A Devoutly Catholic Heretic

Sam Tanenhaus profiles the Catholic essayist and historian Garry Wills, describing him as a “good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself”:

When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”

To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”

In a piece we linked to earlier this week, Wills hopes that Pope Francis will be “increasingly irrelevant, like the last two…a monarch in a time when monarchs are no longer believable”:

Catholics have had many bad popes whose teachings or acts they could or should ignore or defy. Orcagna painted one of them in hell; Dante assigned three to his Inferno; Lord Acton assured Prime Minister William Gladstone that Pius IX’s condemnation of democracy was not as bad as the papal massacres of Huguenots, which showed that “people could be very good Catholics and yet do without Rome”; and John Henry Newman hoped Pius IX would die during the first Vatican Council, before he could do more harm. Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was written to describe Renaissance popes.