2016-06-30
Two years ago, after publishing "Papal Sin"--a critique of the institutional Catholic church--
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills was inundated with mail. Many letters asked why he didn't leave a church he found so deeply flawed. His new book, "Why I Am a Catholic," is something of an answer to his detractors and supporters alike. Principally an historical analysis of the papacy, Wills' book also discusses how he and other Catholics can "believe in the church and yet differ from specific things specific popes have said."


Many American Catholics are grieved and disillusioned with the church right now because of the recent scandals. If a Catholic approached you saying he or she was considering leaving the church to become, say, Episcopalian, and you had to persuade them to give the Catholic church another chance, what would you say?

I would say "We need you. Don't give in. Don't let them win; we can win. Stay here." G.K. Chesterton, the British Catholic convert, said "The severed hand does not heal the body." We're all in this together; we have to correct our brothers [the bishops], and pray for them, and hope to bring them around. And we're sure we will, because the Spirit is guiding. Chesterton also says, "If I see my mother walking along a cliff, I don't say 'Yay mom, just go on as you're going.' I say 'Stop.'"

I don't shop around from church to church. I think that I am in the Mystical Body and that's the source of grace for me, and that's where I want to live. I can see other people validly being parts of other Christian denominations, which also have the Spirit, I'm sure, and working out their salvation and being much better Christians than I am. But I think that the Catholic church preserves the creed more faithfully than most other denominations.

In the book you say that, despite its great flaws, the papacy and the centralized nature of the Roman Catholic Church have helped it uphold doctrine better than other Christian churches. You cite the fact that some Protestant churches are losing the belief in the Trinity.

I think there's a little more attitude that you can take or leave what parts of the creed you want. An Episcopalian friend of mine said just jokingly, but still: "We Episcopalians can believe anything-but we rarely do."

What other beliefs are you worried about Christians as a whole losing?

Devotion to Mary is in the Creed and in the gospel, and some denominations don't have that. We Catholics have exaggerated that at times, but I think it's a valid thing: it's in scripture that she will be called blessed by all generations, so Marian devotion is a part of Catholicism that I like a lot.

And the idea of the interplay between grace and works has always been a problem when it comes to Catholicism and Protestantism. I find that the Catholic position is more reasonable to me.

You're a fan of works.

Of course, we're all saved by Jesus' sacrifice, not by our own, and by grace. But we can forfeit grace. Paul says: "I fear that having run the race I will lose." St Augustine said: "Don't kill heretics, give them a chance to repent." We can't say that so-and-so is saved and so-and-so is damned. It depends on free will.

One of the most interesting sections of "Why I Am a Catholic" discusses your seminary experience. The impression delivered was that at the time seminaries were hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch--you mention that yours encouraged mortification. Today, many Catholics are alarmed with other issues relating to seminaries, saying they're not orthodox enough. In your ideal world, how would Catholic seminaries be run?

First of all, you would have to get rid of celibacy. Celibacy is a very unhealthy situation as it's now practiced. You would have to have married fidelity, chastity. You'd have to have a married priesthood, a female priesthood. And you could obviously have celibate priests if they choose it freely. "Let him who can take it, take it," is what Jesus said.

But celibacy was originally part of a vast ascetical discipline that was not connected to the priesthood. It arose in late antiquity as part of an amazing surge in popularity and enthusiasm [for ascetism], in the pagan world as well as Christian. This led to Desert Fathers and virgins scourging and starving themselves into mystic exultation.

These people became the heroes, the celebrities, the astronauts of the time. Priesthood was considered second-best, because priests were not Desert Fathers--heroic ascetics. What happened is that Athanasius and others tried to get the ascetics to become priests, and they said "no, that's the second best, we don't want to." So non-ascetic priests said we'd better start practicing some of these things or the people won't come to us, will not think we're authentic carriers of the gospel. So asceticism and celibacy came about by popular demand. But it was part of a whole culturally-conditioned scheme.

Now it has been separated from that. The ordinary priest that you meet now is not a Desert Father, he doesn't torture himself and fast and have mystic visions. Celibacy outside that context, in a whole different historical era, really makes no sense. There are no scriptural justifications, so they invent some. They say celibacy is something the priest should have because it will bring him closer to people. He will not be distracted by a family. But that's not our experience--that a family keeps you away from other people.

When my wife and I were raising our children, we were never closer to the community than when we participated in schools, churches, Little League, etc. Do you really think that if you go to a doctor and he gives you some advice, you say, "I can't take that, because you're married, so you're obviously not thinking primarily about me, you're distracted by your family"?

Let me tell you about our church. I've been going for 22 years to the campus church here [at Northwestern University]. For 17 of those years the associate director has been a woman, Mary Kincaid. Her role is such that she's the thread of continuity. We've had three priests come and go. We've had intervals when we had no priests and she had to bring in strangers to do things. She leads prayers, meditations, other activities, the soup kitchen. She memorizes the names of incoming freshman and connects them to their pictures. When they come in she'll say "Hello, (Anne)" and hug them. Because she says she knows many of these people are for the first time going outside their family parish. They're new on campus, they feel strange, they don't know if their religion will fit in with their new life. Ours is a very thriving, close, and happy community. And the principle face of that is Mary.

She had eight children, 14 grandchildren, and I forget how many great-grandchildren. That never separated her from us and she was always closer to us than the priests. So the idea that a woman should be kept out of the priesthood is so absurd, so, so crazy. We're running out of priests. They're not available. And Rome says we can't ordain women, because Jesus never ordained women. Well, that's true: he never ordained men, either. There are no priests in the New Testament. The word priest, hieros, doesn't occur in the list of ministries, a lost of a dozen or so that Paul names off. The priesthood was a social development, a valid one. It wasn't in the gospels. It developed at a time when women were thought imperfect and impure. But another social development could give us a woman priesthood just as it gave us a male priesthood.

In the book, you speak of your devotion to the rosary and to scripture. What day-to-day aspects of being Catholic do you like most?

I read scripture because it's the source of it all. I like the rosary because it ties you into scripture-quotes scripture in the prayers, makes you say the creed-St. Ambrose said you should say the creed twice a day, and that every time you do it you're renewing your baptismal vows. The Our Father of course is in scripture, as are most of the phrases in the Hail Mary. The rosary also ties into the liturgical year. We say the mysteries-Sorrowful, Joyous, Glorious-5 decades each, according to the season.

We're now in the Glorious mysteries season. I like to pray those mysteries now because the third season is Pentecost, when these frightened little people in a room--and they were the Twelve, which means they were representatives of the whole community--have the Spirit come and drive them out to speak to everybody openly, fearlessly.

There's a wonderful word in the New Testament, the Greek word parresia, which means "outspokenness." It's taken to be the sign of the Spirit. If the Spirit is with you, you speak the truth without qualification or hedging or worrying. And that's what happening now. We have a bunch of frightened little men, these bishops, huddling together trying to hide secrets, thinking their whole status depended on people not finding out the truth. And now they're being driven out of doors. That's what happened in [the June meeting of U.S. bishops in] Dallas. People are speaking the truth openly to them and demanding the truth.

Where in the hierarchy do you see the Holy Spirit working for good today?

Well, some men in the hierarchy agree with the idea of married priests and women priests. There were national conferences of bishops in Europe who tried to advance the idea of "voluntary celibacy," as they put it, to recruit more priests. Rome cracked down on them. In fact, Rome has taken away the power of the bishops, and they resent it. And that's going to show in the choice of the successor to John Paul II.

The teaching Church on nuclear weapons, capital punishment, exploitation of the Third World, duties of the rich to the poor--has been terrific. It's a very good, prophetic voice. It puts a lot of energy and action behind these positions through its network of charities and missions.

Rome, even at its most corrupt, has often been supportive of [good things]. There are paradoxical generative and corrupt aspects to the papacy, as to all parts of the church. None of us are pure, none of us are totally corrupt. We have to support each other when we are striving for purity and when we are trying to end corruption.

The Church is the people of God, the mystical body of Christ. Sometimes certain parts of it are more active than others, are more important than others. The laity is now taking on a position like John Henry Newman described in his work "On Consulting the Laity." In the 4th century, when much of the hierarchy, including Pope Liberius, defected to the Arian heresy, it was the laity who preserved orthodoxy.

Neumann said the Spirit guides the whole church, and doesn't speak only through one part of it. He compared it to a polygon, which can rest sometimes on one plane as its base, and sometimes on another. And the planes don't disappear--sometimes it's councils, sometimes bishops, sometimes local meetings of bishops, sometimes the laity, sometimes the papacy. It has shifted over the years with various challenges.

So the final thing I would say is this: Be hopeful. This is a time of great renewal.

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