Brotherhood without Fatherhood

Garry Wills
Garry Wills; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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