A Contemptible Polemic by a Dissident Detractor

" Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit "

By Garry Wills
Image Books: Doubleday, 2000


I recall the fine Catholic books that were once published by Doubleday in its 'Image Books' series. Now Doubleday has published what it considers a devastating critique and "no-holds-barred indictment" of the Catholic Church, which "in matters of both history and doctrine... remains steadfastly unwilling to fully face the truth about itself, its past, and its relations with others."

This apparent truth teller, who reveals in his latest book the present corruption of the Church and the Papacy, which are enmeshed in "structures of deceit", is Pulitzer-prize winner Garry Wills. Long acclaimed by the "Catholic left" as "one of America's most highly acclaimed Catholic journalists and authors", and by others as "one of the most intellectually distinguished Catholic laymen" and a lauded "Catholic public intellectual", Mr. Wills has written a disgraceful and angry anti-Catholic polemic against the Church and Her doctrines.

For all its sophistication and historical references, Wills' book is not that different from a Jack Chick' cartoon criticism of Catholic teachings. It's a real assault on the Catholic Church by one who ostensibly does not believe Her teachings. No doubt "Papal Sin" will be relied upon by the enemies of the Church as an arsenal of arguments and objections.

Wills betrays hybris and arrogance in taking upon himself the role of "hanging judge" in subjecting the Church to a decadent modern world's standard of "intellectual honesty and truth." He declares the Catholic Church (and not merely individual Catholics) guilty of:

  • anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, slavery, inquisitions, and conquests.
  • He accuses the Papacy of committing historical crimes and doctrinal errors with the aid of "philosophically weird and simplistically minded arguments," "shambling falsehoods," and "billingsgate."
  • The popes since Blessed Pius IX have scandalized intellectuals like himself with "structures of deceit" that have been "the accumulated product of all the past evasions, the disingenuous explaining, outright denials, professions, deferences, pieties, dodges, lapses, and funk."
  • Blessed Pius IX is decried for his "disastrous Syllabus of Errors."
  • St. Pius X was guilty of "theological McCarthyism."
  • Pius XII was guilty of "deliberate falsehood" in describing his efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust.
  • Paul VI is denounced for his "subversive encyclical on birth control," for his intrepid defense of celibacy and the Church's traditional teaching on sexuality.
  • "Pope John Paul II's legacy to his Church is a gay priesthood."

Vatican II, whose doctrinal teachings Wills clearly rejects, is not exempt from his scathing criticisms. Vatican II also "existed within a structure of deceit." He charges, falsely, that Catholics now regard the Pope as an "omnipotent oracle, replacing scripture and the Spirit." As for the Holy Spirit, Wills prefers the term "She."

He rails against the Church's:

  • "perverse teaching on contraception" and
  • the "male monopoly on the priesthood."
  • He justifies abortion, in vitro fertilization, masturbation, sodomy, and indeed repudiates the entire sexual ethics of the Church stemming from the Church's understanding of the natural and revealed law of God.
  • He denies that Christ instituted the hierarchical priesthood,
  • rejects Christ's atonement and the Mass as sacrifice,
  • disbelieves the Marian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception,
  • and ridicules the "magic power" of the priest to consecrate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
  • He asserts that Peter was not the Bishop of Rome and rejects Vatican I's understanding of Matthew 16:18 as a foundation for papal authority in the Church.
  • He follows his hero Lord Acton, who vilified the doctrine of papal infallibility at the time of Vatican I, and goes even further than Acton in totally refusing to accept this defined dogma.

Wills is not a philosopher. He is not a theologian. His scholarship is at best suspect, as the book contains many factual errors. He relies uncritically on dissenters such as Bernard Häring and Richard P. McBrien for his "theology." In many instances he shows himself to be a poor historian, neglecting the works of more objective historians on controversial issues and ignoring the sometimes baffling complexity of events which various popes have had to confront. As Msgr. George Higgins has written:

"Wills has erected a 'straw church,' a caricature shorn of its actual complex mix of good and bad, moral success and sinfulness, to create a portrait of almost total darkness and evil."

More to the point, reviewer Russell Hittinger has observed:

"Having set out to give a few good whacks to the popes, he has convinced himself that the Roman Catholic Church is, for the most part, a false religion in captivity to a papal Antichrist."
"First Things", August/September 2000

Mr. Wills, an ex-Jesuit seminarian, acknowledges his indebtedness to two former priests, James Carroll and Eugene Kennedy. The latter told the 'National Catholic Register' (September 3, 2000):

"I think it's a significant book because it means that Catholicism in America has succeeded."

Wills declared himself to be simply following in the footsteps of St. Augustine, Blessed John XXIII, and Cardinal Newman.   BUT:

  1. St. Augustine would have decried his heresies,
  2. Blessed John XXIII would have been repelled by his distortions of Vatican II teachings and,
  3. as English historian Eamon Duffy has stated, "Cardinal Newman would have hated this book."

Wills' polemic is a glaring example of intellectual bankruptcy. It cries out for the enforcement of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" in Catholic universities and colleges.

"Papal Sin" is a contemptible work written by a dissident who has focused on recording the real or alleged specks in the eyes of popes and churchmen, while ignoring the beam in his own.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage