By this point in his illustrious career Garry Wills, the most celebrated Catholic intellectual in the United States, must find it increasingly burdensome to be “Garry Wills.” (Not only the most celebrated, but perhaps the most ubiquitous as well.) This spiritual autobiography, which doubles as a densely packed history of the papacy punctuated by a scattered but fascinating theological reflection on the Creed, actually attracted enough initial “general readers” to warrant a stint on The New York Times bestseller list.
It must be increasingly difficult, that is, for Wills, to explain himself simultaneously and with complete integrity to the denizens of the two worlds he seems effortlessly to inhabit. The apologia that might satisfy the still-believers (including the rosary pray-ers) who read Commonweal and America and even First Things easily could seem unconvincing, if not stunningly misguided or hilariously insincere, to the harder-boiled, professionally skeptical “mere rationalists” who subscribe, say, to The New York Review of Books. And vice-versa.
Those of us who shuttle between these two worlds on a daily basis have much to ponder in the pages of Why I Am a Catholic. Adroitly blending the philological acumen of the classicist, the capacious erudition of the intellectual historian and the pungent style of the learned pundit, Wills has become a darling of the secular intellegentsia, including the subset of liberal, liberated, literate American Catholics. This status rests largely on Wills’s fearlessness, his unflinching honesty and refusal to be buffaloed or cowed by unreasoned assertions or unreasonable imperatives handed down as unquestionable received tradition, political or religious, by a supreme authority, be it temporal or spiritual. No cultural icon is too imposing (from John Wayne to John Paul II, from Ronald Reagan to Richard Nixon) to escape Wills’s withering scrutiny.
The flair for vivid, blunt exposition is on display in these pages. Wills describes John Paul II’s strikingly self-centered brand of Marian apocalypticism as “a farrago of Fatima nonsense.” Reflecting on the papacy’s long record of “principled and authoritatively ordered repression,” persecution and torture, “suborned or excused political assassinations,” opposition to political freedoms and to democracy, all in the name of God, he asks: “Are we to make it a test of faith that one denies or minimizes so soiled, so incriminating a record?” In a passage that actually means to celebrate the Apostle Peter’s complex but immediately recognizable humanity, Wills calls him “the comic boaster who bungles everything,” “less a Moses than Mister Magoo,” “a man of action [who] invariably takes the wrong action,” “unaware of his own instability,” “vacillating” and “a coward.” (These character flaws render Peter a fitting model for his successors in the Petrine ministry, a significant number of whom, Wills hastens to remind us, sinned on a much grander scale.)
Even when Wills is generous, as he often is, his hero’s brilliant virtues are celebrated in contrast to the dim (-witted) penumbra surrounding him in the church. Thus Joseph P. Fisher, S.J., Wills’s confessor and the director of the Jesuit novitiate he attended, was “proof that wise and holy men could transcend the stultifying effects of an outmoded system.”
As if in recognition of this tendency to find serious fault almost everywhere he looks, Wills devotes approximately 80 percent of the book to what amounts to an elaborate self-defense of his signature iconoclasm. Both the relatively brief opening account of his Catholic family background and Jesuit training, and the subsequent 238-page romp through the history of papal behavior—which typically ranged in character, according to Wills’s telling, from dubious to despicable—seem designed to display the indisputable historical and factual foundations, and thus the essential accuracy and fairness, of his complex and sometimes severe attitudes toward the church. Far from an extended polemic penned by a self-hating Catholic, as some of his critics charge, Wills’s body of published work on matters Catholic (including the recent, biting Papal Sin) is in fact a labor of love for the church, an expression of the loyal opposition that, in Wills’s distinctive and brilliant view, is inherent in the Petrine ministry itself, rightly understood.
The lingering problem in this otherwise engaging and instructive approach is that the author as critic and debunker comes off more convincingly than the author as loyal Catholic. The New York Review of Books readers, to return to my thin caricature, will find pages 1-280 to conform in most respects to their previous dour impressions of the papacy (which, despite Wills’s protestations, they will not clearly differentiate from the Roman Catholic Church). It is, in short, the last bastion of all things backward and repressive—save for a brief moment of “miraculous” but apparently temporary role reversal during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council. Even to the Commonweal or America reader, and/or to anyone who has read general histories of the papacy by J. N. D. Kelly, David Knowles, Eamon Duffy or Klaus Schatz, Wills’s depiction of the papacy as a “deeply flawed institution” will ring all too true.
The relentless nature of Wills’s critique (the relentless recurrence, he might respond, of papal misdeeds) has led some critics to suggest that Wills should square his practice with his beliefs and join the pope-less Eastern Orthodox communion. Not sufficiently papal, they charge, he is not sufficiently Roman Catholic.
On the evidence of Why I Am a Catholic, those critics are mistaken. Unfortunately, however, Wills devotes relatively little time and energy to explaining his belief in the necessity of the Petrine ministry as “the center around which the other parts of the church cohere” and “the sacrament of unity of the church.” After 16 hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners chapters detailing the innumerable instances when the actual pope was anything but a sacrament of unity or center of coherence, one comes upon a short chapter, entitled “The Pope’s Loyal Opposition,” which purports to explain why we should not be definitively repelled from the papacy by its checkered history.
Here we seem, for the first time, to glide angelically above terra firma, up into the refreshing but unreal realm of fideism. With almost a sense of cognitive dissonance one reads Wills affirm that: “Even when the popes are corrupt, the church redeems them from its own resources.” Or: “By historical development, guided by divine providence, the pope has become even more strikingly the symbol of unity as the apostolic churches have faded in importance...” This from an author who 10 pages earlier thanked God that John Paul II’s “attempted coup,” by which the pope tried to undermine the Second Vatican Council and steal the church back from the people of God, has failed.
In greater depth and with more certitude than his readers will be able to garner from Why I Am a Catholic, Wills knows what he means when he affirms the necessity of the papacy, despite its profound flaws. Lord Acton knew, and apparently St. Augustine and Cardinal Newman as well.
The rest of us might benefit from a meatier tutorial, infused with the intellectual rigor and energy reserved thus far for the deconstruction of particular popes. Publish it, please, during these scandal-soaked days, in The New York Review of Books.