Finding the constant heart of the faith
By Paul Wilkes, 7/28/2002
Why I Am a Catholic
By Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin, 390 pp., $26
For this is not really a book about why Wills remains a Catholic. This is a title born, one could imagine, of an editorial conference, not a reflection of the actual book. Here we have "Papal Sin Redux," a continuation of his well-received book, published two years ago. That volume was dedicated to a mostly excoriating treatment of the men who fill the shoes of the fisherman, Peter. Two-thirds of this work similarly follows that path.
And, of course, Wills has ample material. Three popes at one time, bastard children rising to high ecclesiastical office, the Inquisition, hanging, burning, torturing, indulgence selling, condemnation of scientific findings, raw arrogance, empire building -- and we are not talking about the Kingdom of God. But for Wills to go on at length about the strong reaction to "Papal Sin" and then simply give us more seems, at least to this reader, like piling on after the tackle was made. We got it, Garry.
Wills reserves special affection for Pope John XXIII, who called Vatican II into being, and special ire for the current pope, John Paul II, who is given credit for largely undermining it. John Paul II portrayed himself as a martyr after the 1981 assassination attempt and then, like the popes of old, according to Wills, ruled as if "the whole church depends on him." It is clear that Wills lays the responsibility for the current ennui within Catholicism squarely at his feet.
Although Wills tells us early on that he is a bit embarrassed that his is a personal book, this is hardly the case. It is not nearly personal enough. For when he does pull back the veil ever so slightly to reveal why he is a Catholic in the face of such human imperfection, it makes for the most interesting and affecting reading in the book. It would be illuminating for us lesser lights to see, in practical terms, how an intellectual like Wills lives out his Catholicism, how he takes it to the classroom, into the supermarket, into his dealings with other humans.
Wills was a Jesuit seminarian in the early 1950s, when an earthly Church Triumphant in America was seeing its finest hour. He was one of legions of young men who believed there was nothing greater to do with a life than to give it away. Other tenets of that time were that sexuality could indeed be sublimated, that distributive love was a possibility, that a relationship with this magnificent church and its magnificent order and rules that covered every quiver of human experience was a love affair no mere woman could ever approximate.
But along with perfervid yearnings of Dom Marmion and Lacordaire and the spirit-denying edicts of popes, there was another heartbeat within the Catholic tradition that Wills could feel. There was John Henry Newman and his great love for the church coupled with the realization that to question was to have ultimate respect for the tradition. Its opposite was to march mindlessly, unfazed by doubt, through life -- exactly what many Catholics felt honor bound to do.
And then there was Chesterton, wonderful Chesterton. "There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we are ourselves incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real." Chesterton's words resonated deep within Wills, and even as he left the seminary, it was not for lack of love for the Catholic tradition, but more for its application at that time (and this continues) for men who wanted to be ordained to the priesthood.
Wills's early journey provides a look -- much too short, for my taste -- into a Catholicism that was unwittingly but unrelentingly leading the church toward Vatican II and the opening up that the great council of 1962-65 provided.
After riding the papal roller-coaster through two millennia, the concluding section of the book provides a sober treatise on the very foundation of his belief. No, it is not the person of Jesus Christ. No, not the reflected mysticism of Chesterton. And certainly not the popes -- although Wills definitely supports the unifying force, if not always the application, of the papacy. It is the Apostles' Creed. Yes, that magnificently simple document with snatches of truths, supposedly, according to Wills, taken from words offered by each of the 12 Apostles.
Wills, with rosary in one hand and these familiar words on his lips, is willing to be a Catholic regardless of the pomposity and arrogance of the popes and the downright wrong-headedness of its institutional structures because he has found no other better framework on which to build a life.
Paul Wilkes writes frequently about religious belief and teaches in the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
This story ran on page E4 of the Boston Globe on 07/28/2002.