Prolific historian and classicist Garry Wills has never avoided controversy. His new bestseller Why Priests? is not only timely but hard-hitting. Wills is a devout Catholic, a deep believer and a scholar. But he has always questioned the limits of the authority within the church. In 2000, he published Papal Sin, which details the exploits of several flawed popes and argues that popes are not infallible. Our reviewer thought Papal Sin “an invigorating read that is sure to spark controversy.” On the eve of the papal conclave, a dose of Garry Wills is in order. — March 11, 2013
Popes used to sin openly, and Catholics knew it, writes Pulitzer Prize-winner Wills (John Wayne’s America, 1997, etc.) in his new study of contemporary Catholicism. Take Pope John XII from the tenth century. Because of family connections, he became pope as a “dissolute teenager” and died a few years later in a married woman’s bed. But today Catholics are hung up on the idea that the Vatican can do no wrong—and that idea, says Wills, may destroy the church. In his briskly written polemic, Wills argues that the Vatican is out of touch. He is especially interested in the question of clerical celibacy: thousands of clerics have left the priesthood in order to get married, leaving the church with a disproportionate number of homosexual priests. Even those who have stayed wish the Vatican would allow priests to marry—and, Wills suggests, this may account for the high number of priests who do not keep their vows of chastity, but get involved in emotional and sexual relationships with women that they cannot really sustain. Wills also takes on abortion, questioning the Vatican’s assertion that life and “ensoulment” begin at conception. But even when it seems the best thing to do, admits Wills, abortion is never ideal, and “It should be avoided, principally by all safe measures of birth control—the one effective anti-abortion measure the Vatican will not allow.”
An invigorating read that is sure to spark controversy.