“He that is proud eats himself up; pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle.”
—William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

What shall we say of Garry Wills who, with a doctorate in the classics, once purportedly showed promise as a conservative intellectual, only to become the historian-icon of the deconstructionist left? Explanations vary; mine is this: Once there comes adulation—Pulitzer Prizes, laudatory reviews in the New York Times, and network TV appearances—from the vapid liberal establishment, a mediocre man is beguiled by a crowd that knows his name, allowing him to strut and roll his eyes. That is the brief history of the seduction of Garry Wills. For conservatives, his defection, being no great loss, is not a pity.

A former CIA director once remarked to me that the harm the British traitor Kim Philby did to the West was not in the theft of the secrets he took with him: The Russians either knew these or had guessed them anyway. The damage Philby did was in the dissimulation he spread to the MI5 while he was a member of the intelligence community. Once he fled, his usefulness to his Soviet masters ended.

There was a time when Wills was viewed as a conservative who, dissenting on a few issues, gave those on the right food for thought. Now, we know in advance that he will deplore “McCarthyism” and the 1950’s generally, and rustle up a bevy of clichés about race-class-gender, women’s “empowerment,” and gay rights. As a Catholic, he does not just favor contraception or women priests—he slurs the historical papacy itself. Thus, in theological as well as political terms, he is not a heretic but an apostate.

For years, Wills, who teaches history at Northwestern University (a subject on which he has no formal expertise), has presented himself as a man of superior knowledge and intelligence, analyzing events by dipping into Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, Newman, Ruskin, Carlyle, Abbe Pestre, and Charles-Irenee-Castel Saint-Pierre, and applying their ideas to today’s problems. Read him on any subject —say, immigration—and this virtuoso will cite Francis Hutcheson, who launched the Scottish Enlightenment, and Ludovico Muratori, the Jesuit archivist to the Prince of Modena. These names, however, are martialed forth with dishonest selectivity and for one purpose only: to con us into accepting otherwise repugnant radical ideas. The complete lack of any standard of argument, whether syllogistic or methodological, is palpable. Thus, Wills adopts selective logical approaches depending on their convenience to his purpose.

In Saint Augustine (Penguin Lives Series, 1999), Wills, glorying in the bishop of Hippo’s earlier role as a “star in the galaxy of Manichean activists,” values him solely as a scholar. Wills dismisses as simply myth the sexual excesses over which Augustine triumphed to become a saint But Augustine had a longtime mistress, by whom he fathered a son; later, he dallied with another and wrote about still other inamoritae who delayed his conversion while he prayed for chastity—but not at once. Ignoring the trail of women in the Confessions, Wills writes, “He lived with one woman for fifteen years . . . This kind of legal concubine was recognized in Roman law.” His illogic is as important as his inaccuracy. Recognized in Roman law? So what? Augustine was not writing about Roman law but his own sins against Christian morality, and of his conversion.

The most recent example of Wills’ method of politicizing a subject while undermining his own claim to intellectual independence is found in his orgy of polymorphous perversity, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. Wills pays tribute to two ex-priests (one of whom, James Carroll, is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and a venomous assailant of the Church; the other, Eugene Kennedy, an ex-Maryknoller and arch-dissenter from the magisterium) and crowns himself as free-thinking pope. The book offers a host of citations ranging from novelist Fr. Andrew Greeley (who, after the Kennedy assassination, recommended that JFK be made a Doctor of the Church) to the editorial board of the anti-Vatican National Catholic Reporter as a substitute for spiritual redemption. Wills insists that he remains a churchgoing Catholic—an obvious ploy aimed at making his assault on Catholic social institutions, the Eucharist, and the church’s moral assumptions appear credible.

Wills argues that the Church is trapped by “structures of deceit”—commitments to false doctrines bolstered by a habit of complex and compounded falsehoods. If a pope errs, he claims, the doctrine of papal infallibility leads his successors to compound the lie to justify not only his error but the false doctrine of infallibility. He does not state the doctrine with clarity, misleading readers to assume Catholics believe that, whenever the pope speaks, he does so infallibly. Infallibility is not inspiration. Popes are fallible from the time they wake up, or gather their socks from the drawer (possibly picking one brown, one black). Nor are they preserved from sin. They are, when they speak ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”), immune from error only on matters of faith and morals.

Intriguingly, Wills names Cardinal Newman as a personal hero, claiming that the world-famous convert from Anglicanism opposed the doctrine of infallibility. “Totally wrong,” says Fr. John McCloskey, an expert on Newman. “Newman always supported that doctrine. He merely questioned whether with the passions running strongly in the council, Vatican I was the place to enunciate it.” That fact is apparently unknown to Wills, who declares that Newman believed infallibility begins and ends with the “church first”—excluding the possibility that it ever resides with the pope himself If the pope does not agree with relevant groups in promulgating a doctrine, he is not infallible, says Pontiff Wills. If the pope goes against these groups, “he is not, eo ipso, speaking ex cathedra even if he thinks he is.” “Again—totally wrong!” retorts Father McCloskey. But McCloskey is not cited in Wills’ book. Nor are other traditional Church scholars such as the Jesuits John Hardon and Avery Dulles. Furthermore, Wills’ questioning of papal infallibility does not square with his self-proclaimed authority with regard to St. Augustine. The saint’s heroic response to the Donatist heretics in A.D. 380 was “Roma locuta est causa finita est“—”Rome has spoken, the matter is finished.”

Wills’ treatment of contraception vividly demonstrates his dishonest intellectual style. Rather than debate natural law, he dismisses it. Never in the long argument on this issue has the subject been clouded with a more forbidding veil of political mystification and high-flown verbiage, obscuring thought. “One particularly disturbing aspect of modem papal claims,” he writes, “is the assertion that contraception violates natural law. If it is a matter of moral right or wrong perceptible to natural reason, the ancient pagans should have been bound to sec its immorality.” But Aristotle maintained that the family is not based on sexual license or social convention. In the Politics, he says it is founded “on a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue.” Wills the classicist knows—or should know—that Aristotle wrote of “natural justice” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book V) and that Cicero believed “law is the distinction between things just and unjust, made in agreement with that primal and most ancient of all things. Nature” (De Legibus, II.5).

Indeed, the connection was made explicit with St. Augustine, who insisted that “theological-Christian considerations not only permeate the whole of law and legal theory but in fact constitute the only sound foundation of true law and true jurisprudence” (Anton-Hermann Chroust, “The Fundamental Ideas in St. Augustine’s Philosophy of Law,” American Journal of Jurisprudence, 197?). Aquinas, following Augustine, called this order in the universe the eternal law.

Wills simply dismisses evidence that contradicts his views. The Church teaches, in theology derived from Augustine and Aquinas, that natural law is violated by contraception and abortion, because contraception is the prevention of human life while abortion is the taking of human life. Both involve the willful separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. Nowhere does Wills lay out this line of argument, nor does he refute it. As a result of his intellectual dishonesty, he does not lay a glove on Humanae Vitae—simply scoffs dismissively with borrowed sagacities and incomprehensible pseudo-syllogisms.

The creepiest “revelation” of the book is Wills’ wild fantasy, unsupported by scholarship, that Peter and Paul were so opposed to each other on the issue of whether Christians should follow Jewish law that their followers turned in the two men to Roman authorities. This speculation is based entirely on Peter’s silence after being reproved by Paul, which means to Wills that Peter did not accept the admonition to dine with gentiles! No biblical scholar would even venture this absurdity. With this ridiculous scenario, Wills destroys his credibility as an author.

How Wills can think of himself as still a Catholic is anyone’s guess. Examining critically the role of the priest, he charges that his powers to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ “were invented to make that physicality more evident.” Is it not odd that “the power of the priest to consecrate” is not mentioned in the New Testament, he asks?

What of the Last Supper and Jesus’s command to “do this in memory of me”? Wills makes no mention of the four New Testament accounts of the institution of the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:16-20; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-30). St. Paul writes:

For I have received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.

These verses clearly bear witness to the early Christian faith in the Eucharist, as Paul wrote these lines around A.D. 57. But these powerful citations go unmentioned in a passage which does not miss opportunities for megalomania.

In the Church’s 2,000-year history, there are numerous examples of dishonesty and deceit, usually connected with power struggles where the teaching of faith and morals was not involved. Wills insists, however, that dishonesties at the highest levels of the Church are emblematic of a deep-seated problem with the truth. Such a radical thesis needs rock-solid proof, which Wills does not provide.

Arguing that priests should marry, he fabricates a bold rationale: He interprets the Greek gunaika as “wife” rather than as “woman,” its root meaning, asserting that, since some of the apostles were married, their successors should also have the right to be married. In support of female priests, he insists that there were such in early times, citing Romans 16:7 for support: “Greet Andronicus and Junius, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.” In Wills’ tortured treatment, Junius was a woman whose name was changed in later translations (an old charge going back to 18th-century anti-Catholic polemics).

Following a twisted reasoning process. Wills shifts gears and insists there is no precedent for male priests, so why should women not be ordained? You see, the apostles were not priests and did not ordain priests. Never mind the ancient prophets who passed on their prophetic powers to those who would follow them as teachers in Israel; never mind the priestly castes of the family of Aaron, which passed on its sacerdotal privileges from father to son; never mind the royal family of David and his descendants, to whom the Messiah was to be born; never mind that this concept of succession was clear in everything Christ did—His choice of the 12 apostles who would judge the 12 tribes of Israel, and the very name “apostles” as those whom He was sending; and never mind that, at the Last Supper, He told the apostles to continue what He had just performed and that, on Easter Sunday night. He instructed them to forgive sins in His Name, that He was sending them into the world to teach and preach, to baptize and sanctify, to make disciples of all nations. These things are ignored in Wills’ book.

There was never, Wills insists, a laying on of hands. But Paul did it. Wills denies he was an apostle. But Holy Writ has him an apostle, although not one of the 12—a convenient lapse of the kind Wills frequently makes.

Wills berates the Church for being unjust to the Jews, never recognizing John Paul IPs frequently expressed sorrow for the excesses of some clergymen and his touching visit to the Wailing Wall. With the case of Edith Stein, Wills concentrates his fire on the Church. Stein, a gifted intellectual, was born to Jewish parents in Breslau, Germany. She pursued a distinguished career in philosophy, converted to Catholicism, and entered a Carmelite convent, taking the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. After Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), she left Germany for the Carmelites’ convent in Echt, Holland, taking her sister, Rosa, who had also become a Catholic, with her.

But Holland was a precarious domicile for Stein. Like other Jews, she was forced to wear the Star of David. When the Nazis ordered the arrest of all converted Jews, she was picked up. “Come, let us go for the people,” she told her sister. She and Rosa were transported to Auschwitz. After vocal complaints from Catholic clergy, the Nazis tried to cut a deal with the Church: Stop defending the Jews, and we will let Jewish Catholic converts go free. The bishops of Holland refused. Angered, the Nazis exterminated all Jews who were Catholic converts, including Stein and her sister.

Wills ornaments his ugly propaganda against John Paul II with academic jargon, but the basis of his rage is clear: By canonizing Stein, the Pope was trying to muscle in on the exclusive Jewish proprietorship of the holocaust. His arguments are unconvincing. Stein was the first person in the 400-year history of the congregation of cardinals and bishops to be confirmed as both martyr and confessor (“confessor” is the term denoting heroic sanctity). The Pope declared that, “in the concentration camp, she died as a daughter of Israel and at the same time as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.” I’he cause of her martyrdom, the Pope rightly said, was the Dutch bishops’ letter against the deportation of the Jews. And because of her great desire to unite with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross, he added, “she gave her life for genuine peace and for the people.”

Only a mean-spirited, anti-Catholic bigot could seek to deny not just her martyrdom but her sanctity—and Wills, leaning upon ex-priest James Carroll, does just that. The Church credits Stein with a miracle received by a young girl; Carroll found the girl’s doctor, who denied that her recovery was a miracle. And so it goes. Wills accepting uncritically Carroll’s reporting in the New Yorker while failing to point out the facts: Catholics suffered greatly, second only to the Jews, at the hands of the Nazis. Over a third of the Catholic clergy in Poland were imprisoned by the Nazis at war’s end. “By May, 1943 in the German Reich, 8,000 Catholic clergy were imprisoned in Dachau and 1,400 monasteries had been closed,” states Martin Doohry, who, as professor of history at DePaul University, specialized in Nazi atrocities.

Wills’ tireless efforts to politicize history are defeated by the facts. Nevertheless, his book will be of use to anti-Catholic radicals, who can point to it as the work of a Catholic intellectual who confirms what they have always thought about the Church. Church historian James Hitchcock shakes his head dolefully:

[Wills’] main objections to Church teaching turn out to be exactly those things which bother present day secularists. If the Church were faithful to its heritage in the ways Wills prescribes, its teachings would largely echo the editorial page of The New York Times.

Predictably, Wills is pro-abortion. In his syndicated newspaper column, he has presented Augustine and Aquinas as supporters of Roe v. Wade. Ignoring opposition to abortion as far back as the first century Didache (“you shall not procure abortion nor destroy an unborn child”), and avoiding mention of the condemnations by St. Basil in A.D. 374, Wills makes it appear that Augustine’s and Aquinas’s discussions of “ensoulment” invalidate Catholic theology. Hindered by ancient biology, Augustine and Aquinas were uncertain as to when human life begins. But they never endorsed abortion—never. Wills does not admit this. He has cited favorably the belief that, up to the seventh month after conception, an unborn child “is just a pile of wires and switches . . . not an electrical circuit.” Nor does he recognize recent medical research, summarized by Dr. Bradley Patten in Human Embryology: “The cell results from fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being. Each of us started life as a cell called a zygote.” It is inconvenient information, so Wills ignores it.

Wills’ solution to the scandals involving priestly pedophilia is to allow priests to marry. But if one’s sexual orientation is fixed and non-sinful—as Wills and the gay community insist—why should pedophiles be satisfied with wives? Indeed, many of them, including non-Catholic clergymen, are married men. How does Wills answer this? He does not, nor will he ever face the question so long as he continues carefully to select his media venues. I asked him to be a guest on my radio talk show and never heard back: Garry Wills only assents to interviews where he will not face tough questioning.

For Wills, who has denied philosophical and theological absolutes in his own life, the only certainties remaining can be provided by the regulatory state. In recognition of Wills’ service to the deconstructionist culture, and for his defense of the grossest personal immorality ever perpetrated by an American president. Bill Clinton conferred on Wills the National Humanities Medal. How fitting: From the hands of the Abortion President to the outstretched grasp of the Great Dissembler from whose word processor flow countless deceitful books, the honor passes.

Many years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen was accosted by a young priest who announced that he was leaving the Church because he had trouble with several complex doctrines. Sheen looked at him for a long moment and then said, softly: “Who is she?” When another priest came to him, tendering his resignation for the reason that the Church purportedly builds cathedrals while the poor starve, his words were: “How much have you stolen?” Both men were shamefaced with guilt. What bothers Wills about the Church may not be papal sin but his own inner discontent with strictures that impose a burden—but of course, we cannot know.

With Papal Sin, Wills moves not just to the left but to the province of such Utopian radicals as Wilhelm Reich, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, the Black Panthers, and Charles Reich. His desire to be Pope Garry lurks behind his anger. Yet, having (in his mind) demolished papal infallibility, he should not want to be pope: His Church, shorn of the Eucharist, absent its distinguishing marks, would be Unitarian at best. And what good is a pope of the Unitarians? As useless as a Kim Philby living in the Soviet Union.


[Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, by Garry Wills (New York: Doubleday) 304 pp., $25.00]