Book Review

Founders Journal · Fall 2002 · pp. 17-20

Book Reviews

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Garry Wills, New York: Doubleday, 2000. Hardcover: 326 pages. $25.00 retail.

Reviewed by Erroll Hulse

This informative and highly readable volume is written by a well- known Roman Catholic writer. Wills has won several awards for his books. He is adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University in the USA.

It is a crucial book because it lifts the lid and enables us to see contemporary Roman Catholicism as it really is. It also reveals the gulf that has developed between the majority of practicing Roman Catholics around the world and the hierarchy which we call the curia. The book is especially important in America where many evangelicals are divided over ECT .

Wills divides his subject into two categories: historical dishonesties (11-70) and doctrinal dishonesties (71-230). The rest of the book is devoted to the quest for truth.

He introduces his subject by quoting Roman Catholic Lord Acton’s famous axiom, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton, 1834-1904, (Sir J. E. E. Alberg, First Baron Acton) was speaking of papal absolutism. Gone are the days when a dissolute teenager could be elected Pope (John XII of the tenth century) because of his family connections and die a decade later in the bed of a married woman. Andrea Orcagna (c 1308-1368) painted the “Last Judgment” and depicted the papal crown in the fires of hell telling forth the message that the Pope is a terminal sinner damned forever (that part of Orcagna’s painting forms the dust cover of Wills’ book). While sexual scandal in the higher echelons, assassination, and Mafia-like corruption, are not typical now “there is still a gap, a widening lacuna [lacuna: a gap or missing part] between the teaching organs in Rome and the laity in the pew.”

This is important because there are large numbers of believing Catholics (some would claim to be evangelical) who blithely ignore Rome’s doctrines as Wills ably demonstrates. These Catholics would not dream of leaving the mother Church. They simply accept passively that there is a lot wrong with the papacy but there is nothing they can do about it. They reason that at least their Church is the historic true Church and therefore safer and better than Protestantism which is fragmented and riddled with its own problems.

Historical dishonesties–the holocaust

This part of the book deals with the question of the Jews and the holocaust and could, with profit, be read alongside the recent book by John Cornwell, Hitler’s Popethe Secret History of Pius XII, (Viking, 430 pages, £17.99). In the latter, Cornwell (a Catholic), points to the fact that the Catholic Church in Germany was strong enough to have quashed the Nazi movement so that there would never have been a Jewish holocaust. But Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was in anti-Semitic and in league with Hitler. Pacelli saw Hitler as a bulwark against Communism. Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope gained considerable attention in the media. Pacelli is an embarrassment to Rome as is the whole saga of sinful silence with regard to the disgraceful treatment of the Jews from 1933 to 1945. This is illustrated by a Roman-Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz. She asserted, “Pacelli was an anti-Semitic Pope, a pro-German Pope. He didn’t take a single risk. And when they say the Pope is like Jesus Christ, it is not true. He did not save a single child. Nothing!”

How does the Catholic Church handle this debacle? A major attempt was made to address the issue at Vatican II. After much difficulty the following final statement was made:

True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6); still, what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, or upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such a view followed from the holy Scripture–Besides, as the Church has always held and continues to hold, Christ in his boundless love freely underwent his passion and death because of the sins of all men, so that all might attain salvation (25).

Observing the above, Wills points out that it is astonishing that there is no recognition of past persecution or any expression of sorrow and repentance.

Before we make judgment ourselves I challenge you to make up a statement of how you regard Jews. I suggest a biblical response as follows:

It is clear from the events of the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 that the wrath of God did fall on that generation of Jews responsible for the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. It may well be that the 40 Jewish leaders who swore that they would not eat or drink until they had killed the apostle Paul (Acts 23:12) themselves perished in the obliteration of Jerusalem in AD 70. In 1 Thessalonians 2:16 we read, “The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” Yet we do not exult in that but rather weep with Jesus who saw the AD 70 disaster and described it (Luke 19:41-44). The attitude that we should cherish for all Jews, wherever they may be found, is that expressed by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:1-5. The Nazi movement was diabolical and the holocaust was part of that wickedness. As believers we are utterly opposed to the persecution or victimization of any part of the human race. We oppose racism whatever its form.

Wills’ thesis is to show how the Roman hierarchy has glossed over the Jewish holocaust and over the Jewish question generally. Part of that gloss has been to canonize Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and died a Carmelite nun in Auschwitz. Edith Stein died for no other reason than she was Jewish. She never performed a miracle which is a condition of canonization. Wills’ concern is the use of deceit to establish good impressions to cover bad sagas.

Doctrinal Dishonesties


In 1968 the papacy issued an encyclical letter on contraception which Wills describes as the most disastrous document of the century. This affected a vast number of people. The problem with the ban on contraception is the lack of biblical authority. He shows very well that the attempt to use the Onan passage (Genesis 38:9) to endorse the papal position is ill-grounded and is in fact absurd.

The Priesthood

This is perhaps the most significant part of Wills’ work as he completely dismantles the doctrine of the Roman Catholic priesthood. He shows that there is no basis for celibacy. He points to the fact that there is not a word in the New Testament to support the idea consecrating the bread and wine. In fact there is no case whatsoever for a special order of priesthood in the New Testament apart from the idea of the priesthood of all believers.

It is unpleasant reading but he goes on to show that celibacy has led to disastrous consequences. Research endorses this. For instance in 1990 a conservative estimate showed that about twenty percent of priests are sexually active with women at any one time, and twenty percent of priests are homosexually active (186). Alongside this is the problem for the Roman Catholic Church of ever diminishing numbers applying for the priesthood. Emptying or empty and defunct monasteries and nunneries are a world-wide phenomena.

Wills’ tackles the terrible widespread problem of paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church. The way in which this has festered and been covered up is criminal. A survey showed that from 1983 to 1987 an average of one case a week was reported. Not one diocese in America has been without its paedophilia case. Even worse, whole cultures of paedophilia have been uncovered (see conspiracy of silence page 175 ff).

This damaging reality is confirmed in England by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor who, in a gathering of priests on September4, 2001, made the headlines with the claim that Christianity is almost vanquished in Britain. The cardinal spoke of the damage and shame brought to his Church by the scandal of paedophile priests. He said that priests, and especially bishops, had not been sufficiently aware of the “insidious” and “pathological” nature of child abuse and had not treated all allegations with the seriousness they merited. (Times, 6 September 2001). The cardinal simply makes admissions but Wills, in his book, takes the lid off and what is seen inside is horrendous!

Marian Politics

Wills shows that the Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church have been used to further the agendas of the Papacy. “Modern Popes tell priests to think of themselves as virgins consecrated to the Virgin” (204). Wills repudiates the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (210ff). “When the Vatican Council argued in 1859 that the Pope was not infallible the Pope himself responded by asserting that he had already proved his infallibility in the formula that he had defined as the Immaculate Conception” (215).

In this review I have limited myself to major issues. The author of this book is concerned for truthfulness and that is commendable. He exposes some errors which have caused great personal harm and damage to innumerable souls (sexual immorality and paedophilia) and other errors of a more general character (like the canonization of Edith Stein)–matters which have been cunningly and deceitfully manipulated to bolster the public image of Rome. There is disappointment in this volume inasmuch as the author has no idea of the saving power of the gospel (justification by faith alone). He stoutly rejects the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (307). The book is valuable for the information which has been researched and documented. The author’s grasp of history is excellent. Sadly the spiritual thrust of his writing is minimal.