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Amy Welborn on Garry Wills

Over the past week, I’ve read Garry Wills’ new book Why I am a Catholic as well as his 2000 tome (which I’d never managed to read before now) Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit

First off, I’m not going to take the easy way out in dealing with these books. I’m not going to blow off Wills, call him a heretic and wonder why he simply doesn’t become an Episcopalian.

There are several reasons I can’t go down that road. First, Wills makes some important points in both books, points that are worth considering, points that are routinely ignored by many traditionally-minded Catholic apologists.

Secondly, Wills does consider himself a Catholic. To some of us, his claims of reciting the rosary daily may seem like a cynical ploy to overlay his liberal moral and theological views with the veneer of piety and good conscience, as well as a good PR tactic, but the fact is, that’s what he says, and it’s only fair to deal with his thought on the level on which he presents it.

Finally, Wills is not the only self-proclaimed Catholic in the world who turns his back on Church teaching on sexual issues and has fuzzy interpretations of doctrinal issues. Parishes are full of ‘em. Wills is simply a more intellectual version of a very common kind of Catholics who has sold out to the culture. To be fair, all of us sell out to some degree. All of us have fallen short. Very few of us embody the call of Jesus in our lives to the degree we know we should. But a lot of us know it, too, and are committed, at some feeble level, to remake our lives in the light of truth, rather than try to remake truth in the light of our own needs and desires.

That said, let’s move on.

First off, Why I Am A Catholic is not a book you want to share with the favorite catechumen in your life, and not because of Wills’ perspective on the issues. Despite what the title indicates, this is not, truth be told, a very personal book. It is really more like two books: a long continuation of the anti-papal rant of Papal Sin bracketed by Wills’ recollection of his formation as a Catholic on the front end and his own interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed at the back end.

In other words, it’s not exactly an engaging piece of work. It’s almost as if Wills had more to say about the Pope, but his publisher didn’t want More Papal Sin, so they used the personal apologia angle as a way to package what’s mostly more of the same old stuff.

What confounds Wills’ critics is that he has nothing but good to say about his Catholic childhood and even mostly good to say about his Jesuit education, and what criticisms he has of the latter are certainly sound. He says that he was once invited by Daniel Callahan to contribute a piece to a collection dedicated to the proposition that pre-Vatican II life and formation was a horror show. He declined, because that wasn’t his experience.

Here’s what Wills is basically about:

His faith is predominately intellectual, not surprising, since that seems to be his basic prism for experience. His concerns are primarily intellectual. His solutions are intellectual. I put this book down with the impression, fairly or not, of a profoundly impersonal faith, one bereft of passion or relationship or trust. It is a faith in which the central issue is what Garry makes of the world and how he can squeeze God into that in an intellectually satisfying way, rather than a faith in which God as God is front and center, as source and root and end and ultimate standard. Wills speaks of prayer, and says he does it, and who am I to doubt him or cast aspersions on his claims? But nonetheless, there is a certain distance between Wills and the object of his prayer. Augustine is, of course, one of his heroes, but there is none of the passion of Augustine here, none of the “heart” so central to Augustine’s account of his own faith, none of Augustine’s recognition that as important as the struggle to understand is, in the end, we are asked to answer only one question, and it’s not: Did you understand? Rather, it’s Do you love me?

In other words, Garry Wills is too smart for his britches. Or, to put it another way, Wills has not yet learned the lesson of his heroes: Augustine, Newman and Chesterton, a lesson which is about submission of will and intellect and trust in the mystery.

So, let’s get back to our points. Wills makes some good ones, although his books should both be read in concert with other views and critiques. By saying he has “points” I don’t mean to say he’s right about everything. I’m surely not saying that his books, especially Papal Sin, aren’t a mess of selective use of sources and even egregious mistakes (see the Amazon reader reviews of Papal Sin for several gleeful accounts of those mistakes. The one I caught that was a real disaster was in his discussion of the Infancy Narratives in which he starts out fine, speaking of Matthew and Luke, but then forgets Luke and continues to discuss the genealogy found in Mark. Uh…no.)

No, what Wills says that should be taken seriously are the following:

First, the shape of the Petrine office has developed over the years. Wills resolutely (and surprisingly) maintains the importance of the Petrine office. He says:

“So when people ask why I do not go in search of a popeless church, I answer sincerely 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…The papacy, as I said, did not formulate the creed containing these truths; but it has been essential in preserving them, while heretics “selected” this or that item from the creed.” However, his problem is mostly in the modern shape of the papacy, especially (as one might expect) since Vatican I. He says that those who exaggerate the role of the Pope in the formation of faith claims and church practice are ignoring the historical realities of first, the minimal role the Bishop of Rome played in the doctrinal struggles of the first four centuries, and secondly, the ongoing historical struggles regarding the function of the Petrine Office in relation to councils and bishops and finally, the political motives of popes.

Yes, Wills is often guilty of a skewed and selective use of sources, but his general point is correct – the role of the papacy has developed over the years. Wills however, then proceeds to draw the conclusion that because of this, the papacy need not be taken seriously as a teacher. Here’s the problem:

His argument is not with the Petrine office as a sign of unity, but with what he sees as inappropriate power claims which, in his view, have functioned as obstacles to the working of the Spirit through the rest of the Church, laity and other bishops included. I guess it’s a sort of High Anglican/Orthodox view of the papacy.

But the odd thing about Wills is that in the end, he ends up being just as guilty of the sin of “papalotry” as are those he identifies as his opponents. Wills claims that papal apologists conflate all teaching authority to the Pope (not true, of course), but that’s exactly what Wills does himself. In disputed areas – contraception, for example or abortion – Wills in this book, as he did in Papal Sin, sees every orthodox position as the product of papal fiat, usually motivated by power. He offers no sense of the roots of such teaching in Scripture and tradition, thereby quite conveniently rendering those teachings unworthy of serious engagement. Last night, we watched a documentary on St. Maria Goretti on EWTN. Her canonization in 1950 was the first held outside, and half a million people attended. What you could sense, even in film that was half a century old, was the sensus fidelium surging through that crowd. Pius wasn’t canonizing Maria Goretti because he wanted to or because it served an agenda. He was canonizing her because the People of God experienced her as a saint, and his act was a recognition of that.

To be sure, less than ideal motivations have marked papal pronouncements over the centuries. Accidents of history have played their part as well. But for much of his book, Wills seriously overestimates the power of the papacy himself. He views every contentious issue through the prism of papal power, which may tell a tiny part of the story, but ignores the bulk of it and leaves Garry Wills in the very nice position of not having to engage any theological argument with any seriousness.

I couldn’t help but feel, as I finished up these books, that Wills lives in an astonishingly small intellectual world for a famous guy. He expresses surprise in his latest book at the response to Papal Sin in “right wing” Catholic organs and internet sites, saying that gosh, he didn’t know there were so darn many of them. His theological processing is all – every bit of it – in the context of liberal modern Scripture scholarship and theology. He says he believes in the Divinity of Christ, but his account of the Virginal Conception is marked by some definite fudging – if pressed, I’d have to say I don’t think he believes it. He speaks of Jesus’ conception and formation being “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit, but nothing specifically about a virginal conception. He also doesn’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist apart from the community (using Augustine as his evidence, and I am still looking for another view of the passages he cites as evidence). He accepts all the claims of liberal scholarship uncritically, evidently unaware that these men and women are not infallible and that there is a vigorous orthodox intellectual community out here beyond the walls of Northwestern University. Isn’t it odd that so often those who insist on the necessity of having “critical views” of Church teaching suspend those same powers of criticism when reading..say…Schussler-Fiorenza or Crossan?

Let’s look at Wills’ method of evaluating the value of various practices and teachings. As I said above, his process is basically: this is what I think, so let’s find evidence to support it. His evidence is rooted in three sources: first, as I said above, liberal scholarship.

Secondly, Wills uses historical figures, including his heroes (Augustine, Newman, Chesterton and Acton) in vigorous support of his views. No, even Wills can’t come right out and use, say, Chesterton who wrote against artificial contraception as a support for his view on the matter, but his general appeal is to these men’s realistic views of the Church as a flawed institution which is not beyond criticism.

And he’s right. Except for the fact that Wills proceeds to claim that his liberal views on say, abortion and homosexuality, can be understood as legitimate expressions of this kind of loving, principled critique. Somehow, I don’t buy it. Somehow, I don’t think permission to dismember preborn children was on Augustine’s mind when he defended his own actions against heretics against what he saw as the incorrect stance of the Bishop of Rome. In other words, Wills uses his authorities when it suits him, ignores them when they don’t.

Which is what he does with the sensus fidelium as well. This is such a common tactic, it’s almost not worth mentioning, but I suppose I must. Wills sites the reality of Catholics buying into contemporary cultural mores yet staying Catholic as evidence for the correctness of these mores. Except, we might notice, when it comes to say, capital punishment. Most American Catholics are supportive of the use of capital punishment. The pope most definitely is not. Why doesn’t Wills make that an issue? Most American Catholics seem to have no trouble at all with American consumerist culture and have a merry old time telling themselves that Jesus didn’t really mean any of the stuff he said about the poor and that whole dependence on God thing. Again, not a cause I hear Wills espousing. Millions of Catholics, regardless of what Wills sees from that ivory tower, make pilgrimages to traditional devotional shrine and , venerate traditional role models like Saint Padre Pio. Does this stop Wills from turning up his nose at this kind of Catholicism? No.

In the end, Wills’ answer is the typical modern answer, which is no answer at all. True, when it comes to the Church, history must be fully and honestly dealt with, and sometimes traditional apologists get wacky in their own interpretations and gloss over historical issues. But what we’re left with, is not a Catholic Church. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a Church at all. Garry Wills leaves us with the impression that to him the Catholic faith is constructed, not out of flesh, blood, mystics, saints and sinners, artists, musicians, missionaries, mothers and fathers, children and the elderly, all joined as a living, vibrant, pilgrim Body formed and put here to serve God and love in His name, but rather is a collection of words in a book that don’t violate his intellectual or cultural sensibilities. It is a lifeless spot, animated by the desire to prove that the smart little boy from Michigan isn’t wrong rather than be profound gratitude that the boy exists at all.

Clarification:My critique is not about a lack of "emotion" as some commentators are saying. It's about the proper place of intellect in faith. It has a role. We are called to use our God-given minds to understand, to clarify, to present the Good News to the world in a way it can receive it. No, the problem is with me, as an individual believer, one of billions over two thousand years, letting my intellectual interests, priorities and (yes) limitations lead the way in defining faith for me, rather than using my intellect in the context of a holistic faith relationship with God. It is not a call to deny our intellects or to fall into fideism or quietism. Not at all. All I'm saying is that Wills' use of intellect is incomplete and dishonest. He refuses to engage counter-arguments seriously, reverting always to accusations of misuse of power. He treats contemporary theological perspectives as beyond criticism. He leaves the impression that faith is all about an acceptably-ordered mental universe. Let's put it this way: this is not a book in which you will find active, vigorous mytics like Teresa of Avila or passionate servants like Vincent de Paul. You will not find Fr. Damiens, Mother Cabrinis or Mother Theresas.

Now, listen. The reason I can be so focused on this is that I understand Wills. I understand the need to have faith make sense, and I have been stymied in my own faith growth by intellectual questions more than I care to say. That, then, is the reason, I am so keen on pointing out the inadequacies of the approach. I understand why Wills' heroes are his heroes - they are some of mine as well, because they were all possessed of keen minds who would not take faith claims for granted, and who sought to understand them and clarify them, not only for themselves, but for the rest of us as well. But just for myself, as important as those figures are, they may bring my mind closer to God and confidence in the truth of the Christian claim, but I can't say that they (with the exception of Augustine) move my whole faith as related to my whole self. The people who do that for me are the people I cited above. These were all people who grappled with church authority, who even defied it at times. They are people who were not, to say the least, dumb. They were also people who had choices to make and made them. Free, intelligent souls who contemplated their options but in the end, chose to follow Christ, not because they'd worked it all out or because they'd constructed a faith that fit what they saw as their needs at the time, but because they listened, and they said yes, and they followed.

In other words, it was a Person to whom they responded, not an idea.

That's what I couldn't sense in Wills' book.

All But Dissertations Blog on the same

Amy Welborn offers a long and balanced, on the whole, reflection on and critique of Gary Wills' Why I Am a Catholic and Papal Sin. I have read neither. When I'm not engaging in academic reading, I read for enjoyment, and I knew from many reviews of those books that they would not be enjoyable. If you have read Wills and either like or dislike his work, I urge you click over to Welborn and see what she has to say.

What I want to comment on briefly are Welborn's reflections on intellectualism and faith. She addressed her remarks strictly to her perception of the mix of the two in the person of Gary Wills, but I would like to expand on the topic.

Academia at the Ph.D. level can suck all the life out of one's faith if one allows it.

They'll hurt you, and desert you They'll take your soul if you let them Oh, now but don't you let them

This blog is part of my struggle to keep my soul and not let "them" take it. Actually, there is no conspiracy; there is no "them." Most professors in my Ph.D. program have been wonderful, supportive, faith-filled souls. Some are active Protestant ministers of various denominations. Others are faithful Catholic priests. Some have been orthodox Jews. (Unfortunately, I've never had a Muslim professor, though I have had Muslim friends.) It's the process itself that steals one's soul. I have a hard time reading the Bible devotionally now, after x number of years dissecting it. As I wrote in one of the first posts here, the Bible becomes T.S. Eliot's "patient etherised upon a table."

A Ph.D. program is a completely different animal than a Master's program. A Master's program draws a more diverse crowd, people who are interested primarily in active ministry as well as in academic study. A Ph.D. program generally demands enormously more than a Master's in terms of the depth and breadth of the work, the languages required, the time. As one of my professors says, it changes you and makes you a different person. You are enculturated, professionalized, transformed into the image of an academician, with all the goods and evils inate in such a creature.

I've shared this transformation and my misgivings about it most deeply with a particular friend, and whenever we meet, about once a year, she always asks, "How is your faith life?" It's always a welcome and challenging question.

I turn to the lives of the saints, who never let me down, most importantly lately, Mother Theresa (yes, technically she's not a saint, but let that go). Love and humility: these are why I must return to Mother. I also continually reread The Imitation of Christ, which C. S. Lewis once somewhere called "an astringent." One of the Imitation's opening lines is "I would rather have compunction than know how to define it," and little goads against intellectualism like this are scattered throughout the rest of the book.

Another wonderful antidote to intellectual pride is the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and mothers, of which there are a few: Sarah, Syncletia, maybe a few others I can't remember now). Benedicta Ward's alphabetical collection is the best one that's easily accessible, but I first encountered the Sayings in Thomas Merton's slim volume. We were required to read them in a 400 level course entitled simply "Prayer." The professor who taught the course was a Catholic priest, a deeply profound intellect, a basketball player, a stand-up comedian, a deep lover of students, and he spent all of his spare time counseling the hundreds of students who sought his advice and spiritual direction every week. I will never forget his saying that it's the little old ladies who attend daily Mass who are the best theologians. I went into this field because I wanted to be like him. When I taught my first course, I made sure to use the Desert Fathers.

Note: upon seeing this in print, it struck me how much verbiage is devoted to reading. It's rather ironic, isn't it, that even in the struggle against intellectualism, a student's first line of defense is books. There's also conversation and especially service to the world, beginning with one's own family and parish. Funny how these didn't come immediately to mind.

Steve Matterson Two things struck me about Amy's analysis. First, was how Wills emphasized the content of faith more than the virtue of faith, the priority of propositions over Person. He seeks truths he can hold onto more than the Truth who would hold, heal, and make him whole.

Second, there seemed to be an interesting parallel to Fundamentalism in Wills' approach. Though it manifests itself in very different ways and the "truths" they hold are often very different from the ones Wills proclaims, the emphasis on having the "right" ideas for oneself, in one's head, is a problem rather prevalent among our Sola Scriptura (and often anti-Catholic) separated brethren. Fearing that someone might be able to challenge the propositions of truth they hold, they are often forced to invent the theological equivalent of epicycles to help them get past the heliocentric facts of their geocentric worldview. Of course, this impulse to get it right, for ourselves, is a problem for many Catholics, as well.

The answer to liberal Protestant and Catholic intellectuals and conservative, Fundamentalists is faith. Not fideistic, naive, unthinking faith. But faith in Christ who promised the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth. So, at the end of the day, faith is an act of submission and obedience more than it is an intellectual feat.

The effort to possess tidy faith formulations that can pass muster with the world (on Wills' side) or Sola Scriptura (on the Fundamentalists') is a vain hope. At the end of the day, it produces more pride than love. And it leads to the lifeless faith that Amy described so well.

Steve Mattson