Pope Francis takes down the right: "I don’t think the bishops are going to come flocking around (Santorum) any more"

Catholic scholar Garry Wills talks contraception, religious right and his new book on pope and the church's future

Published March 21, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Max Rossi/Joe Skipper/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Max Rossi/Joe Skipper/Photo montage by Salon)

Those seeking prognostication from Garry Wills’ new book, “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis,” will be disappointed. Despite its forward-looking name, the book is almost exclusively about the past.

This is only partly a function of misleading marketing. It also reflects an elegant commitment to the idea that one can see the future in the patterns of history. Wills is an esteemed Catholic writer and historian. Looking back at two millennia of Catholic history, he sees a church in persistent flux: practices come and go (regular confession, for example, wasn’t mandated until the 13th century, and is now in decline), as do languages (Latin, anyone?), institutions (the pope used to have his own army) and political tools (interdict, which used to be huge. Ever heard of it?).

Wills’ book is an erudite rebuke to those modern-day traditionalists who insist that Catholicism is an unbroken heritage and that any kind of reform would be sacrilege. And, even if Wills doesn’t talk much about what reforms are on the horizon, he does give a hopeful imprimatur to the whole idea of progressive Catholicism, of the kind that Pope Francis seems to be (delicately) championing. Wills’ implication: Yes, change is possible. And regardless of what the traditionalists say, change is not inauthentic.

Over the phone, Wills spoke with Salon about contraception, Rick Santorum and why he hopes the Catholic Church will become more Protestant.

About a month before Pope Francis’ election, you wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope.” Then the cardinals elected Francis. Are you feeling a little better now?

Oh, absolutely. Much better. He reminds me of [Pope] John XXIII, which was the last time I really hoped for the pope.

How healthy is the church that Pope Francis has inherited?

Well, it’s very healthy in many of its branches, and moribund in others, and stifled or stifling in others, which is always the case. The church spans many cultures. One of the problems of the pope is that he has to speak to all sides. Now, that can stultify a pope, in which neutrality becomes an end in itself.

There is no greater force for charity around the world than the church. But one of the sad things about these previous papacies is that the work of the charity people — the nuns, the ones working in AIDS hospitals, etc.; the ones seeing what horrible damage was done in Africa by the refusal to allow condoms to be distributed — they’ve tried to quash all of that. Both the preceding popes, they couldn’t succeed because the nuns just didn’t pay attention. And that’s always an encouraging thing, when the papacy gets repressive: the very healthy Catholic instinct just to ignore the pope.

Looking at all the media coverage of Francis, you start to feel as if he’s the only person in the entire Vatican. But how much power does a pope actually have?

Well, of course he’s limited. All bureaucracies have inertia. And this very longstanding institution has tremendous inertia, so working for change is very difficult. He’s got the special, added difficulty that no pope has had before him, that his predecessor is living just next door.

He’s moving very shrewdly, it seems to me. You can’t be a pope and try to break off the tradition of popes. You can’t kick out the props under your own throne. That’s why he knows that he can’t impose change just on his own say-so — that he has to allow the forces of change, which have certainly been gathering and strengthening, to surface and be more effective.

It’s very easy to imagine the Catholic Church as this giant, static thing. How much is that perception of unchanging tradition a delusion?

I think it is a delusion. The papacy came into being in an age of monarchs, male monarchs mainly. So it made sense for it to become a monarchy. But in the 19th century, finally, it ceased to be an effective monarchy by having its army and its prisons taken away from Pius IX, as much as he fought against that. The papacy is just one thing that has come and faded in importance.

People who lived in the 15th, 16th century probably couldn’t imagine the church without interdict, which is the power of the papacy to forbid sacraments to be administered in any state that he was fighting with. An incredibly powerful thing, but it was ignored, of course. It’s not an encyclical that said, “Oh, no more interdict.” The life of the church just shrugged it off. It’s done that in case after case. It did it with the ban on usury, for instance.

If you have any sense of history, you realize that the Church is not fixed in one culture or one configuration over all time.

Are traditionalists in the Church willing to acknowledge the kind of changes that you chronicle in your book?

No. They have staked their intellectual capital on the idea that what we have here was always there, directly from the time of Jesus and the apostles. There might have been little surface eddies and swirls and that kind of thing, but essentially it’s just one continuum. They really believe what everybody says and doesn’t believe — for instance that the pope is the inheritor of the power of Peter, the first bishop of Rome. Any serious Catholic thinker knows Peter was never the bishop of Rome, and the history of the early papacy is largely a fiction.

But when the next pope is selected, ABC and CBS and CNN will all be there saying, “Well they’re now electing the successor of Peter, the archbishop of Rome.” Everybody says that, but very few people believe it. But the traditionalists do. It makes life a lot easier. All you have to do is defend what’s happening now, and not even look at all the intervening centuries between Jesus and now.

What’s the appeal of believing in a perfectly continuous tradition?

Well, it’s a very easy intellectual shortcut, because you don’t have to study much. It also gave bishops around the world a lot of power. Their careers, their success, really depended on their saying that the Church teaching is fixed, because they wouldn’t have been made bishops by John Paul II or Benedict XVI unless they had toed the line on contraception, on abortion, on all those things.

So you had two things: you have the actual, living Catholicism of the laity and their priests; and then the governing Catholicism of the popes and the bishops, and that total disjunction. For instance, on contraception, over 85 percent of Catholics practice it, and their priests know that and don’t say anything about it. But the bishops not only had to insist on it in order to become bishops — that was part of the litmus test — but they had intruded into American politics, saying, “Oh, you can’t have Obamacare because it gives money to contraception.” As if that mattered to ordinary Catholics. It doesn’t matter a bit. It only matters to those bishops because that was how they pleased Rome.

Francis is going to be visiting the United States in September, right as the presidential campaign starts to heat up. Do you think he’ll step into these debates all?

I think he will wisely stay away from any direct involvement. Any impact he has will have already occurred. That is, bishops now know that their path up is not to insist on contraception, etc.

From this moment on, with the exception of the really diehard, bishops are going to have changed their tone on that long before he arrives on our shores. The tone in the ordinary Catholic life has changed already. I go to a campus church, which like most campus churches is fairly liberal. But even there, the tone has changed abruptly. There is much more emphasis on the poor, much more emphasis on forgiveness. If [Francis’ influence] has registered there, I think it’s registered even more dramatically at other parishes and ministries.

After the last State of the Union speech, some commentators argued that Obama was actually directing his message at the next Democratic presidential candidate — that, in other words, he’s now trying to shape policy years down the line, rather than in the immediate future. It seems like Pope Francis may be in the same situation. Can the Vatican be instructive for our own byzantine, gridlocked political system?

The president’s legacy is often the Supreme Court justices he picks, who are around a long time after he’s gone and have a tremendous impact. This pope’s effect will depend on how long he lives and how many bishops he gets to appoint. His appointment of [Blase J.] Cupich in Chicago is a very good sign, because if he appoints bishops like that in sufficient numbers, then I think we’ll have a very rich development of what he’s trying to do.

[John Paul II] had a popularity that carried him a long way in areas where people wouldn’t have agreed with him on any other grounds than, “Well, he’s this towering figure.” So that gave him the power to appoint these bishops who had to pass the test of opposing marrying priests, opposing contraception, opposing abortion, opposing gay marriage, all those things.

Reading your book, I was most surprised to learn how the Church justifies barring women from the priesthood. I expected the justification to at least be coherent. But it seems incredibly flimsy.

There are no grounds for it. First of all, we didn’t have priests to begin with. There were no priests in the New Testament except Jewish priests. And the arguments for [having a priesthood] are very crazy. The first argument for it occurs in the epistle to the Hebrews, at the end of the first century, and it says, Well, Jesus couldn’t have been a priest because he wasn’t a member of the priestly tribe. And then it says, That doesn’t matter, he was a member of the Malchizedek tribe — which wasn’t a tribe, and Malchizedek wasn’t even a Jew.

So the arguments have always been naive for what makes a priest. When you get down to Paul VI saying that [the ban on female priests is] because women don’t look like Jesus, it really shows how inane the arguments have been.

As you point out in the book, Francis was friends with the late Clelia Luro, an Argentinian woman who challenged priestly celibacy and led masses alongside her husband, a former bishop. How much do you think the Pope is dividing his public persona from his private thoughts on this issue?

Well, I think we all do that to some extent. We all have a position that makes certain demands on us that we don’t recognize as ruling all of our life. But he is ecumenical in all kinds of ways. He realizes that the followers of Jesus are much brighter than the Catholic church. He will show that in all kinds of ways. It goes against the tradition that salvation is only in the Catholic Church, there’s only one true church, etc. But the actions that he’s performing, when he washes the feet of Muslim women and he does all these things — Catholics don’t exist only to be nice to Catholics. He’s proving that beautifully.

In terms of public Catholicism, people like Rick Santorum tend to be standard bearers in the United States. It’s fascinating to have a celebrity Catholic figure who’s highlighting this other way of being Catholic.

Well, the bishops were closer to Santorum, but the Catholic people were not. Did you read Frank Bruni’s recent column about his mother?

No, I missed it.

She is a very devout Catholic and just laughed off the idea that she would not touch a contraceptive. Bruni is saying that’s always been the real Catholic life in America, and it’s about time that the hierarchy got in touch with that. [Santorum] hardly speaks for the ordinary Catholic. He speaks for the ordinary bishop. Or he did. I don’t think the bishops are going to come flocking around him any more.

Is it realistic to have a universal church — in other words, to have an institution that’s this gigantic, but still trying to be centralized?

The universal church should be all believers in Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, when the first disciples go out on their own and they come back, Jesus says, Well, how did you do? John says, Terrifically, we were casting out devils and people were listening to the good news, and then we came across someone who was casting out devils in your name. But he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to stop. Jesus said, Why did you do that? If he did it in my name, he’s not against me.

That should be the universal church. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Easterns, are all doing it in the name of Jesus. How can the Catholics say stop, you’re not one of us?

Do you think the Catholic church is getting more Protestant?

I hope so.


I’ve had Catholics say to me, “You’re no better than a Protestant.” I say, “Wow, you got me. Good job.” Of course, we’re becoming more Protestant, rather than becoming more Catholic. The abuses that Luther attacked — indulgences, papal wealth, all those things — those were all true. So it was a bad turn for everybody involved to break up in that way, and we should try to heal it. Lots of people are trying.

So, what do you think the Church will look like in a hundred years?

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t predict. I know there’s all kinds of factors that are outside the control of the Church, or of any of us to foresee. I think that the Church will continue to exist in some form or other, so long as it clings to Jesus and to the preachings of Jesus. That’s survived all these changes and I think will always survive. That’s what being a believer means.

By Michael Schulson

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