Wills, of course, is the author of a number of acclaimed books, including 2000’s Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, a “blistering, best-selling polemic against what [Will’s] described as systemic papal dishonesty and inflated papal power.”
Allen begins his piece on Wills by noting that during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. last April, Wills “spurned requests for comment from every major TV network, as well as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.”
Wills, writes Allen, “offers a simple motive for his reticence: ‘I’m poped out. I’ve had my say, and I have no desire to say more. . . . Popes don’t interest me very much.’”
Following are excerpts from those parts of Allen’s interview with Wills that focus on Wills’ theological journey and the impact of his book Papal Sin.
“Poped Out” Wills Seeks
By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
November 28, 2008
“Poped Out” Wills Seeks
By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
November 28, 2008
. . . In the wake of Papal Sin, fans and critics alike tended to style Wills as a new guru of the Catholic left, a sort of Noam Chomsky for the Call to Action set. In truth, he is both less and more. Less, in that Wills has no interest in leading a reform campaign in Catholicism, since doing so would imply investment in an institution he regards as irrelevant and dull; more, in that Wills is hardly just a “Catholic writer,” but one of America’s most distinguished nonfiction writers, period, whose horizons are far broader than the church.
Wills’ remarkable life and career thus reflect several realities of U.S. Catholic life: the emancipation of American Catholics from their pre-Vatican II ghetto into the full light of secular accomplishment and acclaim; the post-Vatican II option of many liberal Catholics for political and social crusades rather than internal church concerns; and the consequent quandary of the Catholic left, which is that its best and brightest often don’t care enough about the institutional church to stand and fight.
. . . There’s never been any doubt about his erudition. Wills is the kind of guy who, as a young man, when asked if he was a conservative, would reply, “No, I’m a distributist.” (To save traffic on the Wikipedia Web site, distributism is a political theory associated with the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and 19th-century papal social teaching. It posits that ownership of the means of production should be widely distributed among the population, rather than controlled by the state, as in communism, or by financial elites, as in capitalism. Its model is the medieval guild system. Not coincidentally, Wills’ first book was on Chesterton, and he remains for Wills an enormous influence.)
Today Wills is regarded as America’s premier presidential historian, with acclaimed studies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Kennedy and Nixon. His Pulitzer Prize came for the 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which is routinely assigned at major American universities as mandatory reading for incoming freshmen.
Wills is also an accomplished expert on antiquity. His doctorate from Yale was in the classics, and in 1999 he published a powerful biography of St. Augustine. This fall, he’s bringing out a new translation of the Latin epigrams of Martial – typically, it’s a project he pursued largely as a way to unwind. He’s also set to publish a small book, based on a lecture at the Smithsonian, entirely devoted to one fairly obscure 19th-century American painting: Thomas Eakins’ “William Rush Carving the Allegory of the Schuylkill River.”
Yet this consummate intellectual is also one of the country’s most acclaimed reporters, with a keen eye for detail and a knack for being where the action is.
Wills’ 1969 tour de force Nixon Agonistes, for example, managed to blend deep questions of political theory with on-the-spot color from Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, much of which rivals the best of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s later account of Nixon’s ’72 re-election bid, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, for both insight and comic relief.
Wills famously began his journalistic career as a right-wing protégé of fellow Yalie William F. Buckley Jr. at the National Review. During a subsequent stint as a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter in the paper’s early years, he was considered the “token conservative” on the opinion page. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, however, Wills moved steadily to the left, driven by the experience of covering the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests.
No matter where Wills stood on the ideological spectrum, his writing in venues such as Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post and New York magazine always turned heads. Over time, he entered that select circle of journalists who are almost as much a celebrity as the people they cover.
In Catholic terms, Wills is a classic case of a local boy who made good. He emerged from the cocoon of preconciliar ghetto Catholicism in the United States, and took the secular world by storm.
He was born in Atlanta in 1934, but spent most of his youth in Adrian, Mich., where he attended schools run by the famed Adrian Dominican sisters. He recalls inscribing “JMJ” on his schoolwork, saying “Hail Marys” before free throws, and cultivating devotion to the Infant of Prague. Looking back from the perspective of the early 1970s, Wills would write: “It was a ghetto, but not a bad ghetto to grow up in.”
The experience obviously left its mark. To this day, Wills says he has never seriously questioned his Catholic faith. He is a weekly Mass-goer at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, and prays the rosary every day. (“I haven’t got that many ways to pray that I can afford to lose the one that comes most easily,” he said with a laugh.) Although he parts company with church teaching on papal infallibility, abortion and transubstantiation, he’s perfectly comfortable with the Nicene Creed: “I stick with the basics,” Wills said.
. . . [W]hen he turned to Papal Sin, it was not a book he particularly wanted to write. Instead, he said, it came out of a feeling of obligation.
“I had known very intelligent, conscientious priests who had a big influence on me, and I felt that their views were not being reflected in the general discussion of the church,” Wills said.
“That was true of a lot of people I knew. I have friends who are ex-seminarians, as I am, and a number of them have drifted away from the church. The Sheil Center, where I go to Mass, is full of people who are totally disaffected from the hierarchy, but who still believe and still go to church.”
One measure of a book’s impact is the level of vituperation it arouses, and by that standard, few Catholic titles in recent memory have proved quite as provocative as Papal Sin. Writing in First Things, Jesuit critic Edwin Oakes termed Wills a tiresome “suburban Poverello,” in need of a course in elementary logic. Not to be outdone, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus accused Wills of being a “cultural Erastian,” meaning, roughly, that whenever there’s a tension between liberal democracy and Roman Catholicism, in Wills’ mind it’s always liberal democracy that should prevail.
(On this score, Wills is happy to concede: “I like liberal democracy, there’s no doubt about that,” he said, arguing that so does Catholic tradition. In the councils of the early church, Wills insists, matters were settled on a “one man, one vote” basis.)
Some eight years after Papal Sin first appeared, conservatives still seem to be smarting, though they usually strike a note of regret rather than rage.
“He seems to live in a world that’s ‘forever 1968,’ and that means he’s missed a lot of what’s been evangelically exciting and fresh about the last 40 years, including the greatness of John Paul II,” George Weigel told NCR. “That’s a sadness, both for the U.S. Catholic debate and for American culture.”
In the wake of the book, Wills said he found that Catholic colleges are no longer as eager to offer him honorary degrees as they once were. Beyond that, Wills said, officialdom has precious little other leverage to employ, since he is neither a priest nor an employee of a Catholic institution.
If he had it to do over again, Wills said he might be more sensitive to Papal Sin’s argumentative tone. In the main, however, he’s been gratified by how Catholics responded.
“It comforted a lot of people who think the same things I think, and who worried that maybe they’re not a good Catholic after all,” Wills said. “I gave them encouragement, which is the nicest thing that came out of those two books,” referring to Papal Sin and his 2002 follow-up, Why I Am a Catholic.
. . . When Papal Sin appeared, many Catholic liberals thought they had found their Moses, a long-sought progressive alternative to a perceived conservative monopoly on Catholic “spin.” In a February 2003 piece in Commentary, British journalist Daniel Johnson even supplied the appropriate taxonomy, suggesting that American Catholicism can be divided into “Weigel Catholics” and “Wills Catholics.”
What those reactions failed to appreciate, however, is that Wills never saw himself that way.
“I never meant to try to bring about change [in the church], because that’s not my business,” Wills said. “I’m Catholic, always have been, but I’m not running for any particular Catholic status. I just practice my faith.”
If pressed, Wills expresses basic confidence that the church will eventually move in the direction he’s outlined: “After all, more people agree with my position than with the pope’s on a lot of these things,” he said. He scoffs at suggestions that Pope John Paul II revitalized institutional Catholicism: “If he were all that popular, wouldn’t more young men want to be like him? Wouldn’t there be no priest shortage?”
Yet Wills has no ambition to be the one who moves things along. Wills is emphatic that he has no inclination – “none, zero” – to serve as a spokesperson for dissidents in the church. Aside, perhaps, from a study of the Book of Revelation to complement his titles on the Gospels and on St. Paul, Wills said he has no intention of writing anything more on Catholic topics. Even the prospect of a study of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, holds no appeal.
When asked if he would be tempted to accept should Pope Benedict XVI himself offer to sit down for an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview, Wills doesn’t hesitate to say no. Yet if opera singer Natalie Dessay were to dangle the same invitation, Wills said, “I’d do it in a shot.”
So it goes with Wills, whose mastery of the Catholic past at times seems rivaled only by his disinterest in its present.
To read John Allen Jr’s profile on Garry Wills in its entirety, click here.
For more of Garry Wills at The Wild Reed, see the previous posts:
The Loyal Catholic in Changing Times
“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
The “Underground Church”
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
Our Progressive Catholic Youth
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Who Gets to Called Catholic – and Why?
Image: Associated Press photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.