Challenge to the Church

Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, celebrating Mass in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, 1998


Garry Wills’s latest book on Catholicism coincides with a crisis in the church that has been developing since Pius IX (1792–1878) set the course of Peter’s barque against the winds of Enlightenment and revolution. Driven from Rome by the rioting of 1848, the pope returned under the protection of Napoleon III and retreated to the Vatican, refusing to recognize the new Italian kingdom (recognition did not come until the Lateran Treaty in 1929, signed by Pius XI and Mussolini).

From his self-imposed “prison” Pius IX issued his sweeping condemnation of “modernism” in 1864 with the encyclical Quanta Cura, including “The Syllabus of Errors,”1 which remained an embarrassment to many if not most of the church’s scholarly and intellectual members for the next ninety-eight years, until John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council. Donald Attwater’s authoritative and orthodox A Catholic Dictionary (Nihil Obstat plus Imprimatur!), first published in 1931, cautiously concludes its article on the Syllabus and Pius IX’s subsequent self-declared infallibility when speaking ex cathedra with the world’s bishops (a doctrine opposed by Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton, Baron von Hügel, and other prominent Catholic intellectuals of the period) by saying of the Syllabus, “it is not certain that every proposition is condemned infallibly and therefore irreformably.” (With such equivocations did Catholics live before John XXIII.)

Wills has been a critic before of his church, into which he was born in 1934 (half-born into it, so to speak, as his mother was Irish Catholic—and a southerner, from Georgia). His father, whose own parents were an agnostic and a Christian Scientist, did eventually become a Catholic, but he was not one while Wills was young. By Wills’s own account the greater influences on him were his mother’s family and the Catholic grade school in Adrian, Michigan, where he was raised (the school was taught by an extraordinary community of Dominican nuns), and the Jesuit boarding school he attended in Wisconsin, both of exceptional quality. (At the time, Catholic primary and secondary education—disciplined instruction in grammar and rhetoric in primary school, with much memorization, and introduction to the classics in high school—was in the Midwest at least generally superior to public schools.)

The family was reduced by the Depression to running a boardinghouse and Wills’s father, before being drafted during World War II, sold gas appliances. The young Wills’s commitment to classical studies (the subject of his eventual doctorate at Yale) began with the Latin and Greek taught by the Jesuits. When he left high school he entered a Jesuit novitiate and seminary outside St. Louis. He left after five years (of the customary twelve years of study necessary for ordination), deciding that the life was not for him.

Wills published a widely noted book in 2002 called Why I Am a Catholic.…

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