At least you can say this for Garry Wills—he isn’t afraid to change his mind. Whether that malleability is good or bad depends, I suppose, on your view of his political shift from right to left. As a Jesuit seminarian in the 1950s (he left the Society of Jesus well before ordination), he rebelled against the liberal editorials of the Jesuit opinion weekly America and soon began writing for William Buckley’s flagship conservative periodical National Review and penned a fine study of G.K. Chesterton. But when the Berrigan brothers made opposition to the Vietnam war a cause célèbre for the Catholic left, Wills began a journey that started with Bare Ruined Choirs (a book praising the Berrigans) and concluded with his appointment as the de facto lone Catholic voice on the secular-liberal New York Review of Books, where his articles jostle those by atheist Darwinians and defenders of Roe v. Wade.
While most of his books since his move to that liberal aerie have dealt with American history, he has also joined the culture wars now raging inside the Catholic Church, and very much on the liberal side. This became most evident with his 2000 book Papal Sin, one of several recent books from liberal Catholics trying to argue for their brand of Catholicism by the simple (if vulgar) expedient of beating up on the reputation of Pius XII. But to make that link plausible, from the perceived perfidy of Pius leading more or less directly to the failure of John Paul II to promote the liberal Catholic evangel, Wills also had to set forth his own theology—which was, to put it mildly, incoherent.
In Papal Sin he took the familiar liberal position on contraception and women’s ordination, insisting that the popes after Vatican II thwarted authentic development of doctrine and ignored the voice of the laity. But he also denied that Christ instituted a hierarchical priesthood or meant to set in train any apostolic succession at all. In other words, Rome is wrong not to allow the ordination of women, but Jesus did not institute a priesthood to begin with; the ban on contraception was wrongly decided, but the Church has no magisterial office to rule on that matter anyway. And to add to the confusion, Wills claims to admire two Catholics above all others: St. Augustine and Cardinal Newman, even though Wills’ own pontifications on sex differ entirely from Augustine’s views, and his lucubrations on development bear no resemblance to Newman’s own painstaking historical analysis, which would point out to Wills that false doctrines cannot be said to “develop.”
Enough readers picked up on these blatant contradictions to write Wills to ask why he still considers himself a Catholic, to which his 2002 book, Why I Am a Catholic, was meant to serve as a reply. The book certainly showed that Wills regards himself as an orthodox Christian, for he stoutly insisted there that he holds to the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation as understood by the first six ecumenical councils of the Church. The trouble is that, as several reviewers pointed out, his Catholicism differs here in no way from the High Church wing of Anglicanism. (Newman became a Catholic precisely because he saw that development did not stop with the sixth century.) Furthermore, doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation remain bloodless abstractions when they are not set in the context of the Atonement and Resurrection, on which Wills had little to say. Until now.
In that regard, his latest book, What Jesus Meant, represents a step forward. First, Wills finally comes out with a robust profession of faith in the Resurrection, the linchpin for all other Christian dogmas. Moreover, he takes the portrait of Jesus in the gospels “as is,” without the surgical amputations of late-eighteenth-century Thomas Jefferson or the late-twentieth-century Jesus Seminar (whose two methodologies are uncannily similar, as Wills rightly points out). And best of all, he sees that the gospels must be taken as they have come down to us precisely because of the Resurrection (which for Wills very much includes an empty tomb):
Jesus as a person does not exist outside the gospels and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors’ faith in the Resurrection. . . . The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say. The Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus preached, who is the Jesus resurrected. Belief in his continuing activity in the members of his mystical body is the basis of Christian belief in the gospels.
Wills is even better on the Atonement, a doctrine now widely rejected by liberal Christians because of its alleged reliance on an image of God as patriarchal child-abuser. Alluding to a play by Chesterton called The Surprise, about a puppeteer who was so fond of his marionettes that he prayed they might come alive, Wills deftly explains Chesterton’s plot as a parable for the Atonement. When the puppeteer gets his wish and his marionettes come alive, they begin to bicker and speak their own lines. At this point, the puppet master exclaims to his now-independent characters, “Stop! I’m coming down.” In other words, in Wills’ exegesis, “Now that his creatures have free will, the puppet master can no longer manipulate them from above. He must come down to be with them, to fight for them.”
But larded throughout these insights are others that show that Wills is still trapped inside his incoherent theology, which seems to be animated by a basically elitist crypto-Anglican sensibility. This becomes especially glaring, indeed annoying, when he pits Jesus against Pope Benedict XVI. For despite his defense of the Atonement, Wills actively dissents from Catholic teaching on the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, which he sees only as an anticipatory meal of the Messianic banquet in heaven. This dissent from the Council of Trent means, not surprisingly, that the pope has got it wrong and Jesus got it right:
Why, in the richness of this banquet tradition, would Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, say that it was unworthy to treat the Catholic Mass as a meal? Why would he say that altars should not allow the priest to face his brothers and sisters in Christ as across a dinner table? Why would he say that the priest should turn his back on the congregation and commune only with his God? Why would he say that others should not share in this activity of the priest, who is alone responsible for what occurs? Did he think that Jesus, at the Last Supper, stopped in the course of the meal, stood up, crossed a barrier separating him from his followers, and muttered to God in a language (Latin) neither he nor they understood?
Cute. But again, as with Papal Sin, Wills’ problem with the pope does not center so much on a disagreement with his policies or theology but with the fact that he is a pope at all. For, claims Wills, “the opposite of hierarchy is equality, and Jesus was a radical egalitarian.” The whole superstructure of the Catholic Church is the problem, a form of hierarchical governance that puts the Church in direct and immediate conflict with everything that Jesus stood for:
The gospels are felt as a deep threat to the institutional church. When Saint Francis embodied the radical poverty of the gospel, authorities supported those who would tame the Franciscans and make them conform to more “normal” religious life. Thus the worker priests had to be crushed—by Pope Pius XII. And the base communities were closed—by Pope John Paul II, who took Pius XII as his ideal. Gilbert Chesterton said that Christianity has not failed—it has just never been tried. But when it is tried, it is seen as a threat, just as Jesus was. Churches resist all radicalism—which means that they resist Jesus. They pay lip service to the poor, while distancing themselves from the poor. They do not reflect enough on the obvious—that Jesus wore no gorgeous vestments. He neither owned nor used golden chalices or precious vessels. He had no jeweled ring to be kissed.
These standard, and by now wearisomely clichéd, polemics recall nearly every hoary rhetorical trope of the Puritans. Of course, if Wills wants to become a Puritan, nothing is stopping him—except himself, it would seem. For, most confusingly, his John Knox persona suddenly turns into the reincarnation of Bishop Thomas Crammer, when, not forty pages later, he starts defending the hierarchy, albeit of the Anglican variety: “Pope Benedict XVI,” Wills sneers, “when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in 1998 that it is an infallible teaching of the church that Anglican bishops and priests are fake bishops and priests, dispensing fake sacraments, because they are outside the apostolic succession.” (I guess that means that at least these priests and bishops have been absolved of the sin of wearing gorgeous vestments, owning gold plate and wearing bejeweled episcopal rings. Ecclesiastical pomp is allowed, it would seem, provided one is not in union with Rome.)
One finishes this occasionally illuminating book wondering whether its author is ever going to drop his tiresome pose as a suburban Poverello and take a course in elementary logic. As he should know from his own position as a Catholic professor at a secular university, the two great institutional legacies of the Middle Ages to modern civilization are the Catholic Church and the contemporary university, of which the latter is surely the more rigidly hierarchical: With its politically correct orthodoxies, its hegemonically imposed anti-hegemonic discourse, its salary-mongering, its freedom from taxation (how Constantinian!), its speech codes, its teacher evaluations conducted sub secreto pontificio, its heated debate over the minutest matters, its hair-splitting fights over teaching loads and research assistants (tenure as benefice!), the contemporary university makes the Catholic Church look like a Quaker meeting house. Wills clearly learned to write from these scholastic masters of liberal ideology and incoherent attitudinizing. One wishes he would obey our nation’s Truth in Advertising laws and not claim St. Augustine and Cardinal Newman as his mentors.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.