That the abused child will defend its parent is no arcane phenomenon of child psychology–hell, we’ve seen it on Law and Order. Regardless of the degree of abuse involved, or the appurtenant, wholesale betrayal of trust and responsibility, even the most misused kids define themselves so wholly with their abusers that to point an accusing finger is often beyond their capacity for self-definition. This has always seemed to me a pretty good analogy for why most Catholics–and I share the faith–defend their church.
Garry Wills is not most Catholics, of course. And most Catholics aren’t Garry Wills. One of our more muscular thinkers and prolific writers on politics, art and religion, and their attendant crimes–most notably in his recent, occasional, scab-ripping New York Review of Books pieces on the church’s sex-abuse scandal (which is what prompted Houghton Mifflin to move up the publication of Why I Am a Catholic by three months)–the writer is also a devout believer, one who regularly attends mass, says the rosary and actually has a belief system that justifies his belief system. Which is, again, more than you can say for most Catholics. Or most people.
But in 2000 he published Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, a scathing treatise on the recent papacy’s intellectual offenses and reign of terror against all things Modernist. Wills must have known he’d have to answer for his "sin," so to speak–even though, in the introduction to Why I Am a Catholic, he calls the new book "unintended."
"Unintended," he writes, "because I thought that book treated a narrowly defined and self-enclosed topic, the papacy’s dishonesty in its recent (antimodern) era. Some read the book as something else, which they indicated by changing the title from ‘Papal Sin’ to ‘Papal Sins’–as if I were covering the whole subject of papal misbehavior over the centuries."
He gets to that in his new book, just as he eventually answers the question raised by its title. It turns out to be the essence not just of the work at hand but of Wills’s spiritual life: "I am a Catholic because of the Creed." That is, the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest articulation we have of Christian belief, which predates the popes, and which has little to do with what we think of as the uppercase Church.
The church, Wills implies, should not be uppercase at all. The essential difference of opinion between the author and the current Pope–whose increasingly crippled, corporeal self is a fitting metaphor for what he’s done to Catholicism–is how they define the church itself. For John Paul II–and most popes, particularly since that inquisitional infallibility theorist Pius IX–the church est moi. For Wills–who has Scripture on his side–the church is the people who choose to be in it.
Which is why Catholics, Wills writes, particularly American Catholics, can still identify themselves as such. This despite polls showing their overwhelming disagreement, however passive, on almost every issue with which Rome has failed to distinguish itself over the past three-plus decades: contraception, abortion, the practice of homosexuality, priestly celibacy. The creed may be why Wills is Catholic, and why he doesn’t flee for another sect. (Protestantism was founded by "heretics," and Wills doesn’t like heretics, comparing them to the kind of American who declares he or she will "leave the country" if so-and-so is elected. They usually don’t, but they’re vaguely traitorous, as well as hubristic, even for saying it.) There’s a dependency issue among some Catholics that Wills doesn’t touch, and a defiant "love it or leave it" mentality that you wish he would. But he’s entirely too Christian to mix it up with militants.