The Strange Spiritual Journey of Gary Wills

Go to the religion section of any major book chain, and under the label “Catholic” you are likely to find Garry Wills’s Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. It is certainly one of the most provocative attacks on the Catholic Church to appear in many years, and it is likely to become a standard resource for people with their sights set on attacking Catholicism. But even Wills himself in his early years would have attacked exactly this kind of tirade for its popular chic, relativism, uneven scholarship, and relentless bias.

The 66-year-old history professor at Northwestern University is, in fact, one of the most prolific and brilliant left-leaning political writers in the country. And until Papal Sin, he had a reputation for writing quality material within the Catholic intellectual tradition. Only this most recent book seeks to debunk the central doctrinal claims of the faith of his baptism. Which raises the obvious question: Why does he remain Catholic?

Wills’s Complaint

Wills never addresses this in his book, which is strange for a man who claims to value honesty above all. During a June 6, 2000, interview with the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, the reporter pressed this issue directly, asking whether he should just leave the Church. “No. Never,” Wills responded. “I would consider that deserting Christianity. There’s so much I love about the Church.” Further, he said, “Disagreeing with the pope doesn’t disqualify you as a Catholic?’

Wills’s overriding theme in Papal Sin—which is not different from what you read on any given Sunday in the New York Times—is that the Church is not being honest in many matters of internal governance and, worse, in matters of faith and morals. His ambition is to puncture the many supposedly false claims of the Church, expose its deceptions, shred the Magisterium, and otherwise set the record straight.

In his most modest claims, Wills is only explaining what Catholics know all too well, namely that popes and bishops, like everyone else, can be sinful. However, he has a more treacherous agenda: Without openly rejecting Catholicism itself, he calls on the Church to surrender its very self-identity. Wills disagrees profoundly with Pope John Paul II on matters of birth control, abortion, homosexuality, artificial insemination, divorce and remarriage, clerical celibacy, and women in the priesthood. To make his points, he uses some anecdotes and language that are embarrassingly dated. For example, he continually refers to the “rhythm method” of natural family planning and invokes a 35-year-old study to say it is not good for marriage—a passage of his book that will be regarded as wildly misleading by the millions today who successfully follow the Church’s teaching.

Wills goes much further to take aim at Catholic doctrine itself: “The arguments for much of what passes as current Church doctrine are so intellectually contemptible that mere self-respect forbids a man to voice them as his own.” Wills rejects the Church as a sacramental means of grace, the idea of personal confession, the Virgin Birth, an exclusively male priesthood (and even the priesthood itself), apostolic succession, and transubstantiation (which he dismisses as a hoax in the guise of “magic”). All this while blaming the Catholic Church for fantastic crimes throughout history. Many of these arguments are an attack not only on Catholicism but also on Eastern Orthodoxy and historical Protestantism. In other words, Wills has a problem with the whole history and teaching of Christianity in many fundamental respects.

So it is no surprise that many reviewers greeted the book with great hosannas: It seemed to confirm the worst reports of hypocrisy and intellectual chicanery in the Catholic Church today. The New York Times, for example, celebrated the book as “a devastating, no-holds-barred indictment” that compels Catholics “to renounce the conviction that their church holds the keys of heaven.” However, at the end, the reviewer was left wondering why Wills didn’t go all the way to call for a mass exodus from Catholicism, since he compels his readers to ask “why we need a church of Christ” at all.

The Old Wills

I seriously doubt that Wills would have imagined he would someday be the author of such an impious screed when he first began his public career as a writer in the late 1950s. While a Jesuit seminarian in his early 20s in 1957, Wills submitted an unsolicited article, a parody of Time, to William Buckley at National Review. Buckley liked it so much that he offered Wills a summer internship. In the same year, Wills left the seminary to enter a graduate program in classics at Yale University, eventually accepting a teaching position at Johns Hopkins University.

He never returned to the idea of becoming a priest, but he did continue to write for National Review. A staunch Cold Warrior, he lashed out at the New Left for its lack of moral imagination and condemned many on the Catholic left for abandoning tradition for an uncritical celebration of innovation. He was the conservative voice for the National Catholic Reporter back when the publication encouraged dissent from liberal orthodoxy. Michael Novak, who was then considered on the theological left but later came to found Crisis, was among those Wills targeted for abandoning traditional methods of theological investigation. (Adding to the irony, it was U.S. News & World Report’s John Leo, then of the left but now of the right, who came to Novak’s defense—just as he might again today.)

Wills’s first major book, however, revealed that he had interests that ran deeper than mere religious and political punditry. It was a magnificent biography of G.K. Chesterton titled Chesterton: Man and Mask (1961). His thesis was that Chesterton is too often treated by biographers as if he were a fully formed Catholic his entire life whose spiritual innocence permeated all his works. In fact, Wills argued, Chesterton as a man was more conflicted. He experienced spiritual highs and lows and faced profound interior struggles often associated with great poetic and intellectual geniuses.

One of the many insights in Wills’s book on Chesterton is the universal need for expiating sins. Wills celebrates the work of Christ and Christianity for having provided the means, not only to Chesterton but to all men and women, for the cleansing of the soul. To achieve the full assurance of forgiveness, Chesterton believed, as did Wills by inference, one should enter the Church and partake in the sacraments. Chesterton became a Catholic late in life, and Wills reports approvingly that when he was asked why he decided to enter the Church, his answer was simple: “To have my sins forgiven.”

Three years later, another wonderful book flowed from Wills’s pen: Politics and Catholic Freedom (1964). On the surface, it was an extended attempt to defend Buckley and other National Review editors against the charge that they were being disloyal to the Church by taking issue with the social policy articulated by Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (1961). In particular, the editors objected to the pope’s negative judgment concerning nuclear weapons. (It was Wills, not Buckley as many believe, who penned the famous quip “Mater, si, magistra, no” in response to the encyclical.) In his book, Wills explains that Catholicism grants freedom to the laity to disagree on political applications of fundamental moral precepts. But he does much more. He chronicles the ways in which Christianity in history freed individuals from the chains of the pagan world by teaching them that the state is not the source of salvation but only an instrumental good.

In this carefully argued treatise, Wills also touches on the enduring psychological and spiritual habits of faithful Catholics, who see the demands of the Church as a source of liberation, not as tyranny and deceit. He writes that “all of the things a Catholic must do when dealing with the authoritative pronouncements of the Church, things which can sound mechanical or slavish or ignoble?’ are actually “natural for one who loves. And all of it is, or would be, ignorable were it not for the expression of a love for the Church, channeled through the Church for God. Catholic duty in this matter is the ritualization of a love for Christ; more precisely, taking place in His body the Church, it is Christ’s love for the Father?’

The New Wills

Though he supported Goldwater for president in 1964, Wills was by no means a conventional conservative. He was critical of the civil rights movement but still favored a gradualist approach to integration. And even in his articles in National Review he could be as critical of free-market economics as anyone on the left, decrying American capitalism for its materialism and individualism that he viewed as generally incompatible with Catholicism. He advocated a “Convenient State” that was far more expansive than American conservatism was willing to tolerate at the time. Neither was he among the religious traditionalists who resisted the vernacularization of the liturgy or the movement toward new rights for the laity that came out of the Second Vatican Council. A cynic might observe that he was, after all, a conservative that the National Catholic Reporter approved of, but the magazine was also much more sensible in those days. (I have written for the National Catholic Reporter recently in defense of the publication’s sound position against economic sanctions in Iraq—a position often pushed by the Holy Father.)

In the mid-1960s, as the civil rights movement gained steam and the Vietnam War heated up, Wills began to rethink his opposition to civil rights and also his unrelenting Cold War stance. He found himself more anxious than ever to enter the fray but not in the way he had taken at National Review. In 1966, Wills left academia to take a position as a staff writer for Esquire and, while there, found himself in the center of a new political movement and a new style of journalism. By his own account in a 1968 book (The Second Civil War), he had lived a sheltered life until then but “suddenly found [him] self in strip joints, police helicopters, black nationalist headquarters.” It was an experience that “made [him] lose, in some measure, [his] home, the things [he] had taken for granted, had thought of as familiar and safe.” He said, “I was discovering an alien, armed place, not at all the one I thought I had been living in; one I knew continually less about and admired less. My great discovery seemed all a process of erasure?’

He did indeed begin to erase his former allegiances, political affiliations, and friendships. This coincided with the new journalistic fame that came to him from a powerful tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., that appeared in 1968. Two years later, he came out with a scathing attack called Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, which infuriated his old friends at National Review.

The break was nearly complete, and not just on political matters. In the next two years, Wills also left behind his instinctive conservatism on religious matters. His Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (1972) declared that Vatican II hadn’t gone nearly far enough in changing the old ways. He now favored a prophetic style of radical Catholicism that departed from tradition more quickly than either the hierarchy or the laity would tolerate. He blasted Pope Paul VI for his birth-control encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968), and openly criticized the bishops for their supposed authoritarianism on matters of moral and liturgical discipline. The combination of religious and political apostasy was too much for National Review, which put Wills on the cover of its June 22, 1973, issue, with his head attached to Black Panther Huey Newton’s body.

It was a brutal image but one that symbolized Wills’s new intellectual commitments, which he would work out over the next two decades in a series of fascinating books of history. He wrote on Jefferson, Lincoln, the Republican Republic, and Augustine and periodically interjected himself into public affairs with attacks on nuclear proliferation and conservative politics—all generally books of a very high caliber, though the political leanings were obvious. Interestingly, Wills’s book chronicling his intellectual shifts was called Confessions of a Conservative (1979), suggesting that he was never willing to give up the conservative label entirely, believing that his Convenient State and his radical Catholicism represented some truly orthodox view that the American right had never embraced because it had not understood it.

Wills’s Links

There are several threads that connect the old Wills with the new Wills. In politics, he consistently has celebrated the expansive state; in religion, he consistently has been an advocate of the rights of dissenters. It is, however, impossible to avoid the vast chasm that separates his pious meditation on Chesterton from his impudent Papal Sin, which appears now nearly 30 years later.

If we are to take his new book seriously while revisiting his older work, we have to reverse his judgment on Chester- ton’s spiritual odyssey and say that Chesterton’s conversion involved some sort of psychological illusion. Indeed, the new Wills might have to say that Chesterton’s conversion involved falling for a lie or buying into an elaborate structure of deceit that wrongly said there was an apostolic succession, that the Church is preserved from teaching error on faith and morals, that the priest has sacramental power, and that the Church has something to offer the faithful other than a stable community of belief based on shared untruths.

What Wills lacks today is, by his own early account, the love that leads Catholics to accept the burdens and responsibilities of faith with joy. For him today, every rule of Catholic morality is the chain of a slave for which the only solution is that it be smashed. He sees every political intervention by the Church as unnecessary and every failure to intervene as a slight against responsibility. He regards every privilege reserved to the priesthood as an unjust taking. He relentlessly opposes all the things that average Catholics love about their faith.

“I am not attacking the papacy or its defenders,” he implausibly writes in the introduction to Papal Sin. But it is impossible to believe that he could be pleased with anything other than a kind of low-church, creedless congregationalism. He is aiming at the very heart of belief in the sacramental powers of the Church and two millennia of pious lay devotion to, for example, the Blessed Mother. There doesn’t seem to be much love behind such attacks.

It is true that many do not understand why Catholics go to confession, trust the pope, or fear sin. But this is nothing new. The secular world has never understood us Catholics. But Wills once did. He once celebrated the confessional, for example—the very institution that he now decries as an invention, despite testimony from the early Church of its authenticity. This is only one example of the plethora of errors in Papal Sin. And Wills has no excuse: In the last 15 years, a vast and very active Catholic evangelization movement has developed to clearly outline the Catholic self-concept, correct historical misinterpretations, and protect people from exactly the kind of mistakes strewn throughout Wills’s book.

For example, Wills celebrates the 19th-century Catholic historian Lord Acton as a liberal opposed to the idea of papal infallibility, but he radically misperceives Acton’s work during the First Vatican Council. Acton’s argument against a declaration of papal infallibility was not theological but political: He feared a retroactive imprimatur would be placed on all actions of the Church’s temporal power throughout history. Indeed, the version of infallibility that Acton worked against did not ultimately come to pass (the declaration said papal infallibility applied only to matters of faith and morals). As to the Church’s doctrinal claims that Wills revels in rejecting, Acton believed, in his words quoted in a recent biography, “the church after all is the God-given instrument of salvation….”

Acton was accused of heterodoxy in his day, but he answered a questioner with words that he might also use against Wills: “To your doubt whether I am a real or pretended Catholic, I must reply that, believing all the Catholic Church believes, and seeking to occupy myself with no studies that do not help religion, I am, in spite of sins and errors, a true Catholic, and I protest that I have given you no foundation for your doubt…. I do not believe that there is a word in my public or private letters that contradicts any doctrine of the Council [Vatican II; but if there is, it is not my meaning and I wish to blot it out.”

So why does Wills ignore evidence contrary to his thesis? And why does he think so little of his readers to believe that they will ignore it, too? Had he spent less time reading dissident theologians and more time considering the claims of the Church with a fair mind and familiarizing himself with a broader range of literature, would he have arrived at different conclusions? It is impossible to know, since Papal Sin was written with an agenda that seemed to preclude reporting contrary evidence. As it is, the book is tiresome and predictable. The arguments are unoriginal and the method transparent: Every smear against the Church is self-evidently true, while every defense of the Church is deemed part of the “structures of the deceit” that keep Catholic tradition alive.

What Wills Loves

Despite his pleas for honesty, Wills does not write honestly or candidly about his own spiritual struggles. And perhaps we will have to wait for a biographer as brilliant as Wills himself to sort them all out for us. But in the meantime, I have some speculations as to what may be the intellectual motivation driving him to rage against the Church.

When he wrote Bare Ruined Choirs, Wills expressed profound hope for a faith and a Church that would keep up with and steadily increase the pace of change, going beyond the developments of the Second Vatican Council into full-scale revolution. Like many other radical Catholics of his generation, who never understood that the Church is at once and at all times conserving and progressing, which anyone who seriously reads John Henry Cardinal Newman will understand, Wills might be profoundly disappointed that the revolution did not happen. Like many of the writers at the National Catholic Reporter, he might be striking out at a Church that failed to live up to his expectations. If so, his dilemma is not different from that of many Catholic intellectuals whose formative years were spent in the hothouse of the 1960s—many of whom left the Church for greener pastures (or so they believed).

Wills also has always had an exaggerated view of the state’s role in society. Another recent book by him on the supposed menace of antigovernment ideology in American history (A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, 1999) is a rigorously argued polemic for government domination of American life— not a position necessarily in need of new defenders these days. And even in Papal Sin, his statist bias is present, as when he criticizes the Church for taking over the function of adjudicating marriages from the courts of the Roman government.

Wills’s Convenient State of the early 1960s has become little more than a social democratic state today, and he strikes out at its critics with the same vehemence with which he hits Catholicism’s friends today. His venom is unleashed against those who dissent from the welfare state to the same degree as he defends dissent from the Church. This is not surprising: The history of regimes from revolutionary France and Russia through our own times displays this same tendency: Those who despise the Church love the state, and those who love the Church embrace the Church’s teaching of subsidiarity, which seriously circumscribes the state. This is not always the case, of course, but the propensity is sufficiently conspicuous to make it worth noting. My theory is that as Wills’s political opinions have evolved, the state has come to take the place in his mind once occupied by the Church: the object of his love.

As a priest who has long worked with people who have been intellectually estranged from the Magisterium and spiritually estranged from the sacraments, and as someone who himself drifted for a long time from the bosom of the Church, I might also inquire as to the possible spiritual origins of Wills’s odyssey. But such spiritual discernment must be initiated by Wills himself with the free will so mercifully granted by our holy Mother Church—and can be fruitfully probed within the security of the confessional.

As for Catholics who are alarmed by the prominence of Wills’s book, they need to remember that attacks on the Catholic Church were also a staple of 19th-century pamphleteering, but somehow the Church and the faith survived and thrived. In the same way, Catholicism will survive the new round of attacks that appear so regularly in the mass media and bookstores. Even the culmination of Wills’s intellectual and spiritual trajectory in his upsetting new book underscores that there is no escaping the reality that the Christian faith continues to be the main social text of our times.


  • Rev. Robert A. Sirico

    Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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