“Among The Ruins: The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Catholic Church”
By Paul L. Williams
338 pages, $24
Paul L. Williams, the author of “Among The Ruins,” stands amid what he considers the rubble of the Roman Catholic Church, precipitated by changes instituted by Vatican II. He claims on an earlier talk show, for example, that Pope Francis, the present pontiff, is a war criminal wanted in his native Argentina. If you believe that, then this is the book for you. Williams is a professed traditional Catholic out to delegitimize everything the Catholic Church has done in the last 50 years. He has a dangerous facility for mixing obvious truths with dubious or plain-wrong assertions.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Of course the Roman Catholic Church is in dire need of reform. It’s a combination human and divine enterprise, and its human element is prone to screw things up from time to time. Remember Peter, later the Church’s first pope, denied knowing Jesus three times before Jesus was crucified. Peter made a comeback. Internal reviews by various popes across centuries have rendered good and bad results. Pope Francis, by some accounts, is moving with diplomatic ease; with four important cardinals having taken leave the stage, as noted in a recent New York Times piece by Ross Douthat, “Pope Francis’ Next Act.” The question asked of the present pope is, “Facing less resistance, how far will the pope push?”
These remarks could equally have been written by church-watchers 400 or 800 years ago about other popes and would have been valid. While the Church has taken advantage of technological change, doctrine -- the magisterium of the Church -- is augmented with exceptional care, prayer, and scholarship. Listening to the petitions of people in the pews has had variable import in policy making. Williams’ book doesn’t seem to balance these elements in its criticism.
One argument for the Church being divinely inspired is that, if it weren’t, it would have fallen apart centuries ago. I’ve reviewed a number of books on books critical of the Catholic Church by critics claiming to be true believers, Garry Wills in the forefront, and all criticize the Church they profess to love.
Despite the claims in “Among The Ruins,” the Catholic Church is not dying. Its driving force is the Holy Spirit - and its outreach to people throughout the world. Millions of its faithful are living holy lives, nurtured by its sacraments.
In a sense, this book could be told as the story of two parishes. Of course there are thousands of other success stories, and some stories of parishes with problems, trying hard if not striving. Remember the film, “Going My Way?”
Here’s the comparison. Williams begins his book with a fond recollection of how great the pre-Vatican II Church was, referring to his family’s parish, St John the Baptist, in West Scranton in the 1950s. It was where he received the sacraments, “sang Panis Angelicus” with the church choir, inscribed JMJ on the upper right hand corner of his composition papers, wore a St. Christopher’s medal, and made the sign of the cross before a foul shot.” The other parish is my own: St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Fla. It’s illustrative of the Church’s vibrancy in 2017. Its pastor is a Buffalo native, the Rev. Robert J. Kantor. He has a hard-working staff of professionals who offer an animated parish life to 5,500 people during season. The parishioners worship in English, Spanish, and Latin. At this parish, stewardship – people spreading the Gospel - includes prayer groups, service groups, catechetical and liturgical groups, nightly teen-age sessions of faith formation, along with organizations with parish affiliation like the Knights of Columbus and St. Vincent de Paul. One couldn’t ask for more.
So this quick picture of an animated parish, St. Agnes, similar to Williams’ St. John the Baptist, in West Scranton that he begins his book with in the 1950s, is a tale of two faiths. Williams’ book is about the spectre he sees, where others see a vibrant Church in 2017.
If you think Malachi Martin, a comedian, and now a sad figure in his mid-eighties who didn’t finish elementary school is a theologian, this is your book. Martin himself relates that he’s an atheist.
I could go on. Like a stopped clock, Williams is right twice a day.
The author makes some telling remarks about issues that need investigation. He says the Vatican has CIA and Mafia connections, has covered up pedophilia and more.
It should be said that in the case of victims of religious sexual abuse, plaintiffs abused by clergy have received millions in restitution. But victims’ innocence will never be returned to them. In Chapter 19, page 247, Williams calls the Church “Paradise For Pederests.” I think he means “pederasts.”
It seems obvious that wherever real trouble is extant in the Church, there should be vigorous investigation by legal and ecclesiastical authorities.
This book isn’t that venue.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News