CCLaP Fridays: Papal Bull, by Joe Wenke


Papal Bull: an Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church
By Joe Wenke
Trans Uber LLC
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. Dr. Joe Wenke seeks these answers in his new book, Papal Bull: an Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church. (NB: Wenke, an LGBT rights advocate, received his doctorate in English.) Beginning with an autobiographical account of his childhood in a large Catholic family in working-class Philadelphia, he looks into the Catholic Church’s many facets: saints, miracles, popes and anti-popes, sex, birth control, and systematic child sexual abuse.

Much ink has been spilled about The New Atheists. (Cue screams of horror and outrage.) While Wenke is part of this phenomenon, his work is strictly second-tier. The trouble remains a matter of tone and intent. Unlike the works of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Papal Bull, as evidenced from its punning title, is aimed at a popular audience. His tongue is sharp, but he’s no Christopher Hitchens. But I came late to the New Atheist movement, having come out as a skeptic by reading the Marquis de Sade and listening to George Carlin and Bill Hicks.

The book has lots of jokes. Some are pretty blasphelicious. But once he investigates the Catholic Church’s history of institutional misogyny, homophobia, and, until recently (read: 1965), Anti-Semitism, things get serious. His chapter on clerical child abuse radiates with righteous outrage. He calls out the priests from his school days he knew were pedophiles. And in an attempt to bring balance to this account, he spends a chapter outlining the various positive things Catholic charities have done.

As someone who wasn’t raised Catholic, I found the book illuminating in its explanation of specific Catholic doctrine and practice. I never knew Catholics considered that the Virgin Mary was born sinless. Or that Purgatory was just as bad as Hell, except one could leave it. Or what First Fridays were or what the term “Pagan Babies” meant. Being raised Lutheran, all these details were fascinating. (Although one of my parents is Catholic, I attended Catholic services as a confessional tourist, not as a participant. On the other hand, living in a Milwaukee suburb, Catholicism left an indelible mark. Seriously, Friday Fish Fries in Milwaukee, kind of a big deal. One of the many things I miss about the Greater Milwaukee area are the plethora of local church festivals.)

While I agree with Wenke’s anger at the institution, I found the execution less than satisfactory. As a self-confessed skeptic and freethinker, the “Vatican is bad” thing gets old quick. One can rail at the corruptions and depravities of the Holy See until one’s blue in the face. But that comes off as yet another set of tu quoque arguments. (Tu quoque means simply, “not admitting one’s guilt by blaming others.”) The Vatican is just as corrupt, ossified, and unimaginative as any other political body on the planet. Corruption is pretty banal at this point. But Wenke does have a point when he unleashes a verbal tirade against the institutional deception, misinformation, and moral rot involved in the clergy child rape scandals. Plenary indulgences, nepotism, and simony are corrupt practices. When an institution allows for its members to rape children, bankrolls the cover-up, hires Jesuit attack dog canon lawyers, and blames the rapes on gays cuz the gayz are pedophiles, then, well … that’s crossing the Rubicon into pure evil. The anger is genuine, but there aren’t any real solutions posited. Well, except the obvious ones: Let priests marry; accept marriage equality as a cultural norm; prosecute pedophile priests with brutal efficiency. In the words of ex-Catholic stand-up George Carlin, “Now’s not the time for rational solutions!”

To be fair, this book was written during the Pope Benedict XVI regime. While it is too early into the reign of Pope Francis I to make knee-jerk conclusions, many things Wenke rail against remain true. But on the whole, this is an entertaining book. A little light in places and at times glib and smug in its attitude, but for those wavering between Lapsed Catholic and Ex-Catholic, some time with this book might be worth it.

Out of 10/8.0 and higher for fans of the New Atheists. Also higher for those wavering between Lapsed Catholic and Ex-Catholic status.

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