A Church That Can Change

The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francisby Garry Wills

Viking. 288p $27.95

In 1972 the book Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion appeared. Written by Garry Wills, it was a provocative analysis of what happened to the church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The punch line of the book was Wills’s claim that the council “let out the dirty little secret...that the church changes.”


More than 40 years later Wills, who still prays the rosary and regularly attends Mass, is at it once again. In this book he wants to trace “how change—far from being the enemy of Catholicism—is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and breathing out.” For him, change is the lifeblood of the church that he describes, taking a cue from Vatican II, as “the people of God.”

A prizewinning historian and distinguished Catholic intellectual, Wills has mellowed over time. Though he is still very critical of the institutional church, the issue he examines, change in the church, is not as radical an idea today as it was in 1972. In addition, Wills, a former Jesuit seminarian, has found a soul mate in the Jesuit pope, Francis, whose writings he cites most favorably in this book. This is quite a contrast from his blistering attack on the papacy in his book Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit, published in 2000.

Wills traces five major changes that have taken place throughout the history of the church: the coming and going of Latin; monarchy, or what he labels the church-state relationship; anti-Semitism; natural law; and confession.

His argument about the rise and fall of Latin over the course of the church’s history is very relevant for those who grew up Catholic in the 1940s and 50s. We were told that Latin was the universal language of the church. It had always been that way; so wherever you travelled, to Rome or Paris, the Mass was celebrated in Latin. This was a special feature of Catholicism that gave the Latin liturgy an aura of sacred mystery. Latin also became the official language of church documents as well as the Bible. But since it was an arcane, unintelligible language, it kept the laity from reading the Bible and church documents. As Wills puts it, “the tyranny of Latin” was broken only in 1943 when Pius XII encouraged biblical scholarship and translation from the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek. Some 20 years later the battle to keep the Mass in Latin ended at Vatican II.

Wills ends his discussion of the coming and going of Latin with an account of Pentecost, when the Gospel was “spoken or heard in various languages, none of which would have been Latin.” The lesson of Pentecost, he argues, “is that the word of God should be embodied in many languages and cultures...uniting not by an imposed uniformity, but by a mutually heartening diversity.” To reinforce his point, he quotes Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel,” where the pope reminds us that the content of the Gospel is transcultural, not limited to any one language or culture.

The next change he discusses is what he calls the coming and going of monarchy, i.e., the transition from the ideal of a state church to an acceptance of religious pluralism. Comprising more than one-third of the entire book, it is the longest section. It is also the least satisfying, since the issue of change too often disappears during the historical tour that Wills narrates.

He guides the reader through 2,000 years of history, citing Eusebius, Augustine, Ignatius of Antioch, John Henry Newman and John Courtney Murray, S.J., to name just a few of his advocates. The journey begins in the days of early Christianity, when Christians were persecuted. Then, in the fourth century during the reign of Constantine, Christianity “went from a socially suspect religion to a socially favored religion.” In the high Middle Ages, during the reign of Boniface VIII, the church, in the person of Pope Boniface, took over the state, leading crusades, inquisitions and interdictions. This political and religious supremacy eventually became formalized in theological language as the thesis and hypothesis theory of church and state in which Catholicism would be the state’s established church.

This would be true not just in Italy or Spain but throughout the world. Theologians labeled this ideal state of affairs the thesis. The hypothesis was a situation where the ideal had to be compromised because of an inconvenient situation, at least for a while. This meant that in the United States religious pluralism had to be tolerated as second best until Catholicism could prevail as the state church. As fanciful as that appears, this was the prevailing teaching of the church regarding church-state relations until the Second Vatican Council.

At the council, “the church-state monarchy which had been constructed over centuries” was “discredited with amazing rapidity.” After 2,000 years, religious freedom had finally become a trademark of Catholicism. As the council put it, “the human person has a right to religious freedom.”

The third change that Wills examines is the rise and fall of anti-Semitism. He traces the roots of anti-Semitism within the Christian tradition from the patristic period to the dark days of the Holocaust. At Vatican II the thinking of the church finally changed, at the insistence of Pope John XXIII. He commissioned the German Jesuit scholar, Cardinal Augustin Bea, “to shepherd the Jewish question through the council’s deliberations.” The result was the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” The heart of the document was the fourth chapter, which rejects the charge of deicide against the Jews. Furthermore, “the church,” as the document put it, “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.” Wills concludes this section of the book by reminding the reader that “the church can live because it can learn, correct, and change under God’s direction.”

The coming and going of “natural law” is the next issue discussed in the book. This is clearly the most controversial, since it focuses on three issues related to sexuality. The first is contraception and the issue of birth control; second is male superiority, as articulated throughout Catholic history, and the question of women priests; the third is the right to life and abortion. On each of these subjects Wills is at odds with the official teaching of the church. Coming from Wills that is not surprising. Nonetheless, his discussion of these contentious issues is worth reading.

The last change treated is the disappearance of confession. This is the briefest section in the book, since it is a development that has taken place only during the last half century. Once Pope Paul VI in 1973 introduced the idea of absolution from one’s sins as a community ritual, with individual confession afterward if one felt a need for it, the conventional way of confession has become increasingly less common. For Wills the people of God have moved on, abandoning the dark box of the confessional.

The book concludes with a brief epilogue that celebrates Pope Francis as a pope who “does not see the church as changeless, as permanent, as predictable, but as a thing of surprises.” Wills, a historian, ends by reminding the reader that “welcoming change does not mean dismissing the past, as if it does not exist. It means reinhabiting it with love, a sensus fidei, a reliance on the People of God.”

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Alfred Chavez
3 years 9 months ago
I must be imagining the line outside the confessional anytime I go. No doubt the numbers who line up are down, but there are still many of us who need that time "in the box." One change that's been great is face-to-face confession.
Paul Ferris
3 years 9 months ago
Whenever I go to confession, I notice the line is occupied by mostly if not all senior citizens, probably, like me, cramming for the finals. Of course that is a good thing but does not deny the fact that confession is a shell of what it used to be.
Martin Eble
3 years 9 months ago
I suppose the fact that Gary Wills "still prays the rosary and regularly attends Mass" takes the curse off the fact that he opposes practically every aspect of the Catholic Faith, from the divinity of Jesus through the Resurrection. Latin was, for a time, the universal language of the Roman Rite. Prior to that it had been Koine Greek. In some areas it was Geez, Coptic, Old Slavonic, or some other language suitable to the Church's purposes. Its use in the Roman rite reflected its use in the Roman Empire, and afterwards its use among educated Europeans. An interesting example of this is the translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer from English into Latin for use in universities, where students from across Europe could cut through the language barrier and join in common prayer in a language they understood, as well as the translation of the 1559 edition into Latin for use in the Queen's chapel: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Latin1662/BCP_Latin1662.htm What kept the laity from reading the Bible and church documents was nearly universal illiteracy and the great cost of printed books when printing finally became generally available in the 16th century. The rest of Wills' "scholarship" is of similar quality, agenda driven to pick and choose factoids to support his opposition to the teaching Church, Mater et Magister.
Paul Ferris
3 years 9 months ago
In the list of languages I would include Aramaic and the Syrian tradition, a tradition that is often neglected.


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