Why I Am a Catholic

Why I Am a Catholic

by Garry Wills


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In this provocative work, which could not be timelier, Garry Wills, one of our country's most noted writers and historians, offers a powerful statement of his Catholic faith. Beginning with a reflection on his early experience of that faith as a child and later as a Jesuit seminarian, Wills reveals the importance of Catholicism in his own life. He goes on to challenge, in clear and forceful terms, the claim that criticism or reform of the papacy is an assault on the faith itself. For Wills, a Catholic can be both loyal and critical, a loving child who stays with his father even if the parent is wrong.
Wills turns outward from his personal experiences to present a sweeping narrative covering two thousand years of church history, revealing that the papacy, far from being an unchanging institution, has been transformed dramatically over the millennia -- and can be reimagined in the future. At a time when the church faces one of its most difficult crises, Garry Wills offers an important and compelling entrée into the discussion of the church's past -- and its future.
Intellectually brisk and spiritually moving, Why I Am a Catholic poses urgent questions for Catholic and non-Catholic readers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618380480
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/01/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 418
Sales rank: 634,326
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

GARRY WILLS, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, and the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he has won many awards, among them two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. He is a history professor emeritus at Northwestern University.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt


this book is an unintended sequel to my Papal Sin (2000)--unintended
because I thought that book treated a narrowly defined and self-
enclosed topic, the papacy's dishonesty in its recent (anti-modern)
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.
It is true that I dealt with a number of disparate things--from
papal treatment of Jews to claims of priestly prerogative, from
documents on gays to condemnations of artificial insemination. But
these were brought up not for consideration in themselves, only for
the way dishonesty was used, in recent times, to defend whatever
papal position was involved. Some Catholics asked why I was exposing
the church's "dirty linen," though I did not mention anything that
had not been fully ventilated in public. The newspapers had been full
of controversy over pedophile priests, or papal relations with Jews,
or the dissent of Catholic women and gays. Those were all out in the
open. I revealed nothing about them--in fact, some conservative
critics of my book dismissed it as containing "nothing new."

What was, if not new, then somewhat different, was my
argument that these matters should not be considered in isolation, as
if exhibiting different vices within the hierarchy--its anti-
Semitism, or antifeminism, or homophobia, or even a secret sympathy
with pedophilia. I do not believe the modern papacy is afflicted with
these attitudes. There has, on the contrary, been a sincere reaching
out toJews and women and gays--but all these gestures have been
checked or rendered abortive by a continuing nervous insistence
that "the church" (by which these apologists mean the papacy) never
really taught anything erroneous about these people. That is a claim
that can be made only with the help of tendentious readings of
history, suppression of evidence, or distortion of the evidence.
These maneuvers are justified--by those who think they must
shoulder, all alone, the Spirit's role of protecting the church--as
necessary measures to protect the mission of Christ. One of the most
common objections to the book was the "everybody does it" argument--
that is, leaders of every kind have to protect their organizations by
stretching or evading or denying the exact truth about it. Those
making this defense are the ones who do not really believe in the
church, who think it can survive only by acting like any other
political body. Admittedly, the rationale for such protective
attitudes is different with church rulers--but only in the sense
that they are protecting something more important than any mere
earthly authority. This makes playing fast and loose with the truth
more rather than less justifiable in their eyes. Anyone who doubts
that this is the attitude should consider the long and energetic
efforts of the hierarchy to cover up cases of priestly pedophilia.
Abusing young innocence is not only a crime but a particularly vile
crime, and covering it up is a crime added to a crime. Are the church
authorities who did this moral monsters? What can have been their
motive? They reasoned this way: since the saving truth of the gospel
will reach more souls in need of it if they feel that priests
bringing it to them are holy, it is necessary--for the good of
souls and the honor of God--to maintain the priestly aura with deception.
That is: the truth must be served with lies. There can even be a
certain moral pride in the sacrifice of one's own repugnance to the
crime, a sacrifice in service to the higher good of the corporate
body. The Holy Spirit must appreciate this aid brought to the cause.
Any other explanation for their behavior, I submit, does them
an injustice. They thought they were doing the right thing--
naturally, since covering up the truth is such an ingrained habit
with them. I was often asked, about my book, "Do you really think
the pope and the pope's men deliberately lie?" Not quite. That is why
the book's subtitle is Structures of Deceit. Given the priority of
protecting the divine aura, and the terrible consequences of allowing
it to be tarnished, the authorities do not allow the separate issue
of truthfulness to distract them from the exigencies of their task.
It is a luxury forgone, kept out of view, to be postponed while they
meet immediate emergencies.
My book traced the same attitude in other and less lurid
suppressions of the truth. I did not claim, for instance, that Pius
XII sympathized with Nazism; I do not think he did. I expressly
stipulated that he might have had a justifiable fear that action on
his part would hurt those it meant to help. I focused instead on his
post-war claim that he had not been silent, that he had spoken
out "several times" against the Holocaust. That was dishonest. That
came within the scope of my book. (Some of his defenders find
themselves in the odd position of saying that his silence was
justified but that he did not, in fact, keep silent. If silence was
justified, after all, he should have maintained it.)
In the same way, I did not deny that the priesthood is a
legitimate development in the history of the church; I said only that
Paul VI was wrong when he denied that it was a development, claiming
that it was instituted during Christ's lifetime. Similarly, on the
subject of priestly celibacy, Pope Paul relied on a fundamentalist
reading of Matthew 19.11¡V12, which speaks of eunuchizing oneself,
though he does not read in a fundamentalist way a similar passage
like that recommending that one tear out an eye or cut off a hand (Mt
5.29¡V30). It was dishonest for the same pope to write a lengthy
encyclical on celibacy while suppressing the most relevant text (1
Cor 9.5). It was what I called "intellectually contemptible" for
the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to say women
cannot be ordained because they do not look like Jesus (Inter
insigniores 27).
I did not deny that there is a justification for the papacy--
how could I, since I was praising John XXIII? I criticized a Curia
that claims the papacy was not a development, that it was instituted
in the New Testament, finding its first expression in Peter's (non-
existent) role as Rome's first bishop. Strange to say, I was
criticized as a fundamentalist when I pointed out that this
fundamentalist argument is invalid. That did not mean, and I have
never said, that there is no defense of the papacy. But that was not
my book's topic. Dishonesty was.
I did not anticipate, though I should have, that people would
write me, in large numbers, sincerely asking what would be a valid
defense of the papacy. How does one remain a Catholic while
criticizing some of the church's authority figures? I have never
received mail of this kind or quantity in my forty years of writing.
Most people who wrote me in the past were upset or outraged at
something I had published. Those who agree with you just nod, most
often, in silent agreement and move on; they have no need to vent
their feeling. But in this case the overwhelming number--over
ninety percent--of letters and calls and comments began or ended with a
thank-you for expressing what the correspondents felt, for letting
them know they are not alone or that their own views could be
expressed. These correspondents included priests and nuns who
welcomed the call for candor in the church. That made all the more
compelling some requests that I expand my book's closing comments on
what positive things the church does or can do. What, they asked
explicitly or implicitly, are the grounds of my own hope? Why am I
still a Catholic? This I took as their way of exploring why they
remain in the church. They were asking to compare notes.
Naturally, there were negative reactions to the book--in
some cases, extremely negative. These differed from the first and
larger group of responses in many ways. For one thing, the writers
expressing gratitude proved by their questions that they had read the
book. But some of the angriest letters I got admitted that the writer
had not read my book, only some review of it in a conservative
publication on the Internet or elsewhere. (I had not realized there
are so many right-wing Catholic organs, ones I had never heard of,
nor had Catholic friends I asked about them.) The first group asked
how I stayed in the church. The second asked why I did not leave.
Those writing out of gratitude assumed that I shared their (sometimes
baffled) love of the church. The accusatory group flatly informed me
that I hate the church, that I stay in it only to harm it, that I
should get out before I do it irreparable damage. (Despite their
belief in the church's divine mandate, these people express a great
anxiety over its fragility--another attitude that makes shoring up
the church with any material, even lies, seem justified.) So this
group, too, asked, why I am still a Catholic, but in a different tone
of voice. They meant, "Why are you keeping up this pose?"
A third body of responses to the book was neither as
approving nor as disapproving as the first two. This was made up of
non-Catholics (and some ex-Catholics) who were puzzled or bemused by
the book, and by responses to it. On the one hand, they assumed that
Catholics cannot "get away with" criticism of church authorities,
and wondered why I had not been expelled. Non-Catholics are more certain
that the church is authoritarian than Catholics are. Since they do
not believe that the church is the people of God, and not simply the
pope, they equate criticism of the part with condemnation of the
whole. On the other hand, they wondered why I bother arguing about
the church, which is for them an irrelevancy, though an interesting
one. These secular observers treated me as an anomaly, to be
explained each in his preferred way. Martin Gardner in the Los
Angeles Times said that I do not seem entirely nutty--I probably do
not really believe, for instance, that a whale swallowed Jonah--so
I must not be a Catholic after all. Richard Rorty in the New York Times
thought I was right to criticize dishonesty in church leaders but
wrong to expect anything else--if the church tried to tell the
truth, he said, it would perish. Falsehood is its necessary
foundation. They too had a different tone of voice in asking why I am
still a Catholic. They meant, "How can anyone not clearly a nut
remain there?"
Of course I do not believe that one has to be nutty in order
to be a Catholic (though there are nutty Catholics, just as there are
nutty secularists). Nor do I think church leaders must lie in order
to keep their organization afloat (some have actually told the truth,
and it made the bark more seaworthy). But it seems unlikely I will
convince those who are sure that the Catholic church cannot be taken
seriously. I will mainly address, therefore, those in the first two
groups, those who do take the church seriously but wonder how I can
still take it seriously after having criticized its leadership so
When I was growing up, saying why one was a Catholic would
not have focused so much on one's attitude toward the papacy. For
Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, the pope was a
revered figure, but a distant one. We wondered why people like Paul
Blanshard made so much of him, why Protestants and Others United for
the Separation of Church and State were so sure that we followed his
marching orders for the subversion of democracy. Actually, we didn't
know much about the positions alleged against him. Our piety had
other bases. But now the pope is a celebrity who has been given vast
media coverage, especially when he visits our shores (something
unthinkable when I was a child). Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican
Council made Roman church politics a hot topic that literate people
discussed--adverting, for instance, to the long New Yorker
dispatches from the council. Papal attitudes came under a new degree
of scrutiny--attitudes toward other hot topics, like women and sex.
The church's historical relationship with Jews has become
particularly contentious. And the pope is at the center of these
debates. Vatican II was supposed to diffuse authority in the church,
making it more collegial, a thing shared by the whole body of
bishops. But John Paul II has been more the center of action than any
pope of the modern era, thanks to his charm, intelligence, and
energy--and thanks to the uncompromising stand he has taken on
issue after issue. He is an intriguing combination of personal popularity
in service to unpopular positions. He is un-ignorable.
I cannot go back to the era when the pope could be, if not
ignored, at least not made so much of. I am not a Catholic because of
the pope. I am a Catholic because of the creed. I believe in that,
and it does not mention the pope. In fact, it was formulated before
there was a pope--but even to say that involves one in long
arguments on the history of the papacy. Some have asked, Why not just
keep the creed but forget the pope? Why not go to the Episcopal or
Lutheran church, or join Eastern Orthodox Christians? But the pope is
one of the reasons I stay, not a reason for going. I continually read
the New Testament, after all, so wherever I find Christ, I expect to
find Peter close to him. But the Apostle's relationship to his
savior, always close, is never quite the same from era to era, and
its current form will no more be its permanent one than were any of
the earlier embodiments. There have been many papacies, and reaching
a reasoned relationship with the current one entails taking a long
hard look at the history of the institution. It also means learning
that no Christian church is perfect--not even the Episcopal or
Lutheran or Orthodox. We flawed believers live with our flawed fellow
believers, even with flawed brothers like the pope.
I feel a bit uncomfortable making this book so personal. The
church is a big thing; it will survive; it does not need my small
testimony. But the questions addressed to me were uncommonly
personal. They make me think that I am speaking for the first group
of people, who remain in the church despite their own criticisms of
the papacy, against the charges of the second and third groups. If I
am a false Catholic, an insincere or a nutty one, then so are they.
If I am told to "get out," or to "wise up," then so are my fellow
troubled believers. Troubled belief is not disbelief, though "true
believers" take it for that. I began, like all born Catholics, with
serene certitudes instilled in me by my family and teachers. But
those cannot be sustained without change while the believer grows up.
An unexamined faith is not a faith. It is a superstition. The process
of questioning one's faith is one that I have undergone with many,
if not most, believers, most certainly with the ones who said they
shared my critical attitude toward the pope without losing their
fundamental commitment to the church. Though I may not always be
speaking for them, I think my own development as a Catholic is not
peculiar to me but analogous to their experience. I am not a special
case, but in many ways a typical one.
I begin, then, with my own experience of growing up Catholic.
Critics of Papal Sin told me (and others) that I was expressing
hatred for the church, reflecting no doubt some bitter experience
with it, some resentment at what it did to me, some rebellion against
what it asked of me. In fact, my experience with the church has been
of a supporting and nurturing body, and I have never felt closer to
it than I do now. I benefited from marvelous teachers, who taught me
to question, and from a supportive family that was not disturbed by
such questioning. I describe that world in this book's first part,
establishing a background to answering the question, Why am I still a
But it is only a background. Eventually, given the salience
of the modern papacy, and the urgency of the many contentious issues
it has addressed, my faith had to come to terms with the complex
reality of the church's hierarchy. This leads to a long excursus on
the history of Peter as a Gospel symbol, of the pope in the church
(the first millennium of Catholicism) and of the pope above the
church (the history of the second millennium) and of the church
revitalizing the papacy (our modern condition). This excursus--a
long one, but necessary for addressing the issue of the papacy as a
historical (not just a dogmatic) reality--fills Parts II through IV
of the book. Only when I have suggested how the creed can be
integrated with acceptance of the papacy do I reach (in Part V) the
real object of my belief, the creed. That, after all, is why I am a

Part I

In 1928, when Al Smith became the first Catholic to run for president
of the United States, he was asked about certain anti-democratic
statements in papal documents. He said he had never heard of the
documents. Neither had most American Catholics. We thought our duty
to the pope was discharged when we learned the catechism and donated
to the annual "Peter's Pence" drive for the Vatican. The pope was
not a daily presence in our lives. Pius XII was as much the pope for my
generation as F.D.R. was the president. But I knew more and cared
more for F.D.R. than for Pius XII. I presume there was a picture of
Pius on our school wall, though I presume rather than remember it.
Roosevelt, who took office two years before I was born and
served thirteen years, was part of my mental iconography all through
World War II, when my father was in the army and my schoolmates and I
were fighting the war in our games, very much aware that Roosevelt
was leading the war effort. Pius, who became pope five years after I
was born and held that office for nineteen years, never had the same
claim on my imagination or that of my friends. Catholicism for us
meant the local church and school, priests and nuns.
There seemed to be a good feeling about Catholic culture in
America, reflected in the movies, which was undisturbed by disputes
over the pope--a feeling true to our own sense of the situation,
even though it was sentimentally commercialized. Nuns were played by
the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, and Alida
Valli. The priests were Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy,
Frank Sinatra, and Montgomery Clift. The TV face of Catholicism was
Fulton Sheen, complete with an angel as the eraser-boy for his
blackboard. One of the few dissonant notes was struck by Mary
McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and that book had little
to do with the institutional church, for the simple reason that
McCarthy had had little to do with the institutional church.
In the 1960s, this saccharine view yielded to new memories of
Catholic childhood, memories peopled with coercive nuns and creepy
priests, not a single Bing Crosby type among them. Though I could see
the sappiness of the old view, the new one did not reflect my own
background. In 1964, while the Second Vatican Council was still in
session, I was asked to contribute to an early volume of these
souring recollections, The Generation of the Third Eye, edited by
Daniel Callahan, but I had to confess that I had no life-darkening
experiences to provide. The only nun I mentioned was the one to whom
this book is dedicated, Anne O'Connor, who was still reading my
writings then, just as she had when I was in the eighth grade, and as
she continued to do till her death thirty years later.
Though I had encountered some less than admirable priests in
my constant exposure to the church, I found fewer outright scoundrels
there than I would later meet in the worlds of business and the
academy and journalism. I could see the false note of forced jollity
in The Bells of Saint Mary's, but the Saint Mary's I attended as a
grade school student had done me nothing but good. I learned to be
critical of my Catholic training, in large part because of that
Catholic training; but this never made me believe less in the church.
It always was, and still is, a flawed carrier of the truths of the
faith--nonetheless, it carries them. That is what makes it the
church on earth and not a paradise that will need no church.

Chapter 1
Saint Mary's and Campion

there is something eerie about having total strangers describe to you
the inmost recesses of your soul. I opened letter after letter
explaining to me in some detail why I hated my church, had it in for
the Blessed Virgin, and dismissed the Holy Spirit. This was news to
me, and would be to Catholics who know me, including the many nuns
and priests who have been guides and helpers all my life. I am a born
Catholic. I have never stopped going to Mass, saying the rosary,
studying the Gospels. I have never even considered leaving the
church. I would lose my faith in God before losing my faith in it. In
fact, the closest I have come to disbelief in God was when I was
deepest in the social coils of the church, as a seminarian studying
to be a priest. Before that, my upbringing had made me as little
questioning as most of the Catholics around me in the 1940s.
I had no reason to doubt the good will and piety of those who
cared for me. It was the Catholic part of my life--the Irish
Catholic side of the family--that was most supportive and
stimulating. My younger sister and I much preferred our mother's
parents, Con and Rose Collins of Atlanta, to our father's parents,
Garry and Ginny Wills of Oak Park. The Willses were originally
Episcopalians from Norfolk, but Garry was an agnostic and Ginny had
become a Christian Scientist by the time we knew them. When our
grandmother Wills babysat us, during our parents' absence, she tried
very hard to improve us--our manners, our diction, our reading
habits (out with the comic books). She loved us, I suppose, but in a
cold and fussy way, a kind of love we found it hard to reciprocate.
The Irish side, by contrast, was all love and little
improving. The Collinses had their faults, some recognized (the
drink), some not (the racism), but they made children feel instantly
at home. They had thick Southern accents (my mother's returned when
she went back home), outgoing ways, and an unpretentious but
omnipresent piety. Their house contained a large statue of the Sacred
Heart that awed us, and many pictures of the Virgin. In Lent and on
holy days we knelt down and said the rosary together. It was a
Catholic home, even in stereotypical ways. It held a large family--
Rose had eight difficult childbirths, though four of the babies were
either stillborn or died soon after delivery. Only one boy lived,
Bernard. He entered a Jesuit college (Spring Hill) but had to
withdraw almost at once, since Con lost his job during the
Depression. Of the three sisters, only the youngest, Anne, finished
high school, since the Depression was over by the time she reached
her teens. The extended family on both the Collins and the Driscoll
side was thick with priests, who dropped in for some of Rose's
wonderful cooking, making friendly priests a part of my social world
from the outset. When at Christmas or Thanksgiving we visited
Atlanta--or later, when the Collinses moved there, Louisville--the
house was webbed with aromas from Rose's kitchen, and there were
more people than beds. My sister and I slept on the floor--we thought
that a great adventure. The Wills home seemed sterile by contrast,
full of boring classical music and of objets d'art we could not
touch (Ginny was an amateur artist of some talent).
Though my father, Jack, was not a Catholic (he became one
after we had grown up), he honored the pledge he took to raise his
children in the church, so our mother, Mayno, brought us up in the
atmosphere of the Collinses. After my birth in Atlanta, my father had
to travel north looking for work in the Depression--first to Fort
Wayne, then to Beloit (where my sister was born), then on to Albion,
Michigan, and finally to Adrian, Michigan (just across the Ohio
border from Toledo). In Albion, my parents ran a boardinghouse on the
edge of Albion College, renting rooms to college boys. I was two at
the time, and in the boarders I had a house full of big brothers who
taught me to tie my shoes, throw a ball, and be a lure for
neighborhood girls who came to gush over me and flirt with them. My
mother was not happy at the fact that Albion had no Catholic grade
school; but by the time for me to enter first grade we had moved to
Adrian, which had a very good school (Saint Mary's), run by
Dominican sisters whose mother house (Siena Heights) is in Adrian.
I was lucky to have a teacher there who remained a lifelong
friend. She had been born on Bastille Day in Augusta, Georgia, and
baptized Marie Antoinette in honor of the day--she went by the
second name, but shortened it to the less pretentious Anne. Her
father, John Joseph O'Connor, was a graduate of the Jesuit college
at Spring Hill (the same one my uncle attended briefly), and she had
worked for the Willys-Overland car company in Toledo before entering
the convent in Adrian. In honor of her father she took as her
religious name Sister John Joseph (we kids called her Johnny-Joe
behind her back). She was in her thirties when she taught me. In her
fifties, when she had resumed her own name, she became the provincial
superior of her order in California, and she had to steer women's
colleges through the stormy sixties, which she did with a wise
Most of my childhood memories revolve around the Adrian
parish of Saint Mary's and the school attached to it. I later tried
to re-create my days there in an essay, "Memories of Catholic
Boyhood," which I included in my book Bare Ruined Choirs. It was an
exercise in nostalgia that obviously spoke to many who had shared my
experience, since I have had more requests to reprint it, or get
copies of it, than for anything else I have written. Some excerpts
will give a sense of the upbringing I am trying to describe now. Of
going to pre-school Mass on a weekday, I wrote:

We came, in winter, out of the dark into vestibule semidark, where
peeled-off galoshes spread a slush across the floor. We took off
gloves and scarves, hands still too cold to dip them in the holy
water font. Already the children's tin lunch boxes, left to steam on
the bare radiator, emanated smells of painted metal, of heated
bananas, of bologna and mayonnaise . . . Girls without hats hair-
pinned Kleenex to their heads--it fluttered as they strode to the
communion rail, like a raffish dove ill-perched on each sharer in the
mystery . . . Scapulars like big postage stamps glued here and there
on kids in swimming pools. JMJ [for Jesus Mary Joseph] at the top of
schoolwork. The sign of the cross before a foul shot. Fishing pennies
and dimes out of pockets pebbled with the fifty-nine beads and
assorted medallions of a rosary . . . Nuns who moved in their long
habits with stately calm, like statues rocking. The
deferential "ster" pinned to all sentences ("Yester" for "Yes,
Sister") . . .Holy cards of saints with eyes so strenuously upturned
as to be almost all white. The Infant of Prague bulkily packaged
in "real" clothes. The sight, in darkened churches, of a shadowy
Virgin with hands held palm-out at the level of her hips, plaster
cape flowing down from those hands toward blue votive lights unsteady
under her like troubled water. Sand under the votive candles for
putting out tapers; and a box of large kitchen matches, for lighting
tapers, stuck into the sand. The momentary waxen strangle of St.
Blaise day, as crossed candles bless one's throat.

I concluded, fondly: "It was a ghetto, but not a bad ghetto to grow
up in."
Beneath this weave of churchy incense at the school, there
was a strict discipline supporting good teachers who stressed the
basics. Grammar was instilled by endless outlining of sentences.
Rhetoric was shaped by giving rhythmic breakdowns of the same
sentences. In a way, this system worked almost too well with me.
When, at age ten, I had to transfer to a public school, I was so far
ahead of those who missed this kind of drill that another of my very
good teachers, Mildred Byfuss (later Mrs. Duckworth), pitied my
boredom in class (and countered my tendency to fool around for lack
of other occupation), telling me to go to the school library and read
books she suggested to keep me busy. Teachers, I suppose, could not
get away with that today.
Though I loved to read, I missed the nuns--I was back in
Albion, where, since there was still no Catholic school, we were sent
to Saturday catechism classes taught by laymen. My father had been
drafted, despite his two children, for the final stages of World War
II. This meant he could no longer commute from his Adrian job
(selling gas appliances) to maintain the boardinghouse in Albion. So
my parents rented the house in Adrian, and my mother moved back to
Albion, where, helped by her sister, she could look after the
boardinghouse. I acquired again that protective huddle of older
brothers from the college, who now rode me around on the handlebars
of their bikes and let me play catch with them on the college campus,
just across the street from our house. (These days, I suppose, my
mother would be criticized for letting the college boys give me rides
without a helmet.) I had older friends than those I was going to
school with--an arrangement that was repeated, in a milder way,
when Miss Byfuss persuaded my mother to let me skip sixth grade.
But when we returned to Adrian, after a year, the private
reading Miss Byfuss had directed put me ahead of my fellow students
at Saint Mary's, and Sister John Joseph said I should skip another
grade. My parents, rightly opposed to my getting too far out of my
age group, said no to this. She then recommended that I go to a more
demanding school. She idolized her older brother, who was a Jesuit
priest, so she suggested that I be sent to a Jesuit boarding school,
Campion, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I began my freshman year
there in 1947.


The Dominican nuns, who had treated me well, sent me on to the
Jesuits, who were even better to me. For one thing, they dispelled
any notion I might have that I was precocious. At Campion there were
many people as smart as I or smarter, and I was privileged to have a
number of them as friends. Some who went on to distinguished careers
are Joe Schorck as a classical scholar, Bill Birdsall as an economist
at the University of Michigan, Greg Lucey as a university president,
Bob Baker in the CIA, Lewis Ellingham as a poet. We were given an
anachronistic education in humane letters, part of the Jesuits'
already-fading Renaissance traditions. Those of us in the honors
program had four years of Latin and two years of Greek. We were back
to outlining sentences, but in two new languages. There was great
emphasis on memorizing, elocution, and debate. We were among the last
to have this kind of training, since the key factor in it--Jesuit
"scholastics"--has now disappeared. Scholastics were
Jesuit seminarians who interrupted, after the seventh year, their thirteen-
year preparation for ordination to the priesthood. They were given
time out to teach for three years in a Jesuit high school. Now there
are too few Jesuit seminarians to sustain such a system, and the
training of those who still exist has been shortened or altered to
meet other needs, making the hiatus for high school teaching a rare
exception instead of a regular part of the training. But while that
system lasted, it was a great way to inspire and test adolescent boys.
The scholastics--men still in their twenties, immersed in
studies they enjoyed, highly motivated, many of them athletic enough
to play with us (and beat us at will) in sports--made ideal
teachers. They were not only bright and hardworking in the regular
classes. They had energy left over to run informal seminars on things
like music appreciation, or to conduct reading groups, or to give
extra-credit courses in everything from theater to theology. They got
us interested in new books as well as old. When the article on which
Evelyn Waugh based The Loved One ran in a special edition of Life,
the scholastics quickly passed it around to each other and to those
of us they thought would like it. Almost all my later interests--in
Greek drama, in the New Testament, in Shakespeare, in opera, in
movies, in authors like Newman and Ruskin and Chesterton--were
initiated or accelerated by my four years at Campion.
I didn't love everything about Campion. Compulsory ROTC
courses were taught by military hacks, whose dullness was made more
grating by contrast with the scholastics in our regular classrooms.
As a freshman, I joined the debate team, whose star was Bill
Sullivan, then in his senior year--he would soon enter the Jesuits
and became a distinguished theologian (later the president of Seattle
College).My first day out for ROTC drill, when I saw Bill Sullivan,
my fellow debater, strutting about in an officer's uniform with a
silly-looking saber, I snatched the sword and made him run after me
to get it back--which he did not think very funny. He didn't think
much, either, of my dating his sister Kathy (the Sullivans lived in
Prairie du Chien). When I met Kathy as a sophomore, I asked after
Bill, who was by then a novice at the Jesuit seminary. She told me
she was amused by the way novices addressed each other in Latin as
Carissime ("dear fellow"), which they pronounced Criss-Me. Since
Kiss Me, Kate was still a new show then, I addressed my first letter to
her as "Criss-Me Kate." I wrote her on Sundays whenever I could not
go into town to see her because I had a "lost weekend."
That was another problem for me at Campion--its system
of "jugs" and "lost weekends." A jug punished minor infractions
by depriving the culprit of recreation time, consigning him instead to
the memorization of long poems, which he must recite in order to be
released. (I still remember scraps of those many verses.) A certain
number of jugs within a week led to a lost weekend--in which all
one's recreation time on Saturday and Sunday (the only days we could
go into Prairie du Chien) was spent sitting in a chair in the hallway
outside the office of the school's president, Carl Reinert, S.J. I
ran up record totals of jugs, often because I had missed daily Mass,
for which we were forced to rise at six a.m. I was insomniac in my
youth--doctors in those carefree days of pharmacology gave me
strange mixtures of medicines for it--so I often ended up, after
early lights-out, in the one room lit on each floor, the john,
reading in a stall, lifting my legs when anyone entered, in case it
was a Jesuit checking the room. Then I would sleep through Mass in
the morning. After my jugs reached a certain total, I was expelled
from the senior residence hall, where we got private rooms in our
fourth year, and sent back to the juniors' dormitory.
That experience led me to a realization that my idolized
scholastics were not all "the best and the brightest" men that the
church had to offer. There was one genuine psychopath among them--he
did not last long, I was later told, but I wondered how he had got
that far. He had a grudge against the "honors boys," which he took
out in naked hostility. One night he caught me, after my expulsion
from the senior residence, roaming its halls after dinner, when the
building was out of bounds for all but its inhabitants. He said with
manic glee, "Now I really have you." He had been part of my getting
expelled in the first place, and I did not know what new penalty he
could inflict, but I was undoubtedly obnoxious when I laughed at him
and said, "No you don't." I produced a written permission for me
to be there preparing for a debate with my partner, Bill Birdsall. The
scholastic's face was instantly contorted with pure hate, and he
lunged at me. I ran down the stairs to the first floor, out onto the
porch and down its stairs, and off across the length of the football
field that lay beside the hall. Sheer panic gave me speed, since he
was clearly in a murderous mood and he just kept coming. At last I
wore him down (he was not one of the athletic Jesuits). It was a
bitter winter night, and I had left my coat in Birdsall's room, but
I stayed out for as long as I could bear the cold, and then circled the
long way back to my dorm, in case he was lying in wait for me (I
think he was).
This one exception to the general excellence did not tarnish
my view of the scholastics. Nor did I ponder much the difference
between these young men and the older Jesuits, already priests, who
held administrative and some teaching posts at the school. The energy
and curiosity of the seminarians had faded into odd hobbies or rote
performance of duty in many of these elders. It is true that the
president, Father Reinert, had great vigor, but much of it was
expressed in bullying, not only of students but of the scholastics,
so we had an unspoken sympathy for each other's plight. I did not
know then, but learned later, that the year before I came to Campion,
Father Reinert had forced reluctant scholastics, under holy
obedience, to become informers on a group of students who protested
an unfair example of mass punishment.
My admiration for the scholastics was so common with others
that many of us considered joining them in the Jesuit order. Though I
had applied and been admitted to Marquette University, in Milwaukee,
with a vague notion of becoming a lawyer, I asked what entering the
Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, would entail. I was drawn
to this inquiry in part because of a book that had been recommended
to me, a two-volume life of an Italian controversialist of the
Renaissance, Saint (then Blessed) Robert Bellarmine. The book,
written in a genial style by the Irish Jesuit James Brodrick, was the
first scholarly work I had ever read--by scholarly I mean one
working from archives and citing sources in the original tongues
(without translation). I could not read the Italian passages, but I
wrestled, after my four years of Latin, with the Renaissance language
of debate. Father Brodrick made the ideal of consecrating one's
intellect to the service of God very appealing--though the book was
hagiographical, it was not entirely sicklied over with piety.
(Brodrick admitted, in a later and better edition of the work, that
he had whitewashed certain aspects of Bellarmine's activities--e.g.,
his role in the trial of his friend Galileo.)
When I asked about entering the Jesuits, I was given a
physical exam. There was no psychological evaluation in those days
(there is now), but there was a good deal of questioning about my
number of jugs, to decide if they reflected some deep rebelliousness.
Apparently it was concluded that it did not, and I said a sad goodbye
to Kathy Sullivan, hoping to follow what seemed to me the highest
calling I had been exposed to. It was a trial for me when Kathy
showed up occasionally to visit her brother, who was farther along in
the seminary but still on the same grounds. She later entered the
convent of a teaching order of nuns and became a professor of

Copyright © 2002 by Garry Wills. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

I.Born Catholic23
1.Saint Mary's and Campion29
2.Jesuit Days42
II.Church Without Papal Primacy91
7.Rome Mediating127
8.Rome Meddling137
9.Rome and the East149
10.Rome Turns West174
III.Forms of Papal Primacy195
11.Forgeries and Populism199
12.Rise of the Secular State and the Church Council223
13.Renaissance and Reformation243
14.Trent and England261
15.Ancien Regime and Revolution282
16.War on Democracy301
17.Reign of Terror330
IV.The Vatican II Church353
18.The Great Rebirth356
19.Born to Set Times Right377
20.Fighting Vatican II403
21.Living Vatican II429
22.The Pope's Loyal Opposition446
V.The Creed461
23.I believe in God ...468
24.... the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth ...482
25.... and in Jesus Christ our Lord, the only son of God ... He descended into hell ...494
26.... conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary ...505
27.... shall come to judge the living and the dead ...515

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Why I Am a Catholic 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a complex and timely book about the reasons to stay in a religon that sometimes does not make that choice easy. I can not attempt to moralize or explain the book, in the allotted characters remaining but i felt it was beautiful and well written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was very historical and used a lot of terms that were foreign to me (although I have been catholic since I was born 42 years ago.) The suthor shared lots of history but the book did not meet my needs for wanting to read it which are: to find reasons to remain in the Catholi church and raise my children Catholic in the midst of all of the turmoil right now. Unfortunately the book did not assist so I will continue to search for other books, etc.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A fascinating and instructive account of the political and ideological influences on the development of what Wills considers to be extraneous doctrine (e.g. papal infalibility, preistly celibacy, papal succession from the apostle Peter). The intrigues of church and state from the beginning through Vatican II make for page-turning reading. He argues for the location of the church not in the structure or in the clergy but in all the people. He professes his own belief in the eschatalogical nature of Christianity as expressed in the Creed and the Lords Prayer, for which he presents a very interesting translation of his own from the original.
sixwoolsocks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wished the author would've spent less time talking about his academic life & work & given more of his take on the current issues dividing the church. While it's a nicely written book, I would have liked more analysis as opposed to autobiography.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
With a title like that, we would have expected a review of what it is in Catholic dogma that orients a spiritual person towards Catolicism, rather than, say, Buddhism or anything else. Indeed, the title is not 'Why I am a Spiritual Person' but, narrowly enough, 'a Catholic'. The book explains nothing of the sort. It does not examine the spiritual fundaments of Catholic creed, concepts at the core of it such as the 'Resurrection of the Fleh' for instance, a concept that many other intensely spriritual faiths would regard as infantile and spiritually as well as theologically bankrupt and silly. As such, the uneschewable conclusion that seems to slowly emerge from reading the book is , I am a Catholic because I do not dare think indepth about the real spiritual issues, and because I am somewhat childish and somewhat fearful. Awful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With the detachment of a psychiatrist, Garry Wills seems too eager to justify his faith and ignore church history and the problem of child abuse. It appears that Wills yearns to regain the comfort of his youth ¿ like many of us ¿ when goodness prevailed and faith was unquestioning. Unfortunately, it is just that unwillingness to question that made it so easy for the church to fail the faithful by hiding behind its cloak of respectability and creating an aura of mystery. While Wills rightly directs some of his harshest criticism for Cardinal Ratzinger's attack against those who stray from the concept of Papal authority, he does not go far enough. Wills continues to perpetuate the myth of Catholicism ¿ while history shows the Catholic Church has failed its flock. More accurate in its picture of the Catholic Church is the novel by Jerry Marcus, THE LAST POPE. Marcus' work of fiction reveals far more insight into the Chatholic Church and how far it might go to perpetuate its own power.