A Catholic Critic Warms to Francis

A devout Catholic, Garry Wills has been a thoughtful but relentless critic of the Vatican for almost half a century, but in his latest book, he shows signs of a thaw.

Gentle winds of optimism are not the expected forecast when Garry Wills writes on the state of the Roman Catholic Church.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills is one America’s most prolific historians and a leading public intellectual. The range of his numerous books, essays and reported pieces show the exacting standards of a classicist, inspired by the Enlightenment and anchored—ironically, some might say—in the Catholic faith.

A former Jesuit novice (seminarian) who left religious life for a B.A. in philosophy at St. Louis University, Wills took an M.A. at Xavier University before earning a Ph.D. in classics at Yale in 1961. The Second Vatican Council began in 1962, as he was starting a nearly two-decade run as a professor at Johns Hopkins, writing Esquire pieces and a syndicated political column on the side. In 1980 he took a chair at Northwestern, all the while maintaining a flow of articles in major magazines.

As Paul VI reeled from the fallout over his 1968 encyclical that condemned birth control devices, the pope became so demoralized as to write no more encyclicals in his final ten years. For Wills, the writer and historian, the church became a gift that kept on giving.

“The issue was one of intellectual honesty; of the whole intellectual structure within which faith was to be grasped and taught—its demands laid upon others, its claims rationally vindicated,” he wrote in Bare Ruined Choirs (1972). “The church’s stand on contraception did not even blend dubious philosophy with gospel mystery; it simply had no basis in the New Testament or Old ... Most of the faithful tried to ignore it.”

There in cameo is Garry Wills’s confrontation with the church, as distinguished from his faith: How is a moral teaching, encyclical, or papal decision rationally vindicated? How do the pronouncements and decisions of ecclesial officials hold up to the true light of scripture, and at the other end of the spectrum, enlightened science? How does a church accustomed to papal fiat manifest the intellectual freedom implicit in the reforms of Vatican II?

The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis is the latest episode of Wills the critic on institutional dynamics. And in a pattern laid out in previous work, this book is less about Francis and more about Wills’s evolution from his prosecutorial stance in Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000). The new book reflects on a church, long-averse to introspection, being prodded toward redemptive messages of its past by a reformer pope.

“I want to trace, in this book, how change—far from being the enemy of Catholicism—is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and breathing out,” writes Wills. “Even before Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council had found in the church’s sources that ‘the church’ did not always mean what some of its defenders insist that it must mean.”

The theme of a church embattled with its change agents has threaded through many of Wills’s previous books; in most cases, the agents lose in the short term, but gain momentum, often posthumously, as church officialdom reacts to events marked by the evidence of change foreseen.

The hope Wills invests in Francis is a long leap from his take on John Paul, in Papal Sin, for his passivity over pedophile priest cases, emphatic defense of the birth control prohibition and denial over the high number of gay priests. Wills called it “the dissociation between papal claims and lived reality.”

By Wills’s lights, dishonesty is the papacy’s rooted sin: “The freedom that celibacy was supposed to give for selfless action is snuffed out at the most basic level when freedom of discussion is outlawed.”

Reaction to Papal Sin had a marked impact on Wills’s work in the subsequent 15 years. “I did not anticipate,” he wrote in the sequel, Why I Am A Catholic, “that people would write me in large numbers,” supportive of his withering critique, while asking “what positive things the church does or can do. What, they asked explicitly or implicitly, are the grounds of my own hope?”

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Why I Am A Catholic had exquisite timing. Published in 2002 amid a firestorm of coverage on the clergy abuse scandals, the title augured hope for Catholics appalled by the concealment of so many predators by bishops and a passive pope; it became a best seller even though it wasn’t an autobiography or deep-drill memoir.

Instead, Wills dwells on a faith-rooted childhood, nurturing and happy. But as he moves from his short period as a Jesuit novice into the academic life, the book becomes a kind of anti-memoir. He turns from the personal toward the historian reporting on patterns of darkness and light in church history. In that sense, it’s more of an intellectual self-portrait.

He vaunts the integrity of Lord Acton (“power corrupts”) who tilted against papal infallability at the 1870 first Vatican Council; he skewers Pope Pius X as a reactionary who declared war on “the modernist heresy” in the early 1900s.

Why I Am A Catholic is a compelling, engaging hybrid: just enough of the memoirist to manifest the sincerity of his religious belief, while giving plenty of elbow room for the historian to go after the Renaissance popes (“the ones with the darkest reputations because they left such vivid memorials of their extravagance”) and weigh in on the backlash against Vatican II. The final section displays his skills as a scripture scholar to explain why he says the Apostle’s Creed.

Why I Am A Catholic has no searing inner struggle over doubt. If you’re blessed with the certitude of Garry Wills, why bother with personal theatrics? No inner child to coddle when all that rich material on the church awaits the scholarly prosecutor. His standing as a Catholic, long married, children grown, has given his critique of the church greater authority in the public square—no hint of someone settling scores.

Wills is the opposite of a cynic. The steady theme in all his output on Catholic matters is the genuine hope he draws from the gospels—from authentic readings of the ancient texts, namely his own—reflecting a bedrock belief in God’s intervention through Christ in human history.

He did, however, reveal something oddly intimate in that nonconfessional book on being a Catholic—he admitted to praying the rosary every day. That image of a devout man, saying his daily prayer beads, cuts an ironic contrast with the political writer who slammed the liberal dynasty in The Kennedy Imprisonment, a book in which he suggested that speechwriter Ted Sorenson deserved equal billing with JFK for heavy lifting on Profiles in Courage, and speculated that the senator-become-president snared a Pulitzer for that book thanks to his father Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s pull with the Pulitzer board.

If faith rises through Wills’s engagement with scripture, a zeal for justice marks the intellectual engaged with humanity’s past, and contemporary politics.

Wills portrays his spirituality as a ritual sensibility also shaped by the example of church thinkers who influenced him early on, and whom he came to emulate: Lord Acton, G.K. Chesterton, and Cardinal (now Saint) John Henry Newman (“to live is to change: to be perfect is to have changed often”). Rigorous English scholars, they all spoke truth to papal power, sought enlightened reform, and took their bruises along the way.

Wills offers small scenes of his faith without emotional fireworks, rather in a mannerly approach by which the telling anecdote sparks a new episode in the life of a mind.

From Why I Am A Catholic, we learn that the early, brief Jesuit residency distressed him for “the morbidity of being isolated with one’s thoughts for most of the day and all of the night, feeding on doubts ... to disconnect my mind from the cosmos and make me wonder if it would ever find a thing to reconnect with, or if such a thing existed at all.” As he confronted that cosmic void, “it was Chesterton, not Newman, who came to my rescue in the seminary”—rescuing him in order that he could leave.

But the idealist who entered seminary kept his role in the emergent personality marked by a probing, confrontational cast of mind. That core sense of hope, rooted in faith, never left Wills, although for long stretches it took back seat to the tenacity of the critic and historian.

The flames of hope have burned brighter in recent years as Wills tossed off a line of smaller works, a few of them essay-length, on ramifications of belief, meditations on St. Augustine, the Rosary, and titles like What Jesus Meant (2006). Nothing about these books is soft or hagiographical, but the historian veers toward theologian in commenting on revelations of the spirit. Using his own translations from the Greek in these slender books, Wills orchestrates a brief for the integrity of scripture, despite mistakes people have made in certain interpretations. One also sees, in the title aforecited, how Pope Francis, whose first foreign trip was to the Sicilian island of Lambedusa to comfort Mediterranean boat refugees, would inject Wills with a booster-dose of optimism. As Wills wrote then:

No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love? It has been thought so by some Christians. One of the greatest sins of Christianity was to treat Jews as cursed, unworthy of contact, unclean, to be repudiated, in a grisy caricature of their own laws of purifiction. If this sin of ‘racial purity’ did not cause the Holocaust, it certainly facilitated it.

Who are the Jews of our day? Who are the cursed? Some Christians tell us who. At the funeral of a well-known gay man who died of AIDS, a ‘Christian’ group showed up with placards saying ‘God hates fags.’ In the San Diego diocese, a Catholic bishop forbade Christian burial to an openly gay man. Is there any doubt where Jesus would have stood in these episodes—where, in his mystical members, he was standing then?

It is not surprising that The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis is only tangentially about Francis, whom Wills cites admiringly in the last chapter, and epilogue for several of his dramatic statements. The pope conforms to the direction of the church Wills has long advocated. But Wills is far from scripting a praise song for this pope (or any public figure) whose mistakes or flaws he stands ready to dissect. Still, the optimist can’t help showing his stripes: “Pope Francis, like Chesterton, does not see the church as changeless, as permanent, as predictable, but as a thing of surprises.”

Wills’s surprises include a profile of the late Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, who promoted pluralism and an ecumenical rapprochement with other churches in the ’50s. That got him in trouble with superiors in Rome. Murray’s notion of a faith strengthened by its separation from government in U.S.-styled democracy ran afoul the Vatican, which had concordats with European countries like Italy, Germany, and Austria that provided state-supported salaries of priests and bishops.

When the 1960 Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy began quoting Murray, the American bishops sat up. They wanted to see a Catholic at long last in the White House.

“They needed Murray’s help in defending the separation of church and state,” writes Wills. “Murray went from being silenced to being celebrated”—and a figure of influence at Vatican II.

In the new book Wills revisits the blunders behind Paul VI’s fateful birth control encyclical of 1968, which cracked the wall of popular belief in the pope as a visionary. Paul appointed an advisory commission, largely composed of lay people, which voted 64-4 in favor of the birth control pill. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, a reactionary in charge of the old Holy Office of the Inquisition, stacked a group of 16 bishops to press for the upholding a natural law argument, that nothing should prohibit the fertile ends of sexual intercourse.

To the dismay of the authorities, the report of the majority of the commission was leaked to the National Catholic Reporter. Ottaviani said the commission was trying to force Paul’s hand. If the church could change on this, what authority would it have on moral matters? The whole natural law would be discredited. (The Jesuit) John C. Ford had told the commission that masturbation would now run wild. Souls had been sent to hell for committing the mortal sin of contraception. Would they now be given passes to leave? Paul agreed with Ottaviani that if he gave way on this, the entire structure of Church teaching would crumble.

Instead, the promulgation of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae saw a huge crumbling of papal prestige, a demystifying of the office in the media age, massive dissent on a global scale, with theologians and even some bishops siding with the freedom of conscience invested in People of God, the new term for lay people, Catholics in the pews, as propounded by Vatican II three years before.

The church story since then has seen a deepening quagmire for papal authority as each pope is expected to uphold the authority of his predecessor. John Paul resonantly defended Humanae Vitae, and for all of his geopolitical heroics in the fall of the Soviet Empire, was an abysmal failure on the clergy abuse crisis. Pope Benedict promptly advanced John Paul for sainthood, as the same crisis, and oozing scandals at the Vatican Bank, drove him to fatigue and the historic resignation.

Against this backdrop of events, the most fascinating chapter of The Future of the Church with Pope Francis is called “Male God,” wherein Wills the historian, spoiling for the fight, elbows Wills the scriptural optimist offstage. The problem with natural law is the difficulty a great many ordinary, intelligent, attentive people have in understanding what natural law means. Wills is with you there, folks.

We have to go back to that oracle of natural law—to Aristotle—to discover that males are “naturally” superior to females, in human beings just as in the animal kingdom. If the male is bigger, he was framed to rule and must therefore be obeyed, in order to observe the good order ... In his words, ‘The male is by nature stronger, the female weaker, so one should rule and the other be ruled.’

The chapter soon leads to another figure on whom Wills has written often in recent years: St. Paul. In his scriptural research since Why I Am A Catholic, Wills has drawn a bead on how Paul’s writings on how Jews should be treated by the emergent Gentile Christians were distorted by wrong-minded people after his death. This theme of distortion carries into The Future of the Church with Pope Francis.

“As the bad history and evil teaching on the Jews had to be corrected,” writes Wills, “so we should correct the church’s exclusion of women by looking at what Paul expected and taught … [as] shown in his many dealings with women and his indebtedness to them.” Paul, he continues,

is dependent on [women], a coworker with them, a fellow prisoner with them, and gives them the highest functions he knows of in the church. So, far from saying they must stay quiet in the gathering, he tells them to rebuke the brothers and sisters—the function of prophets ... Paul says that all (men and women) have the right to prophesy, and he considers this important to the community’s learning and fervor. This openness to women prophets seems to have lasted in churches other than the Pauline ones.

After several pages of deep-tissue work to straighten out the knotted lines of Paul’s words manipulated by later polemicists, Wills writes of “church practice [that] corrupted the Pauline manuscript.” He then turns to Francis at chapter’s end. Citing the first long interview Francis gave to a Jesuit editor in Rome, September 30, 2013, Wills reports,

Francis is indicating his views on Catholic women by his dealings with them, as well as by what he says. He easily uses inclusive language, as when he calls the hierarchy—not the church, but the [all-male] hierarchy—‘Mother Church.’ He said, ‘I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.’ If he says that, how can he exclude women from any offices in the church?

Francis has told reporters that the issue of women priests is closed because of a 1994 decree by John Paul (issued just as the Anglican church had begun ordaining women priests). Vatican tradition expects past popes to be upheld by their successors. Yet as many scholars in addition to Wills have stressed, John Paul’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis has no grounding in scripture and in fact contradicts the findings of a burgeoning school of scriptural authorities.

Will Francis let such a myopic, mean-spirited document stand? A pope can change his mind; to paraphrase St. John Henry Newman, a pope who changes his mind often is seeking perfection.

The hope that Garry Wills invests in Francis as a change-agent flows naturally from his view of scripture and enlightened figures of church past—Paul, Augustine, Chesterton, Acton, Newman, and those of our time, such as Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, Helen Prejean—as lantern-bearers, like the ancient Diogenes, shining light toward truth.

With so much of his career driven by a chronicling of power abused and human rights trampled within the temple of his faith, Wills in the new book had the option to say much more about Francis. Instead he sent off a flaming arrow of cautionary good news, and held back, waiting. Whatever comes next from his quiver, the arrow is usually worth the wait.


Jason Berry co-produced the Frontline film Secrets of the Vatican. His books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children; Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (with Gerald Renner), and Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, winner of the 2011 Best Book Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.