In the dock are Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. If they get a conviction, it is possible, but not certain, that the prosecution will go after a long list of indicted coconspirators. The charges are very serious: disturbing the peace, breach of contract, and, most grave, insurrection against the rightful sovereignty of the People of God. The claim is that the defendants are guilty of having attempted nothing less than a coup. Few trials in recent memory have attracted the enormous public interest surrounding People of God v. Wojtyla and Ratzinger . The prosecution has retained Mr. Garry Wills—adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University and authority on all things Catholic for the New York Review of Books —as lead counsel. It is in many ways a shrewd choice. Wills has a reputation for being quick of tongue and quick of wit, with a rapid delivery of facts and judgments that impresses, sometimes at the risk of intimidating, the less educated.
Mr. Wills reportedly caught the prosecution’s attention when he published two years ago Papal Sin, a book that immediately reached the best seller lists. Now his very long 366-page closing argument for the trial has been leaked in advance and published under the title Why I Am a Catholic. Sources close to the prosecution say that Mr. Wills collaborated in the leak and chose the title himself. If true, it was an astute move. In his closing argument, Wills repeatedly refers to the critics of Papal Sin who accused him of being no true Catholic, or even an enemy of the Church. Knowing that much of his argument could be mistaken for the familiar anti-Catholic, and especially anti-papal, polemic that has been standard fare since the sixteenth century, he takes care in his closing argument to try to establish his Catholic bona fides. The bottom line, so to speak, is that he is certainly more Catholic than the Pope. Whether he succeeds or not in making that case is a question for the defense to explore and the jury to judge. My job is simply to report.
I have read some of the scholarly critiques of Papal Sin , and people who should know say they are pretty devastating. There is, for instance, the distinguished Professor Paul J. Griffiths in the Summer 2001 issue of Logos . He points out that Wills’ book-length attack on what he alleges is “systemic” and “structural” papal mendacity is itself written in the service of mendacity. There Wills wrote: “My book is a tribute, in part, to the honesty that has led so many priests to keep silent under the burden of deceptiveness called for by their superiors—and it is a plea that the weight be removed.” Prof. Griffiths comments: “It seems that the honesty Wills mentions here is the refusal by priests and bishops to teach (or even mention) a goodly proportion of what the Magisterium, both ordinary and extraordinary, asks them to teach. By Wills’ own standards, such an act is an instance of mendacium if it is intended to deceive the faithful about what the Magisterium teaches or about what the priest or bishop in question thinks of it. Commending such an act—offering tribute to it, writing a book to comfort those who engage in it—is, to say the least, an Orwellian move for one whose professed devotion is to the truth-tellers of the Church.”
Griffiths claims that Papal Sin is a diatribe presented under the mask of a scholarly treatise, which is itself deceptive. Moreover, Wills bases his argument on St. Augustine’s definition of lying, which, says Griffiths, Wills misrepresents. Augustine says, “A lie is a false signification ( falsa significatio ) coupled with a desire to deceive ( fallendi voluntas ).” While both elements are essential to Augustine’s understanding of mendacium, of lying, Wills employs only the second, says Griffiths. Perhaps he does so because he, like so many contemporary academics, is uneasy, as Augustine was not, with speaking about what is false or true without putting those words in quotation marks. Griffiths claims that Wills is either ignorant of Augustine’s definition—which seems implausible, since Wills quotes the very text in which it appears—or is again being mendacious.
Truth Is What Succeeds
Other scholars claim to find numerous errors of fact and misrepresentations in Papal Sin , and maybe they are right. But, with due respect to their erudition, it seems to me they miss the point. In Papal Sin, and now in Why I Am a Catholic, Mr. Wills is making the case for the prosecution. His success or failure is determined by the outcome of the trial. As the great Oliver Wendell Holmes taught, truth or falsehood in the law is defined by outcomes. Put differently, law is whatever the court decides; questions of truth and falsehood have nothing to do with it. The scholarly critiques of Wills, however devastating, are in this instance quite irrelevant. His scholarship, however inadequate, is in the service of the prosecution and must be judged in terms of success or failure.
Why I Am a Catholic is a forceful closing argument. Recognizing that some of the jury may share the widespread admiration for John Paul II, Mr. Wills has a kind word or two for him; acknowledging, for instance, that he is in some respects an effective leader, although in a woefully wrong cause. He is downright poisonous, however, in his treatment of Cardinal Ratzinger, whom he treats with utter disdain. I wonder if some of the jurors may be put off by that. However that may be, if they get a conviction, I suspect that at the sentence hearing the prosecution may offer some mitigating words in the case of Wojtyla. Ratzinger can expect no mercy.
The book that contains the closing argument for the prosecution is really three smaller books. The first is an autobiographical reflection on being born and reared a Catholic, and, as I say, is intended to answer critics of Papal Sin and his numerous other writings who say Wills is really not a Catholic, or, given what he believes, should not be a Catholic. It may be a mistake for him to be so prickly and thin-skinned in reacting to his critics, but maybe it will work with the jury. He casts himself as the courageous, thoughtful, truth-telling “Vatican II Catholic” who is a victim of ignorant traditionalists and authoritarian ecclesiastics. Playing the victim card has its risks, as Mr. Wills undoubtedly knows, but it can be effective. In any event, most of this first part recycles what Mr. Wills has written in “Memories of a Catholic Boyhood” and other places. The genre is the familiar one of “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” While being careful not to offend ecumenical sensibilities, Mr. Wills says that, although one might be a member of some other church, such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, or Orthodox, which are somewhat closer to Catholicism than most, it would not be quite the same. The search for a perfect church is futile, he observes, and so one remains a Catholic. “We flawed believers live with our flawed fellow believers, even with flawed brothers like the Pope.” As we shall see, however, the Pope is not simply one more flawed brother.
The second part of the document is basically a somewhat toned down reprise of Papal Sin ‘s ramble through two thousand years of history, demonstrating, in Mr. Wills’ depiction, the nefarious doings of the papacy. That it is a repeat of what he has written before is not said in criticism. A good prosecutor uses and reuses what he thinks is his best material. I will return to Mr. Wills’ historical indictment, but first a word about the specific charges against Wojtyla and Ratzinger, as set forth toward the end of this second part of the book. After the Council, says Wills, Paul VI was a kind of “Hamlet” who lamented that “the times are out of joint” and cursed the fate “that ever I was born to set them right.” “Paul VI seemed to yearn back, beyond the intervening Council, to a more settled time, a kind of blissful status quo ante.” Paul VI was sadly incompetent, but it is very different with Wojtyla. “John Paul was ready to take people back there. O blessed times, when he was born to set them right!” As for his codefendant, “Although Ratzinger cannot openly reject an ecumenical council of the Church, his latter-day program amounts to covert repudiation of it on all its major points.”
I expect the defense will point out the obvious: that both Wojtyla, as a very influential cardinal archbishop, and Ratzinger, as a leading peritus , were actually participant in the Council; they may be expected to understand its meaning, and have consistently affirmed its intentions, which they claim to be advancing. At least in the case of Ratzinger, Mr. Wills is ready for that objection. His answer, which he apparently considers decisive, is that Ratzinger has changed his mind. He was once a liberal and then became a conservative, whereas the younger Mr. Wills was once a conservative and then became a liberal. Wills no doubt hopes that most jurors will share his assumption that the former change is deeply suspect, while the latter is evidence of commendable growth.
An Attempted Coup
Then we come to the full specificity and gravity of the charges against the defendants. The great achievement of Vatican II, according to Wills, is that it dismantled the authority of the hierarchy and located sovereignty in “the people of God.” This is the Settlement of Vatican II that the defendants have been attempting to upset. This is sedition, insurrection, and treason; we are speaking here of capital crimes. Mr. Wills puts it this way: “In fact, the Vatican has attempted a coup, a takeover of the conciliar church it does not like. I use the term ‘coup’ advisedly.” He notes that in the Church, according to the Settlement of Vatican II, the “center of authority is the Spirit, diffused through the people of God.” Yet John Paul and Ratzinger continue to speak of “the Church” teaching this or that, including items that Mr. Wills dismisses as “bizarre,” “simply silly,” or “complete nonsense,” such as the wrongness of contraception, the merits of priestly celibacy, opposition to ordaining women and gays, and the need for laws protecting the unborn. On these and other questions, says Mr. Wills, the governing authority in the Church”i.e., the people of God”does not agree with the defendants. Their efforts are deserving of the harshest judgment. “This is a usurpation of authority,” declares Mr. Wills. “It is an attempt to overthrow the people of God.” And, not incidentally, it is a sin against the Holy Spirit who is “diffused through the people of God.”
No doubt the defense will point out that neither in his text nor his many footnotes does Mr. Wills refer to any of the major documents or actions demonstrating that this pontificate intends to be vigorously advancing the vision of Vatican II. Nowhere is there a mention of, for instance, major encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus , on the moral foundations of liberal democracy, or of Ut Unum Sint , on the Church’s irrevocable commitment to Christian unity, or of Fides et Ratio , on the necessity of a reasoned faith and reason’s faithfulness to truth. Nowhere is there reference to scholarly works such as George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, showing the ways in which this pontificate is carrying forward the mandate of Vatican II. But, assuming that he is familiar with that very extensive literature, why should Mr. Wills refer to it? Those who criticize him on this score fail to understand his task as prosecutor. Why should he do the work of the defense? It is not as though his job is to offer a balanced or impartial or scholarly account. Whether Mr. Wills should press his case in such a relentlessly mean-spirited manner is a different question. The tone of superiority, the sustained sneer, the derisive asides in referring to those who disagree, may put off some jurors. On the other hand, says an experienced court watcher, “people do not expect a prosecutor to be fair-minded.”
Defending the Status Quo
And it must be admitted that Mr. Wills is not always heavy-handed. There is, for instance, a subtlety that may elude some jurors, and I wonder if Mr. Wills is not being just a bit too subtle on this point. He repeatedly says that the defendants are trying to return the Church to the status quo ante. To which, as I say, the defense in its concluding statement will almost certainly contend that the defendants have been, precisely on the basis of Vatican II, trying to better equip the Church for the challenges of the future. What might easily be missed here is the status, so to speak, of the status quo. The status quo, according to Mr. Wills, is the Settlement of Vatican II, the transfer of authority to the sovereign people of God—in a word, “the post-Vatican II Church.” As prosecutor of those who challenge the status quo, Mr. Wills is of course the defender of the status quo. Or at least what he depicts as the status quo. Perhaps he needs to be very subtle on this point since liberals”and he is very much a liberal”do not ordinarily like to be described as defenders of the status quo. At the same time, I expect he is counting on the possibility that most jurors like the status quo of the “post-Vatican II Church” as much as he does.
The reason I think that Mr. Wills, if he gets a conviction, will ask for a mitigated or even suspended sentence for John Paul is that he wants to view the Pope not simply as a weaker brother but, in some sense, as a father. The best way to help the Pope, says Wills, is to oppose him. At one point he writes, “We do not leave a father whenever he proves wrong on something. That is when he needs us. The greatest service one can do for John Paul is to continue baffling his attempted coup.” He must be stopped in his efforts to change the Church, to create “a different church from the one that exists.” The post-Vatican II Church that exists—and Mr. Wills cites opinion polls to support his argument here—disagrees with the Pope on questions of sexual morality, the ordination of women, and other controverted questions. “Furthermore, the number of Catholics having abortions is the same as the number of non-Catholics . . . . The people disagreeing with the Vatican do not consider themselves disloyal or disobedient. They do not feel that they are ‘bad Catholics.’ They continue to go to church and to take communion, without supposing that they must confess their actions or attitudes as sinful . . . . They do not reject authority in general, but recognize an authority at odds, on some points, with the Pope. What is the authority?”
The last question goes to the heart of what is meant by the post-Vatican II Church. Mr. Wills notes with satisfaction that, after the orchestrated rejection of Humanae Vitae in 1968 (the encyclical proposing Paul VI’s “simply silly” ideas on human sexuality), theologians have been free to say whatever they want. “In fact,” he writes, “theologians are not the only ones who now claim the right to think freely. Laypeople, too, feel empowered to form their own opinions and conduct their affairs guided by their conscience—which, again, the Council said should be the norm.” Here, whether or not one agrees with Mr. Wills, one must admire his audacity. He immediately follows that statement with this: “What Newman wrote of them in ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ has been vindicated.” He is taking the risk that the jurors do not know, as he undoubtedly knows very well, that in John Henry Newman’s syllabus of the errors of liberalism (a syllabus of errors more severe than the one drawn up by Pius IX, which Wills so gleefully excoriates), no error is greater than that of “private judgment” in matters of faith and morals.
Newman affirmed, of course, traditional Catholic teaching that one must always act in accord with conscience, insisting also on the other part of that teaching, that it is one’s duty in conscience to have a conscience formed in accord with truth. The source of truth, in turn, is right reason, and revelation as authoritatively expressed in the teaching of the Church. But, as we have seen, for Mr. Wills the revolution of Vatican II means that “the teaching of the Church” is nothing more, nor less, than the opinions formed by “the people of God””i.e., the private judgments of people who say they are Catholics, which judgments are accessible by opinion polls. The breathtaking audacity of Mr. Wills is to attempt to recruit Cardinal Newman in support of his view that matters of faith and morals are to be determined by private judgment. I don’t know if he will succeed in this, but one must give him credit for the boldness of the effort.
I have no idea whether Mr. Wills really believes what he is arguing. The question is whether it will work with the jurors, remembering that truth and falsehood in law is measured by outcomes. Perhaps it will work, since people of our time very much like being told that they should think for themselves, and are attached to the conceit that they do. In any event, my business is simply to report and analyze, not to judge the merits of Mr. Wills’ arguments. I am impressed by his strategy of boldly arguing from authority against authority. It may be too clever by half (in which case it is the business of the defense to exploit the weaknesses), but Mr. Wills repeatedly invokes authorities in defense of the positions that the same authorities explicitly reject. Call it turning things on their head, or call it a canny tactic of co-optation, it is impressive.
A Child of His Times
The authorities most cited by Mr. Wills and, he says, most admired by him are St. Augustine, John Henry Newman, and G. K. Chesterton. We have seen what some scholars make of his use of Augustine, and have considered Newman on the evils of private judgment. (More on Newman later.) In the first part of the book on his Catholic boyhood, and in the third part in which he presents his personal belief system—in both of which he attempts to establish for the jurors his Catholic bona fides—he has interesting, and sometimes moving, things to say about Chesterton’s influence on his thought. But, for purposes of the trial, Chesterton is invoked to most surprising ends.
Chesterton said that he is grateful to Catholicism for saving him from that most degrading state of being a child of his times. In his brief, Mr. Wills is making the argument that his rightness, and the rightness of those in the “post-Vatican II Church,” is demonstrated precisely by their being children of their times. The charge against the defendants is that they are not. John Paul, Wills charges, thinks the times are out of joint. He is obsessed with canonizing saints and encouraging what Wills calls popular “superstitions” such as Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe. (With respect to such matters, one notes in passing, the faithful who share the Pope’s beliefs and practices are apparently not among those who are to be consulted.) Moreover, John Paul is incessantly referring to the “martyrs” under communism and Nazism, and warning against what he irresponsibly calls a “culture of death” with respect to abortion, euthanasia, and other disputed questions. In short, John Paul urges the Church to be countercultural, thus subverting the culture of secular democracy and freedom of choice which Mr. Wills has been retained to defend. As he repeatedly says, it is not the Church that is out of step with John Paul but John Paul who is out of step with the Church. His subversive activity is the very reason for People of God v. Wojtyla and Ratzinger .
Ratzinger is even worse than John Paul. He is not only critical of the times but regularly criticizes the intellectual defenders of the spirit of the times. As one of those defenders, Mr. Wills takes most particular umbrage. He attributes to Ratzinger the view of Cardinal Heenan of England, “Those close to God are untroubled by the winds of academic controversy.” To which Mr. Wills responds, “Obviously, then, those engaged in the academy must be far from God.” There is a self-serving note of personal pique here, and I don’t know how that will play with the jury. Some of them may not share Mr. Wills’ assumption that their academic and intellectual betters who defend the cultural status quo necessarily know better than ordinary people or, for that matter, leaders such as John Paul and Ratzinger. But here, too, that is a risk that he is apparently ready to take.
Needless to say, Mr. Wills is contemptuously dismissive of Ex Corde Ecclesiae , the document urging that teachers of Catholic theology teach what the Church teaches. (It reminds him of “the McCarthyite hunt for Communists.”) Not only is this a gross violation of academic freedom, but it is part and parcel of the Vatican’s attempted “coup” against the Settlement of Vatican II which decreed that the people of God are free to believe and teach whatever they want to believe and teach, understanding that what they believe and teach is articulated by enlightened academics who, in step with the times, think for themselves.
At this point Mr. Wills’ summation takes a turn that may be unnecessarily complicating. He asks, “Which interpretation of Vatican II is the valid one, that of the papacy or that of the people of God?” John Paul and Ratzinger can huff and puff all they want, but the latter interpretation has clearly prevailed, he answers. Although he is a “charismatic figure,” John Paul’s pontificate, measured by the coup he intended, “has been a failure—thank God.” As for Ratzinger, he has become a bore and nobody is paying attention. “The people he attacks are not arguing with (or about) Vatican II. They are living Vatican II.” There are unsubstantiated reports that some on the prosecution team are urging Mr. Wills to drop this part of his argument. If the threat of a coup has been so definitively turned back, if the defendants are no more than two disgruntled old men hopelessly attached to a lost cause, what is the point of the elaborate exercise that is People of God v. Wojtyla and Ratzinger? It seems a valid question. If Mr. Wills is right about their pathetic irrelevance, it would hardly seem worthwhile for a busy academic to bother writing books against them. The danger is past, and everybody should just get on with “living Vatican II.” As I say, the reports are unsubstantiated, and we will have to await the summation to see if Mr. Wills retains this part of his argument.
Mr. Wills’ summation is very long and composed of many parts that, on first reading, may not always fit together very well. Those who have examined it more carefully, however, think they can connect the dots. Father Richard John Neuhaus, for instance, says the Wills argument is marked by a thoroughgoing Erastianism (after Thomas Erastus, the sixteenth-century German-Swiss Protestant theologian). Erastianism is the doctrine that the state or nation should govern in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. Mr. Wills does not use the term Erastianism, but the doctrine does seem to be regnant throughout his argument; it is the thread that ties together what otherwise may appear to be the many disjointed parts. He does not directly criticize the words of Jesus about not rendering to Caesar what belongs to God, but at every point of historical conflict between Caesar and the Church, the story is told in terms favorable to Caesar.
Fr. Neuhaus, who is critical of Erastianism, says it is important to keep in mind that at the center of Mr. Wills’ argument is the contention that the papacy does not represent the Church. The original “papal sin” is the pretense to the contrary. The great battles of history that are usually depicted as conflicts between Church and state are, in this reading, conflicts between the state (or the culture, or the dominant social institutions) and the papacy. The papacy is forever trying to claim, in the name of Christ and the Church, an illegitimate sovereignty within, and even over, the sovereignty of the social order. In other words, in the view of Mr. Wills, it is Caesar who is protecting not only the things of the secular order but also of the spiritual order against attempted usurpation by the papacy or anyone else who would suggest a possible conflict between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. There is only one sovereignty and that is the sovereignty of Caesar—whether exercised by emperors, kings, revolutionary regimes, or by public opinion in a liberal democracy. In Mr. Wills’ Erastian construal of history, the attempted usurpations go far back, with John Paul’s and Ratzinger’s effort being but the last gasp of protest against the new order that should have been settled once and for all by Vatican II.
Consider, for instance, the sixth-century Pope Gelasius. Mr. Wills says the emperor tried to reach a reasonable accommodation with him, but Gelasius responded with a “stunning” letter famously asserting, “Two there are, my august emperor, by which the world is governed as by sovereigns: the consecrated authority of bishops and the power of princes.” Fr. John Courtney Murray, who played a leading role in Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom, called the letter of Gelasius the “magna carta” of religious freedom that set forth the principle of dual sovereignty for the right ordering of the things of Caesar and the things of God. Despite the fact that Mr. Wills later portrays Fr. Murray as one of his heroes, he views the claims of Gelasius as emblematic of the kind of papal power grab that was supposed to have been ended by Vatican II.
And so the story continues. In the eleventh century Investiture Controversy, it is Henry IV who seeks a reasonable accommodation and Pope Gregory VII who is consumed by an unbridled lust for power and is, despite Henry’s temporary humiliation at Canossa, finally and justly defeated. Much the same scenario is played out even when it comes to the French Revolution. There is no mention of the Great Terror. (Mr. Wills reserves the phrase “Reign of Terror” for the title of his chapter relating the sufferings of theologians in the first half of the twentieth century under the papal repression of errors associated with modernism.) About the French Revolution we are told: “The revolutionary regime confiscated the Church’s extensive properties in order to stave off national bankruptcy. In compensation, the clergy were guaranteed generous wages, more for the priests than they were used to, drastically less for bishops—which struck some priests as just about right.” No guillotine, no Madame Lafarge, no Religion of Atheism, no Dialogue of the Carmelites here. Mr. Wills proposes an audaciously revisionist version of Christian history, which some will no doubt find refreshing and others simply implausible.
What happened in sixteenth-century England provides a case in point. To put it briefly, Henry VIII was right and Pope Clement VII was wrong. The Pope should have granted the annulment for which Henry asked. Mr. Wills says, “These favors to kings in need of heirs may have been corrupt, but they were common.” That Henry later declared himself the supreme head of the Church in England, asserting that the Church is “part of the body politic” and the king is head of the body, seems quite reasonable, according to Mr. Wills. Later, when Elizabeth I took the throne, she was nothing if not reasonable. She proposed what became known as the Elizabethan Settlement. But as with all the earlier settlements and, much later, with the Settlement of Vatican II, the papacy was uncooperative. “She sought a via media between Catholic and Anglican tenets and worship while suppressing dissenters like the Puritans,” Wills says. “But the popes (among others) made this impossible.” First there was “the mad Paul IV,” and then the equally intransigent Paul V, both of whom stubbornly insisted that the Church in England must be in communion with Rome, with and under Peter.
Those whom Catholics have traditionally revered as “the English martyrs”—John Fisher, Thomas More, Edmund Campion, et al.—were, says Mr. Wills, rightly condemned as traitors and got what they deserved. Campion and the other Jesuits claimed that theirs was a purely spiritual mission in England, but that is false. “Insofar as they were recalling people to Rome, it was to an authority that told Catholics they should disobey their queen. That sounds like treason in anyone’s language, and the Jesuits died a traitor’s death.” Again, the Erastian doctrine is that there can be but one sovereignty. After all these centuries the papacy, represented by the defendants in the dock, has still not made its peace with that. Rome should have accepted the via media offered by Elizabeth. As we have seen, throughout his brief Mr. Wills invokes John Henry Newman in support of his argument. Newman spent a good deal of his life explaining why a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism is an impossibility—theologically, historically, and politically. That is why he became a Catholic.
Mr. Wills faces a daunting task in persuading the jurors that it is the authentically Catholic position to hold that Henry VIII was right, the English martyrs were justly executed for treason, and John Henry Newman should have remained an Anglican. It is not, to put it delicately, what anyone has meant by the Catholic view of these matters over the last half millennium. Mr. Wills must know that this will not be an easy sell. Perhaps here, too, his colleagues on the prosecution side will urge him to modify his argument. On the other hand, sources close to Mr. Wills say he is determined to go all the way in trying to settle once and for all that the papacy has been the enemy of the Church—meaning the people of God—and that it will be again if the defendants are allowed to get away with their attempted coup.
It will not escape the attention of jurors with a modicum of historical awareness that Mr. Wills makes only passing reference to the First Vatican Council. Its definition of papal infallibility in 1870 is mentioned, and he has much to say about John Paul II’s alleged abuse of the doctrine of infallibility, but the significance of Vatican I with respect to earthly powers receives no attention. With the providential loss of the papal states, and against the rivalries and pressures of nations and princes that for centuries vied to control the papacy, the papacy at Vatican Council I demonstrated its ability to convoke a genuinely transnational assembly that secured the right and ability of the Church to govern itself ( libertas ecclesiae ). It is noteworthy that, after skipping over Vatican Council I, Mr. Wills’ history of the papacy takes a very different turn. No longer is the story that of worldly papal challenges to the sovereignty of Caesar. From here on, the papal story is entirely about its putative oppression (a “Reign of Terror”) of dissident theologians and other advanced thinkers who, says Mr. Wills, were finally vindicated by Vatican II. Caesar is still in play. But he is now not the prince or the nation-state. Rather, he is embodied and his sovereignty is exercised within the Church by theologians and intellectuals speaking for the people of God. The papacy is still up to its old power-grabbing games, but now against a new Caesar.
What the Creed Means to Me
The third part of Why I Am a Catholic is composed of material that Mr. Wills has not published before. It is a more personal statement of what he believes and is intended to explain why, despite all, he really is a Catholic. He begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with the typically Protestant assertion that what matters in being a Christian is one’s personal belief and not one’s connection with, never mind obedience to, a specific community with its distinctive institutions. He says he is somewhat reticent in writing so personally, and in his reflections on the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father he is certainly not trying to impose his beliefs on others. “I am about to give my own reasons for believing the creed . . . . What is at issue, for the moment, is not the truth of the creed but the truth of my own profession of it. I shall try to explain what the creed means to me,” and so forth.
Although some of his critics may deny it, any fair-minded person will recognize that there is much that is insightful, even moving, in this reflection offered in the service of establishing for the jury his bona fides as a Catholic. Establishing such bona fides is, as I said at the outset, crucial. Without that, the defense will have a field day in depicting his entire argument as little more than a latter-day eruption of old-fashioned anti-Catholicism. This final section leaves no doubt that Mr. Wills is a Christian; whether he is a Catholic Christian will, almost certainly, be sharply questioned by the defense. I am told that the prosecution expects that he will be challenged on the article “I believe in the holy catholic Church,” since there is nothing he says there that is not said by many non-Catholics. A nice touch that will no doubt impress some is that Mr. Wills emphasizes that he prays the rosary. What he says, or does not say, about the Real Presence in the Eucharist is of interest. Faith in the “transubstantiation” of the elements is ordinarily taken as a distinctive mark of Catholicism. Mr. Wills writes, “The Eucharist was rightly said not to be merely ‘commemorative’ (though its positive sense was couched in an Aristotelian definition of substance, as if orthodoxy depended on being an Aristotelian).” We are not told what his own very personal view of the Real Presence might be. He says he does not deny the perpetual virginity of Mary, although it has nothing to do with biology, as in virginity. As for the infallibly defined dogma of the assumption of Mary, he says it certainly cannot refer to her actual body, quoting St. Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the reign of God.” Whatever the dogma claims for Mary, “the same must be said of all who die in the Lord.” Catholics may protest that that is not what the Church teaches, but that brings us back full circle to the basic argument over the meaning of “Church.” The Church is the people of God, Mr. Wills is a member of the people of God, and that is what Mr. Wills says the assumption means. Q.E.D.
Papacy Without Power
In this last part of his summation, the jurors may be reassured, and perhaps somewhat surprised, by Mr. Wills’ frequent mention of the importance of the “Petrine ministry” as a symbol, even a sacrament, of unity. I expect, however, that the defense will point out that his Petrine ministry seems to be unrelated to the institution and actual history of the papacy. Or, if it does include the papacy, it is a papacy without popes. The popes, by Mr. Wills’ account, have been agents of disunity, corruption, and authoritarian repression—with the honorable exception of John XXIII, who convoked a council to transfer the authority of the pope and what used to be called the “Magisterium of the Church” to the people of God who, in fact, are the Church. If the defense team are on their toes, they might know a little about the ongoing theological dialogues in which Anglicans and Lutherans are prepared to be more definite about the connection between the Petrine ministry and the papacy than is Mr. Wills, thereby suggesting that he could be an Anglican or Lutheran, if he could bring himself somewhat closer to the Catholic position. But again, my job is not to tell the defense how to conduct its case.
What should come through clearly is that the defendants are not on trial because they are bad men—although Mr. Wills leaves no doubt that he thinks Ratzinger is a bad man. They are on trial because they represent the evil of the papacy and are trying to restore its authority over the Church. This is what he means when he charges that they are guilty of attempting a coup. As he argued at length in the bill of indictment, Papal Sin, and repeats now in his summation, the papacy is inherently and systemically corrupt, repressive, and power hungry. That, we are given to understand, was the judgment of Vatican II, and Wojtyla and Ratzinger are now trying to reverse that judgment.
At points, however, Mr. Wills seems to obscure the clarity of his central argument. For example, he quotes Evelyn Waugh, who, when asked how he could be a Christian and still be such a mean fellow, answered, “Just think how much worse I would be if I were not a Christian.” Wills writes, “In the same way, as bad as the papacy has been all through its history, just think how much worse things would have been without it.” This, coming toward the end of his summation, will, I expect, be a surprise and puzzlement to the jurors. Everything that has gone before suggests the conclusion that things would have been much better if there had never been a papacy. Perhaps aware of the apparent contradiction, Mr. Wills explains that the great contribution of the papacy is that—despite itself, so to speak—it preserved the creed. He says, “The papacy did not formulate the creed containing these truths; but it has been essential in preserving them, while heretics ‘selected’ this or that item from the creed.”
But will not the jurors unavoidably ask how the papacy preserved the creed if not by the exercise of a teaching authority that the prosecution says the papacy does not rightly possess? The earlier popes are condemned—with the honorable exception of John XXIII—and the defendants are in the dock precisely because they disagree with the prosecution on this key point. According to Mr. Wills, those who are “living Vatican II” claim the right to form their own opinions and act according to their own consciences in matters of faith and morals, tolerating no interference by the papacy or Magisterium. Are they not “selecting” what they want to believe, and therefore at least in danger of becoming heretics? Why was the papacy necessary to preserving the creed in the past but is not now? It seems a pity that Mr. Wills does not address these and other questions that are inevitably raised by his argument.
If I may be permitted a brief speculation, it appears he could come up with two possible answers to these puzzlements. He might pursue the line—which is implicit in his summation—that there is a great divide between faith and morals. The papacy can teach authoritatively on matters of faith (the creed) but not on matters of morals (contraception, homosexuality, the legal protection of the unborn, etc.). On the latter questions, the people who are “living Vatican II” are free to make up their own minds and act accordingly. This sharp distinction, even separation, between faith and morals is suggested by his basing his claim that he is a true Catholic, despite his rejection of the teaching of pope and Magisterium, on the fact that he accepts the creed, at least as he interprets it. The difficulty with this line of argument, of course, is that teaching on morals necessarily involves doctrinal and theological claims. Faith and morals cannot be so easily distinguished, never mind separated. The Church’s moral doctrine is doctrine . The authority that teaches on the controverted questions that bother Mr. Wills is the same authority whose teaching, as he says, preserves the creed, the articles of which have been and continue to be much controverted.
An informed source close to the defense points out that, in fact, the Church’s Magisterium does make distinctions in levels of authoritative teaching. Vatican II spoke of a “hierarchy of truths” and this pontificate has employed the image of “the structure of faith” in order to make clear that not every statement made by the Magisterium is de fide , or a matter of faith. These admittedly complex distinctions, however, are not addressed by Mr. Wills. His broadside is aimed at the papal presumption that it possesses the authority to teach in the name of the Church when, after Vatican II, it is understood that the only authority is “the Spirit diffused through the people of God.” At the same time, and somewhat inexplicably, he says we should be grateful for the papacy because it preserves the creed.
I said there were two ways that Mr. Wills might address the puzzlements to which his summation leads. The second way might be to pursue a line somewhat similar to Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis about “the end of history.” Papal teaching authority, however corrupted, was once necessary but is no longer. As for Fukuyama the triumph of liberal democracy marks the end of political history, so the history of the Church has reached its terminus in the people of God, having—to use a favored phrase of some contemporary theologians—“come of age.” Vatican II was for Catholics a rite of passage to adulthood, and the attempted coup of the defendants is in their effort to force people back into childhood and dependence upon the putative authority of the papacy. The papacy”which is not simply the history of sinful popes but is itself, as he says, “a structure of sin””may once have been needed but is no longer tolerable.
This “end of history” argument is implied at points but never made explicit by Mr. Wills. It would require making the case that Catholics today, or maybe people in general, are substantively, even ontologically, different from people in the past, and are no longer susceptible to falling into heresy by “selecting” this or that from the Church’s teaching. In this view, contra Chesterton, we should be grateful to “the Vatican II Church” for conferring upon us that elevated state of being the children of our utterly singular times. But, although it is implicit at points in his summation, Mr. Wills does not develop in detail the “end of history” argument that might serve as one possible answer to the puzzlements mentioned above.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Mr. Wills, unlike many liberal Catholics, does not invest his hopes in “the next pope,” nor does he call for a Vatican Council III to, as it is frequently said, “complete the business” of Vatican II. His argument, if I understand it correctly, is that there is no business for the Magisterium to complete. Put differently, Vatican II put the Magisterium out of business. The Erastian contention is carried through to the end. The papal sin is no longer in trying to usurp the sovereignty of Caesar as represented by princes and nation-states, although that, too, sometimes still happens. The papal sin that chiefly concerns Mr. Wills, however, the papal sin for which the defendants are in the dock, is the attempt to usurp the authority of the new Caesar, namely, the rule of establishment liberalism in the name of the sovereign people of God. That’s the agreement, that’s the deal, that’s the Settlement of Vatican II. That’s the status quo that Mr. Wills for the prosecution is determined to defend.
The case of The People of God v. Wojtyla and Ratzinger drags on and on. No date has been set for the final argument by the defense. A friend of the defendants tells me that the defense may rest its case without making a closing statement. Mr. Wills’ 366-page summation, he says, is so incoherent, so riddled with errors, falsehoods, and contradictions that it is self-refuting. That is probably wishful thinking on the part of an admitted partisan. It assumes that the jurors possess a knowledge of history and Catholic doctrine, along with a taste for reasoned argument, that can hardly be taken for granted. An old court watcher observes, perhaps somewhat cynically, that few cases are lost by overestimating the ignorance of the jury. However the trial proceeds, Mr. Wills already has the satisfaction of knowing that Why I Am a Catholic is selling briskly in book form. Which perhaps suggests that the old court watcher is not so cynical after all.
The New Man at Canterbury
Dr. Rowan Williams is the new Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Dr. George Carey, and there is considerable dispute about whether this is good news, with sides formed along familiar lines. Dr. Williams has supported ordaining the homogenitally active, although, since being named to Canterbury, he says he will support the decision of the Lambeth conference against that course. He apparently sees no theological problem with having women bishops. Some non-Anglicans have a hard time understanding why the latter issue is such a big deal for Anglicans, since they already ordain women as priests. But it is said that women bishops will be the “last straw” for many Anglo-Catholics who will embark for Rome if and when that happens. Anglicanism, however, is the story of last straws beyond numbering.
Then there are those of a more Protestant bent who are accusing Williams of “idolatry” because in a recent book, Praying with Icons of the Virgin , he encourages devotion to the Mother of God. Williams, a former professor of theology at Oxford, has for the last two years been Archbishop of Wales. He speaks Welsh fluently and is the first Welshman to be elevated to Canterbury. In August he was inducted into the Welsh branch of the druids. The London Times reported, “As the sun rises over a circle of Pembrokeshire bluestones, the Archbishop of Wales will don a long white cloak while druids chant a prayer to the ancient god and goddess of the land.” If he is an idolater, it has been observed, he is an equal opportunity idolater. Robyn Lewis, the Archdruid of Wales, defends Williams, explaining that the Welsh druids, as distinct from English groups, “are more a cultural association than a religious group.” Much like the Church of England, some would say.
It is pointed out, however, that since the virtual abolition of abortion law in 1967, Williams has also been a member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. “I know this will surprise some people who see me as a liberal,” he has said, “but I am very worried about the abortion situation.” In Lost Icons (2000) he wrote, “Reversion to a pre-1967 situation would only be attractive, even morally defensible, in the context of a massive reconstruction of attitudes to child care and nurture, to the professional lives of childbearing women, the availability of other forms of fertility control to women, and many other things besides.” It would seem that Dr. Williams will not be advocating anything specific, such as the legal protection of unborn children, in the near future.
The Tablet , a London-based Catholic weekly, hails Dr. Williams’ elevation under the heading “A Prophetic Appointment.” The editor writes, “Catholics in Britain and elsewhere will welcome the new man at Canterbury, while waiting to see how he will build relations with them. Rowan Williams’ concern hitherto has been more with Orthodoxy—a common trend among Anglican intellectuals, who profess to see in Orthodox ecclesiology a reflection of their own. But in Britain a reunited Church is impossible without Rome.” The editor hopes that Williams will act on the theological advances coming out of the Anglican-RC dialogues. With Orthodoxy as much as with Rome, others have observed, obstacles to ecclesial reconciliation may be posed by issues such as women priests, the moral status of homosexuality, and, despite the latitudinarianism of the Archdruid of Wales, other gods and goddesses. The enthusiasm of the Tablet notwithstanding, it is possible that the “prophetic appointment” of Dr. Williams has added substantially to the list of questions to be addressed in ecumenical dialogue.
Robert Jenson of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton examines Dr. Williams’ book On Christian Theology in the Summer 2002 issue of the distinguished journal of theology Pro Ecclesia . He notes Williams offers a kind of meta-theology that is marked by a postmodernist “distrust of closure.” (See my “The End of Endings,” FT, August/September 2001, for an analysis of postmodernism’s closure anxiety.) “According to Williams,” Jenson writes, “we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to ‘the essential questions’; whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and reopening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. Williams wants to lead us along the shifting contours of actual fractured and multivalent religious and theological language, maintaining our consciousness of the variety and tenuousness of its relations to reality beyond it. In particular, he is concerned to enforce theology’s function as critique , and especially as self -critique.”
Jenson acknowledges that “we need to be led on such paths, and Williams is good at it,” but he also has some problems with this approach. He wonders if “the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith.” After all, the confession to which teaching is supposed to lead us begins with “I believe . . . ,” not with “I wonder about . . .” Is it really the proper purpose of dogma and other theology, Jenson asks, “indefinitely to sustain puzzlement?” Thus with respect to the Incarnation, Williams says it is important to “keep the essential questions alive.” This seems to puzzle Professor Jenson, who notes that the fathers at Chalcedon and other early councils “certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions.” Of course, new questions are always arising, but the church fathers “did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings.”
Jenson goes on to express his concern about the ways in which Williams represents a liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often referred to as neo-Protestantism. He writes, “As a general prescription for theology now to be done, neo-Protestant principles surely come a bit late. Of course Anglican theology in general tends to be anachronistic in this way, having missed out on the uproar of the ‘20s and ‘30s [e.g., Karl Barth’s battles with liberalism]. What is disappointing—at least to this reviewer—is that Rowan Williams turns out to be so typical.” An Anglican colleague tells Jenson that Williams is proposing a “mediating” theology that is actually a defense of dogma and theology directed against the antitheological liberals who dominate the Church of England. If that is the case, Jenson concludes, we must hope that Rowan Williams will not “mediate away the store.”
In fairness, one may suggest that Dr. Williams understands that the task of a bishop and that of an academic theologian are quite different. An academic may explore endlessly interesting theories, while a bishop is to teach the faith. There can, after all, be no worthy critique of faith without a faith to critique. In view of his support for disestablishment, Dr. Williams may even inherit from the monarch the title (originally bestowed by the pope) “defender of the faith.” In candor, however, one must recognize that Dr. Williams has been a bishop since 1992, during which time his many writings and public statements provide slight evidence that he understands these different tasks. As Robert Jenson says, it can be a good thing “to keep the essential questions alive,” and many people are determined to do that. But the considerable talents of the new Archbishop of Canterbury will not, we must hope, be devoted to keeping alive the inevitable question of whether the Anglican communion believes, teaches, and confesses much of anything. On that question, Dr. Williams should set aside his “distrust of closure” and lead in providing an unequivocal answer in the affirmative. Such a welcome turn could result in a fresh and bold articulation for our times of what the New Testament calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Pray that Rowan Williams and the communion over which he now presides will surprise us and, in the process, be surprised by the answers that give form and direction to the questions that will not end until, in the words of St. Paul, we know even as we are known. It is the Christian answers that keep alive the questions. Without them, as we should have learned by now, the world will come up with deadly answers of its own.
Sandal Time: A Palpable Change
There is, as of this writing, something of a lull in the storms of crisis that have this year shaken the foundations of the Catholic Church in this country. I offer here no more than an update on a few developments, fully expecting that more extended report and commentary will be required next month.
To say that the foundations have been shaken is not hyperbole. It doesn’t mean that the foundations are cracking, never mind collapsing, but they are under attack from some quarters. In talking with bishops, priests, and lay leaders, and in reading the pertinent commentaries, I am impressed by the deep, almost somber, sense of sobriety that now prevails. In “Scandal Time III” (August/September), I presented what was intended to be a severe critique of what the bishops did at their Dallas meeting in June. Some bishops thought my criticism too severe, and a good many lay people let me know in no uncertain terms that they think the bishops did not go far enough. “Better a hundred innocent priests be removed than that one guilty priest be retained. Due process be damned.” That’s a slight paraphrase of some of the messages I have received.
Priests, on the other hand, tend to be strongly supportive of the critique I offered. This does not surprise. After all, the bishops were the primary object of the criticism; the level of lay outrage about the abuses that caused the scandal can hardly be exaggerated; and priests believe that they are being scapegoated by the policies entailed in Dallas’ mantra of “zero tolerance.” Some of the approximately three hundred priests who have been peremptorily removed are fighting back, either in canonical appeals or through civil courts. It is reported that, in a few cases where bishops publicized unfounded charges, priests are suing for defamation of character. It’s not pretty, but it’s hard to blame them. If followed to the letter, and some bishops seem to think that is what is required of them, Dallas makes a shambles of the trust and care that is supposed to prevail between priests and bishops. “I wouldn’t think of talking to my bishop without a lawyer present,” says a midwestern priest. To which a bishop friend of mine says, “If they’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve nothing to fear.” That is the familiar claim of police states. Moreover, it is not true.
Dallas explicitly voted against the condition that charges be “credible.” Yet bishops are supposed to have a “grace of office” that equips them to make difficult moral and spiritual judgments. Now they trust neither themselves nor the grace bestowed by their ordination. Now they believe they are obliged to traffic in gossip and slander. Or so a literal reading of the Dallas “charter” would suggest. Fortunately, however, while Dallas may propose, realities on the ground frequently dispose. In larger dioceses, so much trash comes in over the transom, much of it incoherent or maliciously fantastical, that bishops cannot avoid making decisions about what is credible, even as they avoid using the word. Policies notwithstanding, common sense persistently intrudes.
Yet, as I write, a priest of my acquaintance awaits word on whether he will be removed from ministry. The bishop received a letter from a party nobody knows who accuses the priest, on the basis of second-hand hearsay, of abusing boys twenty years ago. The priest denies it, the person who the letter writer says told him denies it, no victims or details are given. But, presumably because the writer copied the letter to the D.A.’s office, the bishop says he must act. I know at least three young men who, inspired by the priest’s person and ministry, hope to go to seminary. If he is publicly shamed and removed, we will see what happens to their vocations. In similar instances, such charges have been publicized and priests have been removed from ministry until, as it is said, the matter is officially resolved. If it is decided that the charges are without foundation, the Dallas procedures considerately add, everything possible will be done to restore the good name of the priest in question. In most cases, if not all, that will not be possible. Slander and consequent suspicion leave—to use a phrase once applied to the priesthood in a very different sense—an indelible mark.
A bishop for whom I have great respect tells me, “Of course there will be injustices, but that is part of the price we have to pay. What we have learned this year is that, in attitudes and practice, we were negligent and indifferent and permitted terrible things to happen. We have to be punished.” There is truth in that. But it is not the bishops who are being punished. The failure to discipline their priests in the past is not remedied by failing to care for their priests now, at least to the extent of trying to secure for them a measure of justice and fair play. Their failure to be the bishops they were called to be in the past is not remedied by their failure to be the bishops they are called to be now. And what about the people in their care? Abdication of responsibility and what is tantamount to complicity in defamation and slander are guaranteed to result in the ever greater—if one may employ what now seems a quaint phrase—“scandalizing of the faithful.”
A bishop of a large diocese in the Northeast was pilloried by the media when he said a few months ago, “I am a shepherd, not a cop.” It was perhaps an injudicious statement. A good shepherd may sometimes look like a cop when he wards off the wolves and prevents his wicked assistant shepherds from preying on the sheep. But he does those things precisely because he is a good shepherd. The bishop was right. He is a shepherd. When bishops are perceived, or perceive themselves, more as cop than as shepherd, there is insinuated into the life of the Church a corrosive reign of narrow-eyed suspicion that will in the long term do more damage to the faith and to the faithful than all the scandals exposed this past year.
A Promising Initiative
An official response by Rome to the Dallas actions is expected soon. It is no secret that influential members of the Curia think that the U.S. bishops were panicked into adopting a course that violates both justice and mercy and is, in important respects, incompatible with the Church’s doctrine or discipline. There is also very particular concern about the national review board set up by Dallas and headed by Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma. At stake is the episcopal governance of the Catholic Church in America, and its possible implications for the universal Church. Various lay agitations for “power sharing,” such as the organization calling itself Voice of the Faithful, contribute to a circumstance that is aptly described as a concerted and determined effort to change what Catholic tradition has affirmed as Christ’s will for the apostolic ordering of Church government. In the American context, this is in some ways a replay of the “lay trusteeship” controversy of the nineteenth century.
It is possible, however, that Rome may hold back on an official response to Dallas until it sees what happens to a “Varium” initiated by eight bishops in this country. Their Varium, or proposal, is for the convening of a plenary council. A council of the Church in America has not been held since the late nineteenth century, although such councils have a venerable place in Catholic history, and, under the leadership of figures such as Charles Borromeo, were crucial to the implementation of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The hope is that a plenary council here could do the same for the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. The stated purpose of the proposed council is to solemnly receive and act upon the teaching of Vatican II and its subsequent interpretation by the Magisterium, with special reference to bishops, priests, and the universal call to holiness.
More than a hundred bishops have now signed on to the Varium, at least to the extent of asking that it be considered at the next meeting of the bishops conference in November. To the surprise of many, at the September meeting of the administrative committee of the USCCB the Varium itself was rejected, and in its place was established an ad hoc committee that will offer a report on the proposal in November. There will be more on this in the next issue, but I can say now that I am inclined to view the proposal as one of the most promising developments since the scandals broke last January. At the same time, I am impressed by the number of solid bishops who are wary of the proposal. By solid bishops I mean “John Paul II bishops”—men who have a track record of active support for the vibrant orthodoxy of this pontificate. Among their chief concerns is that the announcement of a plenary council will raise expectations among those who have long pressed for radical change in “the spirit of Vatican II”—changes in sharp conflict with the Magisterium’s.