I’ve been reading Garry Wills for more than 40 years now, with mixed admiration, delight, and alarm. In the early 60’s he wrote for National Review, the youngest of its many brilliant contributors. He then seemed to be an orthodox Catholic and political conservative; but that began to change in 1968, when he suddenly matured into a man of the Catholic left: an opponent of the Vietnam War, an eloquent enthusiast of the Berrigan brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lillian Hellman, I.F. Stone, and others of similar persuasion.
Now 74, Wills has written dozens of books on many subjects. He seems incapable of producing a dull one, or even a trite sentence, so I still enjoy reading him. I always learn from him, but as a rule his works, however impressive, strike me as marred by rather obvious fallacies, unworthy of a man of his intelligence.
This is especially true of his recent series of books about the Catholic Church, notably his little best-seller What Jesus Meant. It deepens the mystery of another of his volumes, Why I Am a Catholic. The real question is why he still calls himself a Catholic.
A tempting answer is that it pays better than open apostasy. But that’s too cynical; Wills is obviously sincere. Still, he rejects a lot of distinctive Catholic teachings—about the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, the priesthood, the papacy, and so on. (Among the matters on which he dissents: the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity of Mary, transubstantiation, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, sexual morality in general, and apostolic succession.) One might agree with the official Catholic teachings on nearly everything without being a Catholic; the fundamental question is whether one accepts the authority of the Catholic Church.
But Wills denies that Christ founded any church at all, or that Rome speaks with any special, binding, or final authority. Most people, including Protestants, would probably agree that if Wills is still a Catholic, it is in a rather Pickwickian sense. (He is fond of quoting Dan Berrigan’s bon mot about the Church of Rome: “She’s a whore, but she’s our mother.”)
Does Wills not see where this leads, or does he expect his readers not to see? Christ promised to be with His people to the end of time. Why (assuming Wills is right) has the Lord allowed the great majority of believers to be so badly misled for two millennia? It is hard to believe that a full understanding of our Faith had to await 20th-century scholarship.
And why does Wills accept the same four Gospels the early Church approved (of many available) when, following “the mass of scholars,” he rejects several of the supposedly Pauline epistles on stylistic grounds? How is the ordinary unscholarly reader, ignorant of Greek, to choose among them? For that matter, why should that reader accept Paul’s word as authoritative? (By the way, Wills’ remarks on translating the Gospels in his last book came as a revelation to me.)
One early martyr, I recall, was a young boy who died to defend the Host he was carrying from profanation. And countless more recent saints have believed in the doctrines Wills scorns, including those the Protestants used to revile as “the idolatry of the Mass.” For my part, I put more trust in the faith of Padre Pio than in the strongest arguments of modern scholars.
Wills, I should mention, is at his best when he makes the case for the literal factual authenticity of the Resurrection. He is much weaker when he contends that Gospel references to Jesus’ “brothers” mean that Mary did not remain a virgin after His birth, contrary to the Catholic view that they were probably cousins. He says that Koine Greek “has very clear and detailed terms for all blood relationships” (so that those “brothers” must have been Mary’s children); I don’t know about that, but if it’s true, it seems reasonable to assume that there must also have been a Greek term for half-brothers. And as Scott Hahn points out, any other children of the widowed Mary would have been obliged to support her, making it unnecessary for Jesus, as He was dying on the cross, to commit her to the care of the Apostle John.
One nods in agreement when Wills writes, “Those who despise the poor are despising Jesus”; but when he adds that “Those persecuting gays are persecuting Jesus,” one wants to cry out, “Whoa there, Garry! It’s not quite the same thing!” The Beatitudes say nothing about sodomites, and Saint Paul is rather stern toward them, so at this point it becomes hard to suppress the suspicion that trendiness has got way out of control here.
If Jesus did not found a church, if there is no such thing as apostolic succession, what of the authority He gave the Twelve to forgive sin (or refuse to forgive it)? Was that delegation to last only during their lives? That seems very odd. And if so, why did they elect a successor for Judas Iscariot (whom Wills calls “Saint Judas”)?
But maybe the final answer to the kind of religion Wills espouses is that it makes Christianity not catholic, but esoteric—too dependent on recent scholarship to have been available to the great masses of common believers over the centuries. It is a religion for highly civilized people, whereas Jesus brought a religion fit for the savages (farmers, warriors, journalists) most of us are. Which is to say, catholic.