This is the cover of "The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis" by Garry Wills. CNS photo

Wills’ future stuck in the past

By  Carolyn Savoie, Catholic Register Special
  • May 9, 2015

The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis by Garry Wills. (Penguin, 288 pages, hardcover, $32.95)

At first glance, Garry Wills’ latest book might appear to offer insight into the life and intentions of Pope Francis. But anyone familiar with Wills’ polarizing views might well guess that is not the case. He does discuss Pope Francis — in the introduction and in the epilogue — but his treatment of the Pope is minimal.

The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis is mostly a journey through the Church’s past. Wills leads us to examine moments of major change in Church history. He builds a case that change is inevitable and change is necessary.
“I want to trace, in this book, how change — far from being the enemy of Catholicism — is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and out.” Change, Wills claims, will come again through our current pontiff.

The book is an extended essay. Wills presents his arguments, heavily referencing the Gospel, Church fathers and ecumenical councils. He is a skilled writer, an academic and an effective debater — but far from winning over every reader, his style is more likely to further provoke debate.  

Wills presents an academic and historical approach to changes in the Church, but there is a tone of antagonism towards certain traditions. This should lead the reader to question whether he is presenting both sides of the story.

Other Church historians would be better placed to comment on the accuracy of the early historical content. However, it is clearly an approach that places great emphasis on what he regards as the questionable origins of Church hierarchy while trying to deconstruct papal authority. Poking holes in what most Catholics assume about the history of the popes gives Wills a start on arguments he will make about the current state of Catholicism in the last few chapters.

Wills’ history of change in the Church begins with the emergence of Latin-only liturgies and builds to the factors that contributed to an eventual eclipse of Latin after Vatican II. Next, he returns to the early Church to discuss the changing perception of what constituted holiness —  first with the rise of martyrdom, where “the desire for martyrdom became the mark of the ‘true’ Christian.” When martyrdom wasn’t available, it was replaced by asceticism in the fourth century.

Contrary to martyrdom’s public display of faith, the new ascetic ethos created a withdrawn, contemplative faith.
Wills then provides a perspective on the emergence of Church and state, under the guidance of Constantine in Constantinople. From there Wills outlines Rome’s struggle for power through the “fictive office of Peter” and other “inventions.” He argues that the current papacy cannot be traced directly back to Peter, as “the Roman Church, not having a bishop until the second century, could not have recorded a line of bishops before that, and was hazily sketched in after that.”

A few chapters are devoted to discussing the “outright war” against American pluralism declared by Pope Leo XIII in the late 1800s and the Church’s later reversal on the issue.

Following chapters deal with the Church and anti-Semitism. “That the Christian Church, both Western and Eastern, both Catholic and Protestant, was for so long anti-Semitic is a tragic absurdity,” he writes.

By the time the reader reaches Chapter 16 it is clear that Wills is building a case for change by showing where the Church has flip-flopped or by insisting that there is not enough historical evidence of a tradition’s origins for it to retain a place of importance in the modern Church.  

Here the book begins to deal with current and divisive issues. Wills shows his polarizing views on sexuality, contraception, abortion, the role of women in the Church and more.

While he does not make a clear pronouncement on what is right or wrong in each of these cases, he leans heavily on evidence which contradicts the Church’s official position when there is evidence readily available. For example, in the section where he deals with the effectiveness of natural family planning, which he refers to as the “rhythm method,” Wills not only cites outdated materials but he makes inaccurate claims.

For Wills, the Church’s teachings about sex are in need of change to bring them in line with the real lives of real Catholics. Yet he appears to ignore the reality that today, in 2015, there are a host of resources — from teaching practitioners to phone apps which make it easier than ever to follow the Church’s teaching on family planning. Wills is highly critical of Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the human body and sexuality, but his critique relies rather heavily on personal opinion.
There is a similar approach to abortion, where he argues that “abortion cannot be forbidden on scriptural grounds” and provides several arguments which favour a woman’s right to choose.

“Those who invoke the murky ‘rights’ of a fetus over the undoubted rights of a prospective mother seem to be backing a cloudy prospect over an assured fact,” he writes.

In the end, Wills sees Pope Francis as the catalyst for inevitable change in the Church. However, he has expounded issues which, particularly in the United States and in Canada, are clearly divisive and which would require outright reversal of Church teaching for there to be the kind of change he envisions. He does not think that Pope Francis will make these changes alone, but will “encourage others to respond with him.”

The greatest problem is that Wills’ view of the Church today is stuck in the past. He is dwelling on American issues rooted in the 1960s.

To a Canadian, living and breathing Church teaching with positive and healthy results, this book comes across as stuffy and misguided, even though there are some interesting points worth considering. While those who already agree with him on contentious contemporary issues might praise this book, it will do little to sway opinions from the other side.  

(Savoie is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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