by John Zmirak
Garry Wills has continued to serve as the “go-to” guy for secular media types who need some spleen to pour on the Catholic Church. This past week, he admitted to NY Times readers that he finally had given up hope that the pope would stop being Catholic. (One wonders if he’s still trying to talk all those bears out of dirtying up the woods.) To mark Wills’ part in the “great conversation” provoked by Pope Benedict’s resignation, here’s an excerpt dealing with Wills from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism:
FAQs from Your Stoner Neighbor #6:
I read two books by one of the leading Catholic intellectuals in America, Garry Wills—Papal Sin and Why I Am a Catholic—where he proves that the papacy hijacked the Church and turned it into a corrupt, worldly institution for dominating people through spiritual blackmail. What do you have to say about that?
Those two books are at once so shoddy and so skillful that I’m almost afraid to take them on. I have never before encountered someone so well-informed about what the Church really teaches, and so committed to lying about it. Garry Wills employs his Catholic training in exactly the way some fanatically anti-Zionist Jews use their ancestry: as a license to body-slam the truth, and throw it under the wheels of the juggernaut of elite opinion. But then, as St. James once said, “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). So in that sense, I am willing to stipulate that Garry Wills is, indeed, a Catholic. And while considered as literature or history the books are nothing special, they do a fine job of compiling in one place all Planned Parenthood’s talking points, so I might as well address them.
In Papal Sin, Wills presents as “news” the old, dark moments of the papacy as proof that its claims to consistency are not a mistake but a conscious fraud. Of course, Wills wields the old, trusty weapons of contemporary liberalism: ad hominem attacks, feigned shock that the Dark Ages were barbarous, plus rank disdain for the poor, the foreign, and the dead. This comes out clearest in his treatment of the church’s teaching on birth control, a subject with which Wills is nearly obsessed. He bluntly equates periodic abstinence (i.e., Natural Family Planning) with the use of foams, latex contraptions, and abortifacient chemicals—since they all aim at childless intercourse, as if we didn’t all know perfectly well that the difference between moral ends and moral means was covered in the first freshman philosophy class Wills took with Jesuits back when Buddy Holly was still alive.
Looking at Pope John Paul II, Wills heaps ridicule on that pope for glorifying the goodness of marital sex and urging Catholic men to see to their wives’ orgasms—while insisting that sexual acts can only be “holy” when they are subject to “self-control.” Wills mocks him for prudishness, as if any act could be human, much less “virtuous,” when done as a spastic response to compulsion. It seems one side effect of the Pill is to make men forget their Aristotle.
The writer Wills has the gall to claim as a mentor, G.K. Chesterton, saw the church as especially glorious when she resisted public opinion and refuted popular heresies. But Wills denounces the popes for refusing to follow the press and the Zogby Poll. Where Newman honored doctrines that develop over time, Wills veers wildly between archaism and chronological snobbery.
In his next masterpiece, Why I Am a Catholic, Wills answers a chorus of requests from readers troubled by Papal Sin, earnestly asking how he can remain in that church, having demolished its authority. He admits that a few notes came from those who disliked the book—whose authors all (all!) confessed that they hadn’t read it. These pious biddies he dismisses with a pat on the head and proceeds to dig among the Roman ruins to build a church worthy of him. Yet even here, two-thirds of the book consist of still more attacks on the papacy. Wills simply cannot resist. The last third of the book is all that Wills affirms as a positive creed—a milk and water gruel that Hugh Hefner could cheerfully serve at the Playboy Mansion for breakfast.
If the past is “another country,” Wills tramps through it as an Ugly American, sneering at practices that confuse him (such as physical mortification, commended by thousands of saints—which he dispatches in a line or two); feigning surprise that contemporary prejudices did not prevail a thousand years ago; obscuring and skewing evidence—all to build up a high school debater’s brief against Catholicism. But for most readers, that will be quite enough. None of Wills’s charges quite proves his point—that church teaching on faith and morals has zigzagged recklessly. But he will simply adduce another charge and another, drawing hasty (always hostile) conclusions in a glib paragraph. Where scholars disputed for centuries, Wills ends the question in a sophomore’s summary:
- Pope Honorius, who wrote a private letter around 637 too tolerant of heretics. Condemned by the church for laxity, Honorius is made out here as a full-blown heretic himself, and his note an infallible pronouncement.
- The Council of Florence, which declared infallibly that there is “no salvation outside the church.” That doctrine, which later popes carefully nuanced—noting that membership in the church is a mystery known only to God—Wills calls a simple lie, one revoked at Vatican II.
- The popes who urged Catholics to rebel against Elizabeth I. Wills damns these men for fomenting treason. A later pope told Catholics not to rebel against the Russian tsar—so Wills condemns him for fostering tyranny. Wills drubs popes for supporting King Louis XIV’s autocracy, and then for opposing Napoleon’s. The stark, awful power of infallibility in faith and morals Wills smuggles into politics and inverts: The papacy is miraculously wrong about everything.
- Pius IX and Leo XIII, who denounced the separation of church and state—in their day, always the first step toward persecution—are drawn as monsters, and Vatican II recast as a caucus of the ACLU.
- Pius X, who taught that dogmas cannot evolve. Against him Wills cites Newman. But the “doctrines” whose development Newman discerned are bluntly different from “dogmas,” which (unlike doctrines) must always be understood in the exact sense originally intended. Pius X noted the difference and praised Newman accordingly. How can such a distinction—as stark as that dividing an American law from an Article of the Constitution—escape sophisticated readers, or the writer? Easily: Notice how similar are the sounds employed—dog, doc, doc, dog. Remember how lazy and busy people are, how eager to soothe their sneaking bad consciences. Recall how many souls abandoned the Eucharist thanks to the slogan “hocus pocus,” that cheap pun on “hoc est corpus.”
Wills never does provide a clinching case of dogmatic self-contradiction—or indeed, any argument that could withstand a patient Google search. But he doesn’t need to. These books are finely tailored for reading on Jetblue: free of ambiguities, brightly mirroring the prejudices of their public, always focused on a single guiding principle: the Infallibility of the Baby Boom.
Wills accepts no Catholic teaching that might offend his comfortably secularized readers. Rejecting popes, councils, and ancient interpretations of the Bible, Wills adverts again and again to the “sense of the faithful” as his infallible authority. But of course, he defers to nothing of the kind. The vulgar masses he pretends to defend adore such wonders as the roses of Guadalupe, the dancing sun at Fatima, and the virginity of Mary. Wills dismisses such mysteries with a sniff, noting that “the New Testament is a book of theology, not of obstetrics or gynecology.” It is not the hordes of pious Mexicans and or persecuted Sudanese who must be consulted but Westerners who own Kindles, who only buy books they have heard recommended on NPR.
Wills makes a big point of noting that he still says the rosary—the prayer chaplet favored by peasant saints. But read attentively, and see how very proud Wills is of his humility, and how he preens about it. In his exegesis of the prayers, the reader can’t help noticing just how very learned and wise Wills is, how much more nuanced and polished than those dreary, drooling popes. And in a final touch, Wills simply cannot withhold the information that he frequently says the rosary in biblical Greek. Humility such as this is quite at home in hell.