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Winter Books:

That rarest of birds


Twenty-five years ago, as a nervous incoming student at a Jesuit university meeting for the first time with my freshman adviser, I blurted of having recently read Garry Wills’ Bare Ruined Choirs, a 1972 chronicle of “Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion” that greatly excited me. The young Jesuit adviser listened sympathetically before calmly replying: “Next time I see Garry I am going to punch him in the nose.”

He was miffed at Wills’ highly skeptical account of Woodstock College, the Jesuit theologate that had been moved from rural Maryland to Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the late 1960s. My adviser seemed to link the recent demise of this daring experiment in urban engagement with Wills’ depiction of the program as “after all, a failure,” a place where unfocused dabbling in community organizing had supplanted purposeful theological studies.

Wills is that rarest of birds, a Catholic public intellectual whose dramatic account of the church’s travail engages readers both faithful and secular. Though I was dimly aware that Wills had himself been a Jesuit seminarian in a different era, I was startled to discover that a journalistic treatment of contemporary American Catholicism could arouse such strong feelings in an adviser whose scholarly concerns ran toward European theologians of daunting remoteness.

Wills knew all about those folks, too. As a journalist and historian, in fact, he had it all: the rhetorical skills of a classicist, the rigor of a scholastic and a wee touch of the literary brawler so highly valued in the age of Mailer. For Catholic readers especially it was a thrilling mix. In a 1975 essay for The New York Review of Books (reprinted in Lead Time: A Journalist’s Education), Wills described George Wallace’s appearance at the previous summer’s Democratic Party midterm convention. Wallace was “a relic,” he wrote, “tended and dressed, wheeled around and displayed, like a political Infant of Prague.”

Long before sportscasters began invoking the “Hail Mary” forward pass, Wills applied the collective memory of American Catholicism to public affairs with no special pleading, just the weight of his impeccable intellectual authority. Currently an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, Wills is the author of more than 20 books on topics ranging from Jack Ruby to Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson to John Wayne.

Wills’ new book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, might best be understood in the light of the cultural capital earned in these bold and provocative works. Papal Sin is, however, a very different kind of study. It offers an angry polemic rather than a fresh look, and it lacks the originality that readers have come to expect from the author. But how could it be otherwise, given the lavishly documented post-conciliar history of grievances with the Roman Catholic church Wills recapitulates and embellishes? Wills thus finds the papacy’s inadequate response to the Holocaust grounded in the same “structures of deceit” that bolster the church’s teachings on birth control, priestly celibacy and women’s ordination. What reader of NCR and other Catholic publications in recent decades is not familiar with this refrain? In Bare Ruined Choirs, Wills concluded that it was “time to join the underground” of prophetic Catholic radicalism. Nearly 30 years later, as many younger Catholics find a radical alternative in orthodoxy, Wills now proffers a jeremiad for the revolution that never was.

Mantra-like rhythm

In Papal Sin, the Vatican’s “structures of deceit” are invoked with a mantra-like rhythm that often substitutes for extended analysis. That is not to say Wills lets selected pontiffs off the hook. Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical on Priestly Celibacy is excoriated as a “parody of exegesis … New Testament passages are twisted, omitted, extended, distorted, perverted to make them mean whatever the pope wants them to mean.” He deconstructs the same pope’s arguments from natural law in Humanae Vitae with relish and a flair that few journalists (and fewer scholars) can match. Wills’ account of the ill-fated pontifical commission on birth control blends passion with erudition; the story has been told many times before but never with the rhetorical flourishes Wills unleashes. His handling of this and other controversial topics will undoubtedly come in for close scrutiny by specialists: If we are lucky, the results will provoke vigorous discussion.

Though Wills ardently calls for a new openness to history within the church, he seems to assume that rigorous historical investigation will serve to validate his point of view alone. Yet reformers and traditionalists alike have been guilty in recent years of distorting history in the heat of battle. Wills’ eloquence should by no means encourage readers to embrace Papal Sin as the last word.

As a polemic, Papal Sin is devoid of many features found in Wills’ best books. In the past, he has unearthed obscure or long-forgotten figures and used them as a kind of lens to mediate a new understanding of prominent individuals we thought we already knew. In Bare Ruined Choirs, for example, he revealed the indebtedness of the Jesuit visionary Teilhard de Chardin to the writings of Robert Hugh Benson, a son of the archbishop of Canterbury who converted to Catholicism and wrote spiritual adventure stories in a “seizure of apostolic scribbling.” In Nixon Agonistes, among the greatest of books on American political culture, Wills followed the trail of his subject’s early influences to Fr. John Cronin, an exponent of Catholic social thought and an anticommunist whose 1947 meeting with Richard M. Nixon “determined the outcome of the Hiss case.” Wills’ bold assertion that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were deeply influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment (in Explaining America: The Federalist) was prompted in part by an unpublished 1943 dissertation by historian Daniel Adair.

In each of these works, Wills located sources from outside the dominant traditions of scholarship, a move rooted perhaps in his Catholic education and his experience as a “countercultural” conservative journalist in the early 1960s. There is no corresponding method on display in Papal Sin, perhaps because Wills’ story is already too familiar to admit the kind of fresh insight his hard work has generated in the past. His account of the role played by the American Jesuit John LaFarge in drafting Pius XI’s “hidden encyclical” condemning anti-Semitism, for instance, opens with high drama but falls flat in the telling. The existence of this unreleased document was first revealed in 1972 by Jim Castelli in NCR. In his introduction to the 1997 English translation of Georges Passeleq and Bernard Suchecky’s The Hidden Encylical of Pius XI, Wills wrote that both LaFarge and the pope “fought with such weapons as were given them, blindly but in motion toward the truth.” In Papal Sin, however, Wills claims that even though Pius XI “wanted to tell the truth … he was the pope, and that can make telling the truth impossible.” John LaFarge was thus drawn inexorably by the pope into “the structures of deceit that afflict those trying to tell the truth from the Vatican.”

LaFarge may have been capable of writing an encyclical to meet Wills’ standards (though the surviving version indicates otherwise), but his prior encounters with African-Americans surely raise doubt. It is no discredit to his pioneering work in the Catholic interracial movement to note that LaFarge was highly paternalistic in his treatment of black Catholics, a trait well documented by historian David Southern in John LaFarge and the Limits of Catholic Interracialism. Thomas Turner, the leader of the Federated Colored Catholics, complained in 1933 that LaFarge and his Jesuit colleague William Markoe “tried to grab the land, put up their flag and claim the country for their own,” precisely what Wills accuses the papacy of doing with the memory of the Holocaust. In such highly polemical works as Papal Sin, context tends to run down a one-way street.

Dissent becomes tradition

In Papal Sin Wills cannot find a fresh angle from outside the dominant scholarly tradition because dissent already is the tradition, at least at it has unfolded in the mainstream of American Catholic theology. Just as secular academics on the left eschew their undeniable hegemony in many humanities disciplines, dissenting Catholic theologians tend to nurture a mythology of embattlement (and not without reason since they are indeed embattled!). But they rarely acknowledge the extent to which they have helped shape theological discourse here and abroad for the past 35 years, producing, on balance, a finely wrought body of scholarship that is often more subtle than Wills’ presentation.

In his treatment of “Marian politics,” for example, there is no mention of recent feminist scholarship that has portrayed Mary in far richer terms than as “a stick to beat smart girls with,” in novelist Mary Gordon’s dismissive words. Wills wants us to believe that a dissenting historical scholarship can speak truth to Vatican power, but speaking “power to power” would be a more accurate metaphor for the dynamic currently in play.

Wills accuses the Vatican of claiming victimhood in the Holocaust but he likewise sees only victims among opponents of the church’s official teaching. He never acknowledges even a hint of self-interest in the positions espoused by critics of the papacy. He is also highly deferential to secular sources of authority. While he concedes that a fetus “is human life,” Wills notes approvingly that “women’s right to an abortion has been upheld by the American Law Institute, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association.” Yet abortion “is not a thing that can be proposed as an ideal,” so it “should be avoided, principally by all safe measures of birth control -- the one effective antiabortion measure the Vatican will not allow.”

Wills suggests that, in some cases at least, abortion is “not a choice that would arise if the Vatican were not always and everywhere opposed to condoms and other birth control devices.” If Wills demands that church take its cues from “rights” enshrined by the secular state, he is certainly not guilty of promoting “cafeteria Catholicism”: Practice should conform to teaching, but the teaching cannot reclaim its moral authority until the papacy’s “structures of deceit” are dismantled.

In this view, as in so many other respects, Papal Sin reflects the sensibilities of a Catholic liberalism forged in the Vatican II era. That will be obvious to most readers. It is often forgotten, however, that Catholics of Wills’ generation were first raised in a militantly anticommunist religious subculture. Wills himself has written poignantly (in Confessions of a Conservative) of growing up “a Catholic cold warrior, praying after Mass every day for the conversion of Russia.” Like so many of his generation, Wills “would not begin to question my own cold-war mentality till the ’60s, when the Indochina engagement looked not so much ‘imperial’ to me as dumb.”

The embarrassment Catholic liberals came to associate with anti-communism may account for the muted response of many to Pope John Paul II’s role in the rise of Solidarity and other movements of resistance against communism. Wills does not indicate whether he believes that this powerful witness was rooted in yet another “structure of deceit.” Yet the contrast between Wills’ persistent focus on individual rights in Papal Sin and the church’s broader engagement with issues of social justice around the world is hard to overlook. There is no mention in Papal Sin of the social encyclicals or of the work being performed by thousands of young Catholics inspired by the tradition of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, toward which Wills has expressed great admiration in the past. Day’s blend of fidelity to the magisterium and harsh critique of consumer capitalism resonates more powerfully than ever with many students at Catholic colleges today.

Many older Catholics find the rage for orthodoxy among some young people disconcerting, as though they were incapable of appreciating the struggles of the past three decades to make the church safe for critical/historical self-scrutiny. Yet Papal Sin betrays the same tension between Wills’ prophetic and historical voices that has marked all of his writings on Catholicism. As early as 1965, in an essay for Daniel Callahan’s still-fascinating anthology, Generation of the Third Eye, Wills insisted that young Catholics must “trade their mirrors for windows” and become “more familiar with the theology of the Mystical Body than with the sociology of [Catholic] ghettos.” This was advice even his papal targets could have endorsed. In 1972 the sociologist Will Herberg wrote in National Review that Wills (in Bare Ruined Choirs) “is capable of flashing insights that reveal the inwardness of a situation in a quite spectacular manner. But Garry Wills is also a radical, and, like all radicals, he suffers from the characteristic disease of radicalism -- a foreshortening of historical perspective.”

Disinterested scrutiny

The power of Bare Ruined Choirs -- as the critic John Gardner noted that same year in The New York Times Book Review -- lies in Wills’ ability to link the crisis of the church “to that of American civilization as a whole.” In the year 2000 the similarly apocalyptic tone of Papal Sin seems incapable of shaking the view of many on the outside that the church is simply irrelevant. To Richard Rorty (also writing in the Times), Wills’ “splendidly passionate polemic” only begs the question of why anyone would expect “an ideally honest and free church of Christ” to “still be a church”? Not even Wills’ diminished pantheon of prophetic heroes untainted by “structures of deceit” can survive the disinterested scrutiny of Rorty, who reminds us that Augustine “spent a lot of time detecting and denouncing heresies.”

Non-Catholics may view the church’s current round of internecine and intergenerational warfare with ennui or amusement, but stakes are quite high for anyone seeking a usable past, a collective memory to sustain a wobbly tradition. It is hard to read Wills’ dismissal of today’s highly scrupulous seminarians (“serious men might well hesitate before joining this company”) without recalling the retrospective self-critique of fussy 1950s Catholic piety that he helped generate. As the great Catholic historian Philip Gleason once wrote, “overlearning things sometimes seems our specialty.”

Papal Sin may tell us more about this ongoing struggle to define a tradition than it does about wrongs committed in the name of the church. As a member of the Catholic “lost generation,” AWOL for a good part of the 1970s and 1980s, I am in no position to chastise Wills for his anger. But if an advisee at the Jesuit school where I teach were to report on having read Papal Sin, I’d tell her that she now owns a sense of the deep struggle that has wracked the church in her lifetime. Then I’d recommend a few more books on the papacy.

James T. Fisher holds the Danforth Chair of Theological Studies at St. Louis University. His books include The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-62 and Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000