A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Garry Wills is a remarkably learned man. Graced with a powerful and confident mind and an elegant style, Wills is a forceful writer, with a clarity of conviction that is all too rare nowadays. Devoted to the rosary, the Mass, and the creed, he is deeply pious. But, above all, he is a desperately angry—one might even say wrathful—man. As his book, Why I Am a Catholic, amply illustrates, Wills is a man so consumed by his animus against the papacy of Pope John Paul II that he is blind not only to the merits of the arguments of his opponents but also to the deep-seated contradictions in his own views. Wills possesses an astonishing ability to segregate various aspects of his life and thought. How else could he simultaneously accuse John Paul II and (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of engaging in a conservative coup and assert that he has never felt closer to the Church?
The very structure of Wills’s book reveals much about the peculiar workings of the mind of its author. Why I Am a Catholic is 390 pages long. It begins with roughly 50 pages of autobiographical detail, covering the period from his Catholic boyhood through his seminary days with the Jesuits. The book ends with some 40 pages of meditations on his personal faith in the creed and the Our Father. That leaves approximately 250 pages of text, nearly all of which is devoted to Wills’s views of the history of the papacy. This section continues Wills’s diatribe in his previous book, Papal Sin, against what he calls the “structures of deceit” in the papacy. Thus, less than a third of the entire book focuses on its purported and titular theme, Why I Am a Catholic. There is, moreover, no real integration of the three parts; each section stands alone.
The autobiographical section describes the 1950s as the heyday of American Catholicism, a time of “good feeling about Catholic culture in America.” It is refreshing to hear Wills speak with such gratitude about his education by Dominican nuns and Jesuits. By any account, Wills had a remarkable education. He learned Greek and developed an appreciation for Shakespeare, opera, and Chesterton. It is impossible not to feel admiration for a Catholic educational system that could produce the likes of Wills.
How paltry and mediocre are the achievements of our current Catholic schools by comparison. Despite his nostalgia, Wills seems oblivious to the decline of intellectual and religious formation in Catholic schools over the past 40 years. He welcomes changes in the Jesuit system of formation since Vatican II but never pauses to note how that religious order and many others have declined in both quantity and quality over the years. He asserts implausibly that an undergraduate course in higher biblical criticism is an improvement over the approach to Scripture in St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. Can he really be unaware that the majority of graduates from Catholic schools—not just from secondary schools but from our most celebrated universities—are theologically illiterate? Of course, admitting this might mean conceding some of the arguments offered in Ex Corde Ecclesiae about the dangerous erosion of Catholic intellectual life in Catholic universities. And that would mean qualifying the view of Ex Corde as an instrument of Vatican oppression, destructive of academic freedom.
There is a certain irony in Wills the historian setting himself so adamantly and so unequivocally against the recent history of the Church. But then Wills is afflicted by a double dose of the sort of nostalgia that infects the thinking of so many American liberals. Trapped in the myth of Camelot, this group pines for the days of JFK and RFK. Their lament is, “If only JFK or RFK had lived, things would have been different.” As a liberal Catholic, Wills clings to the memory not only of JFK, whose election “showed just how patriotic Catholics could be,” but also of Pope John XXIII. Invoking the legacy of John XXIII enables Wills to argue that he and other dissenting Catholics are the true bearers of the authentic heritage of Vatican II.
But what precisely is this vision? The Church should “serve the world and not condemn it”; it should be committed to aggiornamento. Of course, these are important principles of Catholic thought and life. But they are quite general. They don’t tell us much about how we should apply them to particular issues. Never lacking in confidence, Wills thinks he knows precisely what these principles mean and how John XXIII would have incorporated them into Church teaching on a host of subjects, from contraception and abortion to the ordination of women.
Behind Wills’s wishful thinking about the recent history of the Church is a surprisingly uncritical affirmation of democracy. This surfaces in the rather banal defense of academic freedom, in his recitation of what polls show about Catholic beliefs, and in his curt dismissal of Cardinal Ratzinger’s insistence that the basic structure of the Church is “not democratic but sacramental.” For Wills, it is enough that contemporary Catholics do not “consider themselves disloyal” when they disagree with the Vatican. One wonders how many ordinary Catholics would be taken aback by his assertion on their behalf that they are now witnesses “guided directly by the Holy Spirit.”
Wills quotes favorably the following passage from Lumen Gentium: “The entire body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” The passage is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it places the teaching on morals on the same level with teaching on faith, a pairing Wills works hard in his book to undermine. If it is not at the same level as the creed, the moral teaching clearly has much more authority than Wills is willing to admit. Second, Wills glosses the passage as meaning that the body of believers gives faithful witness to truth by their acceptance. Clearly, the absence of consensus diminishes the ability of the Church to witness, both internally and externally, to the truth it proclaims. But Wills seems to take the passage to mean that where the faithful—whoever they might be—dissent from teachings proclaimed by the pope, the teaching itself is invalidated. Of course, the passage says no such thing. In a situation of conflict or disagreement, Wills opts for majority rule. Hence his reliance on polls.
As I mentioned at the outset, the last section of Wills’s book, the only part that addresses directly the question in its title, is a personal meditation on the creed and the Our Father. In an often moving and elegant exposition, Wills makes excellent use of the poetry of Hopkins and Chesterton and advances cogent arguments against the popular attempt to separate the moral from the miraculous Jesus, the “gold from the dross,” as Jefferson described it. He demonstrates that the “high Christology” of Scripture is actually its earliest part, not a later accretion. Thus, the search for the historical Jesus “begins at the wrong end.” To this, he adds an interpretation of the Our Father in thoroughly apocalyptic terms, insisting, for example, that “lead us not into temptation” refers to the Last Trial and that “deliver us from evil” has to do with being rescued from the “Evil One.”
Once again, Wills displays his skill at intellectual segregation. Why is he so confident that, unlike the moral teachings, the affirmations of the creed will be untouched in the democratic Church he envisions? In the same section of the book, Wills celebrates the universal Catholic Church for combating individualism, nationalism, rationalism, and a “symbolic sense that dims the reality of the Resurrection.” But has not the move toward democratic structures in other Christian churches led precisely to the fomenting of these isms? Do not many Christians, even a good number of Catholics, see Christ as nothing more than the sort of moral example Jefferson promulgated? Deploying the witty and terse prose of Chesterton, Wills argues that the claim “God is love” can be salvaged only on the basis of the trinitarian doctrine of the creed. But how many of those dissenting Catholics Wills celebrates as being guided directly by the Spirit would, if it ever occurred to them to formulate the question, accept Wills’s contention? Don’t most dissenters see specific doctrinal claims—indeed, truth-claims of any sort—as divisive obstacles to the spreading of the gospel of love?
Wills may have responses to these questions, but you will not find them in this book. Wills is so confident in, and so uncritical of, his beliefs that fairly obvious questions—precisely the sort of questions a book like this is designed to address—never arise.
Now, Wills might be right that some conservative Catholics adopt a defensive tone because they are worried that any discussion of any change will constitute the first step toward complete capitulation to secularism. But Wills himself operates with an almost Manichean division between good and evil Catholics. Missing from the discussion is any reference to someone like Maritain, the great defender of democracy, universal human rights, and America, who nonetheless voiced grave reservations about what he took to be a liberal hijacking of the authentic teaching and spirit of Vatican II. Wills has no time for the consideration of these sorts of counterexamples and rival positions. Nothing is allowed to interrupt the venting of his wrath against the conservative “coup.”
A devotee of Newman who in an utterly un-Newman-like fashion separates different portions of his thinking from one another, a historian in defiance of recent Church history, and an American Catholic who yearns for a time when there was less tension between the adjective and the noun, Garry Wills is a man deeply at odds, not just with his pope but with himself.