Keeping it Medieval

Why I Am Still a CatholicTurns out smoking dope is the one thing the Pope doesn’t do. But the nation’s novelty T-shirt vendors need not despair– Gary Wills’ epic new book on the history of Catholicism, Why I Am a Catholic (Houghton Mifflin), provides hundreds of examples of papal misconduct, from simony (selling religious offices) to indulgences (selling eternal life); from pathetic anti-intellectualism to reprehensible anti-Semitism.

Wills, a prolific critic and historian, has fond memories of his childhood parochial school, but was less happy during a stint with the Jesuits. He ultimately left the Order, but remains a loyal lay member of the Catholic Church. His last book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, attacked the main value to which the Vatican clings: that the proclamations of any pope — even one from the Middle Ages — remain infallible.* The infallibility principle means that Church policy can never change to accept radical modern concepts like contraception or female priests. In his new book, however, Wills wants to reiterate that popes are human, that, since the Middle Ages, they have often contradicted themselves and each other in their efforts to stay in power.

To make this point, he crams two thousand years of Catholic history into a few hundred pages, teasingly presenting Machiavellian intrigues in outline form. The effect is of reading Cliff’s Notes to a steamy historic potboiler that in its original form has — alas been lost. We learn that Symmachus, pope from 495-515, committed “fiscal and other crimes — among his female consorts was the infamous courtesan Conditaria (Spice Girl)” but we learn nothing else about the Vatican’s doings with Posh, Sporty, Sexy or Scary. Wills describes an instance when a hastily-elected Pope was quietly deposed after only one month because he was considered “clearly deranged,” but he does not elaborate on the symptoms of his lunacy. Another vivid story includes Pope Leo I, who when confronted by infidels who wanted a piece of his empire, “bought Attila off with treasure, a sphere of his own, and the promise of a highborn bride” — but we never find out what became of Attila’s gold and territory, and whether the promised bride was ever delivered.

Of course, there is no reason for Wills to play to the prurient, and he does an excellent job of showing that the office of the pope is a flawed institution. The question remains, why is he still a Catholic? The publishers make no secret of rushing this tome out in response to the horrific pedophilia scandal unfolding in the Church, and the no-nonsense title must surely pique the interest of those Catholics currently questioning their devotion to an institution that covered up these crimes. Wills’ answer: All the papal crimes and misdemeanors that he has slogged through are– no big deal! Readers may be disappointed to find that he addresses the current scandal as briefly as he mentions other problems in the Church, merely saying that the Vatican “glorifies celibacy while priest after priest is being caught in repeated crimes of pederasty, and bishop after bishop is found to have covered up the crimes.” But hey, all religions are flawed! Popes give the Catholic Church continuity, but how relevant are their teachings today? Catholic women use birth control. Gay Catholics fall in love. It is Catholic lay people and Catholic prayers that make the Church worthwhile.

But is that news to anybody, especially Catholics? And is it a reason to stay in today’s Church?

One can’t fault Wills for explaining, as he set out to do, why he remains devoted to Catholicism. But the institution is set up for people like him. Wills is married, an academic in late middle age. His justification won’t do much for many torn people who want to stay with the Church but find that it objects to their very beings. Why should a feminist be Catholic? A gay couple? A survivor of childhood sexual abuse watching dioceses pay off priests’ victims rather than preventing future crimes? Wills’ conservative attack and defense of the Vatican will offer them no answers and no solace.

* Correction: Technically, “infallible” is the inappropriate term. Infallibility didn’t become official Church teaching until the late 19th century, and it applies only in very rare and specific cases. Nevertheless, the papal office has long been vested with special authority. –August 27, 2009

Kathleen Andersen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Mademoiselle, and Sojourner: The Women's Forum.