The author and historian Garry Wills is an interesting and complicated guy. He’s widely recognized as one of America’s foremost intellectuals, but he’s also the bête noire and favorite whipping boy of Catholic conservatives and traditionalists.
A former Jesuit seminarian, Wills is fluent in classical Greek and Latin and knows more than a thing or two about biblical exegesis. He’s written what are considered authoritative volumes on one of his heroes, St. Augustine.
He started out as a conservative collaborator of William F. Buckley’s but wound up leaving The National Review and has become more liberal as time has gone on. In addition to his political and historical books and articles, he’s written extensively on Catholic matters, and hence the controversies around him… Having read some of it, I give his body of work on Catholic matters decidedly mixed reviews.
The opening chapter of Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (1972), his description of what it was like growing up in a Catholic “ghetto” in the 1950s, is outstanding, and should be read by every Catholic. In a lot of ways, it served as an inspiration for my own autobiographical post called Born in 1959: Memories of a Catholic Childhood. In my opinion, the rest of Bare Ruined Choirs was not as strong, and seems badly outdated today.
He caused quite a stir in 2000, though, with Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, eviscerating the papacy and the papal curia’s means of coming to what he claims are dishonest and equivocating positions vis-a-vis Judaism, infallibility, clerical celibacy, marriage, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.., etc…
What really stuck in the craw of a lot of conservatives about this book was not just the occasional use of straw man arguments and his alleged historical inaccuracies, but also his use of the sayings of conservative darlings like Augustine, Lord Acton, and G.K. Chesterton to support his arguments. He was well aware of this of course, and you could sense a certain delight on his part in sticking his fingers into their collective eyeballs.
In the aftermath of course, the inevitable question was fired at him – “If the papacy is such a terrible thing, and all of these Vatican positions are so deceitful, why are you still a Catholic?”
In 2002 he wrote his reply in Why I Am a Catholic. It was a bit puzzling, because the first 80% or so of the book was another withering and devastating historical romp through the colossal blunders and misdeeds of the various popes, although it was not without problems. For example, Wills relied on the same absurdly foolish “petros” (little rock) vs. “petra” (big rock) argument over Matthew 16:18 that Protestant fundamentalists use when claiming that Jesus conferred no special authority on Saint Peter. Never mind for a moment that Jesus would have used the single Aramaic word "Kepha" in his own everyday speech, but according to Wills we are supposed to take it that Jesus meant to say to Peter something like this?
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are ‘a chip off the old block’, and upon this BIG boulder … meaning ME, that is, don’t get confused now… I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."Yes, Christ is the Cornertone of the Church and the Head of the Body, but even those who don’t deny that Jesus gave earthly authority to Peter will often try to deny that Peter was meant to have any successors. Why is that? What authority was ever set up anywhere that didn’t have a means of succession? What foolishness… What the heck else could Matthew 16:18 be about?
Now, I will grant you that we can argue forever and a day about what that authority meant and how it was supposed to be exercised. In the Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John it is clear that the the apostles were to treat each other as equals and were to be servant leaders, not lords and nobles like pagan leaders. In Acts, we see clearly that Peter is the spokesman and is in charge, but we also see that in fairly short order St. James the Just is the Overseer (or Bishop) of the Jerusalem church. Peter is travelling and is more of a universal authority figure at this point, even if St. Paul dares to “resist him to his face.” We never heard Peter’s take on that whole Galatians argument, by the way..
As I’ve noted before, in my own view, St. James and St. Paul were not on the same page at all as far as what was necessary for Jewish believers in Christ (with regard to the Law) was concerned. Not at all. They were in deep disagreement. The whole Church could have come apart into competing factions, but it seems to me that Peter was the ameliorating and steady presence in the middle, “bridging” the two of them and holding it all together.
The Canon without Paul would be in danger of being Ebionite.
The Canon without James would be in danger of being Marcionite.
The Canon with Paul, and with James, and with Peter (as Pontifex – “bridge builder”) is “Catholic” (in the “universal” sense) Christian.
Or what Bart Ehrman, an ex-evangelical who still can’t bear to use the word “Katholikos” even though he's lost his own faith, would call the “Proto-Orthodox victors” in the early church…
Anyway, getting back to Wills, the 2002 book still left the critics pondering. In the last 20% of the book, Wills explained that what kept him Catholic was his "belief in the Creed,” which he then performed a brief exposition on. His critics wondered, “OK, those are good enough reasons to be a Methodist, or perhaps an Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian. They all profess the same basic creedal elements that we do, so we’re still not getting the Catholic part…”
And so it stood for a long time. In the past few years, I think some of Wills’ books have been getting better, especially his series of short “What … Meant” books. What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant are both excellent for the most part, in my opinion.
I also have to give some reconsideration to Why I Am a Catholic too… I have to admit, he did a chapter on the about-faces that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had made from his early days that seem very prescient and telling today, outlining his documented changes of view on:
- The local churches versus the universal church
- The mass as a thanksgiving meal versus a sacrifice
- Collegiality of bishops versus Vatican centralization
Of Joseph Ratzinger, Wills also said...
In some ways, it is less surprising that John Paul could believe a farrago of Fatima nonsense than that he could get an endorsement of the nonsense from a sophisticated theologian like Cardinal Ratzinger, his doctrinal czar at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After all, Ratzinger had said in 1984 that there was nothing to be gained from revealing Lucia's final vision: "To publish the `third secret' would mean exposing the church to the danger of sensationalism, exploitation of the content. " But Ratzinger, like Paul VI, has a fear of the diabolic powers: "The atheistic culture of the modern Western world is still surviving thanks to the liberation from the fear of demons which Christianity brought about ... There are already signs of the return of these dark powers, and Satanic cults are spreading more and more in the secularized world. " Ratzinger seems at least as haunted as Paul was. Eamon Duffy claims that he lives in a "lurid and simplistic world of easy dualisms," amounting to "practical manicheism:" Perhaps, in such a place of horror, the Virgin of Fatima is our last hope - or at least the man whose life she saved is the sole person able to face the devils of our time.
Okay... I think a lot of that is probably true, but you know what? I also have to go on record here saying that I’m really coming around to Benedict’s way of thinking of the mass as a sacrifice in this argument. I don’t think I’ve been taking the theology of sacrifice seriously enough. I think it may be true that this is one of the reasons why we have so much liturgical confusion, boredom, and controversy today. We are trying too hard to treat the mass like a celebration, and it is a weak and tepid version of a “celebration” by secular standards, while the language of the mass itself is clearly sober and sacrificial. Score one for Ratzinger over Wills...
Wills, however, despite the historical attacks and creedal explanations that weren’t quite satisfying, did manage to hit a few of the right chords regarding the papacy and the Church here:
When people ask why I do not go in search of a popeless church, I answer sincerely that I want the papacy. It is a blessing, a necessity - it is a requirement for the mystical body of Christ to remain one body. In fact, I think of what Evelyn Waugh answered when asked how he could be a Christian and remain so mean and uncharitable: "Just think how much worse I would be if I were not a Christian:' In the same way, as bad as the papacy has been all through its history, just think how much worse things would have been without it.
Even in the darkest hours of the papacy, there is more life and light within the church than in the groups that split off from it. The Murrays and Rahners and de Lubacs agree with Chesterton that "the severed hand does not heal the whole body." If you want to reform the church, you need a church to be reformed.
The stark alternative to Luther or Calvin is not simply Popes Pius V or Paul V. The church of the popes is more than the pope. It is their church that matters.
Looking at it in those terms, I prefer the company of Ignatius of Loyola to that of Luther, or Charles Borromeo to Calvin, Philip Neri to Melanchthon.
The church gathers around the papacy, and supplies the resources for its rebirth and continued life. And, gathered there, 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 papacy, as I said, did not formulate the creed containing these truths; but it has been essential in preserving them, while heretics "selected" this or that item from the creed.
Several people objected to my preference for Acton over Dollinger in Papal Sin. They said that Dollinger was more principled; when he disagreed with the pope, he had the consistency to leave the church. But that amounted to a simple equating of the pope with the church. Acton knew the church is more than the pope.
The defenders of Dollinger remind me of those blowhard Americans who say, in a presidential election year, "If So-and-So wins this race, I am leaving the country." They never do, and they should not. If the "So-and-So" is as bad as they say, then their country has greater need of them. The true lover of a country does not leave it in its time of peril. The patriot is not one who thinks a country must be perfect in order to deserve his allegiance. Patriots are often critics of their country, since they feel so deeply that it is worth protecting. "A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War [or the Vietnam War, as the case may be] is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it:"
A person who loves the church can have a lover's quarrel with its leadership. He can appeal from the pope to Peter. He cannot wish to do without Peter and still be true to the gospel, since it is Christ who made Peter the first of apostles, our brother with a special mission to care for us, the servant of us servants.