The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair
I have long appreciated the intelligence and wit of Gary Wills. As a historian of some prominence — he’s won the Pulitzer and holds a PhD in classics — and a literary critic whose work has regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books and other significant publications, I have admired his skilled assessment of texts and tradition. As an avowed Roman Catholic, Jesuit educated from youth and through college at St. Louis University, I’ve also appreciated Wills’s attempts to explore his own faith and its tradition through small books on the Gospels, the Letters of St. Paul, Augustine, and other subjects, including an older text that offers something of an apologia for his continued Catholic faith. His training in classics and his familiarity with the original Greek of the New Testament and Latin of Augustine offered the public intellectual insight into these materials that others might not have.
One wonders with someone whose interests are so polymathic just when does he reach the limits of his reasonably expected competence. When does he cross the boundary of well-researched personal inquiry and reflection into the territory of ignoratio?
I will make a bold claim that his recent New York Times op-ed contribution, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” marks just such a border crossing.
I should begin these comments by stating that his sentiment, namely the frustration he exhibits about seemingly archaic systems of power and structure in church leadership, is actually quite reasonable and I suppose very sincere in his case. Critical though he may be, at other times Wills (like E. J. Dionne and other public commentators who maintain their Roman Catholic identity in a public way) has time and again reflected his disappointment with what he understands to be the church, while struggling to be a faithful Christian. Such public witness, especially as an academic and intellectual figure in whose circles such proclivities might be easily dismissed, is truly admirable.
Nevertheless, if what Wills was saying had more to do with explicit theological discourse, he’d be committing what is classically understood as heresy. Heresy, of course, doesn’t mean the opposite of orthodox doctrine or even some ideological position along the continuum of heterodox thought. Heresy is holding part of the truth as the whole truth. The easiest examples to recall have to do with Christological heresies: believing that Jesus Christ is human is not heretical. The Council of Chalcedon affirms as much. But, believe that Jesus Christ is only human is a heresy.
Analogously, much of what wills says in his op-ed piece is true. However, his lack of appreciation for the complexities and nuances about which he speaks borders on the incomprehensible or irrelevant. Again, not because his motives are false (he has, I believe, good intentions), but because he doesn’t actually understand — it would seem from his writing — that about which he is speaking.
To due justice to the subjects Wills names in passing and with a sense of flip cynicism would take more space and time than I have here in this post (you’re welcome, I promise not to write 4,000+ words here and keep it short). Perhaps a few examples will highlight the deeply problematic assertions that Wills advocates by way of partial truth interpreted according to Wills’s armchair-theological perspective.
Take the theme of papal monarchical status and the question of infallibility. Yes, even to this day the pope is a sovereign head of state. The Holy See — geographically constituted by “Vatican City” — is its own internationally recognized sovereign state with diplomatic rights, centuries of international treaties known as Concordats, and so on. While the Christendom model of monarchical papacy Wills readily admits no longer exists, historians might argue that the model he caricatures never, in fact, existed. Yes, the pope at various times over the course of nearly two millennia has exercised a certain temporal influence that is perhaps less visible in modern history. However, to refer to the pope as a monarch simply because that is how, as a single person with such metanymnic significance for a church that is made up of over a billion persons, he appears to someone on the street does not account for a great deal of theological and canonical factors left untouched by Wills’s rant.
For example, the very condition for the possibility of Benedict XVI’s resignation from his office is the fact that his is not a monarch in the same sense that Wills suggests. What it means to talk about “the pope” is simply another way to talk about one bishop who happens to be the Ordinary of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore is granted primacy as first among equals (much to the reasonable chagrin of the Orthodox Churches who understandably resent the dismissal of their primates by the Latin Church). Such is the case canonically too. The only difference between the Bishop of Rome resigning and the Bishop of New York is that, technically, there is no one to whom the first among equals tenders one’s resignation. Instead, as we saw on Monday, the Bishop of Rome does so in sound mind in the presence of his colleagues — the other bishops represented by the College of Cardinals in consistory.
Wills’s simplistic understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility is likewise misleading. He’s better than most to acknowledge, somewhat too briefly, that not everything a pope says is infallible. However, that’s a huge detail: it has only been invoked twice in history and done so within the very particular confines of a very limited exercise of magisterial office. Wills would do well to read some of Francis Sullivan, SJ’s classic work on the theology of magisterial authority or Richard Gaillardetz’s primer, By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, The Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003). The complex factors that converge to describe what this charism of infallibility actually means are too detailed to present here in this already lengthy post. However, the point to note is that Wills ties this highly technical (and widely misunderstood!) theological and canonical teaching to the monarchical authority of the papacy. It’s not that simple.
His clear lack of the moral teaching of the church and the, again to overuse the word, “complexities” of what something like Paul VI’s Humane Vitae present and rely upon, seriously shades his vision and confuses — at least as he expresses it — some sort of unilateral authority with the teaching office of the church, which varies in degree, something unacknowledged by Wills.
This is not to suggest that Wills is incorrect with his stats from the United States. I have no reason to doubt the overwhelming numbers of those who have not “received” the teaching of Humane Vitae in practice, but I do doubt whether or not the church (which is the Body of Christ = all the baptized) has “received” the point of the teaching. It is for moral theologians and bishops to hash out the role of medication, prophylactics, and the like vis-a-vis the teaching about authentic exercise of human sexuality in its (1) openness to life and (2) unitive dimension. These distinctions about what is actually being taught in the encyclical, whether one agrees or disagrees with the practical proscription, remain absent from this sort of critique.
If you want to challenge these teachings, and they are not without reasonable and grounded critique, then go through the trouble of doing your homework.
On a final note of highlight, the line near the end of his piece, “The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy,” is simply and utterly incorrect. Any priest (or any pope for that matter) who would make such a claim is doing so apart from the church. There is no ground to suggest that the church teaches that priests, or any particular person or group of persons, are the “sole conduits of grace.” In almost every instance, from St. Paul through Augustine to Martin Luther and to Karl Rahner and beyond, grace is always and everywhere understood in the first case as referring to the Holy Spirit.
It is perhaps this single line in all of Wills’s op-ed reflecting that betrays his truly inadequate sense of theology. It is an understandable conjecture, the kind to be expected of a pre-Second Vatican Council popular piety. For someone who pontificates (pun intended) about the ills of the church, the lack of theological nuance or broader appreciation for the history of the tradition is unsettling. While I haven’t yet read his new book on the priesthood, I have a sense that I will be disappointed given the shallowness of this op-ed’s theological reflection.
If it makes Gary Wills feel any better, I too would have lost hope in the pope and church that he describes. But as a baptized Catholic, a religious, a priest, and someone with more formal theological training than anyone knows what to do with, I don’t recognize the church about which Wills speaks. I do recognize a deeply flawed community of the baptized with a mixed history reflecting our human finitude. But I still have hope.