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The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 15th, 2002


Why I Am a Catholic

by Garry Wills

Roman Holiday

A review by James Wood

"There are but two alternatives," wrote Cardinal Newman in 1864 in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, "the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other." It is hardly surprising that Garry Wills, though he cites Newman abundantly in his new book, omits this proud bark of characteristically desiccated implacability from one of the great Catholic converts. After all, Wills, in Newman's terms, is the very bricks and mortar of a halfway house. The Newman who, as a good Catholic, asserted that "the Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest" would be horrified by Wills, a Catholic who for many years has been -- in both senses of the word -- liberal with rebellion, and a distinguished critic of both the current pope and the papacy in general.

Wills has good reason to avoid Newman's challenge, since his book, which is a kind of apologia, inevitably provokes, at least in non-Catholic readers, a skepticism that is the close cousin to Newman's certitude: namely, why is Wills not a Protestant, and why is he not an atheist? Newman converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and his conversion excited the suspicion that always attends the shift from one fierce position to an equally fierce position that is ostensibly in conflict with it: such conversion may look less like development than doubleness, less like correction than incoherence. Analogously, the loyal critic, which is how Wills presents himself, can often seem too loyal to be the best kind of critic and too critical to be meaningfully loyal.

This debilitating tension runs throughout Why I Am a Catholic, a shrewd and learned -- and finally a frustrating, limited, and contradictory -- book. Sometimes, as when Wills discusses the early church, the tension between criticism and loyalty is nicely balanced and strengthens the argument. Too often, however, the result is weak criticism and weak loyalism. Wills the weak loyalist appeals to Augustine, Newman, and Chesterton again and again in this book, so as to raise, as it were, his proper Catholic credit; Wills the weak critic simply omits Newman's profound Catholic anti-liberalism, Catholic authoritarianism, intellectual mystification and circularity, and astoundingly presents him as almost a Willsian radical, on the side of reason and the people against unthinking authority. "What he hated instinctively was heresy, insubordination, resistance to things established, claims of independence, disloyalty, innovation, a critical, censorious spirit," Newman wrote about John Keble, his fellow Tractarian. He meant the comment as a compliment.

Wills's book is a response to a response: after his last work, the stirring and acute Papal Sin, many Catholics wrote to ask him how he could possibly remain in the church. What was his Catholicism, his correspondents asked, if he did not believe in the pope's authority, and if he felt that the history of the papacy revealed such immensities of fraudulence, deceit, hypocrisy, nonsense, and murderous malevolence? Was not the papacy really the church? One reader sent him, as his fix, a rosary packed in a prescription pillbox. Wills's reply in his new book is roughly that he is a Catholic because he believes in the creed (that is to say, he believes that Christ was God Incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, and rose to heaven); and because he was born a Catholic and is sentimentally faithful; and because his Catholicism is a blend of the early church and Vatican II -- an institution devoted to the pope but not identical with him, shepherded by him but not ruled by him, and thus a church defined not authoritatively as an infallible centralized Roman institution but democratically as a body of God's believers, "the people of God."

Wills's church is not afraid to change, because it is not afraid to admit that it always has changed; and it is not afraid to admit to its fallibility, because it so palpably has been fallible. It is conciliar rather than monarchical, and the liberalizing Second Vatican Council, which ran for almost three years, between 1962 and 1965, is the model for Wills of what such a council, called by the pope but not bound to him, can do. Wills contends that the proof that the church is really defined by its laity rather than by its ruling elite is that most of the church has been quietly but firmly living the spirit of Vatican II since 1965, despite the efforts of Pope John Paul II to reverse that spirit. Most American and European Catholics, for instance, took no notice of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), which reconfirmed traditional church teaching against contraception.

Wills clearly feels about the papacy that it is important to Catholicism, but not that important. On the one hand, the pope is merely first among equals, and is of course fallible, and may be overruled by church councils, and may be privately disobeyed, all of which has happened in the history of the church. On the other hand, "the pope is one of the reasons I stay a Catholic, not a reason for going." There is a contradiction in this, which one suspects Wills is aware of; you might even say that this book, which is dominated by a two-hundred-page-long history of the papacy, is above all an attempt to wrestle this contradiction into self-agreement. That a book which seeks somewhat to qualify the power and the authority of the papacy is so obsessively shadowed by it (and recall that this is really the sequel to Wills's previous book about the papacy) may say something about the pope-intoxicated Catholics with whom Wills feels he is doing battle. Or it may say something about pope-intoxicated Catholicism itself. Wills acknowledges the first deformity, but not always the second one.

In order to alter the papacy's relation with the church -- to argue that the church is not simply bound to the pope, but the pope is also bound to the church -- Wills has to re-characterize the Roman institution. He does this with wide learning and savage polemical knifework. For Wills, the essence of the papacy is neither its authority nor its infallibility, but what he calls its "Petrine charism of unity." He means by this that the apostle Peter, from whom the pope takes his symbolic authority, was asked by Jesus to feed the Lord's sheep, and that this flock is one, unified but not controlled by Peter's representative. There are several relevant New Testament verses, but the most important occurs in Matthew 16:18-19, when Jesus tells Peter (Petrus) that upon this rock (petra) he will build his church. (It was this verse that prompted the punning Joyce to joke that the church was founded on a pun.)

Other Christian denominations, Wills feels, are "the poorer" for their lack of this Petrine unity. Wills never clarifies exactly why other churches are thus poorer, nor if they are indeed less unified; one smells here the old Catholic snobbery toward schism. On the face of it, Wills's logic must be wrong: it is precisely the tiny schismatic sect that is unified by its rejectionism (say, the terrifyingly ascetic, appallingly "unified" Free Church of Scotland, the so-called "wee frees," who found John Knox too easygoing), and the big old Catholic Church (and its large splinter, the Anglican communion) that is riddled with people, such as Wills, who spoil its unity so effectively. Anyway, Wills's own disputations against the power of the papacy and Rome somewhat tarnish the appeal of his otherwise cherished "unity."

Wills reminds us that the early Roman church worshipped both Peter and Paul as the two great symbols of Christian unity. Both men died in Rome. Neither founded the Roman church, which had existed for twenty years before they reached Rome. The story that Wills tells of the early church seems designed to accentuate its provisionality, its widely scattered centers of power -- Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Milan, Rome -- and Rome's great theological irrelevance for the first five centuries of Christian belief. There were many churches, and the real activity was in the East, not the West. All six of the early councils, which established the canon of the New Testament and the form of the creed, and formalized the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity, were held in the East. Rome was "far from the center of theological action," an "intellectual backwater." Though the bishop of Rome -- the term "pope" was not uniquely applied to the Roman see until the fifth century -- began to assert his authority, and to claim primacy, early on in the church's history, it was not until 254 C.E. that Pope Stephen made the first known use of Matthew's text on Peter as a stone, claiming that it gave Rome authority over other churches.

The early theologian Origen seemed to deny this use of Matthew's verse ("anyone who imitates Christ is a stone"), and anyway the first seven centuries of church history show that, far from being infallible, the pope was not even especially powerful. In 417, Pope Zosimus backed the heretic Pelagius against the wishes of the African church (which included Augustine), which sent a secret delegation to the emperor Honorius in Ravenna. When Honorius supported the Africans against Pelagius, the pope was forced to comply. Two centuries later, Pope Honorius (no relation) was condemned by a council for heresy; all new popes had to acknowledge the true faith, which involved confirming the error of Honorius. A hundred or so years later, in the 750s, a forged document began to circulate, the so-called Donation of Constantine, which purported to be the emperor's own granting of temporal and spiritual authority to Pope Silvester, and to all his successors. It was proved to be a forgery in 1440, but it had already done its legitimizing job: Wills concludes that the popes of this period (the eighth century to the fifteenth century) "built a huge system on a substrate of falsehood." Many of them probably believed the Donation to be authentic, but then, as Wills remarks, "a great deal of belief can come from wanting to believe." It is a sentence that might return to haunt him.

The early history is familiar to its students, and Wills merely re-presents it with sharpened angles, though it should be said that his notes reveal a wide erudition, based on the reading of primary texts in Latin, Greek, Italian, and German. Wills is convincing, and he reminds us that, inevitably, churches are scrappy installations that seek to pass themselves off as authorless masterpieces. His history shows us again how relatively belated are the doctrines and the habits that Christians appeal to as "tradition." Latin was not the language of the Mass in Rome until the third century; and the formal theology of confession, purgatory, and the calibration of sins (venial sins put you in purgatory, mortal ones send you to hell), along with its darker sibling, the system of "indulgences," had to wait until the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to be properly founded. The papacy, so Wills must hope, takes its place in this context of belatedness, human confusion, and assembled authority.

Of course, Wills's historicizing tendencies can do their intellectual work only if he is successful in prizing the church -- seen as a changing, historical, human institution -- from the papacy, which has never shown an inclination to think of itself historically. In this sense, Wills's Catholic history has a curious, naive, utopian air, in which he is constantly implying the existence of a "real" church (the "people of God") even as he is constantly writing about, and doing battle with, the actual church -- the papacy, Rome. He wishes to clear away the actual church, one feels, so that he may reveal the "real" church. But since the "real" church has always been represented by the actual church, Wills is in the curious position of always talking about the representatives while appearing to want to get beyond them. Whether such a beyond exists, and whether it can still call itself Catholic, is never addressed in this book; but it is, obviously, the crux.

It is here that Wills's contradictions show themselves. One might call them inherently Catholic contradictions, if that did not make it sound as if there were no inherently Protestant contradictions, too. Wills is a good Catholic, and he is at pains to remind us of his devotion. As a good Catholic, he needs to defend himself against the charge that he is really a Protestant who does not believe in the church but only in the authority of Scripture. Rightly, he observes of the early councils that "Protestants who would later say that only the Bible should be trusted, not the church, forgot how the Bible was created by the church during this time of sifting, to reach an apostolic consensus." A little later he writes that several of the doctrinal formulations of the first five centuries of Christian belief go beyond Scripture, and yet they are the basis of his faith. "In that sense, the creed I profess goes beyond Scripture (without betraying it)." Later still, he praises the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, which did battle with the early Protestant reformers, for "rightly" defending "tradition against the idea that 'Scripture alone' can save, since only tradition gives us the canon of Scripture."

This is an intellectually decent argument against Protestant scripturalism, but is it an intellectually decent argument for the Catholic Church? If Protestant literalism is incoherent, then Catholic ecclesiology is circular: trust the church because the church founded what we trust. And then the question must be asked: just what is the "tradition" for Wills? Late in his book he defines heresy etymologically as "selection," the belief in oneself as a select group. Heretics choose what they like and do not like, which is always a "narrow perfection." But how is Wills not selecting, also? If he believes in tradition, why does he believe the early formulated doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity, and appear to have little time for the later formulations, such as the idea of purgatory, or the idea of papal infallibility? Why does he accept the findings of the Vatican II Council, and not the ruling of the pope's encyclical on contraception? One is not questioning the wisdom of his doctrinal choices so much as the grounds on which he is able to make them at all.

For if Wills replies that he prefers the earlier doctrines because they issue from the early church, and prefers Vatican II because it seems close to the spirit of that early church (and this is essentially his case), then he is appealing circularly to church tradition, and incidentally is undermining his own argument about the scrappiness and the fallibility of the early church. But if he replies that the early doctrines, along with Vatican II, seem closer to the "spirit" of Christ than the twelfth-century formulations (and he says this, too), then he becomes the very Protestant scripturalist that he wants not to be, appealing to the Gospels, not to the church, for authority and inspiration.

The creed that Wills professes, he says, "goes beyond" Scripture without betraying it. But how does he know that it does not betray it? Only by being a good Protestant reader of the Scriptures, using his own judgment and his own conscience to select the central from the peripheral (thus the Incarnation is obviously a thousand times more important than fiddling with purgatory and venial sins, and contraception is not even an issue), and to intuit the true "spirit" (Wills's own word) of Christ in the Gospels. To a Protestant -- more primarily, perhaps, to a nonChristian -- this looks like common sense, like no more than that elementary task of literary criticism, which indeed had its religious origins in biblical criticism. But to a Catholic this ought to look problematic. Newman, at least, knew how to avoid the problem:

I submit, moreover, to the universally received traditions of the Church, in which lies the matter of those new dogmatic definitions which are from time to time made, and which in all times are the clothing and the illustration of the Catholic dogma as already defined. And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not, through the organs which it has itself appointed, which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed.

And just so that Protestants should not feel complacent, the difficulty with justifying one's belief by appealing to Scripture is that more or less anything can be justified in this way. (That is one of the pragmatic arguments for the firm dogmatic authority of the Catholic Church.) Jehovah's Witnesses, with their obsessive underlining of all appearances of the word "Jehovah"; Baptists, with their ecstatic reading of the baptismal scenes; Evangelicals, with their devotion to Jesus's instruction to Nicodemus that he be "born again in the spirit"; Pentecostal snake-handlers with their crazed reading of the last verses of the Gospel of Mark: all these are no more than bad readers, fetishists of the marginal, professionals of the detail rather than amateurs of the whole. And clearly mainstream Catholics and Protestants have been such fetishists from time to time.

But if Wills is a good Protestant reader of texts rather than a Catholic (as I think he is), should he be able to write that the pope is one of the reasons he remains a Catholic? Of course, all Christianity is an appeal to texts, and no more so than when the Catholic Church appeals to three or four verses to justify its celebration of Peter as the church's shepherd. Wills is alert to this, and well aware that Christ several times refers to himself as the stone (petra) on which the church has its sure foundation. Wills's firm command of the provisionality of the early history of the papacy, combined with his panoptic knowledge of the human sins of the popes through the ages, inevitably leaves him with a mere tuft of belief, a rather forlorn mantra that he intones again and again, "the Petrine charism of unity."

The Petrine charism of unity seems to be the frayed thread that connects Wills to his Catholicism. But should it? When would the thread fray enough to break? Wills proposes the sentimental argument that Peter, the weak man who denied Christ three times, is exactly the man on whom the church should be founded, "the weak and often mistaken man for whom the church exists," and he quotes Chesterton to the effect that "you're only as good as your worst man." Peter was even a "buffoon," which is exaggerated. It is a pretty picture, the great church balancing on the pinhead of fallible humanity, but Wills must know it to be no more than that. If we are going to applaud Christ for founding his church on weakness, doubt, and buffoonery, then why not choose Thomas, who doubted Christ's resurrection? Or have done with it and promote poor old Judas, no doubt laboring somewhere in hell? Why not, at that point, choose a much more likable secular buffoonery, and agree with Heine that "there is a god and his name is Aristophanes"?

This is exactly the kind of sentimentalism that Chesterton practiced by the word count, day after day. It is contradiction saving itself by posing as paradox. Wills says that Chesterton was admired by Eliot; but he omits to tell us that Eliot said of him that "Mr. Chesterton has thoughts, but I see no evidence that he thinks." Chesterton is clearly adored by Wills, but the English journalist and loyal Catholic is a dubious sponsor at the best of times. He was really just a sentimentalist of the paradox, whose populism looked like flexibility but whose true orthodoxy was in fact extremely rigid. Thus, on the last page of his book, Wills approvingly quotes Chesterton on heresy: a heretic becomes one only, says Chesterton, "at the precise moment when he prefers his criticism to his Catholicism." The critical Catholic, he goes on, levels his criticisms, and is perfectly at liberty to do so (here is the populist Chesterton); but then the true Catholic (here is the orthodox Chesterton) accepts the ruling or arbitration of the church, because it is the church that knows best how to adjudicate such contentions. After all, the church is a balance of many moods and tendencies, "and membership of it consists of accepting the ultimate arbitrament which strikes the balance between them, not in refusing to admit any of them into the balance at all." In other words: make your criticism and then shut up. This is the very voice of dogmatic loyalism. It is perfectly commonplace and it would not have troubled Newman; but it is literally senseless when quoted by the exceedingly unorthodox Wills.

So when, for Wills, would the thread break? When would the combined folly and wickedness of the many popes constitute not only an argument against "the Petrine charism of unity," but evidence that this charism has never actually existed? Wills's own researches and formidably good polemical style force these very questions. His own history, like any good history of communism, necessarily raises a query about the point at which practice proves the unworkability, or worse, of the originating idea. After all, Wills's survey of the popes from the thirteenth century to the present could hardly be bleaker: we pass by the infamous Boniface VIII (the one punished by Dante in hell), who proclaimed a crusade against the families of two Colonna cardinals; Innocent III, who granted indulgences (essentially, promises of reduced time in purgatory) to the warriors who massacred the Albigensians in Languedoc; Urban VI of Rome and Clement VII of Avignon, two rival popes who excommunicated each other; Gregory XIII, who rejoiced in 1572 at the news of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of thousands of Huguenots and had a festival Te Deum sung to commemorate it; Paul IV (1555-1559), who strengthened the Inquisition and compelled Jews in Rome to wear a yellow badge; Pius IX (1846-1878), who sheltered a Jewish boy kidnapped from his parents, and who canonized Pedro d'Arbus, a fifteenth-century inquisitor who presided over the forced baptisms of Jews in Spain. Of this pope, Wills appends the mordant remark that "only a pope like John Paul II could have beatified a man like Pius IX." Surely Gibbon, Hume, and Mill are clapping in their secular heaven.

But one asks again: which Petrine charism of unity? Of course, it is unreasonable to demand of a book titled Why I Am a Catholic that the author excommunicate himself on the page and declare his immediate departure from the church -- a kind of inversion of Baron Munchausen pulling himself out of the bog with his own pigtail. But it is strange that after this bloody and numbing recitation, Wills swoons himself back into a Catholicism that sounds disturbingly tribal. Answering the imagined question, Wills says that just because one is a critic of one's country, one does not leave it. How, he wonders, would leaving the Catholic Church help that church? But perhaps the most primary obligation of the human mind is not to help the church. And Wills's argument that all churches are human and thus flawed -- "where is a church not deeply flawed?" -- merely raises to invisibility, by massively generalizing them, the specific and terrible flaws that he has so ably documented.

But Wills goes further. The church, he says, is the Petrine charism of unity, and the pope is not just the symbol of that unity but in some way the sacrament of it, something holy. "Heresy," he says, "is a sin against the sacrament of the unity of the church....By historical development, guided by divine providence, the pope has become more strikingly the symbol of unity as the apostolic Churches have faded in importance." This is staggering. Is there a speck of evidence, in the history that Wills has himself just recounted, that divine providence has guided the development of the papacy? Either Wills has not told us about it, or -- the only possible conclusion -- divine providence is a murderous, malevolent, worldly, bloodstained, greedy, and confused agency.

It is a kind of insult to his readers to be using language like this after the boisterous secularism of his history of the papacy. And really, should Wills, of all people, be using the word "heresy" with so little apparent concern, with such obvious concession to the church's loaded terminology? Hasn't Wills earned the right to dispense with such language? But by this point in his book, Wills is not speaking to the general reader. He is waging an intramural debate with fellow Catholics, and trying to add zeroes to his Catholic account.

What else explains the extraordinary statement -- after his survey of the history of the popes! -- that "even in the darkest hours of the papacy, there is more life and light within the church than in the groups that split off from it." More light and life within Boniface's church than within John Wesley's? More light and life within Pius XII's church than within Dietrich Bonhoeffer's? This is the sheerest Catholic solipsism, and a deeply dismaying confession from a writer who seemed beyond such superstitions. But then the first page of this book announces, about the church, that "I would lose my faith in God before losing my faith in it." It is an incredible and perhaps unwitting admission. A faith in the church without a faith in God: if that is all that Wills is finally defending, then why his intellectual labor?

Wills's last appeal is to the shade of Evelyn Waugh. He quotes Waugh's response to those who asked him why he was so mean and uncharitable if he was really a Christian: "Just think how much worse I would be if I were not a Christian." Wills continues: "In the same way, as bad as the papacy has been all through its history, just think how much worse things would have been without it." Yes, think about it. How bad, really, would things have been without the papacy?

The obvious response to Waugh's easy and rather vulgar quip is to ask: how does he know? Why is Waugh so sure that he would be a meaner atheist than Christian? Perhaps he would be a better man without Christ, not a worse one. And the appeal to original sin -- we are all wicked and only the church can save us from ourselves -- is tiresome, and suspiciously easy. Isn't there the smell of complacency about a man who so easily condemns himself? Waugh's joke offers a disturbing example of passivity. It proposes an original sin that simply waits for Christ's correction, rather than a Christianity that offers itself for Christ's correction.

Gibbon and Hume, once applauding Wills, would now be wringing their hands, and warning themselves not to fall for this sort of bluff again. For Garry Wills has just decorated his halfway house, and he is settling down for a long and comfortable residency.

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