Going to the Place Our Father Has Made

Wills_futureThe Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis
Garry Wills

Walt Whitman taught me that contradicting myself was okay, even to be expected. So I long ago accepted that believing was part of my make-up and that, like it or not, I was a Catholic.

That doesn’t make me an apologist. Like all human institutions the Church has flaws. Some might say it’s all flaws. Garry  Wills, I’m pretty sure, would have a more optimistic outlook.

Wills is a professor of history (emeritus) at  Northwestern UniversityA member of my parent’s generation (born in 1934), married to the same woman for more than 50 years, Wills is more or less the  de facto go-to guy when it’s time to discuss anything about the Roman Catholic Church. Maybe it’s that professorial position. Maybe it’s the Pulitzer Prize he won. But I think it’s probably because Wills was a Jesuit seminarian who never took his vows.

Gary Wills The man that taught me Catholicism and intellectual rigor were not enemies.

Gary Wills
The man that taught me Catholicism and intellectual rigor were not enemies.

I harbor a strong suspicion that the intelligentsia think not taking vows represents some sort of personal declaration of independence. I’m not sure reading Wills would allow you to actually believe that. And in any case, there’s an argument to be made about conscience and taking a sacrament (for Catholics, ordination is considered taking Holy Orders, one of the Church’s seven sacraments). But that’s the role he plays in popular culture.

The first Wills book to cross my path was entitled The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. I haven’t cracked the cover in the 30-plus years since I read it yet I retain a strong sense of the writer’s intellectual independence.

I grew up in the rare Irish Catholic family that despised the Kennedys for their, ahem, flexible approach to morality. Wills didn’t alight in exactly the same place and he established a convincing context for understanding the behavior of the brood that Joe built,  but it was unmistakably critical. That was a revelation to me.

I read on through the years (the Nixon volume, Nixon Agonisties: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man is particularly strong) always appreciating the erudition and the challenge to think more deeply about the matter at hand.

Pope Francis I

Pope Francis I

Now comes a different sort of  Pope and depending upon your perspective it’s either a time for great hand-wringing or great rejoicing. Prudence would dictate that I not take sides but if nothing else I believe in the power of dialectics and so, after a couple of conservative tenures,  I welcome a tack in the opposite direction.

It’s also apparent from this reading that I am a true product of Vatican II. As a child you have limitless capacity for questioning and limited context for divining the questions to ask.  So I, at least, took a lot of things as just given. And a lot of those things had to do with the way the Church worked even though I have faint memories of altar rails and chanting in Latin.

Of course I was told that things had been different. But it would be a misstatement to say I understood what that meant. My kids will no more understand the 1960s through the 1980s than I did the 1930s and 1940s, no matter how much time and effort I spend trying to convey it. So fasting from dinner time the night before you intended to receive Communion was as real to me as a nickel Hershey bar or 10-cent subway fare.

Wills wants us to know that in the history of the Church there’s been more back and forth and change than most of us are aware of or maybe care to admit. Logically that sort of makes sense. Institutions run by people don’t last unchanged for 200 years let alone 2000, just look at the United States government. And yet you wouldn’t call attention to the change, what would be the  point? It’s easier to act as if what is has always been.

Life imitates art. Is Francis a Pope even Kevin Smith could love?

Art  imitates life. Is Francis a Pope even Kevin Smith could love?

Here’s where a casual reader could experience a disconnect. The book’s title might lead you to believe that it was written by some sort of ecclesiastical soothsayer. Or at least a writer with an inside track and a palliative approach–someone who’d deliver you a timetable for things like women (or married) priests or acceptance/marriage of homosexuals. If that’s what you’re looking for leave this book on the shelf.

What you’ll find here is more history than you probably imagined in a book that’s supposed to be about the future. And not history of the time and date sort either. You only get those insofar as they establish when doctrinal debates arose, were fought over and settled, if they ever were. Here’s where Wills shines. As a scholar of ancient languages and historian he provides his own translations or compares commonly accepted ones to what words appear in the original sources.

He also puts more recent developments in an understandable context. Much of this was familiar to me–I’m that sort of particular parochial school pupil who actually cared to learn about this stuff–but some was new. I hadn’t realized, the Dion song aside, that Saint Jerome was known as a translator of the Bible. Nor that Confession–the practice/sacrament now known as Reconciliation–developed among Irish monks as a way to make their spiritual journey more acute. (The Irish part I find incredibly believable.) And the chapter on how Rome established itself as the seat of a Church deeply rooted in points further East was new news.

The First Catholic  Family of America Wealthy Catholics still ike to be seen like this. The dog in foreground, I'm told. is named "Buddy".  Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The First Catholic Family of America Wealthy Catholics still ike to be seen like this. The dog in foreground, I’m told. is named “Buddy”.
Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

So what does the future hold for Holy Mother Church? Wills won’t say other than to offer that he’s optimistic there will be change, even if the Church’s accommodations with modernity may fall short of what a secular liberal might think is required. His optimism is rooted in the Church’s ability to change, albeit slowly, over time.  And he clearly has respect for Francis as an individual.

Like many, I read all I could about Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio when he assumed the papacy. I liked his story and that he was from the non-European world. I suspected that as a Jesuit he’d bring a different mindset to the office starting with the unexpected choice of the name he took. In reading Wills, though, I came to realize that the capacity I was reacting to was his ability to change. I didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of so many late 20th Century  battles. And yet he found a different way through.

I’m as besotted with the Holy Father as anyone. His message, I think, is sorely needed. We live in a time when life has coarsened to a point where the narcissism of consumer culture risks turning even good people into walking selfish streaks.

For the good of us all we need to know there’s an alternative.






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