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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  • Posted by: - Jul. 07, 2004 10:16 AM ET USA

    Garry Wills is a windbag on par with Michael Moore, unfortunately one taken seriously by people too lazy to do their own research and thinking. This is what happens to discourse when St. Thomas Aquinas is rejected.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 06, 2004 10:41 PM ET USA

    Excuse me if I'm wrong, but didn't the levirite laws arise AFTER onan spilled his seed? Moses the law-giver doesn't appear until EXODUS. Don't we have a basic chronological problem here with Wills' lame attempt to do a scriptural end-run around Humanae Vitae. Regardless of the merits of my scriptural exegisis, Catholics are not bible-thumping Protestants. Contraception is also known to be immoral on the basis of orthodox tradition and natural law.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 06, 2004 9:52 PM ET USA

    I guess for Willis, the "Thou shall not kill" commandment only applies to children one minute old. But one minute before birth, the Scriptures are inconclusive. What a logician!

  • Posted by: - Jul. 06, 2004 1:11 PM ET USA

    "The popes read the Bible wrong.." Is he serious? All the popes, from the very beginning? Where do these mental challenged people come from? Never mind the spirit of Vatican II. Maybe its time we started sorting out spirits and keep the good wine and send the vinegar off to enjoy its sour grapes.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 05, 2004 11:10 AM ET USA

    The position of Mr Wills is far more sinister than it would appear at first glance.As he is allowed to operate as a full participant in the Catholic community unopposed in any practical or manifest way gives him a certain empowerment by default.And when the man states All I am saying is that the bishops have no special mandate from their office to supplant the individual conscience with some divine imperative He basically denies the right of Bishops to be Bishops and also us as Catholics