The conundrum of Garry Wills

religion | Jun 26, 2010 | By John Willingham

Garry Wills

In the May 27 issue of The New Republic, the eminent historian and classicist Garry Wills has an article entitled “Forgive Not,” with the subtitle “A Catholic’s struggle with the sins of his church.”

Four days earlier, Martin Gardner died in Norman, Oklahoma, at the age of 95. Gardner, accurately called a “polymath,” admired Wills greatly but found his writing on the Catholic Church to be “mysterious and strange.” If Gardner had lived to read the article in The New Republic, he might have found further evidence for his view.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Wills’ famous book Papal Sin, a history of papal maneuvering, not his first but probably his most famous criticism of the “structures of deceit” employed by the papacy to maintain an authoritarian and reactionary role in the Catholic Church.

Gardner wrote a widely-read review of Papal Sin in the Los Angeles Times (August 6, 2000), giving Wills due credit for his style and erudition, but in the end asking what doctrines Wills could still embrace in the Church he had criticized so harshly. “I would wonder why he does not walk out of the church and declare himself a liberal Protestant or a philosophical theist,” Gardner wrote, himself a member of the latter group. “This is the mystery and strangeness that hovers like a gray fog over everything he has written about his faith.”

What was true in 2000 is even truer now. In his article Wills does not forgive the Church’s pedophiles, and he condemns those who have tried to shield them in the name of clerical authority or solidarity against “the world.” But he continues to argue that the Church is not the papacy; it is instead “the people of God,” the parishioners who persist in spite of papal “sin.”

This fading hope of Vatican II, that the people are the Church, now seems far removed from the actions of the Church since then, and especially in the last ten years when the Church’s people have too often become its victims. So now it seems more likely that Wills enters Gardner’s “gray fog,” in asking, yet again, that disillusioned Catholics “[s]tay with us, we need you. The people of God need you.” Sadly, and for me this is a personal sadness, the Church is now more of a shell for its dogma than it is a place for worship, a castle for its own authority rather than a spiritual home for its people.

Worst of all, it has become a Church so far from its people that many, perhaps most, must now sacrifice their deepest convictions in order to be in it. Garry Wills is a good and brilliant man, but he asks too much of the people of the Church to continue as a part of it after the repeated abuses of children. What path would yield major reform in one lifetime, two lifetimes, or even generations of lives? As Wills writes, the Church “tolerated when it did not encourage—until the 1960s!—the idea that the Jewish people were guilty of deicide.” How long, then, would the Church take to change not only one of its controversial positions but its consistent antagonism toward history, and toward the real world its people must inhabit day after day?

Wills refers to the Church’s “ahistorical and medieval roots” as a reason for the papacy’s repeated opposition to social change, from Galileo to evolution, from Pius IX’s condemnations of democracy to Pius XII’s repudiation of birth control. He argues that there is no biblical basis either for male celibacy or for a male priesthood, but the Church clings to both. How much farther can a church be from its people than when it denies its women an equal role and its priests their own humanity?

But there may be an even deeper problem, something that could help to explain the Church’s distance from a reality outside its own creation. Since the Council of Trent in 1551, transubstantiation has been the Church’s official doctrine on the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Stated simply, transubstantiation is the process by which the consecration of bread and wine transforms the substance of both into the actual body and blood of Christ. What remains of the bread and wine are their physical properties alone.

The dualistic idea that an object has an abiding substance that is distinct from the object’s specific properties is basic to substance theory, going back to Aristotle and, later, to Saint Thomas Aquinas. A tree, for example, has a substance of “tree-ness” that is distinct from its properties—bark, leaves, branches, and limbs. This is different from saying that something is greater than the sum of its parts; this is saying that the essence of a thing is separate from its parts.

The Eucharist, especially in some Protestant churches, may be understood as the emergence of the spirit through or from the physical world, without clear diminution of the latter. This form of the Eucharist may be experienced as symbolic of Christ’s Last Supper with the Apostles.

But when transubstantiation is at the core of the Eucharist, the physical world becomes an object whose substance has been shed, as if that world does not stand in essential relation to the process of spiritual growth. While there may be value in the asceticism that sometimes follows a withdrawal from the world—Buddhists, monastic traditions, and mystics show us this can be the case—theirs is not typically a withdrawal marked by contempt for the world, nor do they adorn themselves with elegant costumes celebrating ties to a feudal world long past.

And they do not insulate themselves with dogma. Lacking nourishment from the world and the world’s insistent history, the Church communes mainly with itself. Instead of a vital Eucharist honoring the holiness of flesh and blood, the Church asks its people to swallow its own dogmatic pronouncements.

One of Wills’ heroes, Lord Acton, is famous for his statement regarding Pope Pius IX and the dogma of papal infallibility: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Like Wills, Lord Acton was a Catholic prominent enough to say (even in the nineteenth century) what he thought and still avoid excommunication, holding firm to the idea that history is “not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”

Garry Wills is a real example of what the Church should be. A person in love with both God and history can be the best kind of person. But how can he still be a Catholic?

John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, religion, and politics at History News Network. 



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