"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Another cliché bites the dust...

It is said, especially in Hollywood, that all publicity is good publicity. If one measures one's self-worth strictly in terms of fame and the fortune it can bring, I suppose that's true. And in the world of ideas there's an element of that. Even so, things are not quite the same there. If you want your ideas taken seriously by people who understand ideas, it's more important that yours be free of particularly patent nonsense. Notice I did not say they must be true. That would be going too far because, after all, even highly intelligent people often prefer pleasant falsehoods to unpleasant truths, especially if believing said falsehoods is fashionable in the academy and the gallery. But there comes a point when somebody says something so nonsensical, with such insouciant confidence, that not even its popularity in his own circle is enough to preserve his wider reputation for probity. Much to my relief, Garry Wills has now said just such a thing.

I say "to my relief" because up till now, the cradle-Catholic, ex-seminarian Wills' attacks on the teaching authority of the Church, and especially the papacy, have been so scholarly in appearance and savage in spirit as to help make the aging, shrinking corps of American progressives ('progs' for short) feel ever more secure in their dissent. I'm working on a book project that will, among other things, discredit some of his scholarship. But he's now doing my job well enough for me. Amy Welborn—bless her indefatigable heart—has offered us a podcast of recent interview with Wills in which he claimed, among other things, the following:

Wills: There is..a message of life and love in the New Testament. Little of that comes out of Rome now. People are dying of AIDS all around the world now especially in places like Africa and Indonesia now, …when the Pope refuses to allow people to have contraception, he’s killing them. He’s responsible for murder. This is hardly a gospel of life and love.

Interviewer: You say that Pope Benedict is responsible for murder?

Wills: Sure, sure. More people are more resentful and hateful toward the Catholic Church because of that than because of the sexual molestation problem…sexual molesters are terrible it’s..you know here in Boston, but for the most part, not always, but for the most part they didn’t kill people. This is killing people on a grand scale, and it’s a horrendous scandal, much greater than any sexual molestation scandal.
It is a measure of the difficulties Catholics face these days that such statements actually require refutation rather than instantly discrediting those who make them. The people writing in Amy's combox do a good job of the former, and I commend their comments to your attention. They cite facts galore. But one shouldn't have to. It's mere common sense to note that people who have sex of the kinds and under circumstances that transmit AIDS do not, by and large, give a rat's patootie whether the Pope approves of condoms or not. In many cases, they don't even care enough to know. They are not putting their own and others' lives at risk by heeding the Pope; if they thought the Pope worth heeding, they wouldn't be going around having such sex to begin with. Nobody save Catholic progs needs to be told that.

It says a lot that Wills, like so many of Catholics of his kind and generation, has deteriorated intellectually over the years. In college I took a course on the American Revolution in which my term paper consisted of a long review of his Inventing America—a book best described, for the uninitiated, as a long attempt to argue that the Declaration of Independence was really proto-socialist. While I didn't agree with the thesis, it was cleverly argued, and I really had to do my homework to learn about the alternative approaches that Wills didn't treat fairly or sometimes even engage seriously. But that was nearly thirty years ago. Since then his scholarship has been gradually sliding downhill. His Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2001) is a bitter polemic that, while flashing a superficially impressive array of footnotes, doesn't credibly maintain even the appearance of scholarly objectivity and balance. It's as if alternative narratives and interpretations don't even merit mention, much less rebuttal. He's lost the discipline that comes from having to preach to a choir other than one's own.

And that seems to be true of Catholic progs in general, such as Joan Chittister, Charles Curran, and so many others of the generation of American Catholics that came of age around the time of Vatican II. Whether clerical or lay, educated or ordinary, they've spent forty years spending themselves in spite against the Church, which they believe the Council sought to radically remake and John Paul II refused to remake at all. In that, ironically enough, they mirror the schismatic traditionalist movements, which have spent nearly as long proceeding on the assumption that the Church of Vatican II is discontinuous with that of the past, the only difference being that the trads believe it really exists and criticize Wojtyla and Ratzinger for failing to restore what was. While the progs celebrate the same imaginary Church, always of course maintaining loyalty to the next pope or maybe the one after that, the narrative of discontinuity is the same. The good guys and bad guys are just reversed.

All of these people will gradually peter out in spite. The progs will peter out first because, unlike the trads, they don't produce many babies and priests. Thank God.
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