Garry Wills: a devout critic

Garry Wills: a devout critic
(Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

A political conservative turned liberal, lifelong Roman Catholic and world-class curmudgeon, Garry Wills has called President Barack Obama a disappointment and Pope Benedict XVI irrelevant — and that was before the pontiff announced his resignation.

In his latest book, "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition," the former seminarian turned historian goes after priests.


But hey, it's just history. Nothing personal.

"I have nothing against priests," Wills says at the start of the book, ticking off the names of mentors, most of them Jesuits. "In fact, I tried for a time to be one. ... It should be clear, then, that I respect, and am often fond of, the many priests in my life."


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Wills has written nearly 50 works exploring a wide range of historical figures, including James Madison, Richard Nixon, Jack Ruby, St. Augustine and John Wayne. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America." Now at 78, challenging modern-day interpretations of his own church's teachings has become his trademark.

"Popes don't pay attention to me because I'm not a priest, and I didn't teach in a Catholic institution," Wills said in his characteristic acerbic tone, in an interview. "If I had done either of those things I would be in trouble with the church. But they can just shrug me off."

In "Why Priests?" Wills asks why a dependence on the priesthood arose in a religious tradition that didn't need it and, in fact, succeeded wildly without it during the time of Peter and Paul.


For the reform-minded, Wills articulates a call for change. But he doesn't want any part of the reform effort. He is quite content doing his own thing, worshipping in what he deems a historically accurate way and writing and writing and writing. So, one might ask, how did he become such an icon among liberal Catholic intelligentsia? In other words, why Garry Wills?

"He's not a theologian, representing the official Catholic view. He expresses views Catholics are discussing," said the Rev. Ken Simpson, Wills' former pastor at Northwestern University's Sheil Catholic Center, where Wills has worshiped for 32 years. "He speaks to views many Catholics have and captures what they're thinking."


Sitting on the couch inside the Sheil Center one recent snowy afternoon, a cane within easy reach, Wills talked about the journey that led him to his most recent book.

"This has been gestating for a long time," he said.

Wills wasn't always fond of priests, describing his childhood priest in Adrian, Mich., as "an ogre, an Irish tyrant." But the ordained and aspiring Jesuit priests who ran his high school set a different example, introducing students to the classics, music, theater and debate. It was also in high school that Wills discovered "The Confessions of St. Augustine," an autobiography written in the fourth century that examines the saint's conversion to Christianity. It was the Jesuits and St. Augustine, not the ogre, who inspired Wills to pursue a path to the priesthood.

It didn't take long for Wills to grow incredulous of the rules that governed seminary life and the lengths administrators would go to to get around them. For example, when secular books were forbidden during the first two years, author G.K. Chesterton and poet William Wordsworth were granted exceptions with a wink and a nod. Wills also wasn't permitted to get published himself.

After more than five years, a pile of unpublished articles and a severe bout of depression, the prospect of celibacy finally drove Wills to drop out. While pursuing a doctorate in the classics from Yale University, he wrote his first book on Chesterton, whose accounts of overcoming suicidal thoughts and depression had heartened young Wills.

While in graduate school, he also launched a career as a journalist, working alongside the late conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who founded National Review. The two went separate ways when Wills' coverage of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration steered him toward the left.

In 1957, flight attendant Natalie Cavallo plopped down in the seat next to Wills to tell him he was too young to be reading "The Two Sources of Morality" by French philosopher Henri Bergson. Fresh out of seminary, he failed to get her number. But the journalist in him tracked her down. They married two years later, raising three children in Baltimore, where he worked at Johns Hopkins University. They moved to Evanston in 1980 when Wills secured a post at Northwestern, where he earned tenure.

But tenure had a price, he said. The administrative duties and academic politics took time away from his writing. After chairing a hiring committee and finding his preferred candidate rejected for political reasons, he cast off tenure and started another book. Northwestern honored him by restoring his tenure in 2005. He continued to teach for a few more years during retirement, but no longer does.

Ed Muir, a professor of Italian social and cultural history and the Renaissance at Northwestern, said he always has admired Wills' focus and uncommon courage.

"He cut a deal because of his fame," Muir said, adding that colleagues understood why. "The first thing to know about him is he's an amazing polymath. … We might envy him in the sense that he's got this freedom. But he established a real intellectual presence on campus."

Muir said Wills' political conversion and Catholic devotion, despite doubts, set Wills apart from much of humanity.

"He's unafraid of anything," Muir said. "Here's a man who started out as a conservative and switched because he'd seen something intellectually wrong with the Nixon administration. That's uncommon. You see that in his criticism of the (Catholic) hierarchy."


Wills' first book on the Catholic Church, launched by Buckley and published in 1964, analyzed and explained why papal encyclicals had no binding authority on American Catholics in the political sphere. He revealed his misgivings about the church in 1972 when he published "Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion." But the world took more notice in 2000 when he published "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit."

He followed that two years later with "Why I Am a Catholic" in answer to the many critics who pounced on his scathing critique of the papacy.

He ascribes to everything in the Apostles' Creed — the Trinity, resurrection and saints. He prays the rosary daily and attends Mass weekly. But he doesn't believe in papal supremacy — an idea introduced to him by St. Augustine. He rejects transubstantiation, the doctrine that consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. The Eucharist, he believes, is an opportunity for the body of Christ, or community, to gather at the table.

He also believes the only sacrament grounded in the gospel is baptism. The aforementioned Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, reconciliation and anointing of the sick commemorate milestones and the power of community but hold no sacramental value and don't require a priest, in his view. Holy Orders, one of the seven sacraments, shouldn't exist at all, he says.

With all of that in mind, whether he's still a Catholic depends on whom you ask and whether they're willing to answer.

Cardinal Francis George wouldn't comment directly; he would only say through his spokeswoman that "anyone who has abandoned the faith should not claim to be Catholic."

Wills knows the cardinal is referring to his support of abortion rights and rejection of papal supremacy and transubstantiation.

"At least he knows the right things to condemn," Wills said with a snigger.

Conservative author George Weigel also wouldn't go there.

"Garry Wills is a tragic figure: so much intelligence, so much learning, and so little understanding of the past 50 years of Catholic history," Weigel said. "Why Dr. Wills thinks turning Catholics into Unitarians is the path toward a more robust, Gospel-centered Christian future is beyond my imagining."

Weigel said his own new book, "Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church" "actually has something to do with the real-world Catholic future."


But not all self-proclaimed Catholics are necessarily equal. Some church pundits even talk about "Weigel Catholics" and "Wills Catholics."

Wills believes his latest book offers a solution for the real-world Catholic future. It took a while for Wills to question the need for priests — until now.

After analyzing Paul's Letter to the Hebrews, an anonymous text that the historian points out wasn't written by the Apostle Paul or to the Hebrews and got added to the canon later, Wills concludes that the priesthood is nothing but another invention by the church to seize and wield power over its parishioners.

Priests have since claimed a monopoly on the sacraments and spiritual graces, Wills says. But he also contends that monopoly has backfired. The recent priest shortage has created a so-called crisis that wouldn't exist if the church conceded that priests aren't necessary in the first place.

"Some think the clerical shortage will be solved by recruiting new people for the priesthood — married priests, women priests, gay priests," Wills said. "When we run out of everyone else, will we start ordaining child priests? Anything, to keep the sacrificing priesthood? What we really need are no priests."


Simpson, Wills' former pastor, hasn't read the book but doesn't take offense. He declined to answer whether Wills is a Catholic.


"Individuals have to reconcile where they are with what the church teaches," the priest said.

But Wills has surprised him and others by defending the church at unexpected moments. People tend to get caught up in present-day controversies and forget about the church's long tradition of overcoming challenges, Simpson said. Yet there's Wills, standing in the vestibule after Mass, to remind them.

"There's so much to being a Catholic," Simpson said. "Understanding what Catholicism is about, no one can know it all or embrace it all in a moment. You do it as a matter of faith. Some things you connect to one day more than any other. There's a richness in hanging in there. That's in the bones."

Manya Brachear has covered religion for the Chicago Tribune since June 2003.

Why Priests?

By Garry Wills, Viking, 302 pages, $27.95


Wills will speak at 6 p.m. Feb. 19, at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. Visit for details.