Garry Wills

What do we make of Garry Wills? From his book titles, ranging from Why I Am a Catholic to Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition, it seems that he claims to be Catholic while rejecting its teachings. Can someone shed some light on this?

I found this article on Gary Wills:

The Strange World of Garry Wills

You might also Google “Gary Wills” “Stephen Colbert”. Colbert interviewed him a few years back when his “Why Priests?” book came out.

I don’t know what more there is to say other than what you yourself said. Yes, he claims to be Catholic. Yes, he openly rejects many Catholic teachings. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s probably a good thing. :stuck_out_tongue:

He’s good on historical subjects, but his views on the Catholic Church are kind of like you get when you run into a guy you kind of know, who goes on about how he’s Catholic, BUT.

He’s a “Catholic But” type.

His views seem to change with the times.

This is true. He is intelligent, with a good writing style. Why does he (technically) remain Catholic while rejecting Catholic beliefs, when there are so many “Catholic lite” denominations out there where you can personalize your own ice cream sundae?

A few decades ago Rosemary Reuther was asked the same question. She said “because the Church has the Xerox machine”. Essentially she meant she could not only use the church resources on occasion, but her identification as a “liberal Catholic” could get her articles printed, and paid offers to speak. She would get contacted by media who wanted a “Catholic” response to whatever came up in the news. For her to give up the “Catholic” identity would be like deleting a Master’s degree from her resume. Why do that?

You’ve summed it up nicely.

John Zmirak, in his book the Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, gave a scathing criticism of Garry Wills. Zmirak points out that Wills’ arguments are mostly ad hominem attacks and tactics meant to shame anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Wills is the type who declares himself infallible by merit of the fact that he’s an “enlightened” baby boomer who doesn’t believe what all those “superstitious peasants” believed for 2,000 years.

Now he’s bitter that the theological experiments his type plugged back in the '70s aren’t as popular anymore. Ironically, such bowing before the world is why the clerical abuse crisis got so bad in the last several decades. People like Wills wanted to ensure America that Catholics are a church of Stuff White People Like. Wills and his ilk, however large or small, maintain their “Catholic” identity for their own ends, not because they truly adhere to Catholicism. It’s not unlike anti-Zionist Jews who treat Israel as the perpetual bad guy.

I actually like Garry Wills a lot. I thought his book “What Jesus Meant”, was outstanding–very compelling, very challenging. One of my all time favorites, even.

However, IMO, Prof. Wills is not for the faint of heart, or the weak stomached. He’s extremely challenging. Actually, I need to clear that up: he is extremely easy to read; very engaging, very entertaining–an outstanding author. He can take ordinarily boring material, and bring it to life, like few others. When I say ‘challenging’, I mean he really prompts you to re-think, and re-evaluate your beliefs. You can disagree with him (I certainly do on many issues)–but learn much from him, as he is obviously quite ‘learned’, and incredibly articulate in expressing the basis for his beliefs–and you even risk learning much about yourself, because he pushes you to consider…things you don’t want to consider…in ways you’d rather not…

Here’s the bottom line with Wills: he is a college professor (Northwester in Chicago, last I checked). He’s not a preacher, or pastor, and you’re probably not going to find his work in the ‘inspirational’ section of your book store. And, he’s certainly not representative of Catholic orthodoxy…

…but he is an extremely compelling, engaging, and challenging author.

So I recommend him–just not for the weak-knee’d, or faint-hearted.

It just goes to show you, the best kind of bad guy is not the cartoon character with a pitchfork and red tights, but the one who tells a thousand truths to slip in one lie. For me, that would be Ayn Rand,who uses an entirely-valid condemnation of collectivism and big government to justify narcissism.

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Concur (partially) with your take on Rand, but I think there’s a stark contrast to Wills. Wills is well grounded, if miss-directed. Rand, was just poorly grounded to begin with (though, as you mentioned, her skepticism of authoritarianism, and championing of individual accountability, among perhaps a few others, were rightly (imo) directed).


From my “Treaclegloch” ( a devil a la CS Lewis Screwtape Letters) review on Amazon:

*"Gary Wills is dependable in writing a near-yearly book attacking the institution and teachings of the Catholic Church. An intimate of the Kennedys (“So many Kennedy Catholics, so few Catholic Kennedys”), Wills is actually taken seriously by many human journalists in his claim that he is still a “Catholic”—despite his undeniable public statements that make him theologically a Unitarian (at best).

Wills believes theological and social archconservatives betrayed Vatican II—their attack to roll back the “reforms” of the Council spearheaded by the Pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—and the former Jesuit now Pope Francis gives Wills and his fellow apostates no reason to expect any resuscitation of the “spirit of Vatican II”.

Nor should there be any hope of this, because the “Spirit of Vatican II” as Wills and other archliberals mourn for never existed in the first place. The myth of “Vatican II being the triumph of liberal theology and sociology over the forces of reaction and conservatism” was created out of whole cloth by the reportage of a SINGLE ideologically driven informant (an aide to one of the bishops). The few journalists who actually read the Councilor documents often did so through this already inculcated bias; hence the popular expectation the Church would soon permit artificial contraception—an expectation that soon dashed against Paul VI’s reiteration of the Church’s ancient and consistent prohibition of such methods.

This perceived “betrayal of the spirit of Vatican II” and “The spirit of Vatican II allows us to…” was beautifully timed for our purposes. Our field agents certainly fanned the fires of resentment and rebellion within the Church. Mentioning most briefly: the allowance for the Mass in the vernacular quickly became the “liturgical fidget” often destroying reverence if not promoting outright alienation; the priesthood began losing members (often orthodox and heterosexual) in a torrent, leaving behind a significant “lavender mafia” (even Wills has used this term!) which culminated in the surge of abuse cases in the 1970s and 1980s; and of course a whole slew of bishops who were either cowardly or simpatico in allowing egregious heretics to preach from the pulpit.

However, despite all these and other things that seemed to be going our Father’s way, “the center held” as the Lutheran-pastor-become-Catholic Priest Richard John Neuhaus wrote in one of his last books. We all recall the howls of anguish that reverberated in our realm when John Paul II assumed the Papal throne and again when he survived the assassin’s bullet. Through the long 26 years of his reign and the eight years of Benedict XVI, Gary Wills went from being an angry young man and turned into an angry old man, increasingly strident, increasingly heretical, yet increasingly sloppy and inaccurate in his “scholarship”.*

Well, as I said, he’s not representative of Catholic orthodoxy–not by a long shot–and I disagree with him–even fundamentally–on many issues.

For contemporary Catholic orthodoxy, I’d recommend George Weigel. I love that guy; he’s awesome–read what I can of him. But there is a place for Garry Wills within Catholicism (again, not for the faint hearted–that is, not for anyone who’s faith isn’t mature and well grounded, because he will challenge your beliefs). He speaks his dissent from within her ‘walls’, even if he’s ‘off the res’ on many fundamental issues.

Your boy, CS Lewis, while maybe being warm and fuzzy, and feel-good, rejected Catholicism entirely, and even if he didn’t expressly attack Mother Church, he championed an alternative to her, and disdained her as just another denomination–oh, and of course, he patronized her competition. That’s competition for souls. Had the reformers kept their dissent ‘in-house’, as Wills has, the Church might look vastly different that it does today…but it would be significantly more united. I digress…

Here’s a little more info. on this peculiar specimen of a Catholic:


He was born in Atlanta in 1934, but spent most of his youth in Adrian, Mich., where he attended schools run by the famed Adrian Dominican sisters. He recalls inscribing “JMJ” on his schoolwork, saying “Hail Marys” before free throws, and cultivating devotion to the Infant of Prague. Looking back from the perspective of the early 1970s, Wills would write: “It was a ghetto, but not a bad ghetto to grow up in.”

The experience obviously left its mark**. To this day, Wills says he has never seriously questioned his Catholic faith. He is a weekly Mass-goer at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, and prays the rosary every day.** (“I haven’t got that many ways to pray that I can afford to lose the one that comes most easily,” he said with a laugh.) Although he parts company with church teaching on papal infallibility, abortion and transubstantiation, he’s perfectly comfortable with the Nicene Creed: “I stick with the basics,” Wills said.

**He completed his graduate work at Yale, where Buckley recruited him for the National Review. **One of Wills’ first assignments was to help Buckley defend himself against Catholic liberals who had charged him with disrespect for papal social teaching, especially John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, which Buckley saw as a soft on socialism. Wills’ contribution was to coin the famous quip #147;Mater Si, Magistra No!” In many ways, the line could serve as a motto for Wills’ brand of Catholicismdeep love for the faith and tradition, coupled with skepticism about ecclesiastical authority and its claims to special wisdom.

Eventually, Wills drifted away from Buckley’s hard-right stances. The definitive break came when Wills penned an essay for National Review critical of the Vietnam War, which Buckley spiked. The two later reconciled, but Wills never returned to the ideological fold.

Excerpt 2:

There’s never been any doubt about his erudition. Wills is the kind of guy who, as a young man, when asked if he was a conservative, would reply, “No, I’m a distributist.” (To save traffic on the Wikipedia Web site,** distributism is a political theory associated with the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton** and 19th-century papal social teaching. It posits that ownership of the means of production should be widely distributed among the population, rather than controlled by the state, as in communism, or by financial elites, as in capitalism. Its model is the medieval guild system. Not coincidentally, Wills’ first book was on Chesterton, and he remains for Wills an enormous influence.)

I have never read anything written by Garry Wills. I do know he coined the phrase “Mater si, Magistra no” = " Mother yes, Teacher no." Apparently, he is not interested in the Church’s teaching authority.


I’m quite aware of Lewis and his issues with the Church including a recent book on the subject (CS Lewis and the Catholic Church by Joseph Pearce. “Treaclegloch” has addressed this issue in regards to another book review in the Useful Idiots reviews:

"*…It is remarkable just how pervasive this antagonism against the Catholic Church is. From the opposing extremes of Paisley or Dawkins, more often than not any Englishman can be counted on to, at the very least, distrust those visibly united to the Bishop of Rome. While he was speaking of his own country’s experience, the American historian Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.) once stated anti-Catholicism was more deeply rooted than anti-black racism—and of course those deep roots began back in the mother country. Education and worldliness have little to do with these visceral reactions. The scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite examples. This particular human had advanced degrees, was very well read, and largely secular in his theology, though with strong doses of Eastern Pantheism. He was friends with Jesuit scientists, though condescending regarding their religious beliefs. Regardless, Clarke’s education and friendships was no match against centuries of propaganda. In one of his last novels, 3001, Clarke imagines some mid-21st century Pope will break open the Vatican archives to reveal the secret genocidal history of the Church “which made Hitler and Pol Pot seem like amateurs”. Granted, this near baseless wish-fantasy is a casual toss-off, but it shows just how an otherwise intelligent Englishman will stop thinking when it comes to this subject.

I am sure my gentle-devil readers are quite aware of the Clive Lewis case. Our best agents in the English sector just barely avoided the utterly unmitigated disaster of the apologist’s on-Earth conversion to Rome. That particular Anglo-Irishman wreaked untold havoc while alive, and he is still guiding innumerable souls into the Enemy’s camp. If he had lived just ten years longer, the disintegration of the Anglican Church (and the rest of mainstream Protestantism) would have almost certainly strained Lewis’ loyalty to open break, as it did Newman and Chesterton before him, and Muggerridge, Shoemaker, and MacLuan after him. If we devils are thankful for anything in this situation, it is for Lewis’ early childhood in Ulster combined with an anti-Catholic bigot for a nanny. Despite Lewis’ belief in the Real Presence, Purgatory, Apostolic Tradition and other “Catholic” doctrines, his acculturated “insulation” against earthly reconciliation with Rome remained to the end—though admittedly it was very thin at that point. Indeed, field reports suggest post-mortem intercessions by Lewis have resulted in the full-conversions of many of his friends, not the least being Sheldon Van Auken (A Severe Mercy)…"*

In regards to your assertion Willis is keeping his dissent “in house”, I have to call that blatant special pleading. Really your citing the Fishwrap…urr…National Catholic Distorter…errr “Reporter” does your even moderate-advocacy of Wills no favors. As pointed out in his five minutes with Colbert, he publically advocated multiple heresies. If he receives the Eucharist holding to such errors then he is compounding his actual separation from the Church.

Interesting stuff there about CS Lews. Maybe I should revisit him.

Nothing much to add about Wills; I like his writing–not his ideology.

btw, here is an interesting review on page 1 of Amazon, second review, that incidentally compared Wills to CS Lewis–or perhaps more accurately, What Jesus Meant, to Mere Christianity:

59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Deeply moving, deeply spiritual book
By Robert H. Stine Jr. on April 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover

I very much enjoyed this book. It’s a quick but thought-provoking read, and I plan to re-read it in the near future. In part because of his expertise in Koine, the original language of the New Testament, Wills is able to breathe life and provide insight into many well-known Biblical passages.

The viewpoint is from that of a devout believer. As I was reading Wills’s book, I was also reading “Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis, and I was struck by the similarity in outlook of the two authors. Although I recognize that some of the passages critical of church hierarchy in general and Pope Benedict XVI in particular will ruffle some feathers, Wills did not seem to stray from Scripture or interject modern political sensibilities into the Christian message. In fact, the hypocrisy of attempting to use Jesus’ message for worldly purposes is one of the book’s major themes.

What Jesus Meant” would be a good companion volume for anyone who is working through the New Testament.


He’s a good historian I enjoyed his book on St. Augustine.

I heard he prays the rosary everyday, can’t beat a devout rosary praying person.

I’m sure our Blessed Mother prays for him. But she can’t overcome willful arrogance.

Funny that Wills is a fan of Chesterton–because even as an Anglican, GKC wouldn’t have hesitated one second to put Wills into Heretics

Depends on when Chesteron would have been called upon to judge him. Wills stared out ultra conservative, and fairly orthodox in his Catholicism. He has migrated to the left, and off the res, over a 50 year period of time.

But even his un-orthodox writings like Papal Sin, can be beneficial–at least to the genuine Truth seeker, who doesn’t shy away from truth, regardless how challenging it may be.

Again, Wills is not for the Catholic who needs re-inforcement, or motivation, or inspiration… he’s for the hardened in the Faith Catholic whose face is bruised, whose body is covered with scar tissue, and whose fists are bloodied from the fight, because no question or challenge posed could ever be as difficult as those he has posed to himself.

If you need pom poms to prop your faith…stick with CS Lewis, and his cartoon Narnia kool aid. :cool:

Your post comes across as insulting and condescending, with a big dash of arrogance.

I fail to see how anyone’s faith is improved or deepened by reading heretical writings of a man who can’t even honestly admit his views are heretical.

Think of me what you will.

Your failure to ‘see how one’s faith can be improved by reading heretical writings’, seems to imply than one’s faith can only grow, if insulated from questioning, or attack.

NB: some of the greatest writings of the early Church Fathers, and many of the great saints, came from writings that were written in response to heretical writings, WHICH THEY OBVIOUSLY HAD TO READ, in order to respond to them.

e.g.–St. Ireneaus’ Against the Heresies…St. Augustine’s City of God (paganism), or his response to Pelagianism, or to Manicheaism… St. Alfonsus de Marie de Liguori’s History of the Heresies…among literally hundreds of others…

So to answer your question…sometimes the best way to hone one’s faith…is to challenge it…and expose it to challenge.

But hey…that’s JMHO.

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