Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Loyal Catholic in Changing Times

Andrew Sullivan recently highlighted an Atlantic magazine interview with Garry Wills (pictured at left), author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit and Why I Am a Catholic.

Following are two responses of Wills that I found particularly interesting in light of recent events. Note that this interview, conducted by Sage Stossel, is from July 2004 - before the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.


Sage Stossel:
You make the case for the importance of “loyal opposition” to official church positions that are nonsensical, unethical, or backward. “The job of a loyal Catholic,” you write, “is to give a support that is not uncritical, or unreasoning or abject, but one that is clear-eyed and yet loving.” What does that imply for a lay Catholic? Is simply continuing to attend mass and remaining part of the community while quietly disagreeing with and disobeying certain objectionable dicta (like the ban on contraception) enough?

Garry Wills: That’s what it did imply until recently. Most of us Catholics have an experience of the faith at the parish level that’s very comfortable. We’re generally happy with our fellow believers and our priests and the lay assistants (who are very important these days in parishes). But now we find out that our children are being abused and that the hierarchy has protected this crime. So it’s not enough anymore to say, “Well, we’ll just ignore the Pope on issues like sex about which he’s totally ridiculous.” We have to intervene and protest and become active. And that’s what’s happening.

Sage Stossel: You quote some of the more conservative Church leaders warning that opening the Church up and democratizing things might mean “Protestantizing” the Church. Is that a valid concern—that the Catholic Church can't open itself to the modern world without losing important aspects of its identity?

Garry Wills: That’s the kind of scare talk the conservatives always indulge in. They say it’s un-Catholic to be more democratic. But the Church began democratic. The priests and bishops were elected by their congregations. When St. Augustine wanted to travel or to take time off to write, he went before his people and said, “Will you give me permission to do it?” He was accountable to them. That wasn’t Protestant. That was simply the Gospel as it was understood at the time. Things changed when expectations about the administration of power changed, and they will change again as expectations change. The Papacy became monarchical in a monarchic era, because it picked up the coloration of its times. Now it has to accommodate to the times of democratic accountability. It’s clear that it has a lot of catching up to do.

Sage Stossel: John XXIII’s progressive Papacy (1958-1963) was preceded by what you describe as Pius XII’s “reign of terror,” in which censorship, loyalty oaths, anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism, the quashing of perceived dissidence, and the disparagement of non-Catholics prevailed. How did a liberal thinker like John XXIII manage to emerge as Pius XII’s successor? Did he have to keep his interest in modernizing the Church hidden until after he had risen to power?

Garry Wills: No, I don’t think so. I think he was chosen for his personal warmth rather than for his views. People didn’t realize what his views were. There’s a kind of pendulum effect in the choice of Popes. People always want somebody different from what came before. And Pius the XII was a kind of off-putting, aloof, aristocratic figure. They wanted somebody warmer. In the same way, I think that they’re going to want somebody quite different from John Paul II. The Church is weaker now than when he took it over. The priesthood is drying up. The nuns have disappeared. His idea that you have to toe the line is widely dismissed by Catholics. And the scandal over the pedophile cover-up by the hierarchy has been very damaging. I believe the people going into the next conclave are going to choose somebody who will promise that new accountability will be afforded. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new Pope call a new Vatican Council.

Sage Stossel: Do you have an overarching vision for a version of Catholicism that you would be more content with than the Church as it is today?

Garry Wills: Actually, I’m content with it right now. Catholics are living the faith of their shared commitment to the mystical body. Bringing the hierarchy into line with that is just a secondary step. And it’s bound to occur. I’m unhappy with the hierarchy, which is not the Church. It’s part of the Church—an important part, but it’s not the Church. People say the Church is out of touch. Well, it’s not out of touch! The Church is the people of God. It’s the hierarchy that’s out of touch with the people of God, and they’ve got to get back in touch. But that’s their problem.

To read Sage Stossel’s interview with Gary Wills in its entirety, click here.


In response to Sullivan’s highlighting of this 4-year-old interview with Garry Wills, an “ex-Catholic” wrote to Sullivan saying:

Garry Wills is a smart guy and Chicago, fortunately for him, is a big city. In 2002, I was serving on the parish council of my neighborhood Catholic Church, and despite the sex scandal, I would have agreed with everything he says in the Atlantic interview. Six years later, the new generation of reactionary bishops is using their power to appoint priests without consulting parishes, to impose rigid liturgical and sacramental standards, and to lock out people who cherish other spiritual values besides obedience and conformity. See, for example, today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In the past six months, the [arch]diocese of Minneapolis/Saint Paul has also eliminated a lay preaching program that brought trained, diverse voices to supplement the preaching of priests – particularly in under served rural areas. In addition, they’ve banned communal services of reconciliation. We expect more of the same when the new, even more conservative bishop-in-waiting takes over in May.

The conclave that Wills had such high hopes for elected Benedict XVI, a gifted teacher who doesn’t appear to have any friends among ideas that emerged after the Counter Reformation. At least for the next few decades, the group of bishops appointed by John Paul II will maintain the outmoded system of seminary education and will allow reactionary leadership to be self-perpetuating. I wonder what Wills would say today about the prospects for change? I suspect the hierarchy will be content to continue losing non-conservative Catholics in the U.S. if they’re replaced by Hispanics; see this week’s Pew survey. Conservative positions on liturgy, faith and morals will make it easier for Benedict to reunify with the Orthodox and the Society of St. Pius X and to compete with Islam in Africa; I don’t think he cares overly much about ecumenism with the Protestant denominations represented by the World Council of Churches or with the Jews, and he appears to see Islam as an adversary.

I’ve been worshiping in an Episcopal parish for the last two years. When my Catholic friends ask me what I would need to see to come back, I usually answer: women at the altars; gays and lesbians worshiping openly with their children in the pews; and everyone gets invited to Communion. Vatican II theology and ecclesiology are alive and well among the Episcopalians, but I don’t expect to see it emerge again in the Catholic Church in my lifetime (I’m 51).

Wow! That’s quite a contention: To be a loyal Catholic is to move to where “Vatican II theology and ecclesiology are alive and well”!

Yet as William Hunt notes in a
previous Wild Reed post, there is more than one type of theology and ecclesiology reflected in the documents of Vatican II.

Maybe it’s time for Vatican III. Or perhaps the
Council of Istanbul!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Uta Ranke-Heinemann on the Future of the Catholic Church
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
Crisis? What Crisis?
Choosing To Stay
The “Underground Church”
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome
What it Means to Be Catholic
To Whom the Future of the Church Belongs


nebrshugyo said...

When I read Gary Wills I respond with a big, fat yawn. So he doesn't like the way the Catholic Church understands itself or runs itself. And, if I read the post correctly, he's been worshiping with the Episcopalians. Well at least he's in good company.

Wills has effectively changed churches. Does he really have anything meaningful to say about Catholicism? No more or less than any well meaning (I assume), non-Catholic critic of the Church.

My antidote for Gary Wills is to re-read Thomas' encounter with the Risen Jesus and apply it to myself. No, that doesn't mean putting up with intolerable behavior, but as we've all seen, definitions of 'intolerable' will differ.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Nebrshugyo,

I see nothing in the post that indicates that Gary Wills "has been worshiping with the Episcopalians."

The "ex-Catholic" who responded to Wills, however, states that he is now attending an Episcopalian church.

Far from making me sleepy, the insights and perspective of Gary Wills awakens me and renews my hope in a living Catholic faith.

The Catholics I know (and yes, we consider ourselves Catholic) find much meaning and affirmation in the writings of Gary Wills.



nebrshugyo said...

I stand corrected - it was indeed the
"ex-Catholic" who responded to Wills who has been worshiping with the Episcopalians, and not Wills himself.