Action Alert!

The Bishops vs. the Bible

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. ( articles ) | Jul 05, 2004

Sporadically insightful polemicist and purveyor of scholarly fraud Garry Wills says the popes read the Bible wrong.

Modern "right to life" issues -- abortion and contraception -- are nowhere mentioned in either Jewish or Christian Scripture. Pope Pius XI said they were, in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), where Onan's "spilling his seed on the ground" (and the reason for his punishment by God) was interpreted as preventing conception and birth. Yet no scholar of Scripture accepts that reading of Genesis 38:9 anymore; it is read as referring to levirate marriage duties. The Vatican now agrees with this interpretation. Even in his own sphere, the revealed word of God, the pope could be wrong.

"No scholar of Scripture accepts that reading of Genesis." A ridiculous claim. Has Wills canvassed the Finnish, Slavic, and German biblical journals for the past fifteen years? Could he name five of the top twenty Spanish-language Genesis experts, much less expound their opinions on Genesis 38:9? Of course not. At best, his researches consisted in phoning an ideologically compatible hack -- who would have made the "no scholar of Scripture" pronouncement based more on his study of the Robert Mapplethorpe Coloring Book than a perusal of Analecta Biblica.

Wills's smug pedantic complacency -- which, remember, flatters rather than troubles the antecedent sympathies of his audience -- is mildly irksome. More to the point is his dizzyingly stupid argument that the Onan passage refers not to "preventing conception and birth," but to "levirate marriage duties." But the levirate duty in question is precisely the obligation of a dead man's brother to raise up children to him by means of sexual relations with his widow -- i.e., conception and birth. Pius XI saw the levirate connection as clearly as Michael Jackson (or whatever pentateuchal exegete Wills consulted). If the Vatican "now agrees with this interpretation" it's because it never disagreed. Whether Onan's technique is comparable to the use of nonoxynol-9 is arguably a matter of dispute, but a biblicist, as biblicist, has nothing to say to the question.

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