates, on how widespread the problem actually is. But that information was maddeningly difficult to drag out of the text. There is some information, but Wills seems almost reluctant to run the resulting calculations. At one point, for example, Wills reports that no diocese, of the 188 in the United States, has been without its pedophilia case. At another, he cites a study that shows a single “regressive pedophile” will have sexual encounters with an average of 265 youngsters in a lifetime. So just doing that simple math results in almost 50,000 children being sexually abused in Catholic institutions in the United States every 20 years or so. But even sadder than that... the uncovering of whole cultures of pedophilia, as in Mount Cashel, the Christian Brothers orphanage in Newfoundland:

Nine Christian brothers, two of whom were lovers, sodomized, whipped, punched, fondled, and degraded at least thirty Mount Cashel boys for more than twenty years. Testimony pointed to a ring of overlapping pedophiles and sado-masochistic homosexuals, including five men, living in town, who had grown up in the orphanage and returned to molest boys.

That last point is not to be missed. According to another study cited by Wills, 93 percent of men serving time in Australian prisons for child molestation were themselves abused as children. Unfortunately, molested children too often grow up to become child molesters. Which leads to my second frustration:

2. It’s a vicious circle, feeding on itself, until all hope is lost.

One of the most poignant things about cases of priests molesting children or youths is that they go, naturally, for their easiest targets--good Catholic families. As the report on a survey of clinicians dealing with child abuse put it: “Religious professionals’ role as unquestioned moral leaders apparently gave them special access to children, much like the access that trusted family members have in incest cases.” Devout Catholic families will be the least suspicious of a priest’s conduct and the most intimidated about challenging the church.

Again and again in these sad stories Wills tells about the actual abuse of children by priests (systemic, not episodic, in my humble opinion), the parents of the abused children remain tragically oblivious to the torture being inflicted on their children because of their faith and belief in the moral superiority of the church and its priests.

And it’s more than just the pedophile priests that know this and use it to their advantage. In one of the most inflammatory passages I have ever read, Wills tells the story of Monsignor Robert Rehkemper, an official in the diocese of Dallas, Texas, who, after avoiding and obfuscating as much as humanly possible in the case of a pedophile priest in his jurisdiction, is finally called to testify in the priest’s criminal prosecution.

...he claimed after the trial that the parents should have seen the signs he had failed to discern. In a tape-recorded interview, he fumed that the suit never should have been brought, that the jury made the wrong decision, that the parents were the negligent ones.

“No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this. They more properly should have known because they were close to the kids. Parents have the prime responsibility to look after their kids. I don’t want to judge them one way or the other, but it doesn’t appear they were very concerned about their kids."

The unadulterated audacity of such an accusation boggles the mind. Not concerned about their kids? According to the world view they held, the world view that people like Monsignor Rehkemper taught them and benefits from, they had exemplary concern for their kids. They placed their development and their immortal souls in the tender care of people they believed were God’s very agents on earth, the people who, better than any other, could teach them to conduct themselves with the morality purchased by their risen savior.

And my third frustration?

3. The church (and much of society) rarely holds anyone responsible, and when it does, the blame goes entirely to the offending priest.

To be fair to Wills, he does try to correct this. He is a Catholic who is writing out of a desire for the Catholic church to right itself, and he does hold the church, and not just the offending priests, responsible for these crimes. But at the same time, he also completely misses the mark. Given the time he spends on the subject, I’m left with the impression that he believes the requirement for priests to be celibate is more to blame for the culture of pedophilia that exists in the church than they institutional disregard for the welfare of the flock. And that’s frankly nonsense. An oath of celibacy does not turn men into child molesters. As described above, the most reliable way to turn someone into a child molester to to molest them when they themselves are a child. And for those who are molested by a priest, what better place than the modern priesthood is the resulting child molesters to flourish?

In this regard, I worry that Wills is peddling another well-worn apologetic. And that, I think, is finally what drives me the most crazy. Whether the apologetic comes from the predator priests themselves, from tap-dancing church officials, or even from well-intentioned Catholic commentators and critics, it’s time to call them on this double standard.

One can’t claim that the Catholic church is an institution like any other, driven by the same impulses and tendencies to groupthink and self preservation as any other, and at the same time cling to and remind us that the church has and is entitled to moral superiority over the rest of the world. Catholic lay people are holier, the story goes, than unbelievers and believers of other religions, priests are more holy than Catholic lay people, and popes are more holy than priests, the most holy that any person can possibly be here on this fallen earth.

So where, then, given all this moral superiority, is the call for popes to take moral accountability for these acts of atrocity? Don’t distract us by saying that the pedophile priests are victims of an increasingly secular society, or of misguided church policies, or that popes have an obligation to preserve an institution Catholics believe does so much good in the world.

Because there is one thing I know for sure. The abuse of children by these Catholic institutions could end tomorrow if one of our modern popes would stand up, confess to the crimes that have been committed, and pledge that any of all abusers of children would be forever excommunicated from Christ’s family.

To me, the fact that this hasn’t happened, is the most egregious papal sin of them all.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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