Interviews July 2002

The Loyal Catholic

Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism
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Why I Am a Catholic [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin
400 pages

In the fall of 1951, following his graduation from a Catholic boarding school, the now-renowned historian and public intellectual Garry Wills entered a Jesuit seminary in Florissant, Missouri, intending to become a priest. Although he pursued his training there for a full six years, and underwent preliminary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, his growing misgivings about the program's rigidity and anti-intellectualism, as well as his ambivalence about committing to a life without a family of his own, led him to leave the seminary just before graduation. After being released from his vows, he entered graduate school at Xavier University, where he earned a master's degree in classics, and then moved on to Yale for his doctorate.

Wills's decision not to join the priesthood did not in any way signal a break with Catholicism. He sought, rather, to explore the faith on his own terms, which to him meant regularly attending mass and partaking in Church rituals and sacraments, while at the same time applying his critically analytical mind to the Church's history, theology, and ongoing role in the world. Though he has written on a wide variety of non-Church-related subjects, a recurring theme in many of his writings has been the uneasy relationship between the Catholic Church and intellectual freedom—territory that he returns to in his new book, Why I Am a Catholic.

In 1964 he wrote Politics and Catholic Freedom as a rebuttal to Paul Blanshard's best-selling American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), which had warned that Catholicism in America represents an authoritarian threat to democratic ideals. Wills countered that although some Catholics do perceive the Vatican's word as law, the Church hierarchy is no longer invested with the authority to govern lay matters, and that there is nothing inherent in the Catholic faith that should be interpreted as prohibitive of free and open discussion.

In a later book, Bare Ruined Choirs (1972), Wills considered the impact on the Church of the Second Vatican Council—a landmark conference of Catholic officials (convened by the liberal-minded Pope John XXIII) at which a number of Church doctrines had been updated to be more in keeping with the times. Services could now be performed in parishioners' native languages, for example, rather than in Latin, and rules surrounding the Eucharist became somewhat relaxed. Many perceived Vatican II to be a revolutionary moment for the Catholic Church, representing a radical break from a past that had remained static for centuries. But Wills marshaled evidence showing that the Catholic Church has been evolving and changing since its very inception—indicating that change is not, in fact, anathema to Catholicism and therefore should not be regarded with suspicion and resisted on principle.

More recently, in the course of doing research for a book about St. Augustine (one of his heroes), he was struck by Augustine's writings on the importance of honesty within the Church, and on the serious impropriety of using deceptive means to promote the faith. Wills had become dismayed by just that kind of behavior by the Church hierarchy. Patent falsehoods cloaked in an aura of supposed Papal infallibility were being issued from the Vatican with regularity. Inspired by Augustine's writings, he decided to speak out. In Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000), he vehemently criticized recent Popes for their misleading statements about Catholicism's history, their refusal to rescind questionable Church doctrines on the grounds that to do so would mean admitting prior error, and their efforts to silence critics. Under their misguided leadership, he argued, the Church had increasingly come to seem illogical and false:

The arguments for much of what passes as current church doctrine are so intellectually contemptible that mere self-respect forbids a man to voice them as his own…. The cartoon version of natural law used to argue against contraception, or artificial insemination, or masturbation, would make a sophomore blush. The attempt to whitewash past attitudes toward Jews is so dishonest in its use of historical evidence that a man condemns himself in his own eyes if he tries to claim that he agrees with it.

Not surprisingly, Papal Sin, which became a bestseller, incited strong reactions in many readers. Wills received a number of letters and phone calls from Catholics—both from those expressing relief that they were not alone in feeling troubled by the hierarchy's lack of candor, and from those outraged by his criticisms. A question that both groups alike seemed curious about was why he remains a Catholic, given his dissatisfaction with so many aspects of the Church. Seeking to answer this question, Wills undertook a follow-up book, Why I Am a Catholic, published this summer by Houghton Mifflin. In it he describes his experience growing up in a very devout Catholic family, and how he gradually learned to engage with his faith by thinking critically about it. He goes on to offer an historical overview of the Church's development from its earliest days to the present, making clear that the Church hierarchy has changed significantly over time, and has often in the past made serious mistakes which it has gone on to correct. Seen through this perspective, he argues, criticizing the Church and calling for its reform should not be seen as an attack or a rejection, but as an expression of love and commitment.

We do not leave a father whenever he proves wrong on something. That is when he needs us....

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 protections.

In the same way, he explains, "A person who loves the Church can have a lover's quarrel with its leadership." So long as one identifies strongly enough with the Church to remain a member even while expressing discontent, then one's commitment should not be in question.

Garry Wills has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. He is the author of twenty-eight books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg. He is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University.

He spoke with me by telephone from Chicago.

—Sage Stossel


Garry Wills
Garry Wills

Why I Am a Catholic is very scholarly in style. Do you have a particular audience for the book in mind?

I don't really write for an audience. I just write what the subject seems to me to require. I can hardly say the Papacy has often been wrong over the years unless I can produce evidence of that. A lot of people seem to think that if the Papacy's ever been wrong then there's no point in being a Catholic. My whole point is to say that I, and 80 percent of my fellow Catholics in America, think the Pope is wrong right now on serious things, but that we still feel that we have every right to call ourselves Catholics.

How did the Church hierarchy respond to your previous book, Papal Sin?

They ignored it.

Do you anticipate any kind of response from the church hierarchy to Why I Am a Catholic?

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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