Structures of Sin

Kenneth Arnold

In his new book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Garry Wills argues that the Roman Catholic Church has consistently subordinated truth "to ecclesiastical tactics." Thus, "even as bright and devout a man as Pope Paul VI could endorse a truly perverse teaching on contraception -- one rejected by his own picked panel of loyal and intelligent Catholics, priestly and lay, expert and commonsensical -- because advisers convinced him that it would shake people's faith in the church for the papacy to reverse its course. . . To maintain an impression that Popes cannot err, Popes deceive -- as if distorting the truth in the present were not a worse thing than mistaking it in the past" (7). In chapters on the Holocaust, women, priests, gays, Mary, abortion, predatory sex -- just about every contemporary woe in and out of the Church -- Wills excoriates the papacy's stubborn resistance to new insights provided by science, democracy, scholarship, and history. The Pope, in this reading, is bound by structures that limit his ability to act, even in the cause of truth. The fate of the Second Vatican Council under the Popes who followed John XXIII is an example of the problem.

Papal Sin is not a nice book. Wills is not polite. He takes no prisoners. He is a Catholic layman who is mad as hell and just won't take it any more. Not only is his book a rousing polemic against all that is dreadful in the Roman Catholic Church, it applies with equal force to other religious institutions. Rigid structures of institutional religion have become more rigid, it appears, in recent years, even as women have been ordained and homosexuals tolerated if not blessed and ordained. The structures of "sin" are firmly in place. The society of the Christian church has seldom been open to all, despite its founder's explicit teachings. The doors often have to be broken down before the outsiders are permitted in.

I speak here of the Christian Church because I am a Christian and do not have a right to talk about other religious institutions. But the nature of religion tends toward the exclusionary, and that (I suppose) is part of the problem with truth. Once you have it, you are stuck with it. As soon as you think you know it, someone will have to oppose you. Because the Christians have been in the majority in the West, we have not had to apologize for our insistence on the truth as we know it. We can afford our truth, even if others cannot.

It is interesting that as Christians become more plentiful in Africa and Asia, they have begun to challenge the more progressive form of the faith as it has developed in the democratic, capitalist West. African Episcopalians have challenged the movement in the United States toward the opening of the church to gays and lesbians in positions of authority. Scripture, argue those who now wish to send missionaries to the West, condemns homosexuality, and that is simply God's truth. There is nothing to discuss, only views to be changed.

Predominantly white Christians in the West do not know what do to with this assault from the colonies. One Episcopal bishop publicly asserted that Africans are barely out of the bush and uneducated. Most Christians find it hard to say that the Africans are wrong or even to insist on critical dialogue, even as they fume that the Africans are, well, wrong.

Recently, I heard two sermons in one day (woe is me) in which two well-meaning priests, both women, attacked, in the one case, Judaism as a legalistic burden that Jesus the rescuer came to lift from the backs of benighted Jews, and in the other, virtually every faith other than Christianity as being laughable waysides on the road to Christian (Episcopal) truth. Each of these women seemed to morph before my eyes into raging patriarchs. Where, I wondered, did that come from? On one demented Sunday in July in New York City, triumphalist Christian faith rose up and smote every other belief. The one sermon was anti-Judaism and the other intolerant. By the end of the day, I decided that the only option was to start my own church, which would (of course) have the truth.

Garry Wills ends his book with a remarkable paragraph that readers of this journal will find unexceptional. Others, those in particular being addressed by Wills, will not be amused. He writes:

I do not think that my church has a monopoly on the Spirit, which breathes where She will, in every Christian sect and denomination. In fact, She breathes through all religious life, wherever the divine call is heeded, among Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and others. But we Christians believe She has a special role to complete Christ's mission in us. Unworthy as we are, She calls us. She even calls the Vatican. All Christians need to respond to that soliciting. Including Popes.

Now, I am not keen on the "unworthy as we are" part of this program. I feel quite worthy, thank you. But to my mind Wills has it right. Christ's mission in us who are Christians might be heard now as a challenge to give up our claim to the exclusivity of Christ. Perhaps the Christ as a unique God-like figure needs to disappear and Jesus take his place with humankind (where, after all, he started out before the church took over) as a seeker of truth among other seekers.

In the end, that is what we are called to be, I think: seekers of the truth, not holders and disseminators of it. We get it wrong every time we hold up a piece and declare that we have what everyone else needs. It is long past time to stop acting as if the institution of the church really matters in any of its present forms. I begin to suspect that it does not (much as I love the Episcopal Church and Garry Wills loves the Catholic Church). Watching the actions of Popes and pastors and church leaders around the world -- even our African brothers who are so quick to believe that God really does condemn an entire class of people for a characteristic that may not be changeable -- I think that there is not much of a future for this kind of thinking. It is on the way out, and something new will surely be born -- something faithful and varied and in motion, not a truth to target but truths to explore.

Papal Sin should be read not only by Catholics but by everyone who is concerned about living in faith with others, without deceit or fear. Wills refers to "structures of deceit" as being at the heart of the problem for the Catholic Church. I think structures of "sin" are more fundamentally at the heart of the problem for Christianity. The churches need to examine themselves, ask pardon, and be converted.


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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 200, Vol. 50  Issue 3.