“I am a born Catholic,” Garry Wills reports. And in addition:
I have never stopped going to Mass, saying the rosary, studying the Gospels. I have never even considered leaving the church. I would lose my faith in God before losing my faith in it.
That reference to the rosary is impressive. It becomes even more pointed when Wills speaks of his “daily recitation of the creed when I say the rosary.” I, too, am a born Catholic, but my mother—a solid Catholic, but not ardent—seldom got me down on my knees, even on holy days, to say the rosary: it was a devotion nearly as rare as doing the Stations of the Cross. I have never practiced it. Wills’s home was evidently more devout. He was born in Atlanta on May 22, 1934, son of John and Mayno (Collins) Wills. John was not a Catholic, but he converted to Catholicism when the children had grown up, and meanwhile fulfilled his promise to have them reared as Catholics. Mayno was a vigorous Catholic of Irish extraction; she set the tone of domestic and religious custom. Wills’s parents were not well off, but they managed to send him to a local Catholic grade school, Saint Mary’s, and later to a Jesuit boarding school, Campion, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. “Not a bad ghetto to grow up in,” Wills conceded in Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (1972).
Boarding school led to his entering a Jesuit seminary, Saint Stanislaus, in Florissant, Missouri, in 1951 with the intention of becoming a priest. That intention held good for about six years. When he left the seminary, it was “certainly with no weakening of my faith in God, Christianity, or the church.” He seems mainly to have got tired of the regimen by which novices who “wanted to serve Christ never even seriously studied Scripture, theology, or church history until they had been in the order for ten years, counting time out between philosophy and theology to teach in high school as a scholastic.” In 1959 he married and took up the vocation of familial life.
During his years in the seminary, Wills read a lot of devotional literature. Trained in Latin and Greek, he studied Greek drama and Saint Augustine, the saint becoming the major figure in his intellectual and spiritual life. Not Aquinas, strangely. When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, my teachers—the Christian Brothers—pointed me toward Aquinas, whose Summa theologiae was declared by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 to be the approved model for philosophic and theological discourse in the Catholic Church. I learned whatever I needed to know of the Church’s teaching by the easier method of reading a school book, Michael Sheehan’s Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine (1937). Out of school, I exacerbated my religious sense by reading François Mauriac’s God and Mammon and Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is the only devotional book Wills and I seem to have had in common. I enjoyed lurid books of edification; he reveled in Newman, Ruskin, Chesterton, but most of all Augustine: these remain his masters to this day. Wills has written political journalism, American history, and the history of the Catholic Church so abundantly that he has become his own authority, but he rarely writes an essay on religion without invoking the greater authority of Augustine, Newman, and Chesterton.
Two years ago, Wills published Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, in which he argued that “the life of church authorities is lived within structures of multiple deceit.” In Bare Ruined Choirs he diagnosed “habits of falsehood grown up under cover of belief.” Such discrepancies are Wills’s abiding motifs. In Papal Sin he argued that the papacy, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been rotten with duplicity, lies, and bad faith. He insists that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, declared in 1854, and the dogma of papal infallibility, declared in 1870, were mainly designed to gather all authority into the hands of the pope and his officers in the papal court, the Curia. Wills does not make much of the constraints and safeguards that limit papal infallibility—an encyclical is not enough for infallibility; the pronouncement must be made ex cathedra and the doctrines must be de fide definitae—or of the good faith of those 533 bishops who voted for it. “I am not infallible when I choose my snuff,” Pius IX said to Cesare Cantu.
The most resolute villains, by Wills’s account, have been Pius IX (1846– 1878), Pius XII (1939–1958), Paul VI (1963–1978), and the present pope John Paul II (1978–). These latter two have done everything they could to undermine the work of the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965 and to destroy the council’s vision of the Church as “the people of God.” The deceits the several popes have practiced include opportunistic canonizations (Pius IX, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and many more), and lies about the persecution of Jews, the Holocaust, apostolic succession, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, contraception, and other issues. “In fact,” Wills claims, “the Vatican has attempted a coup, a takeover of the conciliar church it does not like.” John Paul’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued on August 15, 1990, and demanding that Catholic colleges and universities hire a majority of Catholic teachers, is only one of his many acts of folly, but folly is the least of papal sins.
Wills has come to his own conclusions on these matters, and he is convinced that he is right. He sees himself as a member of the Church’s loyal opposition, “constantly at hand to differ from the papacy and recall it to the Petrine charisms of unity, apostolicity, and love.” But he acknowledges that 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 only question on which Wills is ready to say “I don’t know” is abortion, which he discussed in much the same terms in Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990). In Papal Sin he said of it:
Though the fetus may not be a person, it is human life, it has the potential to become a person. It is something that should not be lightly done away with or deprived of all respect. Women have the legal right to decide whether to have an abortion, but they should not take that as a dispensation from a moral decision-making task that goes deeper than the law. I cannot be certain when personhood begins, any more than Augustine was certain when the soul was infused. But against all those who tell us, with absolute assurance, when human life begins, we should entertain some of his knowledge of our limits. On the whole subject of the origins of life, he said, “When a thing obscure in itself defeats our capacity, and nothing in Scripture comes to our aid, it is not safe for humans to presume they can pronounce on it.”
The trouble is that other people are pronouncing on it while Garry Wills and Augustine are saying, “I don’t know.”
In Why I Am a Catholic—“an unintended sequel to my Papal Sin“—Wills returns to many of the issues he examined in that book and in Under God, Bare Ruined Choirs, and Confessions of a Conservative, published in 1979. He is as stringent as ever; he has not melted into tenderness. Sometimes he writes of the Church as if he expected it to be indistinguishable from God and were punishing it for gross failure in that respect. For a man so concerned with Catholicism, Wills seldom mentions God—He is acknowledged once or twice in Why I Am a Catholic—or speaks of the intimacy of his own religious experience. More often, he lets Augustine speak for him and makes quotation do the work of testimony. For whatever reason, he seems fixated on the Church, which is after all merely an institution, though a crucial one. Immensely gifted as Wills is in language, the vocabularies most congenial to him are social, political, and historical, not religious or theological.
The main difference between the new book and Papal Sin is that Wills has now brought forward a larger cast of popes, many of them presented as scoundrels, and that he has become more explicit, if not much more revelatory, about his religious beliefs. Chicanery in the papacy is not news, but you would imagine from reading Why I Am a Catholic that Wills’s motto is a sentence of Augustine’s—he quoted it in his biography of the saint: “The Church extends throughout the world, Rome excepted.” But Wills insists that he is not attacking the papacy or its defenders. “My own heroes,” he said in Papal Sin, “are the many truth tellers in Catholic ranks, preeminently Saint Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton, and Pope John XXIII.”
These men became heroic when they interrogated the papacy or tried to change its direction. In 418 Augustine thwarted an attempt by Pope Zosimus to interfere in African Church affairs, and the following year, as Wills notes in Papal Sin, he “helped mobilize pressures that made the same Pope reverse himself—from exonerating the heretic Pelagius to condemning him.” Newman “got into his trouble with Roman authorities by writing that, during the Arian period, the Church at large preserved the faith when bishops and priests strayed into heresy.” Lord Acton opposed the definition of papal infallibility, and went to Rome in November 1869 to strengthen the resolve of the few bishops who might vote against it.
In 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his intention of summoning the Second Vatican Council, he caused “a convulsive alteration of the whole religious landscape,” as Wills describes it in Why I Am a Catholic. John XXIII made serious mistakes, for example when he withdrew from the council’s discussion the question of contraceptives. But Paul VI and John Paul II, abetted by Cardinals Ottaviani and Ratzinger, Wills writes, tried to undo John XXIII’s great work of enlarging the sphere of open discussion in the Church, and they tried to impose upon the landscape a specious state of calm. In Bare Ruined Choirs Wills names Daniel Berrigan as an exemplar of “the prophetic church” whose task has always been to redeem “the kingly church.” The Christian message “is not authenticated from a throne.”
The principal theme of Why I Am a Catholic is not fully indicated by its title. The book might more accurately be called How and in What Sense I Am a Catholic. The main impulse of the book, as of Papal Sin, is to remove the aura of sacrosanctity that has surrounded the papacy: