Garry Wills was shocked. After the publication of his best-selling book Papal Sin , which documents recent papal shortcomings, Wills not only received the expected letters from angry Catholics demanding he leave the Church, but he also received letters from confused Catholics interested in how to remain faithful despite a flawed Church authority. Readers, it seemed, weren’t content with the Vatican but worried about being critical. Could they be critical? They asked for Wills’ insight.
Why I Am A Catholic is Wills’ response. It’s a three-pronged discussion that acts as both a memoir and follow up to Papal Sin . Wills reminisces about his Catholic upbringing, offers a papal history lesson, and leads a meditation on the Apostle’s Creed, the anchor of his faith. While each section is distinct and can be read without the others, it’s clear that Wills�a former Jesuit seminarian and current Northwestern University history professor�felt it necessary to describe his love for the Church before guiding readers through a somewhat unflattering treatise on the popes who’ve claimed to lead her.
The history’s amazing�a 240-page tornado trip through 2000 years of papal intrigue: simony, forgery, sex, bastard children, dementia, politics, anti-Semitism, heresy, war, murder, lies, and all-round corruption. It should remind Church conservatives, some of whom attacked Papal Sin with the claim that true Catholics don’t question the papacy, that the popes haven’t always been worthy of respect.
Wills finds such devotion to the papacy odd. According to his research, the bishops of Rome wielded little influence and less power (except in Rome) for most of the first Christian millennium. At the time, Christ’s Church was rooted in the East and Rome was important because it was where both Peter and Paul died.
It’s a fascinating read�one that demands readers understand the difference between loving the Church and being blindly loyal to the pope. The Church, Wills writes, as defined by Vatican II as the “people of God”, is good and worthy. The papacy is a necessary uniting force but isn’t identical to the Church and is open to scrutiny. In fact, Wills believes a good Catholic should mind the papacy. After all, what kind of a child allows her mother to walk off a cliff unawares?
Oddly, the two sections of the book I found taxing were Wills’ personal entries. His biography is interesting but, even at 30 pages, is too long and not a good hook into the rest of the book. His meditation on the Apostles’ Creed , a brief chapter at the book’s end, was also interesting but was a hard letdown after the sick thrill of papal corruption�sort of like surviving a train wreck and then being asked to sit still. My suggestion is to read these chapters on their own after reading the introduction and devouring the Catholic history.
Which, of course, is the highlight of Why I Am A Catholic . Wills’ sharp writing and solid facts provide great insight into the row over Church authority�from Peter’s weak personality to John Paul II’s questionable stands on morality. In short, Wills asks his audience to look at his love for the Church, study the crimes of her leaders, and draw their own conclusions. Can the faithful dissent? Why am I Catholic? Why�my God, how�did the great mass of us in the Catholic Church ever get this far anyway?