Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith

That the abused child will defend its parent is no arcane phenomenon of child psychology–hell, we’ve seen it on Law and Order.


That the abused child will defend its parent is no arcane phenomenon of child psychology–hell, we’ve seen it on Law and Order. Regardless of the degree of abuse involved, or the appurtenant, wholesale betrayal of trust and responsibility, even the most misused kids define themselves so wholly with their abusers that to point an accusing finger is often beyond their capacity for self-definition. This has always seemed to me a pretty good analogy for why most Catholics–and I share the faith–defend their church.

Garry Wills is not most Catholics, of course. And most Catholics aren’t Garry Wills. One of our more muscular thinkers and prolific writers on politics, art and religion, and their attendant crimes–most notably in his recent, occasional, scab-ripping New York Review of Books pieces on the church’s sex-abuse scandal (which is what prompted Houghton Mifflin to move up the publication of Why I Am a Catholic by three months)–the writer is also a devout believer, one who regularly attends mass, says the rosary and actually has a belief system that justifies his belief system. Which is, again, more than you can say for most Catholics. Or most people.

But in 2000 he published Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, a scathing treatise on the recent papacy’s intellectual offenses and reign of terror against all things Modernist. Wills must have known he’d have to answer for his "sin," so to speak–even though, in the introduction to Why I Am a Catholic, he calls the new book "unintended."

"Unintended," he writes, "because I thought that book treated a narrowly defined and self-enclosed topic, the papacy’s dishonesty in its recent (antimodern) era. Some read the book as something else, which they indicated by changing the title from ‘Papal Sin’ to ‘Papal Sins’–as if I were covering the whole subject of papal misbehavior over the centuries."

He gets to that in his new book, just as he eventually answers the question raised by its title. It turns out to be the essence not just of the work at hand but of Wills’s spiritual life: "I am a Catholic because of the Creed." That is, the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest articulation we have of Christian belief, which predates the popes, and which has little to do with what we think of as the uppercase Church.

The church, Wills implies, should not be uppercase at all. The essential difference of opinion between the author and the current Pope–whose increasingly crippled, corporeal self is a fitting metaphor for what he’s done to Catholicism–is how they define the church itself. For John Paul II–and most popes, particularly since that inquisitional infallibility theorist Pius IX–the church est moi. For Wills–who has Scripture on his side–the church is the people who choose to be in it.

Which is why Catholics, Wills writes, particularly American Catholics, can still identify themselves as such. This despite polls showing their overwhelming disagreement, however passive, on almost every issue with which Rome has failed to distinguish itself over the past three-plus decades: contraception, abortion, the practice of homosexuality, priestly celibacy. The creed may be why Wills is Catholic, and why he doesn’t flee for another sect. (Protestantism was founded by "heretics," and Wills doesn’t like heretics, comparing them to the kind of American who declares he or she will "leave the country" if so-and-so is elected. They usually don’t, but they’re vaguely traitorous, as well as hubristic, even for saying it.) There’s a dependency issue among some Catholics that Wills doesn’t touch, and a defiant "love it or leave it" mentality that you wish he would. But he’s entirely too Christian to mix it up with militants.

No, what Wills sees instead as the more critical aspect of general Catholic thinking is a belief that the church will change. Its membership believes that the canon of church law–and the encyclicals and the bulls and the fixation on infallibility, which undermined the papacy of Paul VI, for one, because if the church could change then the church must have been wrong–is largely wrong. And that the church can indeed change.

Accordingly, the most influential pope in the day-to-day lives of most Catholics as Catholics certainly hasn’t been John Paul II, for whom questioning is tantamount to treason and under whose rule, Wills writes, the thinking theologian has been silenced, the convents and seminaries have been emptied, and the ranks of the sainted and beatified have grown by ludicrous proportions. ("At least he has been filling up the rosters of the other world’s population.")

No, the most influential pope in modern times remains, to this day, John XXIII. Forty years after his death, it is his visionary zeal, so-obvious charity and the vigor with which he drove through Vatican II–and its declaration that the church is its people–which affects the lives of Catholics and maintains their seemingly eternal optimism that the church is no longer medieval, that it has the capacity for a healthy intellectual life, that it can acknowledge the real lives of the real people within it. "An unexamined faith is not a faith. It is a superstition," Wills writes. The church under John Paul II has so little regard for the minds of its members it may as well be astrology.

Time for an editorial digression: Wills has written a very personal book; his attraction to, disillusionment with and eventual departure from the Society of Jesus is a large part of this partial memoir; it is dedicated to the late Anne O’Connor (Sister John Joseph), one of the great instructors in his personal Catholic experience. I, too, was seduced early with the censers, cassocks, sturdy rosaries, the sense of cathedral–oh yes, and the faith–that marked a Catholic upbringing in a particular era. Like Wills, I never met priests who were "scoundrels" in the sense of today’s indicted clergy. But more memorable now is a statement made by my college adviser, circa 1982.

It was just a few years into John Paul II’s tenure. A Vatican-educated theologian and scholar, this professor had left the priesthood to marry and have children, but maintained close associations with men like the liberal (and thus besieged) Swiss theologian Hans Küng. He was the mildest and most serene of professors, a father and husband whose belief in a complete life was almost as strong as his Christian faith. And when asked what he thought of John Paul II, he all but sputtered: "The man is a Nazi!"

But a dictatorial predisposition isn’t something exclusive to John Paul II, as Wills very measuredly exhibits during the papal-history midsection of his book. Boniface VIII (1294-1303), for instance, "had a great gift for making people hate him" (including Dante, who wrote him into Hell) and coined the antidemocratic policy that would mark papacies for centuries. As Wills paraphrases it, "Only deference to higher social orders can redeem the lower social orders." There being little question at which end of this social pyramid we would find the pope, it was a self-serving formula for peace, papal protection, political expediency–and subservience to real martial power. Napoleon summoned the pope "as his lackey" to crown him in Paris. Gregory XVI (1831-46), wanting to make sure that rulers everywhere were blindly obeyed, refused to support the revolution of Catholic Poland against Russia’s Nicholas I. ("More than one earlier Gregory would have died in agony rather than tell a people with the history of the Poles to trust a man with the history of Nicholas I," as Wills quotes historian E.L. Woodward. "Not so Gregory XVI.")

And these are merely the more modern popes. One of the sanctifying tenets of the papacy itself is its alleged direct line to St. Peter–even though Peter was not Rome’s first bishop, there wasn’t even a bishop in Rome for the first 100 years after Jesus’ death and the concept of a pope as we know it didn’t exist, according to nineteenth-century Anglican-turned-Catholic-churchman John Henry Cardinal Newman, until the Nicene Council of the fourth century.

But that’s the least of it. How would one trace the line of descent from Peter even if he was the first Vicar of Rome? Never mind the papacy’s move to Avignon in the fourteenth century and the Great Schism to follow. During one hundred-year stretch, seven popes were murdered–Stephen VI in 897, Benedict IV in 903, Leo V in 904, John X in 928, Stephen VIII in 942, Benedict VI in 974 and John XIV in 984. The pope was a prisoner of his environment, and in Rome, during the late ninth and early tenth centuries, things were run by Theophylact, the boss of bosses who controlled both church and state. Then Theophylact’s daughter Marozia took over the family business. She had an affair with one pope, Sergius III, who fathered her illegitimate son–who would later become Pope John XI. In 928, she had John X killed for trying to slip out from under her thumb, and put Leo VI in as a puppet. When Leo died suddenly, she produced and installed Stephen VII, until her son could reach his twenties and become John XI.

It gets better. Upon the death of Gregory XI in 1378, the college of cardinals elected a Neapolitan outsider to become Urban VI. It wasn’t long, however, before Urban made it clear that he was, as Wills puts it, deranged. So the cardinals elected Clement VII, precipitating the Great Schism and Clement’s flight to Avignon. As Wills points out, it is Urban who, despite his diminished mental capacity, is the pope "counted authentic in the Roman tradition."

John Paul II, Wills writes, has been "not a monstrous or disastrous pope, like John XII or Boniface VIII, or a misguided one like Innocent III or Paul VI. He is more a well-meaning failure, like the man he beatified who was also a charming person, Pius IX." It is Pio Nono (1846-78), as the Italians call him, who seems to drive Wills to the brink of exasperation. And for very good reasons.

Pius has a litany of crimes on his docket sheet. He supported the forced baptism of Jews in Spain, referred to Jews as "dogs" and supported the "blood libel" that Jews were involved in the ritual murder of Christian children in order to get blood for making Passover matzo. He even recognized the cult of Lorenzino of Marostica, a boy supposedly "ritually murdered" by Jews in 1490. It was also Pio Nono who was at the center of the Edgardo Mortara case.

The Edgardo Mortara kidnapping case, that is. In 1858, a young Christian woman reported to the Inquisition in Bologna that she had secretly baptized a sick Jewish child in a home where she worked as a servant. Despite doubts about the story, the police, who were under Pius’s command, seized the 6-year-old from his home, telling his parents nothing, and brought him to the Vatican, where Pius greeted him warmly and with the good news that he would be raised a Christian.

Bizarre as it may seem, the story makes sense, if anything does about Pius IX. His Syllabus of Errors–an indictment of the modern, evolving world, a condemnation of what Wills calls "the vast left-wing conspiracy he saw taking control of the world," was Pius’s irrational reaction to what he rightly saw as the coming secularization of the Papal States. His formalization of papal infallibility (1870) may seem simply nutty to some, but it was part and parcel of Pius’s response to a world he saw as rejecting a higher order. Nevertheless, he must be counted as among the worst examples of papal fallibility to have ever occupied the Throne of St. Peter: Kidnapping. Libel. Tacit encouragement of violence against Jews. The intellectual discredit he brought upon the church. And the tone he set for such future popes as Pius X, who unleashed a kind of papal McCarthyism against any and all who dared defy the papacy. "I suppose," Wills writes, "that only a pope like John Paul II could have beatified a man like Pius IX." What we see in the Vatican is what we see in the White House, without the alibi of September 11: To question policy is to be heretical/treasonous and unworthy of respect, sanctity or protection. John Paul II is George Bush; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is his John Ashcroft.

The ballot boxes are stuffed in either case, but why not do away with the papacy? No, Wills says, though there may be no direct line of succession, and the pontifical history may be riddled with crimes of the venal, carnal and occasionally homicidal variety (the Crusades, lest we forget). But Wills reads his New Testament, where he finds Jesus, and where he finds Jesus he is apt to find Peter. And Peter represents the very essence of the Catholic.

This is because he was a man, and not an exemplary one. G.K. Chesterton, one of the seminal philosophical thinkers and writers in Wills’s intellectual development, Catholic or otherwise (and, yes, the author of the "Father Brown" mysteries), called Peter a "snob" and a "coward." He’s called much worse in the New Testament, but Wills’s point is that Peter is the most realistically drawn character in the Gospels, not part of the "Greek chorus" that comprises the rest of the apostles but a man who acts rashly, humanly–"a man of action" who "invariably takes the wrong action." In the garden where Jesus is arrested, Wills writes, "he is not only inept but ridiculous. With armed soldiers collaring his leader, he attacks a nearby servant–in the ear…. It is as if Peter said, ‘I am so mad at you that I am going to shoot your dog–in the paw!’ Pure Dostoevski."

It is Peter upon whom the history of the papacy rests, the supposed rock upon which Jesus builds his church–although that’s another pope-made myth Wills is happy to debunk. Peter, from petrus, means "stone-made" or "stone-founded." The rock upon which Jesus built his church is not Peter but himself.

Wills–etymologically, scripturally and logically–explodes much of what passes as institutionalized Catholicism, the church’s convenient use of Gospel, the pomp, the circumstance, the Popemobiles; and in his closing and very close reading of the Apostles’ Creed, boils the question of why one could possibly be a Catholic down to its essentials. Not crosiers and miters but faith and belief.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy