How Not to Criticize the Church

That rigorist Christian apologist of the second and third centuries Tertullian wasn’t what most people would call a funny guy, yet now and then, when something really got his goat, he seems to have been capable of a sharp-edged sort of humor. As in this:

If the Tiber cometh up to the walls, if the Nile cometh not up to the fields, if the heave hath stood still, if the earth hath been moved, if there be any famine, if any pestilence, “The Christians to the lions” is forthwith the word.

Does that sound like anybody you know? I think of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists who say they’d like to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested for his and the Church’s sins against humanity when the pope visits Britain in September.


Tertullian couldn’t do much directly about the pagans in his day, and we can’t do much directly about the pagans in ours. But it isn’t too much to ask that the Catholic critics of the Church, revved up anew by the latest round of frenzied media reports about clergy sex abuse, sober up and try to think straight.

There is a right way to criticize the Church, and there is a wrong way. Lately we’ve had to put up with much too much of the latter.

But it’s hardly new. Some liberal Catholics and some conservative Catholics have labored for years — unwittingly, to be sure — to create today’s poisoned environment. In both cases, it’s been “the bishops” this and “the Curia” that. And although neither bishops nor Curia are exempt from criticism, a good deal of all this has been knee-jerk and unfair. Now we see the results.

I know a woman — a good, devout Catholic woman, I should add — who’s apparently never read or heard anything derogatory about the Catholic Church without accepting it as gospel truth and hastening to share it with her coreligionists in hopes, it seems, of opening their eyes as hers have been opened. She’s been doing that for quite some time, and when she gets to heaven I expect she’ll bend St. Peter’s ear about the Church’s faults.

A more sophisticated practitioner of Catholic breast-beating is the writer Garry Wills. Wills was at it again in the May 27 issue of the New Republic with an article delicately titled, “Forgive Not: A Catholic’s Struggle with the Sins of His Church.”

Let me be clear. Clergy sex abuse is a horrible thing. Its cover-up over many years by people in positions of authority in the Church in the United States and other countries was profoundly wrong. Blame for the agonizingly long time it took to recognize and admit the problem and take remedial action can’t rightly be sloughed off by high-ranking people in the Vatican (but Benedict deserves credit for doing a much better job of facing up to it than most).

Fair enough. But Wills goes further and uses the abuse scandal as a launching pad for polemics against his Church concerning much else that he doesn’t like. There’s a legitimate place for polemics, and some of Wills’s targets deserve it. But polemicists have no more right than anybody else to play fast and loose with facts.


As Wills, not for the first time, does at several points in his New Republic article. For example: When the present pope was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he argued that doctrine isn’t set by majority vote. “But that,” Wills writes, “is precisely how creeds and doctrines were formulated. At the great Eastern councils . . . hundreds of bishops from around the world voted on the deepest mysteries of the faith . . . . And there was no Pope at any of those councils.”

That’s half the story — the half it suits Wills to tell. The half that doesn’t suit him he ignores. It’s true that no pope was present at those great councils of the early centuries. But legates of the bishop of Rome were there. And the assent of Rome to the decisions of a council was necessary.

A case in point that Wills ought to acknowledge, but doesn’t, was the council held at Ephesus in the year 449. With good reason, it has entered history as the Latrocinium — the “Gang of Robbers.” It was called to address the Monophysite heresy (one nature in Christ). But Monophysites got control of the proceedings and rammed through a statement supporting their position.

The statement, it appears, received the signatures of all the bishops then present — exactly 108 of them. Along the way, Monophysites resorted to violence in which the elderly patriarch of Constantinople was killed and the three papal legates were forced to flee.

Back in Rome, Pope St. Leo I wasn’t amused. He rejected the views of the Gang of Robbers and pressed for a new council. This fourth general council was held at Chalcedon in 451 and, as the pope wished, reversed Ephesus and affirmed that Christ had two natures, human and divine.

I suspect that even Wills wouldn’t be pleased at the thought that, in line with his theory of conciliar democracy, he and I and many of the rest of us might well be Monophysites today if Leo hadn’t taken a strong stand against that long-ago gathering in Ephesus. But whether he would or wouldn’t, precisely as a polemicist Wills needs to tell the story straight.

A new and timely instance of doing just that in relation to current events is Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, by Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson, newly published by Our Sunday Visitor. Erlandson and Bunson don’t duck unpleasant facts; they deal with them head-on.

“One of the lessons of the scandal,” they write, “is that the truth is not our enemy and is not to be feared. The facts must be faced, but they must also be examined with balance and honesty.” Disclosure requires that I say the authors are friends of mine, and I am a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. But the book stands on its own as an honest exercise in collecting and reporting facts.

But to end on a downer: Not the least depressing feature of the Wills article is the news that a tenth anniversary edition of his book Papal Sin will be published later this year. Like its author’s current polemics, the original edition of that volume also was an indiscriminate mélange of fact, half-fact, and non-fact. Tertullian, where are you when we need you?

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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