Saturday, June 27, 2009

Andrée de Jongh and the Comet Line

A life well lived. A woman who acted positively in the midst of brutality and a world gone mad

In the wake of the events going on in Iran over the last week or two, where the forces of repression gradually seem to be gaining the upper hand, I find myself pondering the question of the efficacy of nonviolence once again, as well as the problem of human evil. Not only am I talking about the macro-problem of evil in the world, but the micro-problem as well. I won’t get into details here, but our family has felt the hand of evil recently in a more personal and direct way. When it affects your own children, if focuses your attention like nothing else.

What is it that really overcomes hatred? What is it that really defeats evil? Are the power of love and nonviolence enough? The Gospels would clearly indicate that they are, yet it seems as if the empirical evidence suggests that in struggles between good and evil (in so far as one side can be labeled objectively as “good” and the other ‘evil”), sometimes one side, namely evil, really does need to lose and to lose decisively. The reluctance to confront this fact in the wake of the horror of World War II seems to provide an explanation for the persistent and intractable nature of some of the conflicts we see in the postmodern era. After having stared into the abyss of total war, holocaust, and nuclear annihilation, it has typically been an era of halfway measures in the aftermath. I heard a guest on the Speaking of Faith program recently saying that world powers have often had to decide throughout history whether to be loved or to be feared, and that the United States in the post-World War II period has tried to be both loved and feared, thus failing in both respects.

In any case, if love and nonviolence cannot overcome hatred and evil, it may surely be offensive to our ears and our Christian sensibilities, but what may be even more offensive is to accept that love and nonviolence don’t work and to try to co-opt and water-down the Gospels in order to support that contention. If we hold to the view that “some people just need killin’,” doesn’t it make a mockery of Christianity if we try to wed that belief to it?

Be that as it may…

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately about the air war over Europe in World War II. One of them, which I’ve barely started , is a stern critique of the campaigns carried out by the allied forces called Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A. C. Grayling. The other, which is more balanced, and laudatory without falling into hagiography, is called Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald L. Miller. The former takes the war planners to task for their deliberate bombing campaigns against civilian targets, such as the firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo in particular, while the latter takes into account that these were the inevitable and regrettable consequences of the forces and dynamics at work in that war. It certainly needs to be recognized that from a very early point in the war, any semblance of abiding by the Just War Criteria had been effectively jettisoned by both sides, as the war became increasingly brutal and desperate.

The US Eighth Army Air Force was stationed at bases in East Anglia from 1942 onwards, and they carried out a “strategic bombing” campaign over France and Germany with their B17 Flying Fortresses and B24 Liberators by day while the British bombed by night. Much is written about the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz in 1940, as well as the onslaught on London from V1 and V2 rockets later on, but less is made of the fact that the British RAF carried out a city-busting “area bombing” campaign against the cities of Nazi Germany for almost the full duration of the war under the direction of Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Harris was aggressive and unapologetic about this. One night, while speeding in his Bentley from London to his headquarters in High Wycombe, he was stopped by a policeman who admonished him, saying “You might have killed someone, sir.” Harris roared, “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Arthur "Bomber" Harris with members of an RAF crew

It’s not that Harris was a psychopath. Overestimating the effectiveness of air power as many generals still do today, he sincerely thought he could bring Germany to its knees without a ground invasion. The Bomber Command thought they could bring the Reich to the point of collapse by destroying the morale of the population. It was an early if not misguided attempt at “Shock and Awe.”

The American air commanders, by contrast, thought they had the ability, with the highly-touted but ultimately over-rated Norden Bombsight, to do “pickle barrel” precision bombing, but the technology really wasn’t there yet, and the heavy overcast weather to be found almost as a constant over northern Europe made it difficult to accomplish in any case. They did try, in their campaigns to take out German U-boat pens, ball-bearing factories, aircraft assembly plants, oil fields, and synthetic-fuel storage facilities to focus on “strategic” targets, but in the face of ferocious resistance from anti-aircraft flak and Luftwaffe fighters, the accuracy was questionable.

Civilian casualties were certainly heavy, but the bomber crews took terrific losses themselves too. Not only did the generals over-estimate the effectiveness of strategic bombing, but they also overestimated the ability of the Fortresses to defend themselves over Germany without fighter escorts. The attrition rate that was inflicted upon the most highly intelligent and best-trained servicemen America had to offer was severe. About 26,000 airmen from the Eighth Air Force perished in the skies over Europe, half of the fatalities suffered by the US Army Air Force as a whole. Another 28,000 wound up as POWs. Donald Miller wrote:
Along with German And American submarine crews and the Luftwaffe pilots they met in combat, American and British bomber boys had the most dangerous jobs in the war. In October 1943, fewer than one out of four Eighth Air Force crew members could expect to complete his tour of duty: twenty-five combat missions. The statistics were discomforting. Two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured by the enemy. And 17 percent would either be wounded seriously, suffer a disabling mental breakdown, or die in a violent air accident over English soil. Only 14 percent of fliers (who) arrived in England in May 1943 made it to their twenty-fifth mission. By the end of the war, the Eight Air Force would have more fatal casualties – 26,000 – than the entire United States Marine Corps. Seventy-seven percent of the Americans who flew against the Reich before D-Day would wind up as casualties.
In 1943, the Mighty Eighth was losing the air war over Europe, and it looked like strategic daylight bombing was a failure. It wasn’t until the introduction of the P51-Mustang that the tide began to really turn. The Mustang, the best fighter plane of the war, was the first to have the range to accompany the bombers all the way into the German heartland, and that made all the difference.

For all of the focus on strategic targets, there were times when the US Air Force went after factory worker populations in cities as well. Miller describes the moral qualms that some airmen felt.
There was some grumbling about target selection. “It was a Sunday, and many crewmen had deep reservations about bombing anywhere near churches,” recalled Lt. Robert Sabel, a pilot with the 390th Bomb Group. Capt Ellis Scripture, an navigator who would be flying in the 95th Bomb Group’s lead Fortress, The Zootsuiters, later described his reaction. “I’d been raised in a strict Protestant home. My parents were God-oriented people… I was shocked to learn that we were to bomb civilians as our primary target for the first time in the war. Ellis Scripture went to his group commander after the briefing and told him he didn’t want to fly that day. Col. John Gerhart exploded: “Look Captain, this is war, spelled W-A-R. We’re in an all-out fight; the Germans have been killing innocent people all over Europe for years. We’re here to beat the hell out of them… and we’re going to do it… Now – I’m leading this mission and you’re my navigator… If you don’t fly, I’ll have to court-martial you. Any questions?

Scripture said “no sir” and headed for the flight line. “I made up my mind there and then that war isn’t a gentleman’s duel,” he said later. “I never again had any doubts about the strategy of our leaders. They had tough decisions to make – and they made them.”
I’ve heard people claim that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had racial overtones to it – that atomic weapons never would have been used on Germany. I don’t think that’s true. Ira C. Eaker, one of the Eighth Air Force’s commanders, claimed that if the atomic bomb had been available in 1942, and he had had authorization to use it, he would have dropped it on Germany with no reservations. There was a hard cold Realpolitik and Machiavellan dynamic at work. As historian, WWI vet and social critic Paul Fussell pointed out in The Boy’s Crusade, the allies deliberately bombed even captive French cities and town near Pas de Calais before the Normandy invasion, in order to help deceive the Germans as to where the D-Day landings would actually take place.
Sometimes cruel methods had to be used to strengthen the impression that the convenient Pas de Calais would be the target of the invasion. To move troops and reserves quickly to this fancied battlefield, Hitler would have to use railways, and to strengthen the idea that it was these railways that were dangerous to the allied plans, lots of bombs were dropped on French railways, railways stations, and, alas, railway towns, where many French civilians were killed. Even the Germans found it hard to believe that their enemies would kill so many civilians in order to maintain a deception. To make the deception further credible, the allies dropped more bombs and killed more French citizens around the Pas de Calais area than in Normandy. This was certainly unfortunate and cruel, but the whole war, Allied as well as German, was unfortunate and cruel, even if this aspect seems often forgotten.
These civilian casualties inflicted in the process of liberation certainly caused friction between French/Belgian/Dutch civilians and the allied forces to be sure, but on the whole, these captive populations were willing to endure and forgive almost anything to get out from under the boot of the Nazis.

Which finally brings me to the subject of Andrée de Jongh and the Comet Line. I first read about her in Miller’s book. I can’t believe I’d never heard of her before…

She was a commercial artist living in Malmedy, Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1940. She herself was born during World War I, and had been trained as a nurse, having been inspired by the story of Edith Cavell, a nurse who had been shot during World War I for helping British troops to escape.

During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Andrée, her father, and a close friend set up an independent escape route for downed allied fliers called the Comet Line, which stretched for 1200 miles from Brussels, through occupied France, over the Pyrenees, through fascist Spain, to Gibraltar. Airmen on the run were fed and hidden is safe houses near Brussels, transported by train to Paris, organized into small groups, and escorted by foot or by bicycle to the Pyrenees. From there, Basque smugglers took them over the mountains and to the British embassy in San Sebastian, where they were finally driven to Gibraltar. Miller tells of how Andrée and her compatriots would prepare parcels for the allied airmen with false identity cards and civilian clothing, and give them instructions on how to fit in and appear less American, advising them not to chew gum, not to jingle loose change in their pockets, and to grip their cigarettes between their fingertips and thumb at the burning end, European style.

The Comet Line, which closed down two days before D-Day, aided approximately 700 downed airmen get back to Britain. The Gestapo infiltrated the Comet Line several times but was never able to break it. Andrée’s father Frédéric was captured and executed, and she herself was captured and sent to the Mauthausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps, but they were never able to break her or force her to give anyone up. She survived the camps and the war and said in an interview in 2000, "When war was declared I knew what needed to be done. There was no hesitation. We could not stop what we had to do although we knew the cost. Even if it was at the expense of our lives, we had to fight until the last breath."

She passed away in 2007. The following details are from this obituary in The Independent.
A schoolmaster's daughter, Andrée de Jongh was born in Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, in 1916. When Hitler's armies swept into Belgium in May 1940 she was working as a commercial artist in Malmedy. Trained in first aid and anxious to help, she returned at once to her parents' home and went to work as a nurse among wounded British soldiers. Soon enough, as France and the Low Countries fell to the Germans and the British Army was forced from the Continent, she began, on her own initiative, to organise safe houses to hide downed aircrew and soldiers who had found themselves left behind. It was not long before she started to look for ways of getting them home.

From safe houses in and around Brussels, disguised and by different routes, evaders were taken through France to St Jean de Luz, near Biarritz, close to the Spanish border. From there they were taken on foot through the Pyrenees and over to neutral Spain where they were then handed to British officials. Those helping her as trusted couriers and organisers were often close friends and even members of her own family. Her father, Frédéric, did much of the work in Brussels. Her aunt, Elvire de Greef, housed groups bound for the border at her home in the foothills of the Pyrenees and arranged mountain guides to take them across. De Jongh herself accompanied parties into Spain on 16 occasions.

The men whom Comet carried to safety would remember Andrée de Jongh with lasting gratitude, fondness and admiration. They knew her only as "Dédée", an affectionate name given in Belgium to girls called Andrée, and found her courage, confidence and dedication to her task most impressive. Striking, too, was her youth: when her work on the line began, she was barely 24. "Her movements were quick and definite as were her thoughts and repartee," remembered one escaping airman, who had taken stock of "this quite remarkable girl" while they sat together in a first-class compartment on the train south from Paris. "She seemed to be always smiling and brimful of enthusiasm." Another wrote: "She was the force, the power and the inspiration that brought us from Belgium to Spain."

The success of the Comet line, however, compelled the Germans to try ever harder to destroy it. A single traitor is thought to have been responsible for more than 50 arrests. And in January 1943, poised to begin another trek into Spain, Andrée de Jongh was arrested with three evaders when the Germans surrounded and raided a Pyrenees farmhouse. She was interrogated 20 times and then sent to Ravensbruck.
Others rounded up in subsequent months included Andrée's father, who was betrayed and arrested at a Paris railway station in June 1943. The following March, after brutal interrogation and months of imprisonment, he was shot. But despite these heavy blows, Comet survived and continued to operate until the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. The last men to be passed along were two RAF sergeants who reached Spain in early June 1944.

In all, of the Comet line helpers who fell into German hands, 23 were executed, while another 133 died in concentration camps or as a result or their incarceration. Seriously ill, but accompanied by her sister, Suzanne, who had worked on Comet until her own arrest in 1942, Andrée de Jongh returned home from Ravensbruck in the summer of 1945.

For her wartime work and achievements, de Jongh received the George Medal from the British, the American Medal of Freedom and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with palm. She was also created Chevaliers of the French Legion d'honneur and the Belgian Order of Leopold. In 1985 she was made a Belgian countess.

After the war, de Jongh, who never married, continued to devote herself to caring for others. Inspired by the story of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who had worked in the South Seas with leprosy sufferers and died of the disease, she spent years as a nurse in leprosy hospitals in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. She returned to Brussels only when her sight and health began to fail.

In later life she was willing and able to give generous help to historians studying wartime escape lines and, after moving to a nursing home, continued to welcome visitors. They included, last July, a party of RAF personnel retracing the Comet line route. She herself was the subject of a 1954 biography, Little Cyclone, by Airey Neave, who had worked during the war for MI9, Britain's escape and evasion specialists, and had helped co-ordinate support for Comet. The title of the book was the nickname her father had given her as a child.
I don't have any French, but for anyone who does, here is some video of her late in her life.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Please Offer a Prayer for a Special Intention...

For someone who's contributed here and has suffered a loss

Graines Castle, Ayas Valley, Italy

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Will Tehran 2009 be like Tiananmen 1989?

Will the Green Revolution in Iran succeed, or twenty years later, will it be crushed, forgotten, and erased from its own country's history like the Tiananmen movement in China?

I'd say this all seems depressingly familiar, but there was no Twitter back then in 1989... Will the Twitter Revolution help lift them over, or will the "Ahmadinejad Girl" go Youtube viral? A still from
Supporters of Ahmadinejad in Tehran:

I'll admit she's drop-dead gorgeous, but her drop-dead politics are still ugly.

In fact, I'm skeptical it's for real. It seems to me that the
Basij would slap her just for wearing that make-up even if she was an Ahmadinejad supporter.

On the other hand, despite a few incidents, I'm amazed at the relative restraint of the pro-reform and pro-Mousavi demonstrators in Iran in the face of repeated provocations and acts of brutality. In
this video, you see members of the crowd saving a truncheon-wielding policeman from a lynching, or at least a further beating after he was knocked off his motorcycle.

Will it all eventually just fizzle out? I confess that sometimes I wonder about the efficacy of nonviolence despite my best efforts to believe... Maybe it's true that love is stronger than hate and that good triumphs over evil eventually. It's just that hate and evil seem so unbelievably powerful at times.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

There Will be War and Rumors of War. ...

Iran lays an egg. Is Armageddon looming?

So much for my modest hopes from yesterday.

Well, it's actually doubtful that the people of Iran laid an egg themselves. I feel badly for these frustrated young people in Tehran. It appears that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has allowed that beady-eyed, snaggle-toothed cretin Ahmadinejad, that anti-semitic crackpot messianic fool who believes he has a direct line of communication with the Hidden 12th Imam, to steal the presidential election. Try reigning in his nuclear ambitions now.

To their credit, the young people of Tehran are not taking this lying down. Watch the video of the ensuing demonstrations and street-fighting on the BBC.

A week or two ago the credential-less pundit Fareed Zakaria wrote an article in Newsweek called Everything You Think You Know About Iran is Wrong.

Is that so, Fareed? Really now?

You may be right about that. It's probably worse than what I thought.

Says Fareed...
Iran isn't a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy. The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship. It might be best described as an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites. Even the so-called Supreme Leader has a constituency, the Assembly of Experts, who selected him and whom he has to keep happy. Ahmadinejad is widely seen as the "mad mullah" who runs the country, but he is not the unquestioned chief executive and is actually a thorn in the side of the clerical establishment. He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs—which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the Supreme Leader in the 2005 election. Even now the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority.
Whoops. Whenever I hear Fareed Zakaria speaking, I'm always reminded of that line by King Edward Longshanks in the movie Braveheart, "Who is this person who speaks to me as though I needed his advice?"

How does a guy like Zakaria gain gravitas and any credibility with an outfit like Newsweek to begin with? Because he's smart, young, Ivy-league, Indian, pro-business and hip?

Yes, Fareed. We know that students in Tehran like hip-hop and texting their girlfriends just as much as kids everywhere else... That's not the point. It doesn't mean that we are wrong in thinking that this "regime that jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority" is going to be incredibly difficult for us to work with, and that it should be difficult.

The real meaning of this outcome is that a new and horrible war is virtually inevitable, especially with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power. And this new horrible war may just be an amateur opening act for the real problem from hell which is Pakistan.

Meanwhile, keep worrying America, about Tila Tequila, Miley Cyrus, and us tearing each other apart over really important issues like gay marriage. Keep worrying about all that while we continue to ignore the two wars we're already fighting with the same small set of beleaguered and worn-out volunteers, with a couple of new ones on the horizon.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Random Friday Musical Interlude

I’m not thinking about anything too serious this Friday afternoon, other than really hoping that Ahmadinejad loses the election in Iran, and that if he loses, he leaves.

Here’s a random video of Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand by the Primitive Radio Gods. Actually, it’s not entirely random. It ties in here somewhat by virtue of the fact that it has a confluence of red British telephone booths, planes lining up to land at an airport, and blues.

The reason this stong stuck in my head is because I like the way it samples the lyric “I’ve been downhearted, baby, ever since the day we met” from B.B. King’s superlative live performance of How Blue Can You Get? That’s one of the tracks from what the critics generally consider the best live blues album of all time, B.B. King Live at the Regal, recorded in Chicago in November of 1964. If you ever hear that track, it can send goosebumps up your spine, the way that he and the audience play off each other and build up to a crescendo.

Here’s the King performing How Blue Can You Get? on Soundstage in 1977. Notice the lyrics... Although inflation had already kicked in, spending 10 bucks on dinner for someone might still have been saying something significant. I think a McDonald’s value meal now comes close to 10 dollars, doesn’t it? Especially if you supersize it?

I've been downhearted baby
ever since the day we met
I've been downhearted baby
ever since the day we met

Our love is nothing but the blues...
Baby, how blue can you get?

You're evil when I'm with you
and you are jealous when we're apart
You're evil...
You're so evil when I'm with you baby
and you are jealous when we're apart
How blue can you get baby?
The answer is right here in my heart

I gave you a brand new Ford
and you said "I want a Cadillac"
I bought you a ten dollar dinner
and you said "thanks for the snack"!
I let you live in my penthouse
you said it was just a shack!
I gave you seven children
and now you wanna give 'em back!

Yes I've been downhearted baby
ever since the day we met
Our love is nothing but the blues baby
Baby, how blue can you get?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Athanasius Sums It Up

Trinity Sunday

Now the catholic faith is that we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is One, the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit;
the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated;
the father infinite, the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite;
the Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet not three eternals but one eternal, as also not three infinites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one infinite.
So, likewise, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty;
and yet not three almighties but one almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God;
and yet not three Gods but one God.
So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
and yet not three Lords but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be both God and Lord;
so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, there be three Gods or three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and the Son, not made nor created nor begotten but proceeding.
So there is one Father not three Fathers, one Son not three Sons, and Holy Spirit not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but the whole three Persons are coeternal together and coequal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity is to be worshipped. He therefore who wills to be in a state of salvation, let him think thus of the Trinity.

Actually, it may not have been him who came up with it. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the origin and authorship of the Athanasian Creed is unclear.
For the past (three) hundred years the authorship of this summary of Catholic Faith and the time of its appearance have furnished an interesting problem to ecclesiastical antiquarians. Until the seventeenth century, the "Quicunque vult", as it is sometimes called, from its opening words, was thought to be the composition of the great Archbishop of Alexandria whose name it bears. In the year 1644, Gerard Voss, in his "De Tribus Symbolis", gave weighty probability to the opinion that St. Athanasius was not its author. His reasons may be reduced to the two following:

Firstly, no early writer of authority speaks of it as the work of this doctor; and secondly, its language and structure point to a Western, rather than to an Alexandrian, origin.

Most modern scholars agree in admitting the strength of these reasons, and hence this view is the one generally received today. Whether the Creed can be ascribed to St. Athanasius or not, and most probably it cannot, it undoubtedly owes it existence to Athanasian influences, for the expressions and doctrinal colouring exhibit too marked a correspondence, in subject-matter and in phraseology, with the literature of the latter half of the fourth century and especially with the writings of the saint, to be merely accidental. These internal evidences seem to justify the conclusion that it grew out of several provincial synods, chiefly that of Alexandria, held about the year 361, and presided over by St. Athanasius.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Importance of the Petrine Charism

I believe in it! Court of Final appeal, Symbol of Unity, Servant of the Servants of God... Not an Emperor

The author and historian Garry Wills is an interesting and complicated guy. He’s widely recognized as one of America’s foremost intellectuals, but he’s also the bête noire and favorite whipping boy of Catholic conservatives and traditionalists.

A former Jesuit seminarian, Wills is fluent in classical Greek and Latin and knows more than a thing or two about biblical exegesis. He’s written what are considered authoritative volumes on one of his heroes, St. Augustine.

He started out as a conservative collaborator of William F. Buckley’s but wound up leaving The National Review and has become more liberal as time has gone on. In addition to his political and historical books and articles, he’s written extensively on Catholic matters, and hence the controversies around him… Having read some of it, I give his body of work on Catholic matters decidedly mixed reviews.

The opening chapter of Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (1972), his description of what it was like growing up in a Catholic “ghetto” in the 1950s, is outstanding, and should be read by every Catholic. In a lot of ways, it served as an inspiration for my own autobiographical post called Born in 1959: Memories of a Catholic Childhood. In my opinion, the rest of Bare Ruined Choirs was not as strong, and seems badly outdated today.

He caused quite a stir in 2000, though, with Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, eviscerating the papacy and the papal curia’s means of coming to what he claims are dishonest and equivocating positions vis-a-vis Judaism, infallibility, clerical celibacy, marriage, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.., etc…

What really stuck in the craw of a lot of conservatives about this book was not just the occasional use of straw man arguments and his alleged historical inaccuracies, but also his use of the sayings of conservative darlings like Augustine, Lord Acton, and G.K. Chesterton to support his arguments. He was well aware of this of course, and you could sense a certain delight on his part in sticking his fingers into their collective eyeballs.

In the aftermath of course, the inevitable question was fired at him – “If the papacy is such a terrible thing, and all of these Vatican positions are so deceitful, why are you still a Catholic?”

In 2002 he wrote his reply in Why I Am a Catholic. It was a bit puzzling, because the first 80% or so of the book was another withering and devastating historical romp through the colossal blunders and misdeeds of the various popes, although it was not without problems. For example, Wills relied on the same absurdly foolish “petros” (little rock) vs. “petra” (big rock) argument over Matthew 16:18 that Protestant fundamentalists use when claiming that Jesus conferred no special authority on Saint Peter. Never mind for a moment that Jesus would have used the single Aramaic word "Kepha" in his own everyday speech, but according to Wills we are supposed to take it that Jesus meant to say to Peter something like this?

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are ‘a chip off the old block’, and upon this BIG boulder … meaning ME, that is, don’t get confused now… I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."
Yes, Christ is the Cornertone of the Church and the Head of the Body, but even those who don’t deny that Jesus gave earthly authority to Peter will often try to deny that Peter was meant to have any successors. Why is that? What authority was ever set up anywhere that didn’t have a means of succession? What foolishness… What the heck else could Matthew 16:18 be about?

Now, I will grant you that we can argue forever and a day about what that authority meant and how it was supposed to be exercised. In the Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John it is clear that the the apostles were to treat each other as equals and were to be servant leaders, not lords and nobles like pagan leaders. In Acts, we see clearly that Peter is the spokesman and is in charge, but we also see that in fairly short order St. James the Just is the Overseer (or Bishop) of the Jerusalem church. Peter is travelling and is more of a universal authority figure at this point, even if St. Paul dares to “resist him to his face.” We never heard Peter’s take on that whole Galatians argument, by the way..

As I’ve noted before, in my own view, St. James and St. Paul were not on the same page at all as far as what was necessary for Jewish believers in Christ (with regard to the Law) was concerned. Not at all. They were in deep disagreement. The whole Church could have come apart into competing factions, but it seems to me that Peter was the ameliorating and steady presence in the middle, “bridging” the two of them and holding it all together.

The Canon without Paul would be in danger of being Ebionite.

The Canon without James would be in danger of being Marcionite.

The Canon with Paul, and with James, and with Peter (as Pontifex – “bridge builder”) is “Catholic” (in the “universal” sense) Christian.

Or what Bart Ehrman, an ex-evangelical who still can’t bear to use the word “Katholikos” even though he's lost his own faith, would call the “Proto-Orthodox victors” in the early church…

Anyway, getting back to Wills, the 2002 book still left the critics pondering. In the last 20% of the book, Wills explained that what kept him Catholic was his "belief in the Creed,” which he then performed a brief exposition on. His critics wondered, “OK, those are good enough reasons to be a Methodist, or perhaps an Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian. They all profess the same basic creedal elements that we do, so we’re still not getting the Catholic part…”

And so it stood for a long time. In the past few years, I think some of Wills’ books have been getting better, especially his series of short “What … Meant” books. What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant are both excellent for the most part, in my opinion.

I also have to give some reconsideration to Why I Am a Catholic too… I have to admit, he did a chapter on the about-faces that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had made from his early days that seem very prescient and telling today, outlining his documented changes of view on:

- The local churches versus the universal church
- The mass as a thanksgiving meal versus a sacrifice
- Collegiality of bishops versus Vatican centralization

Of Joseph Ratzinger, Wills also said...

In some ways, it is less surprising that John Paul could believe a farrago of Fatima nonsense than that he could get an endorsement of the nonsense from a sophisticated theologian like Cardinal Ratzinger, his doctrinal czar at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After all, Ratzinger had said in 1984 that there was nothing to be gained from revealing Lucia's final vision: "To publish the `third secret' would mean exposing the church to the danger of sensationalism, exploitation of the content. " But Ratzinger, like Paul VI, has a fear of the diabolic powers: "The atheistic culture of the modern Western world is still surviving thanks to the liberation from the fear of demons which Christianity brought about ... There are already signs of the return of these dark powers, and Satanic cults are spreading more and more in the secularized world. " Ratzinger seems at least as haunted as Paul was. Eamon Duffy claims that he lives in a "lurid and simplistic world of easy dualisms," amounting to "practical manicheism:" Perhaps, in such a place of horror, the Virgin of Fatima is our last hope - or at least the man whose life she saved is the sole person able to face the devils of our time.

Okay... I think a lot of that is probably true, but you know what? I also have to go on record here saying that I’m really coming around to Benedict’s way of thinking of the mass as a sacrifice in this argument. I don’t think I’ve been taking the theology of sacrifice seriously enough. I think it may be true that this is one of the reasons why we have so much liturgical confusion, boredom, and controversy today. We are trying too hard to treat the mass like a celebration, and it is a weak and tepid version of a “celebration” by secular standards, while the language of the mass itself is clearly sober and sacrificial. Score one for Ratzinger over Wills...

Wills, however, despite the historical attacks and creedal explanations that weren’t quite satisfying, did manage to hit a few of the right chords regarding the papacy and the Church here:

When people ask why I do not go in search of a popeless church, I answer sincerely that I want the papacy. It is a blessing, a necessity - it is a requirement for the mystical body of Christ to remain one body. In fact, I think of what Evelyn Waugh answered when asked how he could be a Christian and remain so mean and uncharitable: "Just think how much worse I would be if I were not a Christian:' In the same way, as bad as the papacy has been all through its history, just think how much worse things would have been without it.

Even in the darkest hours of the papacy, there is more life and light within the church than in the groups that split off from it. The Murrays and Rahners and de Lubacs agree with Chesterton that "the severed hand does not heal the whole body." If you want to reform the church, you need a church to be reformed.

The stark alternative to Luther or Calvin is not simply Popes Pius V or Paul V. The church of the popes is more than the pope. It is their church that matters.

Looking at it in those terms, I prefer the company of Ignatius of Loyola to that of Luther, or Charles Borromeo to Calvin, Philip Neri to Melanchthon.

The church gathers around the papacy, and supplies the resources for its rebirth and continued life. And, gathered there, the Catholic church has been highly successful in preserving the great truths of the creed.

It has remained trinitarian while other Christians drifted toward a vague unitarianism or vaguer pantheism. It still believes in original sin, and in its forgiveness by baptism. It preserves the truth of the Incarnation, the actual embodiment of the Lord - including belief in his fleshly resurrection, his reincarnation in his mystical body at the Eucharist, the eschatological vision of his judgment and of life everlasting. The papacy, as I said, did not formulate the creed containing these truths; but it has been essential in preserving them, while heretics "selected" this or that item from the creed.

Several people objected to my preference for Acton over Dollinger in Papal Sin. They said that Dollinger was more principled; when he disagreed with the pope, he had the consistency to leave the church. But that amounted to a simple equating of the pope with the church. Acton knew the church is more than the pope.

The defenders of Dollinger remind me of those blowhard Americans who say, in a presidential election year, "If So-and-So wins this race, I am leaving the country." They never do, and they should not. If the "So-and-So" is as bad as they say, then their country has greater need of them. The true lover of a country does not leave it in its time of peril. The patriot is not one who thinks a country must be perfect in order to deserve his allegiance. Patriots are often critics of their country, since they feel so deeply that it is worth protecting. "A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War [or the Vietnam War, as the case may be] is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it:"

A person who loves the church can have a lover's quarrel with its leadership. He can appeal from the pope to Peter. He cannot wish to do without Peter and still be true to the gospel, since it is Christ who made Peter the first of apostles, our brother with a special mission to care for us, the servant of us servants.