The Strange World of Garry Wills

These must be trying times for Garry Wills.  In 2001, he wrote a book blasting the papacy, Papal Sin:  Structures of Deceit. But ordinary Catholics did not take up Wills’ call to turn St. Peter’s into a Congregationalist meeting house. Instead, when John Paul II died in 2005, some 5,000,000 people came to Rome to mourn the great Polish pope, and his funeral was, by some estimates, the most watched event in history. The papacy is an institution that matters, as even a hostile secular press knows. But Wills’ disdain for the papacy is understandable, since it has been instrumental in thwarting Wills’ hope of transforming the Catholic Church into another liberal Protestant denomination.

Wills’ desire to radically alter, even destroy, the Catholic Church is deep. In 2008, Wills told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter that he didn’t plan on talking anymore about popes:  “I’ve had my say, and I have no desire to say more. Popes don’t interest me very much.” But with the resignation of Benedict XVI and the prospect of the world turning its eyes again to Rome, as it did in 2005, Wills could not help himself. He popped up in the New York Times to excoriate the papacy as a “monarchy” in “its senescence.”

But Wills’ latest foray against the Catholic Church goes well beyond broadsides against the papacy. Wills has authored a new book, Why Priests?  A Failed Tradition, that attacks the fundamentals of Catholicism. In a five minute interview with Stephen Colbert, Wills stated that priests “continue to pretend to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, which doesn’t happen.” Wills stated that Jesus’ words at the Last Supper about the bread and wine being his body and blood were not to be taken literally, since he didn’t invite the Apostles to chew on his arms or tap his blood. Wills cited Augustine in support of his position, without telling Colbert that Augustine wrote this about the Last Supper:  “Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body.’ For he carried that body in his hands.” When Colbert stated that the Eucharist was a mystery, Wills responded, “it’s a fake.” Wills also rebuffed Colbert’s suggestion that he would want a priest to give him Anointing of the Sick, “because that’s an invented sacrament.” Wills said he wanted there to be no more priests and he wanted Benedict XVI to be the last pope, though he did say he was prepared to tolerate priests “as long as they don’t pretend to do the impossible,” a reference to transubstantiation. In other words, Wills wants priests to renounce Catholicism. When Colbert protested that priests dedicate their lives to bringing the sacraments to Catholics, Wills churlishly responded, “So they say.” By my count, Wills took positions anathematized by 14 different Canons of the Council of Trent in this brief interview. Wills has become an open and unambiguous advocate of heresy.

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This would not be all that remarkable if Wills were a follower of Huldrych Zwingli, which is how he sounded in this interview. But Wills is a Catholic—or so he says.  And it is only because Wills is a Catholic that he can command media attention for his attacks on the Church. Angry Catholics and ex-Catholics are regularly given space in the New York Times and similar publications to bash the Church, but Protestants wishing to engage in similar attacks generally have to make do with Jack Chick tracts or the like. Wills’ friends in the media dutifully portray his attacks on the Church as the work of a Catholic, even, bizarrely, a “devout” one, in the words of the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn. My Grandpa Piatak, who tipped his hat whenever he passed a Catholic church out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, was a devout Catholic. Garry Wills, who writes books trying to destroy the faith of men like my grandfather, is not.

Garry Wills believes that there was a Great Apostasy almost as soon as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do. After all, Clement of Rome, the fourth pope, was exercising authority outside of Rome and writing about Christian priests before the end of the first century. At roughly the same time, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles.” Ignatius also described the Church of Rome as the Church that “presides over love,” his term for the work of Christ on earth. By the end of the second century, Irenaeus was writing in detail about the Eucharistic sacrifice and describing the successors of Peter as Bishop of Rome, stating that “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with [the Church of Rome].” Clement and Ignatius learned the Faith from the Apostles, and Irenaeus learned the Faith from Polycarp, a disciple of John. Each of them died for the Faith. They probably knew more about what Jesus intended than Garry Wills does. But Wills detects apostasy even before these early Fathers of the Church, describing the Letter to the Hebrews as “weird” and suggesting that it does not belong in the Bible. Wills thus illustrates, once again, the truth of Augustine’s observation that “I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me.” Since Wills rejects the authority of the Catholic Church, it is no surprise that he wants to eject books he doesn’t like from the Bible.

To be sure, Garry Wills knows more about Augustine than I do. But far greater men than Wills have looked at the same history he has and come to different conclusions. Joseph Ratzinger for one. And the only man personally beatified by Benedict XVI for another. John Henry Newman famously wrote, after his own study of the Church Fathers, that “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” If Newman had read history the way Wills does, he would have ended his days as a member of a Plymouth Brethren meeting house and not as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

In the strange world Garry Wills wants, Catholic churches would have no altars, tabernacles, or confessionals. There would be no Mass and no Eucharistic adoration and no First Communions. Out the window would go Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus and Tantum Ergo Sacramentum and Pange Lingua Gloriosi, not to mention Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, a piece as close to perfection as music created by humans is capable of being. All of these, from a Willsian perspective, reflect false or even pernicious teachings. In Gary Wills’ strange world, Catholics would no longer honor men like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who died for the papacy. They would not honor men like St. Edmund Campion, who died to bring the Mass to England and could have avoided a horrible death if only he would have agreed, in Wills’ phrase, not to “pretend to do the impossible.” Nor would Willsian Catholics honor women like St. Margaret Clitherow, who could have avoided a horrible death if only she had agreed that priests couldn’t “do the impossible.” Those who imbibed Wills’ views would look askance at Medal of Honor winner Father Vincent Capodanno, whose Medal of Honor citation notes that “he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying.”  From the Willsian perspective, such people deserve pity or even censure, since they died for lies. From the Catholic perspective, of course, their heroism is an inspiration. (And not only from the Catholic perspective:  Robert Bolt, an agnostic, was inspired by the heroism of Thomas More to write one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century).

Even if Wills’ goal is not to destroy the Catholic Church, the adoption of his vision would surely have that effect. What sane man would join an institution whose central institutions are founded on lies and that has been fundamentally wrong about its central beliefs? The number of people attracted to such a “reformed” Catholic Church would likely fit comfortably in Wills’ living room. Not that this prospect would trouble Wills. In his book, Wills suggests that Catholics could adapt to the priestless world of the future by joining “in the life of other churches.” Given Wills’ odd statement that “There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets” it is not even clear if those “other churches” would need to be Christian.

Garry Wills began by attacking the social teachings of the Church, went on to denounce Humanae Vitae, proceeded to attack the papacy, and has ended up rejecting the priesthood and the sacraments. This tragic trajectory serves as a prime example of the wisdom of Pope Benedict’s observation that “It is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.”

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


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