COMMENTARY: Garry Wills, John the Baptist and Passionate Belief

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of “My Brother Joseph,” published by St. Martin Press.)

(UNDATED) Garry Wills will be on the short list for the John the Baptist award _ the “Johnnie,” as modern culture might term it _ for his just-published book, “Papal Sin.”

He joins Father Donald Cozzens, nominated earlier for his speaking the truth aloud about homosexuality in the contemporary Roman Catholic priesthood.

John’s voice boomed out of the desert the electrifying truth that the day of the Lord was at hand. His head was the price for his prophecy.

The timorous always go for the heads of the brave. They want the will, too, but never ask for the heart, perhaps because they have no interest in love and are afraid of passion.

Heresy hunters were the first advocates of political correctness. They still seek conformity, that superficial propriety so akin to superficial religion: Think what we think, do what we say.

Authentic prophets have always been pressured to “recant” or “withdraw” what they have preached or written and to “submit” their wills to superiors who usually order them to bury their God-given talents in the earth, in unmarked graves if possible, never again to use them to glorify God or to serve his world and his people.

Peter Abelard was condemned for teaching the Scholastic method begun by St. Albert the Great that inspired St. Thomas Aquinas and, centuries later, became the house philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. He was forced to burn his work in the presence of his fellow monks and to recite in tears the creed.

“And so,” he later wrote, “it was burnt.” How powerful these words remain these many centuries later.

Garry Wills might as well switch to the Baptist’s diet of honey and locusts because in “Papal Sin” he reflects, in words cut sharp and clear as diamonds, on how poorly the richness of truth has been served by the impoverished bureaucratic maneuvers of so many high Catholic leaders _ the will- and head-hunters of the official church.

Wills hands over neither, for he represents that generation of faithful Catholics whose theological sophistication and love of the church as a Mystery equals or surpasses that of most bishops, who must view it as an Institution.

Wills reviews what he terms “historical” and “doctrinal dishonesties,” ranging from the church’s hardly perfect relationships with the Jewish people to its often highly deceptive dealings with its own people.

These include the bureaucratic manipulations that overturned the work of the special commission established to study birth control at Vatican Council II.

The overwhelming recommendations of that group, to which the testimony of human experience was brought by the laity who participated, and with which the special sub-commission of bishops, including the future Pope John Paul II, agreed, were overturned _ largely on the basis of an argument extraneous to the theology of marriage and sexuality.

That political argument was championed by the then-head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, whose unauthorized rump commission triumphed by arguing the church could not have been wrong about birth control and any change would be an admission of error.

The church, of course, had already revisited an issue that, like birth control, it once declared intrinsically evil, usury. It purified charging interest on money and made smooth the way for Christian capitalism.

Forcing arguments against the grain of truth continues, especially, as Wills shows, in the official refusal to examine the scriptural texts _ such as “There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God” _ that, in the light of modern scholarship, do not refer to the superiority of virginity over marriage, celibacy for priests, or the exclusion of women from ordination.

Pope John Paul II has so employed them and seems surprised _ indeed, annoyed _ that Catholics don’t surrender their minds or wills to him on these matters.

Wills writes from the heart as well as from his brilliant intellect. He writes with a rare quality, that passion for truth that church leaders have ignored, perhaps because they don’t understand that the heart symbolizes and expresses the unity of human personality they have so long divided into flesh and spirit, intellect and emotions, in order to conquer it.

Wills is a passionate Catholic, a believer who is an expert on everything from Augustine to Chesterton. Others, unwilling to deal with his arguments, will criticize his tone, described by the generally pre-Vatican II Wall Street Journal as “ferocious.”

That is probably what they would have said of the original John the Baptist. Wills heralds an era in which church officials will no longer be able to demand the heads of thinkers but will be forced to examine the truth whose power frightens them because it makes them free.


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