Gary Wills on Papal Authority

From NYTimes:

THERE is a poignant air, almost wistful, to electing a pope in the modern world. In a time of discredited monarchies, can this monarchy survive and be relevant? There is nostalgia for the assurances of the past, quaint in their charm, but trepidation over their survivability. In monarchies, change is supposed to come from the top, if it is to come at all. So people who want to alter things in Catholic life are told to wait for a new pope. Only he has the authority to make the changeless church change, but it is his authority that stands in the way of change….

When Pope Paul VI’s commission of learned and loyal Catholics, lay and clerical, reconsidered the “natural law” teaching against birth control, and concluded that it could not, using natural reason, find any grounds for it, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the secretary of the Holy Office, told Paul that people had for years, on papal warrant, believed that using a contraceptive was a mortal sin, for which they would go to hell if they died unrepentant. On the other hand, those who followed “church teaching” were obliged to have many children unless they abstained from sex. How could Paul VI say that Pius XI, in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, had misled the people in such a serious way? If he admitted it, what would happen to his own authority as moral arbiter in matters of heaven and hell? So Paul VI doubled down, adding another encyclical in 1968, Humanae Vitae, to the unrenounceable eternal truths that pile up around a moral monarch.

In our day, most Catholics in America have reached the same conclusion that Paul VI’s commission did. But successive popes have stuck by Pius and Paul and have appointed bishops who demonstrate loyalty on this matter. That is why some American bishops in the recent presidential election said that President Obama was destroying “religious liberty” if his health plan insured funds for contraception. Nonetheless, more Catholics voted for Mr. Obama than didn’t. In a normal government, this disconnect between rulers and ruled would be negotiated. But eternal truths are nonnegotiable.

Will the new conclave vote for a man who goes against the teachings of his predecessors? Even if they do, can the man chosen buck the structure through which he rose without kicking the structure down? These considerations have given the election of new popes the air of watching Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football, hoping that Lucy will cooperate.

"There were exceptions, but MEN have been the Bible interpreters throughout history, and Complementarians largely ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 19 May 2018
"O.K.: You believe that Noah and his family existed; that he built an ark in ..."

It is Hyperbole. (RJS)
""Keep the Bible away from women----as it was for so many centuries."If there was specifically ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 19 May 2018
"Hauerwas is correct in at least one area: Disagreement over human origins has driven many ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 19 May 2018

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As is to be expected, Wills’ comments are tendentious in the extreme, i.e., they make no attempt at being balanced or just.

    While there is little doubt that Catholic teaching on matters sexual have been subject to Manichaean influences for many centuries, there is much more to the history than that. For example, Wills neglects to mention that John Noonan–a member of Paul’s commission and an eminent judge, constitutional scholar and canon lawyer–conceded that the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception has roots as far back as the New Testament (citing, among other things, references to pharmakeia has referring to contraceptive and abortifacient potions). Noonan nevertheless recommended changing consistent Church teaching. His argument seems to have been similar to Wills–that they Church should base its interpretation of the moral law on the popular will. That, I submit, is a morally bankrupt position.

    Wills also fails to mention that one of the dissenters from the commission’s (non-binding) recommendation was no less a theologian than Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II. It is no coincidence that Wojtyla’s reasoning, which was based as much on his ideas of “personalism” as on natural law theory, is heavily reflected in Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

  • In case anyone’s interested–and I DO recommend it–here’s a link to the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (i.e., Humanae vitae tradendae, the transmission of human life).

  • Steve

    Yes, this fellow gets the role of the Pope completely reversed. The authority of the Pope is not the authority to change doctrine, it is the authority to keep it the same. It used to be a universal Christian teaching that contraception was immoral. The office of the Pope exists to ensure the truth doesn’t “change”.

    And is it so unreasonable to expect people to have self-discipline with their sexuality? No Contraception doesn’t automatically mean “Lots of Babies.” Babies aren’t cause by a lack of contraception, they are caused by sex. By spacing out sex, a couple can plan their family without the wife having to take a chemical cocktail. My wife and I practice NFP, and we’ve been very blessed by it.

  • God bless you, Steve. Me and my wife, too. This teaching (and NFP) is a call to take responsibility for our sexuality in a truly human way. It’s a really prophetic teaching in this age of increased dehumanization–the abolition of man, somebody once called it.

    An additional comment. I think you get it exactly right when you say: “The authority of the Pope is not the authority to change doctrine, it is the authority to keep it the same.” I think the easy acceptance of Newman’s idea of “the development of doctrine” has been transformed, in combination with “papal infallibility,” into the idea of coming up with new doctrine rather than preserving what was handed down.

  • EricW

    Wills’ latest book, released this week:

    Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition

    Pulitzer Prize winner Wills (Verdi’s Shakespeare, 2011, etc.), a venerable voice on church history, thought and practice, provides a stunning critique of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
    Without equivocation, the author argues that the entire institution of the priesthood is based on pure fallacy. Wills’ argument is not a Protestant one disguised as Catholic; it is entirely Catholic in its tone and approach, making it all the more compelling to all readers. The author begins by explaining the unparalleled importance of the priesthood in Catholic doctrine, always reminding readers that this importance is based primarily on Eucharistic theology. The miracle of transubstantiation is the linchpin for the power of the priesthood. By systematically deconstructing the Book of Hebrews, Wills begins to undermine the concept of the Roman Catholic priest. Going further, he boldly confronts the idea of Christ’s death as “sacrifice,” theorizing that the incarnation, not the crucifixion, was the truer source of humanity’s atonement. Wills’ book is sure to provoke controversy, but his arguments are well-constructed and hard to ignore. While giving due respect to those priests through the ages who served others in humility, he points out that the exalted caste of the priesthood is at best antithetical to Jesus’ teachings about community and piety. At worst, it allows sin and corruption to fester. Wills’ writing is informed by accessible erudition and marked by subtle sarcasm (such as describing the Host as “a kind of benevolent kryptonite,” or discussing the things Anselm “does not allow God to do”). Though many Catholics will flatly reject Wills’ arguments on principle, many others will find him to be elucidating doubts they may have already had.

  • Eric, I’ve read a number of Wills’ books, and while I have some sympathy for some of his ideas–not agreement, but sympathy–overall I find him tendentious and often sneering (rather than “subtly sarcastic”). I certainly agree that the Church is in need of a new model of ecclesiology, that the Renaissance princely model must be changed. There are aspects of sacramental theology that need to be reexamined–and that is being done. But as for atonement, I can’t get past Paul’s words about Christ, “who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

  • EricW

    @6 mark:

    I’ve skimmed and read parts of some of Wills’ other books. I saw this one at the bookstore tonight, and after skimming it and then reading some reviews decided to get it. If nothing else, I’ll see how scholarly and valid his argument is against the sacerdotalism that separates Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism. His atonement vs. incarnation argument is also one I’m interested in reading.

  • Steve


    The idea of the incarnation – not the crucifixion – being the source of our atonement strikes me as something that would upset both Catholics and Protestants. I think one would have to jettison large portions of the Bible to make such an argument.

  • EricW

    I agree it’s a provocative idea. Maybe Wills is arguing that the act of the Deity becoming human made the human at-one-with the Deity even more than Jesus’ dying effected at-one-ment by removing/satisfying the Deity’s wrath at human sin that had estranged the two.

    I shall know when I read Wills – which you can do for yourself at your local Barnes & Noble right now. 🙂