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PAPAL SIN, Structures of Deceit; By Garry Wills; Doubleday: 328 pp., $25

August 06, 2000|MARTIN GARDNER | Martin Gardner is the author of "The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995," "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?" and many other works. His latest book, "From the Wandering Jew to William F. Buckley Jr.: On Science, Literature, and Religion," will be published by Prometheus Books in September

Garry Wills is a Roman Catholic scholar of awesome erudition whose more than 20 books on politics, religion and other topics are models of brilliant rhetoric and beautiful writing. He seems to have read everything even remotely relevant to any topic. "Papal Sin," his latest work, is the most controversial. It will generate loud cheers from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, philosophical theists and even atheists. The philosopher Richard Rorty, a secular humanist, had high praise for the book in a recent review.

Reactions by Catholics will, of course, be mixed. My guess is that those as ultra-orthodox as William F. Buckley Jr. and Pat Buchanan are appalled. Catholics as liberal as Father Andrew Greeley will praise "Papal Sin" as a courageous effort to reform the faith they each love and know so well. Though I agree with Wills' passionate attacks on certain popes, there is something mysterious and strange about his relationship to Catholicism.

Born in 1934 in Atlanta, Wills earned a doctorate from Yale (his thesis was on Aeschylus) and is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University. His writing career began at 23 when, after obtaining a master's degree from Xavier, a Jesuit seminary, he was hired to write book reviews and drama criticism for Buckley's National Review. In "Confessions of a Conservative" in 1979, Wills recalls being asked by Buckley, during their first meeting, if he had left the church. Buckley was relieved when Wills said no. "Being Catholic," Wills adds, "always mattered more to him than being conservative."

At that time, Wills called himself a distributist, G.K. Chesterton's term for a movement in England that favored the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Since leaving the National Review, Wills has distanced himself from Buckley by steadily moving left, both politically and religiously.

Wills' lack of respect for certain popes of the last two centuries surfaced early in his career, notably in "Bare Ruined Choirs" in 1972. In this vigorous attack on the church's hierarchy, Wills likens the Vatican to the "bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang" in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73. Rome is faulted for its stubborn opposition to contraception, ordination of women and the marriage of priests. Adjectives which Wills hurls at the church include "cracking," "weakening," "disintegrating" and "crumbling." As a loyal practicing Catholic, he urges his church to cast off its shackles and welcome history's irreversible changes.

"Papal Sin" continues the themes of "Bare Ruined Choirs" with greater fury and more sordid details. In some ways, Wills resembles Martin Luther nailing his charges to a church door. In other ways, his book follows the long tradition of books, mostly by Protestants and ex-Catholics of past centuries, that trash the lives and beliefs of the popes.

The first four chapters of "Papal Sin" are scathing attacks on the church, not just for its past anti-Semitism and its horrendous pogroms but for its continued efforts to cover up this awful history. Not until 1985 did Rome officially repudiate the claim that Jews are under a special curse from God for having executed and denied their own Messiah. "Seminaries taught it," Wills writes, "and Biblical commentaries explained it, and persecutions were based on it."

Throughout World War II and after, Pope Pius XII privately helped many Jews escape from Germany, but not once did he speak out against Hitler or the Holocaust. He may have imagined he had good reasons for this silence, but that is no excuse, Wills argues, for the Vatican to pretend 50 years later that the church at the time did not swarm with European bishops and priests who supported the Nazis. Not until 1988 did the Vatican issue "We Remember," a document Wills characterizes as a dishonest effort to minimize Rome's feeble response to Hitler's madness.

Wills tells the tragic story of Edith Stein, a German philosopher who converted to Catholicism, became a nun and died at Auschwitz. The Vatican maintains, against all evidence, that Stein was arrested because she was a Catholic, not because she was a Jew. John Paul II made her a saint and martyr in 1998. Only one miracle is required for martyrdom. In Stein's case, it was the recovery of a 2-year-old girl from an overdose of Tylenol. Because almost all people who overdose on Tylenol recover, why did John Paul deem this a miracle? Because the girl's parents had prayed to Edith Stein.

Wills scoffs at this. He sees Stein's canonization as little more than the Vatican's attempt to spread the false notion that many Catholics were also Hitler's victims. There was a second similar effort at deceit. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest well known for his anti-Semitism, also died in a death camp. Though church officials held that Kolbe didn't qualify as a martyr (he died for political reasons, they argue, not because he was a priest), he too was canonized by John Paul II.

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