The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair

WillsI 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.

Photo: New York Review of Books
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18 Responses to “The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair”

  1. Dan, this was excellent. The three issues of infallibility, the role and sovereign nature of the Holy See (not the same as Vatican City) and the question of mediating grace in the world are interlinked. There is a common misunderstanding of this among faithful of different ideological perspectives. I do think it points to the failure of the church (including theologians) to communicate the real positions to wider popular audiences.

    Not everyone is lucky enough to have an OFM guest lecturer in a class! Thanks !

  2. Barb Spies Says:

    I saw Wills on The Colbert Report talk about his new book. I imagine you will find the book even more inadequate than his op-ed piece! Thank you for sharing your knowledge on these subjects. Here is the link to the interview: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/423715/february-11-2013/garry-wills

  3. I too have great hope. That is the trouble I have always had with Garry Wills and his thought.

  4. Roland Wilhelmy Says:

    Dan, perhaps you know more theology and Wills knows more history?

    • Wills certainly knows a lot about a lot of things. I would hesitate to say so-and-so knows more or less about such-and-such. My point here is to advance the public discussion he initiated in the New York Times.

  5. Interesting article. Did you see Wills on the Colbert Report? He said straight out that he does not believe in transubstantiation. I think he is saying that he is still Catholic just to sell more books at this point.

  6. Dan, this is a very thoughtful piece. Thank you.
    Your points are well taken but who, may I ask, has the “whole truth”? I guess that I would only want to recognize “partial truth” for what it is in every context.

  7. linda dailey Says:

    I’m guessing that the religious authorities of his day said much the same about Jesus. It’s difficult to crawl out of our moral and religious sandboxes.

  8. Thanks Dan. Just yesterday I had someone ask me about Mr. Wills and his current op-ed pieces and interviews regarding things Roman Catholic. My comment was, if you are looking for a first class treatment of St. Augustine, Wills is among the best. But these days, it seems to me that he is even selectively citing Augustine to serve his own view. I am left with the sense that the operative in play is “any text without a context is just a pretext for what you wanted to say in the first place.”

  9. Dominic Monti Says:

    Dan, Your post was very good. I was very disappointed (and somewhat angry) at Mr. Will’s latest column. It expresses many of the arguments and style of his book of a decade ago, Papal Sin – a many valid points, but expressed in “slash and burn” rhetoric that leaves little room for nuance or discussion. What seems at first glance to be a historical presentation is really a diatribe. There are a number of statements in this essay that clearly involve hyperbole if not deliberate distortion. For example, his statement that there was “no Pope involved” in the early councils. Yes, the Bishop of Rome at the time clearly did not function as a medieval or modern Pope (with supreme authority), but his opinion did carry a good deal of weight at these gatherings.

  10. Gary Wills is an accomplished intellectual and many of the objections in his column are not entirely uncommon. Some of the comments on the Catholic blogosphere have been dismissive of his position. Such an approach is a dangerous one- Gary Wills is our brother in the Church, so his concerns should be dealt with firmly and in detail, not flippantly. Insofar as others might share his thoughts and feelings on the state of the Church, we owe it to them to help them grow in faith and hope.

    Of course there is only so much one can do in a blog post or in a combox. Nonetheless, I think your post, Fr. Daniel, is the best I’ve seen on this matter.

  11. James Phillips Says:

    Your response was greatly appreciated. Sometimes the dynamics of the Lenten season require us to explore, listen and grow in one’s faith in the risen Christ despite theological/historical arguments. As an Anglican Franciscan I routinely pray to keep an open mind and my heart open to the Holy Spirit in these matters.

  12. JIm McCrea Says:

    “Heresy may be the result of poor timing.” Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine”, Vol I, “The Emergence of Catholic Tradition.”

    “If our understanding of God develops slowly and somewhat uncertainly, then there will always be as much reason to regard any putative (i.e., commonly accepted or supposed) heresy as a new insight as there will be to regard it as a distortion of the truth.” Gordon Graham, “The Goodness of God and the Conception of Hell” New Blackfriars, November 1988

  13. I am gratified that you have reiterated what I have always been taught about papal infallibility – that it has only been invoked twice. A few months back, found myself in a heated discussion with someone quite zealous regarding Catholic orthodoxy who claimed that even the ordinary magisterium of the Church was to be recieved infallibally in response to my presentation of the dogma as you interated above. I was then told that I had put myself outside the Church and should have the courage to admit it… This particular exchange illustrates to me that the problem lies not so much with the particular dogma in question itself but rather with some extreme versions of its reception and application…

  14. george bouchey, class of '76 Says:

    Referring to your last paragraph, I see much the same RCC as Wills sees. I do not see, as you may, a flawed community in any way near the same degree as I see a corrupt episcopacy, who define, administer, and own the RCC, Perhaps that is not good theology,
    but it is good logic.

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