Reviewed by Pierre HEGY, Adelphi University, GARDEN CITY NY 11530
This is an important book, not only because of its content but because it marks the coming of age of a new generation of lay Catholic intellectuals who are theologically sophisticated. Before Vatican II, according to McKenzie (in The Roman Catholic Church, 1969: 189) educated Catholics could only receive elementary levels of catechetical education because "full instruction is given only in seminaries for the training of candidates for the priesthood." No more. First came a generation of lay theologians. And with this book, a new generation of scholars in the social sciences who are highly literate theologically.
The thesis of the book is suggrested by the title: popes do not lie, but they may distort the truth, often with the best of intentions. Loyalty to the pope and tradition has created a structure of deceit by making loyalty more important than truth.
The book is divided into four parts, two on historical and doctrinal dishonesties, and two on the splendor of truth. The first deals with the the Vatican's attitude toward the Holocaust. The papal claim is: "the church" (meaning the hierarchy) has no responsibility in the Holocaust even if the behavior of "some Christians" was not exemplary. The table is turned around: Catholics were victims of the Holocaust along with Jews. Edith Stein was canonized because presumably she died for her faith, and John Paul II decreed, "in virtue of my apostolic authority," that Maximilian Kolbe is to be honored as a martyr, although his specially appointed commission found no basis for this claim (p.64). The silence of Pius XII about Nazi atrocities is well known, yet he claimed to have condemned "on many occasions in the past the persecution (of) anti-Semitism" (p. 66). Deceitful.
The strongest part of the book is on doctrinal dishonesties. "For years theologians have had to come up with arguments on behalf of a doctrine they were not allowed to contradict. The bishops did not study the pros and cons. They received directives." Thus spoke Cardinal Suenens (p. 92). This was clearly the case about birth control. Although a special commission had been appointed to weigh the pros and cons, it was kept a secret so that its conclusions could be suppressed. When a new commission of bishops voted nine to three in favor of birth control, Paul VI rejected its conclusions because it was not unanimous. He could thus reaffirm "the constant doctrine of the church" by asking "internal and external obedience." What are the arguments? They are unimoportant since obedience is more important than the truth. This structure of deceit continues with John Paul II; now the tendency is to label opposition as contraceptive mentality, death culture, and anti-life mentality. Moreover, those who disagree publicly are silenced whenever possible.
The exclusion of women from the priesthood (chapter 7) is obviously based on centuries of prejudice, yet John Paul II claimed that prejudices never affected "the church." This is "a demonstrable falsehood, a deceit that structures all of the papacy's current statements on the matter" (p. 107). The author, who is an historian, is at his best to document this structure of deceit.
My favorite chapter is on priestly celibacy because here the author shows his excellent command of biblical scholarship. The pope's argument on celibacy - that priests should live like eunuchs for the Kingdom - is shown to be scholarly naive. According to Wills, "New Testament passages [used in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus ] are twisted, omitted, extended, distorted, perverted to make them mean whatever the Pope wants them to mean" (p. 127). Henceforth the papacy should be aware of a new generation of scholars who cannot be silenced because they are lay.
There is not much new material on gay priests, in a chapter appropriately called "Conspiracy of Silence." Much of the content is public record since it often made headlines in the press. Yet it fosters the author's thesis on deceit. Long before the scandals became public, it was recommended to the US bishops that honesty was the best policy. But "this is a recommendation the bishops were by training unable to accept" (p. 183). Indeed loyalty to "the church" and its image had become part of ecclesiastical training, at the expense of loyalty to the truth.
I was somewhat disappointed by the section on "the honesty issue." The question is well stated in the introduction: "Truth is a modern virtue in the sense that it took a new urgency in the last century [which] saw the birth of history as a scientific discipline" (p. 8). I would have like to read a theoretical discussion of the demands of scientific truth. There is no such discussion. It may well be that the structure of deceit is based mainly on a different conception of truth: for the papacy (and theologians in general) "the truth" is absolute, universal, ideal, exhortational, while for social scientists, "truth" is relative, contextual, and factual. When truth is seen as loyalty to "the church" it is likely to seem deceitful to those who, by training, want to be loyal to historical or social facts. After reading this book, one is likely to see "the church" in a new light. Recommended reading.