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Wills searches for unifying papacy

by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin Company, 367 pages, $26


In the ever more specialized world of academia, the erudite Garry Wills of Northwestern University is a refreshing figure. He’s a historian, a political commentator and a journalist. He knows Latin and Greek. He’s up on the arts and popular culture. He’s versed in scripture. His reach extends into the social sciences, literature and more. Agree or disagree, there’s always something to learn from Wills.

Wills’ new book, “an unintended sequel” to his bestselling Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday), contains 27 short chapters in four sections. The first section is an autobiography of sorts -- many of the incidents previously treated in Bare Ruined Choirs (Doubleday) and Confessions of a Conservative (Penguin Books). The second and longest section is a concise history of the papacy. The third is a synopsis of Vatican II and its aftermath. The fourth section is a brief yet insightful meditation on the Apostles’ Creed. All along Wills leans on his longtime favorites: St. Augustine, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and particularly G.K. Chesterton. St. Peter is mentioned at the beginning and the end.

The publisher has accelerated the production of this book to connect with the current scandal in North American Catholicism. Wills, however, treats that scandal directly in only one-half of a paragraph. Instead, most of the book argues against the top-down authority or power of the papacy.

Originally the church’s regard for the papacy of St. Peter, Wills writes, was not meant to enshrine centralized power but to preserve unity against schisms, particularly to offset the “charismatic individualism of the Gnostics.” St. Peter was a symbolic antidote to the Gnostic claim that Jesus’ Jewish background was irrelevant, that perfect people don’t make mistakes and that people who are different cannot be included in the Christian community. It is well known, however, that many of St. Peter’s successors and other supporters of the papacy were not unifiers, but instead the cause of division in the church and in the family of God -- either through their political decisions and alliances or, in too many cases, scandals resulting from their personal sinfulness.

Papal power has been exercised through a combination of temporal and spiritual tactics. Wills recalls, for example, the convoluted tactic of papal interdicts: Priests in a region ruled by someone unfavorable to the pope would be forbidden to administer any sacraments until the laity pressured the ruler for change. This and other punitive tactics, like most excommunications, seem “contrary to the pastoral mission of the church [and] a usurpation of powers not given to Peter.”

Vatican II portends “a great rebirth” in the church and its understanding of the papacy. But first, according to Wills, the rearguard activity of Pope John Paul II’s administration must be thwarted. It is here that Wills uses a few inflammatory phrases, calling John Paul II’s Marian piety “a farrago of Fatima nonsense” and implying that John Paul II is out to redefine “every truth.”

Wills, who has “never even considered leaving the church,” is convinced that his criticisms of the papacy are good for his own holiness and for the whole church. “There is nothing in Catholicism that says we have to suspend our common sense or honesty when faced with papal assertions … that are dishonest, naïve or stupid on their face.” For all his criticism, Wills still believes the papacy “is a blessing, a necessity -- it is a requirement for the mystical body of Christ to remain one body. … Even in the darkest hours of the papacy, there is more life and light in the [Roman Catholic] church than in the groups that split off from it.”

Many Catholics, like Wills, are in dissent from some Vatican pronouncements, yet are in no way inclined to separate themselves from the Catholic church. In fact, there are very few schisms in contemporary Catholicism. In this country there are a small number of Latin Mass churches operating without sanction from a Roman Catholic bishop. In 1989 Fr. George Stallings went his own way, heading a loose network of seven small churches in the African American Catholic Congregation. In 1998 one parish in New York broke away from the bishop. These isolated and faltering schisms are the exceptions.

The majority of mature Catholics “give a support that is not uncritical or unreasoning or abject, but one that is clear-eyed and yet loving.” A person who loves the church, Wills concludes, can dissent from many of its policies. However, “he or she cannot wish to do without Peter and still be true to the gospel, since it is Christ who made Peter the first of the apostles, our brother with a special mission to care for us, the servant of us servants.”

William Droel is on the board of the National Center for the Laity and the author of Full-Time Christians: the Real Challenge from Vatican II (Twenty Third Publications).

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002