Garry Wills and a Church Too Far


John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, religion, and politics. He holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin, where his major field was American intellectual history. Mr. Willingham can be reached at

In the May 27 issue of The New Republic, the eminent historian and classicist Garry Wills has an article entitled “Forgive Not,” with the subtitle “A Catholic’s struggle with the sins of his church.” 

Four days earlier, Martin Gardner died in Norman, Oklahoma, at the age of 95.  Gardner, accurately called a “polymath,” admired Wills greatly but found his writing on the Catholic Church to be “mysterious and strange.”  If Gardner had lived to read the article in The New Republic, he might have found further evidence for his view.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Wills’ famous book Papal Sin, a history of papal maneuvering, not his first but probably his most famous criticism of the “structures of deceit” employed by the papacy to maintain an authoritarian and reactionary role in the Catholic Church. 

Gardner wrote a widely-read review of Papal Sin in the Los Angeles Times (August 6, 2000), giving Wills due credit for his style and erudition, but in the end asking what doctrines Wills could still embrace in the Church he had criticized so harshly.  “I would wonder why he does not walk out of the church and declare himself a liberal Protestant or a philosophical theist,” Gardner wrote, himself a member of the latter group.  “This is the mystery and strangeness that hovers like a gray fog over everything he has written about his faith.”

What was true in 2000 is even truer now.  In his article Wills does not forgive the Church’s pedophiles, and he condemns those who have tried to shield them in the name of clerical authority or solidarity against “the world.”  But he continues to argue that the Church is not the papacy; it is instead “the people of God,” the parishioners who persist in spite of papal “sin.” 

This fading hope of Vatican II, that the people are the Church, now seems far removed from the actions of the Church since then, and especially in the last ten years when the Church’s people have too often become its victims.  So now it seems more likely that Wills enters Gardner’s “gray fog,” in asking, yet again, that disillusioned Catholics “[s]tay with us, we need you.  The people of God need you.”  Sadly, and for me this is a personal sadness, the Church is now more of a shell for its dogma than it is a place for worship, a castle for its own authority rather than a spiritual home for its people.

Worst of all, it has become a Church so far from its people that many, perhaps most, must now sacrifice their deepest convictions in order to be in it.  Garry Wills is a good and brilliant man, but he asks too much of the people of the Church to continue as a part of it after the repeated abuses of children.  What path would yield major reform in one lifetime, two lifetimes, or even generations of lives?  As Wills writes, the Church “tolerated when it did not encourage—until the 1960s!—the idea that the Jewish people were guilty of deicide.”  How long, then, would the Church take to change not only one of its controversial positions but its consistent antagonism toward history, and toward the real world its people must inhabit day after day?

Wills refers to the Church’s “ahistorical and medieval roots” as a reason for the papacy’s repeated opposition to social change, from Galileo to evolution, from Pius IX’s condemnations of democracy to Pius XII’s repudiation of birth control.  He argues that there is no biblical basis either for male celibacy or for a male priesthood, but the Church clings to both.  How much farther can a church be from its people than when it denies its women an equal role and its priests their own humanity?

But there may be an even deeper problem, something that could help to explain the Church’s distance from a reality outside its own creation.  Since the Council of Trent in 1551, transubstantiation has been the Church’s official doctrine on the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Stated simply, transubstantiation is the process by which the consecration of bread and wine transforms the substance of both into the actual body and blood of Christ.  What remains of the bread and wine are their physical properties alone.

The dualistic idea that an object has an abiding substance that is distinct from the object’s specific properties is basic to substance theory, going back to Aristotle and, later, to Saint Thomas Aquinas.  A tree, for example, has a substance of “tree-ness” that is distinct from its properties—bark, leaves, branches, and limbs.  This is different from saying that something is greater than the sum of its parts; this is saying that the essence of a thing is separate from its parts.

The Eucharist, especially in some Protestant churches, may be understood as the emergence of the spirit through or from the physical world, without clear diminution of the latter.  This form of the Eucharist may be experienced as symbolic of Christ’s Last Supper with the Apostles.

But when transubstantiation is at the core of the Eucharist, the physical world becomes an object whose substance has been shed, as if that world does not stand in essential relation to the process of spiritual growth.  While there may be value in the asceticism that sometimes follows a withdrawal from the world—Buddhists, monastic traditions, and mystics show us this can be the case—theirs is not typically a withdrawal marked by contempt for the world, nor do they adorn themselves with elegant costumes celebrating ties to a feudal world long past.

And they do not insulate themselves with dogma.  Lacking nourishment from the world and the world’s insistent history, the Church communes mainly with itself.   Instead of a vital Eucharist honoring the holiness of flesh and blood, the Church asks its people to swallow its own dogmatic pronouncements.

One of Wills’ heroes, Lord Acton, is famous for his statement regarding Pope Pius IX and the dogma of papal infallibility:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Like Wills, Lord Acton was a Catholic prominent enough to say (even in the nineteenth century) what he thought and still avoid excommunication, holding firm to the idea that  history is “not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”

Garry Wills is a real example of what the Church should be.  A person in love with both God and history can be the best kind of person.  But how can he still be a Catholic?

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John Willingham - 6/18/2010

Mr. Harper, I appreciate your taking the time to express your views. Agreeing to disagree is not such a bad result.

Bob Harper - 6/18/2010

I see that you have missed my point, but given the tenor of your piece I cannot be surprised. You wish the Catholic Church to cease to be in favor of some more 'authentic' thing. But the Church IS the authentic Thing, its faults (and they are many) notwithstanding. I suppose we will simply have to agree to disagree.

John Willingham - 6/17/2010

Mr. Harper, Belloc's book The Path to Rome is one of the very best I have read in establishing a wonderful mood and tone, along with the picture of a man so at ease with his belief that it is difficult to resist. Of course, most people could not today agree with him about evolution, for example, or with some of his insensitive comments about Jews.

What you say about the Church's survival in spite of its being run with "knavish imbecility" has now, indeed, become an even larger question. One of the fascinating attributes of the Church is that this continual friction with the "knaves" and their pronouncements is often seen as somehow salutary, as though the faith must have as many hurdles as possible constructed in its path in order to be strong.

I wish, and I suppose that Wills wishes, that the faith could grow and find its way with more enlightened guidance. He argues patience; I question it. (And believe me, I know how much stronger his voice is than mine.) Nevertheless, I beleive that he does need more criticism from his admirers now even though he is, as always, jousting vigorously with the orthodox.

Bob Harper - 6/17/2010

Mr. Willingham,

I am glad to see that you are honest about who you are and what you want. That I disagree profoundly will, I am certain, go without saying.

Hilaire Belloc once said of the Catholic Church that it was "an institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight." He was correct, but he also knew that it IS the work of God, and that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Does the Church need reform? Of course. Always. But what you (and Garry Wills) seek is not reform, but destruction.

John Willingham - 6/17/2010

Mr. Harper, thank you for your comments. If by destruction of the Church you mean the renunciation of the curia and the development of a Church truly devoted to "the people of God," then I would say you are correct.

It is true that Garry Wills's vision of what the Church should be is, in my opinion, a worthy view. However, I believe his urging readers to remain in the Church now, in light of the abuse of children, should be evaluated with greater care than his previous pleas for patience and persistence. I also believe that as an eminent historian whose criticisms of the Church are properly influential (in my opinion), his current position is so paradoxical that its contraries seem more puzzling that stimulating, and his arguments for remaining in the Church, as it is, appear more attenuated.

Mr. Knott wrote that Catholics simply do not pay any attention to the curia and make the most of their conscientious faith. My argument is that maintaining that stance is now more difficult, although he is unquestionably right to say that it is a personal choice to do so.

Garry Wills's hope that the Church can be transformed is more Christian, in the truest sense, than my argument that such a transformation is unlikely. My argument is based on the view that the Church is too divorced--from its people, from history, from the world--to change. Reform does not seem realistic; maybe a rebellion would do.

Bob Harper - 6/17/2010

Garry Wills's Catholicism may be Mr. Willingham's notion of what that faith should be--though to be honest Mr. Willingham seems much more interested in the Church's destruction than in its health--but that vision has little to do with any orthodox understanding of Catholic Christianity. For a succinct rehearsal of Mr. Wills's flaws in this area, see

John Willingham - 6/17/2010

It is difficult for me to accept your idea that science should not or does not affect theology and dogma. You say that the relevant question is simply whether God created the universe ex nihilo, and that physics has nothing to do with this question. How is it,then, that many Christians are able to celebrate at least the idea of the "big bang" theory of the universe, as it is "compatible" to some extent with the Biblical version, while some Christians are especially disturbed by cosmologies that do not offer a similar compatibility?

A further implication of your position is that all science should not or does not have any impact on theology or dogma. What then, of the often vilified but repeatedly verified theory of evolution that continues now, after a century and a half, to challenge dogma?

You may posit a "given" deity that is omnipotent, and that deity may find all our inquiry silly; but in this world--especially to people interested in ideas--discoveries about our world matter greatly and for many of us they cannot be divorced from religion.

Richard F. Mehlinger - 6/17/2010

"Mr. Knott, it is common to criticize transubstantiation on purely scientific grounds, as it is not compatible with post-quantum physics."

I am going to risk going somewhat out on a limb as I am not particularly well-educated in theology (alas). However, I must say that this statement appears to show a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential relationship between physics and theology. Simply stated, if God says that the consecrated bread and wine are actually the Body and Blood of Christ, then, given the standard definition of an omnipotent God, they are. It's as simple as that.

Furthermore, given that the Christian God exists and is omnipotent, it really doesn't matter how "compatible" transubstantiation is with the laws of physics as we understand them. Surely, if God created the universe ex nihilo, then he could have set it up in such a way that included transubstantiation, and write whatever exceptions into the laws of physics which would be necessary. The relevant question is simply whether He did or not. Physics, post-quantum or otherwise, doesn't have anything to do with it.

John Willingham - 6/15/2010

I respect personal choice even though the Church, for the greater part, does not. What I question is the argument that the people as the Church can still exist within it, given the countenanced abuse of those very people by the Church. Yes, the decision by the brilliant Garry Wills to remain in the Church is his own personal decision. But recall that the thrust of his article in TNR was the argument that others should do the same.

I recall Wills' comment that Pope Benedict is among those who favor a return to the Latin Mass and to the practice of the priests' turning their backs on the people of the Church. I suppose the thrust of my article is that if the priests should do so, then maybe the people of the Church should already be gone.

stephen frederick knott - 6/15/2010

I am not particularly interested in your take, or Martin Gardner's take, on who should or should not remain a Catholic. Your inability to understand why the 'brilliant' Garry Wills, or anyone else for that matter, chooses to remain a Catholic, shows a complete lack of understanding of the personal nature of religious faith. And, the idea that the "papacy . . . maintain[s] an authoritarian" role in the Catholic Church is laughable in light of the complete disregard of many papal edicts on the part of contemporary Catholics.

John Willingham - 6/15/2010

Mr. Knott, I am puzzled about your use of the word "proselytizing" and your previous references to an alleged fundamentalist or Baptist agenda on my part. I have written five articles for HNN on the harm that social conservatives in Texas have done to the history curriculum of that state. There is nothing in anything I have ever written that hints at a fundamentalist or Baptist orientation, and I am neither.

Are you making a strange leap indeed and assuming that my education at a university located in what some would call the South means that I am a Baptist or a fundamentalist? When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, the philosophy department was strongly influenced by the presence of Charles Hartshorne on the faculty, and that gentleman was a world-renowned interpreter of Alfred North Whitehead. I was introduced to Science and the Modern World as an undergraduate, and I doubt that this important book is read in fundamentalist colleges. I continue to read both Whitehead and Hartshorne.

As for the current article, it has two purposes, both directly related to history.

First, Garry Wills is a man I greatly admire, and I have read six of his books, most recently Head and Heart: American Christianities. Wills is an eminent historian, so I ask in the article how a man devoted to history can still ask others to stay with a Church that not only continues its ahistorical path but recently has so turned in on itself that its people are being subordinated to the hierarchy in increasingly damaging ways.

Second, I suggest that transubstantiation and substance theory might facilitate the Church's turning inward and its ongoing disdain for what you and I would call history.

I would like to hear criticisms on this point in order to enlarge my own understanding.

stephen frederick knott - 6/15/2010

Writing about philosophy and intellectual history is fine -- proselytizing belongs somewhere else.

John Willingham - 6/14/2010

Mr. Knott, I yield to your refusal to consider substance theory and its influence on the Catholic church--and on world history--as relevant topics. Perhaps you might want to excise Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, and David Tracy from your list of intellectuals worthy of study.

If you were to read my other articles on HNN, you might be able to discern that if I have a philosophical or intellectual preference, it would be in favor of process theologians and philosophers, among them Alfred North Whitehead, William James, and and John Cobb. They, too, might be candidates for removal from your list of worthies.

John Willingham - 6/14/2010

Mr. Clifford:

My feelings about the Church are rooted in sadness; they are in no way "peeves", pet or otherwise. However, I do believe that the Church has gone past redemption in its treatment of children, at least a redemption visible on the horizon of your or my experience.

As to Lord Acton's quote, I will save you and others the trouble of looking it up. It appeared in an April 3, 1887, letter to Mandell Creighton, regarding then Professor Creighton's History of the Papacy. The exact quote follows:

"I cannot accept your [Creighton's] canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."

The context of this quote is that Lord Action was sympathetic to the historical theology of Johannes Josef Ignaz von Dollinger, along with whom he lamented the Church's brief attachment to historical theology and its complete abandonment of it in Vatican I. There is no question that the quote is directed at the "infallible" papacy AND at monarchs who rule in the same authoritarian fashion.

stephen frederick knott - 6/14/2010

This is nothing but a pitch for Catholics to leave their church. Why this is posted at a site devoted to the study of history is beyond me. If you want to recruit elsewhere I am sure there are plenty of internet sites where you can make a pitch for the Baptist Church, or whomever you prefer.

John Willingham - 6/14/2010

Mr. Knott, it is common to criticize transubstantiation on purely scientific grounds, as it is not compatible with post-quantum physics. Substance theory, referred to in the article, is a prominent idea in the intellectual history not only of the Church but of the world. I do not criticize transubstantiation in scientific terms, however, but I do argue that the this doctrine and the substance theory behind it facilitate the Church's disdain for history and the world of lived experience. I don't know what your definition of intellectual history is, but mine certainly includes the relation of a world-shaping line of thought to subsequent historical developments.

Nicholas Clifford - 6/14/2010

Mr. Willingham appears to be relieving himself of some pet peeves about the RC Church -- many of which I agree with, though he goes off on some rather odd tangents. e.g., transubstantiation. He's also wrong on at least one of his facts; Acton's famous statement about power tending to corrupt has nothing to do with Pius IX and infallibility. It occurs rather in Acton's correspondence with Mandell Creighton, Anglican bishop of London and a church historian who was, in Acton's view, being rather more lenient than he should have been towards some Renaissance churchmen who lived less than blameless lives.

You can, as they say in baseball, "look it up" -- Google acton creighton and you'll find it, if it's not too much bother.

stephen frederick knott - 6/14/2010

Why is this in HNN? If you want to slam the Catholic Church go publish in some fundamentalist website. This is not "intellectual" history despite what the author may think.