Confessions of a Modernist

For a Modernists, the “spirit of the age” is aligned with the faults to which one is especially susceptible. Their whole intellectual ecosystem validates their error.  

Readers of Crisis Magazine who know the name Garry Wills probably wouldn’t expect to see his books recommended in these pages. But I strongly urge all of you to pick up a copy of his memoir of faith, Why I Am a Catholic. No other book offers such a clear glimpse into the Modernist mind. I’m not aware of a more powerful testament to the weakness of the “liberal Catholicism” that’s come to infect so many parishes and chanceries around the First World.

But first we should ask, “What is a Modernist?” Here, I don’t mean Catholics who hold a particular set of heterodox views. Rather, I mean Catholics whose heterodox views are inspired by the dominant paradigm of their age. In the 21st century, with its rabid materialism, a Modernist might deny the Virgin Birth. But in the 2nd century, which was full of Gnostics, a Modernist would deny the Incarnation. In other words, a Modernist is a Christian who prefers the fashionable ideologies of one’s day to the permanent truths of the Faith.

Now, obviously, there’s no such thing as an “avowed Modernist.” Not exactly. Mr. Wills would never say, “I am a Modernist. As such, I prefer the fashionable ideology of my day to the permanent truths of the Faith.” A Christian doesn’t embrace Modernism: he’s embraced by Modernism—carried away by the spirit of the world, which is so fickle.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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And that’s one of the first things that struck me as I read Why I Am a Catholic. Just twenty years after its publication, it feels dated.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

For those who don’t know, Mr. Wills began his career as the wunderkind of the conservative movement. Shortly after Wills dropped out of seminary, William F. Buckley offered him a job at National Review. Buckley took Mr. Wills under his wing, despite colleagues’ warnings that the young man was not quite sound. Sure enough, Mr. Wills soon broke with the conservative movement, going on to write for left-leaning magazines like The Atlantic and teaching at Northwestern University.

In fairness to Mr. Wills, he never really thought of himself as a conservative. He said as much to Buckley before accepting his offer of a job. Instead, Mr. Wills called himself a distributist, after G.K. Chesterton. (In fairness, Mr. Wills is an excellent reader of Chesterton.) Anyway, Buckley didn’t mind. But after his leftward turn, Mr. Wills also began to voice his doubts with some fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith.

In 2001, these doubts bubbled over into the book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, which Fr. Robert Sirico took to task in these pages when it first appeared. Papal Sin was so heterodox that Mr. Wills was inundated with letters—from believers and nonbelievers alike—asking him why, exactly, he still called himself a Catholic. The next year, he published his response: Why I Am a Catholic.

As I said, it’s a powerful and enlightening book. I’ve never read anything like it.  

For instance, when he entered the Jesuit seminary in 1951, he read a biography of St. Ignatius Loyola. He concludes from this biography that St. Ignatius intended the Jesuits to be “adaptable, mobile, responding to the crises of the church”—quite unlike the rigid conservatives who ran the seminary. Loyola also favored a more flexible training process, relying mostly on “a series of ‘experiments’ fitted to each candidate’s needs and talents”—again, quite unlike the rigid discipline to which Mr. Wills was subjected as a novice. He explains that early Spanish Jesuits like Francis Borgia found St. Ignatius’ vision “too unstructured” (his words) and imposed stricter regulations on the order.  

The seventeen-year-old Mr. Wills tried to explain all of this to his novice master, Fr. Gschwend. Amazingly, the old Jesuit didn’t immediately call Pope Pius XII and demand that the order be reformed. Instead, Fr. Gschwend asked him to consider the possibility that he was wrong, and perhaps the thousands of Jesuits who came before him were right. Or, as Mr. Wills puts it:

He answered that the wisdom of the order over the ages had perfected this training—who did I think I was to come in and call for changes after brief exposure to it?—and assured me that I would come to understand it if I just trusted my superiors and prayed harder.

In its context, Fr. Gschwend’s answer is supposed to be self-evidently absurd. He’s the toxic reactionary who scoffs at the concerns of this boy genius. But Fr. Gschwend’s answer is the only possible one—or, at least, the only sane one. Obviously, the young Mr. Wills wasn’t concerned that the Jesuits were being unfaithful to their founder. He didn’t believe that St. Ignatius’ training methods were infallible and that his successors had no right to change them.  

Mr. Wills also showed no desire to revive certain other of St. Ignatius’ practices that fell out of favor with the Jesuits. He expressed no desire to flagellate himself with a chord of ropes, or to wear a hairshirt, or to wrap a belt of nails around his waist, or to walk barefoot through the snow. Indeed, Mr. Wills even says that Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises encourage “fundamentalism.” (He worries that, by meditating on the Gospels, some folks may be led to believe those events actually happened.)

No. Clearly, Mr. Wills was chaffing under the strict discipline of life in the seminary. But, like many priests and seminarians of that era, he refused to accept that he simply wasn’t cut out for the clergy. Rather, it was the Church that was wrong. It was the Church that had to change.  

For instance, Mr. Wills is an insomniac. Oftentimes, when he couldn’t sleep, he would sneak out of his room and find a place to read or listen to records. But whenever the professors caught him, he would be punished! That was unfair. The Jesuits’ rule should be more “adaptable,” more “unstructured.” That way, priests can read and listen to music whenever they want. It’s what St. Ignatius would want.

The arrival of a more liberal novice master isn’t enough to keep Mr. Wills in seminary, though he clearly feels vindicated. And this is why the book is so illuminating. Mr. Wills never considered that he might be wrong. Or, if he did, the old novice master’s ousting dispelled any doubts. Fifty years later, he sneers at Fr. Gschwend’s suggestion that five centuries of Jesuits were right and he—Garry Wills—was wrong.

What’s really amazing is that Mr. Wills seems to acknowledge a link between the Church’s liberalization and its decline. For instance, he says: “The group who entered with me in the Jesuit province of Missouri exceeded sixty in 1951 (one or two from an equivalent area would be considered a lucky draw today).” What happened in the American Church between the 1950s and the early 2000s that might have decimated the Western Church? Not the Second Vatican Council, of course, but rather “the way Vatican II reforms were being reversed or coming under siege.” If it weren’t for Archbishop Lefebvre, every third man would be a Jesuit priest. And they’d be allowed to get married, ideally to each other. Also, they wouldn’t be priests.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s wrong to blame the crisis in the Church on “the Council.”  If nothing else, Why I Am a Catholic shows that the Church was being undermined by Modernists long before John XXIII took office. Vatican II was a single battle in a much longer war. But that’s neither here nor there.

As far as “enemy intel” goes, this book contains infinite riches. What I’ve written here concerns three pages in chapter two. We haven’t even touched on his fervent support for artificial contraception, or his use of female pronouns in referring to the Holy Spirit, or his assertion that Jesus called Peter “the Rock” as an insult.  

But my point is this: over and over again, Mr. Wills invokes “modern scholarship” to justify his heterodoxy. Sometimes he actually names the text he’s drawing from, as with the biography of St. Ignatius—as if reading one book, or any number of books, makes one an expert in spiritual formation. At other times, he just invokes the word “scholarship” as though it has some magical powers. For instance, in this passage, to which I’ve already alluded:

It is true that we spent endless hours in prayerful meditation on the Gospel events, according to the Ignatian method of the “Spiritual Exercises.” In that discipline, you imagine yourself, as vividly as possible, in one particular story told by a Gospel, and then imagine Christ speaking directly to you within that context. This literal, even fundamentalist, reading of the Gospels was natural to Ignatius, in whose time there was no such thing as Scriptural scholarship in the modern sense.

Well, there you have it! No need for Christians to actually read the Bible, so long as we have “Scriptural scholarship in the modern sense.”

I don’t say any of this to be cruel. I say it because when Modernists tell us about themselves, we should listen. And what is Mr. Wills telling us about Modernism? The most important lesson, I think, is this: One may deny that the pope is the Vicar of Christ or that marriage is a sacrament. One may desire to abolish the priesthood or condone homosexuality. One may even claim that the Gospels are a work of fiction. But why would one go on calling himself Catholic? Why not join a liberal Congregationalist church? Why do such (patently intelligent) men commit these whopping category errors?  

Because that’s how the Modernist mind works—and why it’s so deadly. For a Modernists, the “spirit of the age” is aligned with the faults to which one is especially susceptible. Their whole intellectual ecosystem validates their error.  

Take again the example of Mr. Wills in the seminary. Had he entered a Jesuit seminary at any point between the 1560s and the 1920s, he never would have clung to this notion of a more “adaptable” Society of Jesus. There were liberals in the Church, of course, but they were never so blithe. But as we draw nearer to the present day, the momentum of history appears to be behind Mr. Wills. Not only is it possible to imagine a more “unstructured” Jesuit Order, but it seems almost inevitable. Why? Because asceticism, dogmatism, and fundamentalism are on their way out! Everything rigid and old-fashioned is about to be swept into history’s great dustbin.  

So, an intelligent young man like Mr. Wills latches on to this one observation in this one biography of one saint and makes it the basis for his entire worldview. What’s more, he turned that presumptuousness into a successful career.

It’s a little sad that Why I Am a Catholic, which was so radical when it was published, already feels curiously dated. There’s hardly anything about white privilege or LGBT rights. How could he hope to compete with The Black Trans Prayer Book? What enduring relevance could it possibly have? Once the Baby Boomers die off, liberal Catholicism will be irrelevant, and so will Mr. Wills’ book. It may have some interest to scholars with certain niche interests, like a U.S. history textbook from the 1840s. But that’s about it.  

In the meantime, Why I Am a Catholic is invaluable to anyone trying to understand some of our leading bishops, not to mention the current Vatican regime. You know as well as I do that they’ll look as silly to our grandchildren as “Bad Bishop Brown” does to us. If they can’t see that, it’s because they’ve spent their whole lives trying to stay on “the right side of history.”  

Now they’re getting old and slow, and history’s lead is getting wider. It’s not scary anymore. It’s not provocative. It’s not even quaint. It’s just pathetic.

[Photo: Garry Wills (Public Domain)]


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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