Garry Wills is a bonafide intellectual, with a lot of prestigious book awards as proof --- but don't let that scare you off. There are no long passages here in other languages without translation, and no footnotes to stumble over - though, if you're interested in reading further and knowing sources, there are endnotes, plus an index for ease of later reference. But mainly there's a lot of the same clear writing and passionate belief in his subject that won Mr. Wills those awards, like a Pulitzer and a couple from National Book Critics, and the National Medal for the Humanities (1998).
I first became aware of Garry Wills when I read BARE RUINED CHOIRS back in the early 1970s. I read (and write) mostly fiction, and I admit I was drawn to that title because I'm a certifiable Gothic nut. But no matter what attracted me, I stayed with the book and have always been glad I did. A couple of years ago I read PAPAL SIN, which, as Wills says in his introduction, directly inspired the writing of WHY I AM A CATHOLIC. The present book stands very well on its own, and you don't have to be a practicing Catholic to appreciate it. The book gives to its reader on a lot of different levels, depending on what experience you bring to your reading, and what you want to get back.
In a first and perhaps too brief section, Mr. Wills gives a barefaced, affecting account of growing up Catholic in a working-class family, going to Catholic schools and being taught by nuns and priests, of what happens and doesn't happen when you're a really smart kid who thinks maybe too much. His memories are sharp, poignant, and evocative of a time not long ago, yet now gone forever. (Confession: I'm about a decade behind him in age, and my eyes were moist more than once with remembering things like how we girls in the choir used to play canasta behind the organ during certain long sections of the solemn high masses of Holy Week.)
Given that he skipped a grade of elementary school, Garry Wills couldn't have been much more than 17 when, in the early 1950s, he graduated high school and went immediately into the novitiate at a Jesuit Seminary. There he had difficulties, which he tells with courage and candor. He lets us see how the problems of his early years gave rise to the man he became. Certain themes, and the admiration of certain men and their minds (Chesterton, Augustine, Aquinas), began then and have been worked, reworked, refined into the vision he presents later in this book --- and in fact, in all his books.
The middle section of WHY I AM A CATHOLIC is the book's longest and most scholarly. The material is essentially the same as in PAPAL SIN, yet it is presented differently. As fascinating as it is to have read the earlier book too, I think the presentation here is more meaningful in some ways. Wills spells out the history of the errors of the papacy --- including the whole "I say to thee thou art Peter and upon this rock" thing. Wills wants us to understand that the papacy is not the Church. Popes do make mistakes (gross understatement). You can be a good Catholic and disagree with what's coming out of Rome; in fact, you might be a better Catholic for having reasoned out for yourself, and for having expressed your disagreement, in whatever way you chose. You could even write a couple of books about how you disagree, yet still go to Mass every week and say the rosary every day --- as Wills himself does.
The concluding section, an analysis and defense of The Credo, AKA the Creed, AKA the Apostles' Creed, I thought was something of a letdown. I believe my reaction was a personal one --- even though when I'm reviewing a book, I try to read more objectively than I otherwise might. But WHY I AM A CATHOLIC had become personal to me by that point, I can't deny it. I cared, I was examining myself and my own vacillations and permutations of faith, I was taking it all to heart. Other readers may find this third section to be, as Wills appears to have intended, a natural, moving, affirming outgrowth of the previous two.
Originally scheduled for publication about now, WHY I AM A CATHOLIC was moved up to mid-July 2002 because of the conference of Catholic bishops called in the United States for that same time --- the conference that developed groundbreaking policy for dealing with priests accused of sex abuse of minors. In October, the Vatican (i.e., the papacy) refused to accept the recommendations of the United States bishops. That news was pretty much obscured by The Sniper and Bush vs. Saddam, but I'm sure Garry Wills noticed.
I'm equally sure he was not surprised that the Vatican refused to accept the decision of the US bishops. He's disappointed, maybe, but he will still be a Catholic. His passion for his faith is a bright light, one that illuminates and does not blind.
--- Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day
Mr. Wills, I did not buy your new book "Why I Am a Catholic" for the reason you said you wrote it -- to get the explanation for how one could write all the criticisms of the papacy and the Church hierarchy's misdeeds, publish them to the public in "Papal Sin," and still remain a Catholic -- without looking "nutty."
My main purpose is to educate myself so I can lend a helping hand to my Catholic brothers and sisters in finding the root cause of their recent troubles -- which I think I have an insight into that no one else has yet to even approach -- and then help them formulate a solution. But first I had to find a missing piece to the puzzle of who and what the Church really is today -- and that piece was the laity. We had all heard from every segment of the Church and some lay action groups, but not from the majority of the laity, those in the pews. Then suddenly, there you were -- intelligent, well informed, even better spoken, and claiming to represent that majority of American Catholics living their faith under Vatican II. Now the full picture emerges and we can hope to see all those who, by the privileges they claim to equally share, must share equally in the responsibilities for what happened and for shaping remedies.
Whether you are a strong supporter of John Paul II, or his "loyal opposition,"is not really a critical factor in the recent troubles, as I see it. But since the audio of an interview with you posted on the NYT Web site and a review in The New Yorker promised a detailed confession of the American Catholic faith held by a majority of its laity, I felt it worth the time and money to have a look.
I admit that I have been wondering all these years how certain Americans have been rationalizing calling themselves "good" or "faithful" Catholics while seeming to pick and choose which teachings from Rome they would follow and which they wouldn't. Your book gives a full explanation of that and I find the mindset quite interesting. Catholics who are conflicted over such behavior of their own might find some real help in these pages. For with a historian's expertise you review thoroughly the formation of the papacy through the ages, give a blow-by-blow account of the meetings of Vatican II, and even expose some interesting facts about how miracles and the canonization of saints are processed in the front office. The end result is that the laity should not be dictated to, but have an equal voice in the run of things. You prove adequately that the Church is "the people of God," not just the pope. But I don't think you prove that he is nothing more than a useful, unifying symbol. And that, I think, represents the incredible blind spot your book appears to have.
I also admit I sometimes enjoy your style and wit as you skewer so much of an organization I left over thirty-five years ago, after having my own experience at the loving hands of some sweet and wonderful Dominican nuns and priests (I sincerely mean that), and being a "faithful" altar boy. I also hoped to compare notes, so to speak. But I was disappointed you don't open yourself up as I had expected -- mostly seeming to conceal yourself behind the authority of your favorite authors St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and others -- producing what strikes me as a much-too-long and tedious academician's dissertation for other academicians, while leaving out what I will call the simple truth of your personal convictions, especially those things you have come to know and believe on your own. For example, though you appear to take us through the specifics of your days in the seminary and how you left it, I still don't understand what was in your heart and soul that prevented you from becoming a Jesuit priest.
And I really would like to hear you explain exactly what you meant by that snippy little remark about Teilhard de Chardin, who you say impressed you "as a vaporous diluter of the Gospels' challenge." You went on and on about everything else, how about a few lines on the subject of what the Gospels' challenge is, or what it means to vaporously dilute them?
Mostly I was disappointed that instead of giving the logic of how the Apostles Creed embodies the reason you are a Catholic, you gave a traditional treatise on its underlying doctrines and launched into a completely impersonal, again, academic mode of defending and proving them. Nothing in those chapters really tells me why you are a Catholic.
In summary, your book has a vast amount of material and invaluable perspectives that someone might be able to use some day to change the Church in the direction you'd like to see it go. But I suspect that your way of focusing so much on the negative, without adding the balance of a more charitable consideration of your Catholic colleagues, without seeking to find and give credit where credit is due, will cause more division than unity, and make those changes less likely to happen. I've got one major example from Chapter 24, of the beam in your own eye preventing you from taking the beam from your brother's eye, but I'm out of space.
Let it suffice to suggest you consider the words of Pope John XXIII in his opening address to the Vatican II Council, then ask yourself if you honestly believe he would perceive your work as contributing to the fulfilment of his vision that sought " . . . the unity of Catholics among themselves, which must always be kept exemplary and most firm."