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Why I Am a Catholic
by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002
(390 pages; $26.00, hardcover)
reviewed by William J. Tighe
Garry Wills’s earlier book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, was written to expose what the author believes to be a systematic pattern of papal deceit and self-deception in refusing to acknowledge the changeable nature of Catholic doctrine and practice and in refusing to embrace what he sees as much-needed changes. These changes include making clerical celibacy optional, ordaining women, accepting contraception and homosexual practice, and at least ceasing to condemn abortion, if not actually accepting “conscientious” decisions to have an abortion (on this subject Wills is anything but clear).
Both those who applauded the book and those who objected to it asked how a man of his views could remain a Catholic, and he responded with Why I Am a Catholic. It is not an orthodox Catholic response, nor one that would be likely to appeal to those—Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike—who wish to stand within the Christian Tradition as they understand it, as something received rather then recreated. But it outlines what Catholicism seems, in the end, to amount to for Wills.
I write “seems,” for he is far from precise. Though he sometimes writes as if Catholicism had an objective and unchanging authority (as witness his view of the Creed, which I will describe in a moment), he also approves the refusal of “Catholics at large” to accept papal statements as “dispositive,” even when such statements reaffirm what has been taught “everywhere, always and by all.” He assumes that “the experience we had of what our Catholic lives meant at their deepest level” is determinative, and that “if the pope said something that claimed we could not be living that life of faith, then the pope would have clearly been wrong.” (The emphasis here and in the rest of the review is Wills’s own.)
Using as an illustration a woman using contraceptives who continues to receive the sacraments, which the Catholic Church believes a mortal sin, he writes that if such people “are told they are doing what ‘the church’ forbids, they respond that they are the church, they are the people of God.” In these cases, he insists, “the pope is out of step with the church.”
One has to search through the book quite thoroughly to find the answer to the question the title poses. It consists of five parts, and the fifth, “The Creed,” offers a detailed treatment of his reasons for believing the Apostles’ Creed. He regards it as “the church’s central message, against which the importance of other things is measured” and states that there are certain doctrines “which one must believe in order to be a Catholic.” There is trouble even here, though.
Witness, for example, his obscure, not to say evasive, treatment of the phrase “born of the Virgin Mary.” After a quotation from the late Catholic Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown seeming to denigrate any emphasis on a “literal” or “biological” virginity, Wills insists that it is her “spiritual” virginity that is important—without clearly specifying what such a “spiritual virginity” entails as regards her real virginity.
He then insists that the early Christians cannot have believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, since “they calmly accepted the fact that Jesus’ brother James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem”—a position, though accepted by many Protestants today, regarded as heretical by both Catholics and Orthodox and condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 432.
Even on his own chosen ground of “The Creed,” Wills’s attempt to vindicate his orthodox Catholic credentials would thus seem to be a failure. At best, he does not speak of its claims with the clarity one expects of orthodox Catholics, and one has to suspect that for him there is some other measurement against which the Creed itself is to be measured.
However much some of Wills’s strictures on the papacy might appeal to some of my Orthodox or Protestant friends, or his doubts about the common Catholic and Orthodox dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary to the Protestants among them, none of them would be able to follow him to the “democratic” basis on which he would want to found them. I am tempted to think that if he really believes what he writes, he ought to join my Protestant friends, but I suspect that he would find serious “sola scriptura” Protestantism too traditional. In any event, he does not seem to be the sort of man who would find intellectual submission to Orthodoxy or Protestantism any more possible than adhesion to orthodox Catholicism, and a convert of his views would not strengthen in any way whatever church he joined.
Disparaging the Papacy
The heart of the book is the three middle parts on the papacy. The first attempts to undermine the apostolic foundations of the papacy, the second tries to discredit the papacy in the second millennium as power-seeking, unscrupulous, inept, reactionary, and fighting against “progress.”
The third gives both a long paean of praise of the Second Vatican Council for “liberating” Catholics from the shackles to which they had hitherto been bound and setting them free to follow the dictates of their own consciences, and a sustained assault on the subsequent attempt to “roll back” its “gains.” In Wills’s view, there is a steady decline from the good Pope John XXIII to the weak Paul VI to the bad (but personally impressive) John Paul II, who for Wills has happily failed to achieve his restorationist purpose.
Wills has done a tremendous amount of research, but in this section especially, time and again he presents the most radical conclusions of exegetes and historians as though they were the firm, assured, and unquestionable findings of disinterested scholarship. Again and again he passes by in silence not only alternative scholarly views, but even facts and historical events that go against his denigrating and minimizing slant on the papacy.
In the chapter entitled “Peter,” for example, we learn that the language of Peter as the “rock” on which the Church is to be built either was fabricated by the author of the Gospel of Matthew decades after Christ was purported to have spoken them, or else was Jesus’ ironic comment on Peter’s weak and vacillating character; that there were no bishops in Rome until the second century, when the idea of the “Apostolic Succession” of bishops was invented to combat Gnosticism; and that St. Ignatius of Antioch, who held the “recently established office of community ‘overseer,’” had been rejected by his own church—a remarkable flight of fantasy, without any support in the ancient texts—and that Ignatius’s own letter to the Roman Church shows that there was no bishop in Rome at that time.
Similarly, from reading Wills’s account of the papal excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I of England, one could easily conclude that Elizabeth—whom he confusingly describes as seeking “a via media between Catholic and Anglican tenets and worship while suppressing dissenters like the Puritans”—was some sort of moderate, reform-minded Catholic whom the papacy had needlessly alienated.
Wills insists in one of the final chapters of his book, “The Pope’s Loyal Opposition,” that he is not a Catholic in spite of the papacy, but rather that “I want the papacy. It is a blessing, a necessity—it is a requirement for the mystical body of Christ to remain one body.” It is hard to explain his constant disparagement of the papacy and his fundamentally flawed account of its history, save on the supposition that the papacy that he claims to want is one stripped of all claims of apostolic or magisterial authority and resting solely on the “consent of the governed” under the tutelage of up-to-date theological “experts.”
Otherwise, it is impossible to reconcile words like “blessing” and “necessity” with his almost hysterically contemptuous scorn for the current pope and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Thus, Ratzinger fears (irrationally, we are expected to believe) “diabolical powers” that he suspects may be returning in the atheistic culture of the modern Western world; thus, the present pope and Paul VI are repeatedly said to hold that women cannot be ordained “because they do not look like Jesus”; thus, Ratzinger opposes certain liturgical changes because in the old practice the priest “was far more important—which is just what Ratzinger misses”; thus, Wills scorns the pope’s “willingness to believe in odd things” such as “a farrago of Fatima nonsense”; thus, he accuses the pope of a “homicidal” teaching for condemning the use of condoms as sinful in all circumstances.
All this gives the game away, and reveals this account for what it is: an attempt to “resite” the Catholic Church on another rock than the one on which it professes to have been founded and to substitute a democratic faith under the guidance, not of the Holy Spirit who has spoken as Catholics have believed him to speak, but of the Spirit of the Age as vetted by Garry Wills. One thinks of the “idle babblings and contradictions” of 1 Timothy 6:20.
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.