Garry Wills, perhaps the nation’s widest-ranging man of letters or, as the phrase now goes, "public intellectual," has never concealed his Catholicism. But he has usually worn it discreetly, indeed keeping a mocking distance from self-consciously "Catholic" intellectuals who made their church too much of their public identity. Two years ago, however, he published Papal Sin, to which Why I Am a Catholic, he says, is a "sequel." Subtitled "Structures of Deceit," Papal Sin argued that the besetting vice of the modern papacy was not personal immorality or corruption but an ingrained, institutionalized unwillingness to tell the truth, a sticky spider’s web "of all the past evasions, the disingenuous explainings, outright denials, professions, deferences, pieties, dodges, lapses, and funk." That Papal Sin stirred outrage among Catholics who equate their faith with the papacy was not surprising. What was surprising was the negative reaction among many who had been regular critics of the papacy, often on the same topics that exercised Wills: the church’s sins against the Jewish people, its clericalism, its destructive opposition to contraception, a married priesthood, and the ordination of women. Wills, it seemed, just didn’t know where to stop. He moved from Pius XII to pedophilia to celibacy to priesthood to Eucharistic theology, always sweeping away other points of view as "intellectually contemptible," "ludicrous," "bizarre," "demonstrable falsehood," "crazed talk," "absurdities," "cultivated ignorance," "parody of exegesis," and so on. Readers may remember the judgment of Eamon Duffy, hardly a papal sycophant, in these pages (July 14, 2000): "In the end, there is something repellently illiberal about Wills’s angry liberal certainty, his wholesale and unqualified conviction that every right-thinking Catholic must agree with him, and that the positions he rejects can be held together by nothing except rank tyranny and the intellectual equivalent of chewing gum." The late Monsignor George G. Higgins called the book "a diatribe," particularly unbalanced in an area that Higgins knew firsthand as a pioneer-Catholic-Jewish relations. Favorable reviews often echoed the same shortcomings while forgiving them for other reasons. "An angry book," said John L. Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter. "Wills sometimes overstates his case," admitted John W. O’Malley in America. "He ascribes motives. He gives no quarter....At moments the book threatens to degenerate into a grab bag of grievances." But O’Malley declared Papal Sin a "serious book by a serious author" who shows "a scholar’s respect for sources." Not according to Justus George Lawler. Papal Sin is one of the targets, along with recent books by James Carroll, John Cornwell, Ralph McInerny, and others, of Lawler’s Popes and Politics (Continuum, $24.95, 252 pp.), a polemical dissection of the rhetorical stridency and historical sleight of hand that Lawler sees being used to reduce the modern papacy’s complicated relationship to the Holocaust into a moral battering ram to assault enemies within the church. Lawler, who was holding down the left wing of the church when the young Garry Wills was still lamenting, in the National Review, the "cowardice" that does not accept that "men are men, and war is war," has the credentials for the task. He is Wills’s match in knowledge, for example, and he catches Wills out in a number of howlers and enough cases of picking, choosing, and twisting texts to raise doubts about O’Malley’s confidence in Wills’s "respect for sources." Unfortunately, he is also Wills’s match in the rhetoric of denunciation ("methodology of mendacity," "papaphobia," "voodoo history," "practicing the very deceit he so freely denounces in ecclesiastical officials"); and his case is ultimately lost in a dizzying whirlwind of allusions, asides, and puns in several languages. Critics on the liberal or left side of the Catholic spectrum did not, of course, question Wills’s claim to be a Catholic. They had themselves been told too often to love it or leave it. The question inevitably arose, however, not only from the right but from non-Catholic interviewers. It was surprising how feeble Wills’s replies sounded. He usually referred warmly to his own campus’s Catholic Center and, more to the point, to his belief in the core tenets of the creed. But why, he was asked-logically enough-did that make him Catholic, since other Christians believe in the creed, too? Why I Am a Catholic is meant to answer those questions, as well as to "compare notes" with those who, sharing his critical stance and feelings of frustration, were trying to articulate their own reasons for remaining in the church. The book opens with an autobiographical section and closes with one on the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father. Each of these is forty-some pages long. Inbetween is a 236-page "excursus" on the papacy, its many follies, and the myths that have grown up around it. Call it Papal Sin II. For those convinced that being a faithful Catholic means adhering unreservedly to every word from the throne of Peter (and the many small thrones in that vicinity), this nearly 70 percent of the book may be important. It may also be filled with overstatement, bias, selective use of secondary sources, etc. I leave that to Justus George Lawler. For the rest of us, these chapters on the papacy are like charging through an open door-again and again and again. So we must look to what he says, about himself and the creed, in the other two sections. What he says is not uninteresting. But that’s about it. Trinity, Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection-they are all rendered intelligible in a rather cerebral way, with long quotations from Augustine and Chesterton. Evil? More quotes from Augustine and Chesterton. Death and "life everlasting"? A reference to the Good Thief and Mary’s Assumption. The scholarly quest for the "historical Jesus" is dismissed in a sentence. "Come to judge the living and the dead" opens into a long set piece by Wills the classicist about properly translating the Our Father as an eschatological prayer. It is very hard to see Wills himself in all of this, hidden as he is behind a screen of learning and handling the hot coals of faith with the long tongs of Augustine and Chesterton. Twice in this book he expresses discomfort for being "so personal." He needn’t have worried. The ego is kept well cloaked; it is the superego that runs rampant. Even the eight inviting autobiographical pages portraying the nurturing Catholicism of his family, parochial schooling, and Jesuit high school show almost nothing about the Catholicism (as distinguished from the burgeoning intellect) of the young author himself. The only religiously revealing pages describe the painful anti-intellectualism and sheer weirdness of his "Jesuit days" in seminary. There follows a swift résumé of his sporadic public engagements with the church: his study of Chesterton, a still remembered quip ("Mater sí, Magistra no!") and long-forgotten book (Politics and Catholic Freedom) about encyclicals, his nimbly written but condescending book on the postconciliar church (Bare Ruined Choirs), until we arrive at Papal Sin, his first book about Catholicism, he says, that "reflected my own sense of urgency." We have not, however, learned more than a scrap or two about his interior life. He prays the rosary daily, saying the Our Father in Greek. He reads the New Testament regularly. At one point, he states, "I have never even considered leaving the church." At another, he writes, "The process of questioning one’s faith is one that I have undergone with many, if not most, believers." Yet there is little sense of this process apart from one bout with disbelief and depression decades ago in the seminary. There is, in particular, little sense of this process as it might occur at a sickbed or a graveside, in a war zone or after a natural disaster, at 3 a.m. during a sleepless night, amid family conflicts, or alongside people anywhere whom deprivation, disease, drugs, calamities, genes, or age have stripped of much of what we treasure about being human. Even on a more intellectual plane, it is difficult to believe that Wills has escaped grappling with the philosophical critique of religion from Nietzsche to postmodernism, or with the questions raised by critical biblical scholarship (how does he go about privileging Raymond Brown over, say, John Dominic Crossan?), or with the alternative attitudes toward reality offered by other great world religions, including the one labeled science. For many of us, being a Catholic means addressing the assumptions prevalent in the worlds of the New York Review of Books as much as those prevalent in the Roman curia-indeed, the challenge is to do both at the same time. If this is true for Wills as well, there is no hint of it in either text or notes, where the last serious challenge to Christianity appears to have come from Thomas Jefferson. The result is a disappointingly "churchy" book. Could a mind as lively as Wills’s be so complacent or does he simply prefer to steer away from issues that might create waves along the Hudson rather than along the Tiber? If the "I" in Why I Am a Catholic remains obscure, so does the "Catholic." That is not to accuse Wills of being a heretic, merely to point out that he has still left unanswered the obvious question raised by the fact that non-Catholic Christians also affirm the creed. The closest he comes is a weak rope bridge of an argument joining the last pages of his "excursus" with his first pages on the creed: "When people ask why I do not go in search of a popeless church, I answer sincerely that I want the papacy....The church gathers around the papacy, 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 preserves the truth of the Incarnation...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." This is very impressive, but it is a bolt from the blue. There has been virtually nothing in the preceding 234 pages to demonstrate that it is true. The many good, reasonable Christians who believe that the papacy has not helped but hindered the church in preserving the great truths of the creed can find far more in Wills’s chronicle to buttress their case than to support his. Typically, Wills devotes one sentence to qualified praise of Trent’s teaching on the Eucharist but several pages to criticizing Ratzinger’s treatment of it. Nothing here deals with either the church’s or the papacy’s preservation of belief in fleshly Resurrection or life everlasting. And when, a few pages later, Wills attributes faithfulness in preserving the creed to "the steadiness, continuity, and symbolic unity supplied the church by the Petrine ministry," one can only blink, since the preceding chapters have been one long narrative of instability, discontinuity, and division. No one should doubt that Garry Wills is a Catholic, an oddly old-fashioned one, it turns out, in what he evidently assumes can be taken for granted and what needs demonstrating. But we can doubt whether he has satisfactorily and candidly explained why he is a Catholic. Too bad.

Published in the 2002-07-12 issue: View Contents

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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