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Challenge to the Church


Without pursuing the theological details of Wills’s argument concerning the origin of the Mass, which I leave to scholars of early Christianity and its doctrinal development, I would remark that his proposal recalls the practice of worship in certain other religious traditions, inside or at the margins of the orthodox Western Christian tradition, such as the seventeenth-century Society of Friends, “quaking at the word of the Lord,” with its leaderless meetings and spontaneous testimonies, and its offshoot or counterpart religious communities where meditation and individually inspired testimony are primary to the worship of God, without formal ceremony or sacrifice. However the Eastern Orthodox churches and all of the mainstream Protestant denominations issued from the Reformation have maintained priestly or clerical leadership, of the kind to which Wills objects, and conduct formal services.

Wills’s new book follows Papal Sin, his admirable and cogent book of 2000 on intellectual dishonesty in the modern papacy, specifically in resisting admittance of past wrongs and error.4 It has coincided with the election of a successor to Benedict XVI, a procedure that presented the papacy in full demonstration of the inherited pomp and late splendor that set it off from life as lived in the modern world, and displays the precipitous and dangerous distance at which the Catholic clerical establishment has lived from common mortals.

The elected and administrative staffs of European and other governments often spend their working hours in the architectural grandeur and spectacle of the past, similar to the palaces of Vatican City, but remain themselves unassumedly ordinary officials. Vatican City is an unparalleled architectural and aesthetic legacy from the European past, but also seems a community and monument adrift in time, its occupants’ protocol, attire, forms of address, and liturgical ceremony mostly derived from the Renaissance.

The protocol of the surviving monarchies of Europe is also anachronistic, but their members’ willingness to marry commoners and ability to use the common touch and gesture are essential to their institutional survival as ornaments of the nation. The Queen of England has her household cavalry, which when not having its photo taken in Trafalgar Square is a light armored formation. The French president on July 14 and other ceremonial occasions reviews with his official guests the last mounted unit of the French army, three squadrons of the Garde Républicaine and its mounted band, whose real life involves guarding and managing official buildings as well as miscellaneous security assignments.

The principal justification for the Vatican’s Swiss Guards today is their marvelous Renaissance uniforms, which like all military full dress is compensation for the “servitude” of military life—endured behind the scenes even by the Swiss Guard. But unlike the secular officials who work in Europe’s historical palaces, the members of the Roman Curia and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church who populate Vatican City spend their working and private lives in clerical garb indicating rank and station even outside ceremonies.

Early in this book Wills describes his wonderment as an altar boy at the multiplicity of symbolic garments a mere parish priest must wear to identify his ecclesiastical mission and consecrated status. In what might be read as mockery, he details at length what over the centuries has become the canonically decreed clothing and ornamentation of the priest, particularly when he says Mass. He also tells how, as a young caddie, he first recognized their worldly vanities when profiting from lay deference in parking spaces at the country club and in teeing-off on the golf course.


Those who demand doctrinal or disciplinary reforms of the Western church today in the secular and religious press and academy usually call for priests to be able to marry, for women and gays to be ordained, and for divorced and remarried persons to be admitted to the sacraments. There may well be married priests in the foreseeable future since male celibacy is an arbitrary extension of a monastic discipline to the lay clergy, which in principle could be revoked. There are married priests in the Eastern churches (including Uniates—the Eastern rite churches linked to Rome) and in certain ancient Middle Eastern and Asian rites that have always accepted the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, as well as doctrinally conservative Anglican and Episcopal clergy recently converted to Rome.

There have always been homosexual priests just as there have always been homosexual sailors and soldiers (who presumably did not ask or tell)—as anyone who has been in the military service or the clergy knows. The church demands only chastity, not change in human nature. (According to a New York Times report of March 20, the present pope argued to an assembly of Argentine bishops in 2010 in favor of legalized homosexual civil unions as a “lesser…evil” than gay marriage, considered contrary to the natural order. He was outvoted.) The ordination of women is considered prohibited by the Bible, and I would think that interpretation unlikely to be changed—but who knows. Admission of divorced persons to the sacraments is, in American and European parishes, widely practiced without comment, as is artificial birth control.

The essential reform is to end the rule of priestly celibacy, a need that was widely recognized well before the recent public outrage over clerical sexual abuse. Priestly celibacy was imposed by the Second Lateran Council (1139) in reaction to the great controversy over the dual position of some bishops and abbots as both “temporal” (political) and “spiritual” lords. This led to the transfer of ecclesiastical property to laymen or their inheritors, and to simony—the sale or purchase of ecclesiastical offices or emoluments, as well as spiritual things such as indulgences. Banning married clergy was one measure to put an end to this.

Whatever celibacy’s utility at the time, it has over the generations produced a clerical culture both obsessive and repressive, as well as often hypocritical, which imposes undoubted useless misery on many individuals, while further separating clergy from lay people. American Catholics have been a particular victim of this, since the American church has been heavily influenced by immigrant Irish clergy and bishops, and the Irish Catholic Church since the eighteenth century has suffered a virulent form of Jansenism, despite Jansenism’s having been declared a heresy in 1653.

Jansenism originated with Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), and flourished at Louvain University, where he taught, becoming bishop of Ypres in 1636. It was a form of return to Augustinian piety and the search for extreme personal holiness, which came eventually to deny free will and preach predestination and the inability of grace to produce conversion. There was no justification by faith alone. (It has been described as a Catholic Calvinism, but there seems in fact to have been no actual influence.) Its effect in Ireland was by way of the seminary education of Irish priests in France (because of British suppression of Catholicism in Ireland). Jansenism’s extreme sexual puritanism affected Catholic culture in the home country, and was transmitted to the nineteenth-century Irish-American immigrant church in the form of a disorienting if not neurotic scrupulosity about sex that survived well into the twentieth century.

In France Jansenism was an important historical and cultural phenomenon through its promulgation by the intellectual nuns of Port-Royal near Paris, and the Catholic elites with which they were in touch. The greatest Jansenist writer and moralist (scientist and mathematician as well) was Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). Jansenism’s influence in the twentieth century has been evident in the work of the Catholic writers François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, and Graham Greene, among many others.


The newly elected pope, Francis, is a Jesuit, an order without distinctive religious habit whose members take the customary vow of poverty. The press has enthusiastically reported that when he was a bishop, Francis vacated the episcopal palace in Buenos Aires to live in a small apartment, as he now apparently intends to do in Rome. According to the French press, he has rejected living in the palatial papal apartment and a 960-square-foot set of rooms is being prepared in an existing residence for clergy, where he will enjoy his expressed desire for “collegial and convivial” company and will avoid isolation. The same antimonarchical outlook is clear in his refusal to wear the ornate “papal” clothing and vestments prized by his predecessor, and his continued use of the simple cassock and bishop’s staff he brought from Buenos Aires. He rarely speaks of the “pope” but describes himself as the Bishop of Rome, which he indeed is. In conversation in Latin languages he often uses the intimate tu (or its equivalent) instead of the formal vous. Conservative elements in the Curia deplore all this as “desacralizing” his office. The same objection was voiced to his break with several centuries’ tradition and instead of performing the Holy Thursday liturgy at the papal cathedral of Saint John Lateran, he did so at a youth offenders’ prison, performing the ritual washing and kissing of the feet of a dozen prisoners (as Jesus did at the Last Supper), including two Muslims and two women, delivering a simple homily to the assembled young inmates.

It is clear from what he already has done that Francis intends a significant declericalization of the Church, a refocus on the poor as God’s beloved, a merciful and compassionate Church and clergy. During the Easter ceremonies he warned the clergy against becoming mere “managers” or “antique collectors” obsessed with liturgical niceties, urging them look outward from the Church and see themselves as “guardians of creation,” leaving their sacristies to change the secular world.

It is very striking that during the Paschal weekend Francis quoted the notoriously radical, intemperate, and scandalous French Catholic convert polemicist, poet, novelist, Dreyfusard, mystic, and chronically impoverished enemy of “the bourgeois,” Léon Bloy (1846–1917). Jacques Maritain described Bloy as “an anachronism…a Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic.”5 Not a favorite of the Curia, I should think. It will be interesting to see what Garry Wills, as scourge of the priesthood, will make of recent events in Rome.


Challenge to the Church’ June 6, 2013

  1. 4

    Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday, 2000). 

  2. 5

    Maritain, introduction to Léon Bloy, Pilgrim of the Absolute, edited by Raïssa Maritain (Pantheon, 1949). Jacques Maritain (1882–1973, from a Protestant family) and his wife Raïssa (who was Jewish), when they were “two children of twenty, suffering from that distress which is the only serious product of modern culture,” were converted to Catholicism by a single encounter with Bloy in 1905. The Dictionnaire des Intellectuels Français describes Maritain as “the greatest Catholic intellectual of this [twentieth] century.” He reestablished Thomism as a factor in contemporary philosophy and had great influence in pre-war French thought and on writers and artists. A “precocious” Gaullist supporter, he was named France’s first postwar ambassador to the Vatican. He taught at Princeton from 1948 to 1960. 

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