The Loyal Catholic

Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism

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?

No. If I were a priest or if I were teaching at a Catholic school, I would expect some kind of reprimand. But there's not much they can do to me.

You make the case for the importance of "loyal opposition" to official church positions that are nonsensical, unethical, or backward. "The job of a loyal Catholic," you write, "is to give a support that is not uncritical, or unreasoning or abject, but one that is clear-eyed and yet loving." What does that imply for a lay Catholic? Is simply continuing to attend mass and remaining part of the community while quietly disagreeing with and disobeying certain objectionable dicta (like the ban on contraception) enough?

That's what it did imply until recently. Most of us Catholics have an experience of the faith at the parish level that's very comfortable. We're generally happy with our fellow believers and our priests and the lay assistants (who are very important these days in parishes). But now we find out that our children are being abused and that the hierarchy has protected this crime. So it's not enough anymore to say, "Well, we'll just ignore the Pope on issues like sex about which he's totally ridiculous." We have to intervene and protest and become active. And that's what's happening.

What long-term effects do you think the scandal will end up having on the Church? Will it weaken the Church and drive people away? Or will it spur important kinds of reform that will ultimately end up strengthening it?

Oh, the latter. Every poll that I've seen so far shows that Catholics are incredibly angry about what's going on. The Zogby Poll shows that 96 percent of Catholics think that the bishops who covered this up should be dismissed. You can't get 96 percent of Catholics to agree on almost anything! And yet the same poll showed that people don't feel that this affects their faith or their belief in the Gospel—their belief that they are part of the mystical body, sharing in the graces of sacramental life.

What kinds of specific changes do you think will result from all this?

I think there will be a great deal more lay participation and that women will no longer be excluded from the full life of the church. I expect to see women priests before I die—and I'm pretty old.

Wouldn't the Papacy need to endorse the ordination of women in order for that to happen?

Oh, sure. It won't happen under this Pope. This Pope has tried to reverse the Second Vatican Council. He's deplored it, he's attacked it, he's issued all kinds of statements, and he's beatified authoritarian figures like Pius IX. The conclave that meets when he dies is going to be full of people who are scared to death of what's happened to the Church under him. They're going to recognize that we can't go on this way. And I expect the new Papacy, or perhaps a new council, or whatever is needed, will authorize the ordination of women, which is not really so extraordinary.

You quote some of the more conservative Church leaders warning that opening the Church up and democratizing things might mean "Protestantizing" the Church. Is that a valid concern—that the Catholic Church can't open itself to the modern world without losing important aspects of its identity?

That's the kind of scare talk the conservatives always indulge in. They say it's un-Catholic to be more democratic. But the Church began democratic. The priests and bishops were elected by their congregations. When St. Augustine wanted to travel or to take time off to write, he went before his people and said, "Will you give me permission to do it?" He was accountable to them. That wasn't Protestant. That was simply the Gospel as it was understood at the time. Things changed when expectations about the administration of power changed, and they will change again as expectations change. The Papacy became monarchical in a monarchic era, because it picked up the coloration of its times. Now it has to accommodate to the times of democratic accountability. It's clear that it has a lot of catching up to do.

Early in the book, you explain that back in the days when the Church was composed of six apostolic communities (Antioch, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome), each had its own presiding bishop, and you write that "the church was a community of communities" that ruled by "joint authority." Is there any chance that something like that kind of multi-polar leadership structure could develop again? Would that be desirable?

I don't want to go back to any previous era. The Church does evolve and change. If we make the hierarchy more accountable, it should be in terms of where the Church is today—not where it was in the second, third, or fourth century. We can have an accountable Church that is still centralized. Centralization has been a very good thing in many ways throughout our history. The sense of the Church as a whole entity rather than as simply this or that diocese, this or that hemisphere, or this or that continent, is a valuable side of the Papacy. I don't want to get rid of the Papacy. I think it's been very beneficial in lots of ways.

You suggest that ultimately it's not the acceptance of "peripheral things" (like whether or not the Pope says priests can marry), but a belief in the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and the adoption of the Apostle's Creed as one's profession of that belief that defines a person as Catholic.

Yes. There are core beliefs that we commit ourselves to in our baptism pledge. Other things have come and gone—indulgences, interdicts, the condemnation of usury, the idea that killing heretics is perfectly okay. We have to separate those things from the core commitment that we pledge ourselves to at baptism. The Papacy lost track of that during the time when it served as a temporal government. That was a very corrupt time. The Papacy had armies, secret police, and teams of assassins. All those things are inconceivable to us now, but much of the outward administrative aura of the Papacy dates from those days. That's what we have to rid ourselves of.

How significant to the experience of being a Catholic is the sense of being a part of the Catholic community?

The sense of solidarity with Catholics all around the world is very strong. We think of it in ways that transcend cultural differences among Catholics in, say, Italy and Africa and Ireland. What we share goes deeper than papal teachings on things like contraception. That's why so many people can be serenely sure that even if they don't pay attention to the Pope in certain matters, they are still in solidarity with other Catholics around the world and throughout history.

On a more personal level, you write that your early impressions of what it meant to be Catholic had a lot to do with your comparison of your father's somewhat cold and stuffy Protestant side of the family with your mother's warm and supportive Irish-Catholic side. Some of the impressions you mention are of an overflowingly large family, religious pictures on the walls, and saying the rosary together on holy days. Does your sense of yourself as a Catholic have as much to do with being a part of that culture as it does with the creed?

Absolutely. It's our concrete experience of the local church that's especially meaningful to us. There's an interesting contrast between born Catholics and converts. Converts are often much more rule-directed. Catholicism isn't something that they breathed in from their childhood, so they think that if you don't toe the line on abstract doctrine you can't be part of the Church. But to a born Catholic, Catholicism means their parish, their priest, their fellow worshippers. It's all very concrete. Papal directives usually seem kind of abstract and unimportant compared to that lived experience.

Would simply installing a new, more progressive-minded Pope be enough to bring people back into the priesthood, the convents, and so on?

Not just that. You'd have to have other things, like a married priesthood and women priests. Those things have to take place, and take place soon, it seems to me.

John XXIII's progressive Papacy (1958-1963) was preceded by what you describe as Pius XII's "reign of terror," in which censorship, loyalty oaths, anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism, the quashing of perceived dissidence, and the disparagement of non-Catholics prevailed. How did a liberal thinker like John XXIII manage to emerge as Pius XII's successor? Did he have to keep his interest in modernizing the Church hidden until after he had risen to power?

No, I don't think so. I think he was chosen for his personal warmth rather than for his views. People didn't realize what his views were. There's a kind of pendulum effect in the choice of Popes. People always want somebody different from what came before. And Pius the XII was a kind of off-putting, aloof, aristocratic figure. They wanted somebody warmer. In the same way, I think that they're going to want somebody quite different from John Paul II. The Church is weaker now than when he took it over. The priesthood is drying up. The nuns have disappeared. His idea that you have to toe the line is widely dismissed by Catholics. And the scandal over the pedophile cover-up by the hierarchy has been very damaging. I believe the people going into the next conclave are going to choose somebody who will promise that new accountability will be afforded. I wouldn't be surprised to see a new Pope call a new Vatican Council.

Do you have an overarching vision for a version of Catholicism that you would be more content with than the Church as it is today?

Actually, I'm content with it right now. Catholics are living the faith of their shared commitment to the mystical body. Bringing the hierarchy into line with that is just a secondary step. And it's bound to occur. I'm unhappy with the hierarchy, which is not the Church. It's part of the Church—an important part, but it's not the Church. People say the Church is out of touch. Well, it's not out of touch! The Church is the people of God. It's the hierarchy that's out of touch with the people of God, and they've got to get back in touch. But that's their problem.