Wills still entertains with wit, wisdom

A screen capture shows Politics & Prose's YouTube video of Garry Wills' March 13 talk in Washington, D.C.

Those of us who go back to the nascency of NCR in the mid-1960s remember Garry Wills as the paper's conservative columnist. Tokenizing with one of "them" was needed, as left-leaning as NCR was under Bob Hoyt, the founding editor. As a counterpoint, there was John Leo as the liberal columnist. Years later, when catching tailwinds to other media, sides were switched: Wills to liberalism; Leo, now with the Manhattan Institute, to conservatism.

In the years since, I confess to keeping up more with Wills, mainly because his output has been so wide and deep: a fusillade of more than 40 books that include historical analyses like his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America and his commentaries on the murky undercurrents of Roman Catholicism. I've taken large delight in the latter efforts: Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion (1972); Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000); Why I Am a Catholic (2002); What Jesus Meant (2006); Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition (2013); and The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis (2015).

I bought the most recent one the other evening at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., where Wills spoke and signed books. Whether people had come to savor the words of a sentry standing guard against infiltrators sneaking into the sanctuaries of truth, or were angling to be entertained by a man of wit and wisdom, the crowd was large and standing-room only on March 13.

The entertainment, genial, commenced early. Francis "disappoints Catholic liberals like me, but he scares the socks off conservatives," Wills began. "They have reacted with panic, and no wonder. It is a bit disorienting to have a pope who is actually a Christian. Some on the right reassure themselves that he is changing the tone of Catholicism, but not its doctrine. And for them, religion is just doctrine. If you do not hold the right doctrines, you cannot be a Catholic."

Early in the pages of The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis, Wills deals with rule-book Catholics by recalling the early practitioners of Jesus' teachings. As a group, this people of God "chose its own leaders, it tested authority, it rejected attempts to dictate to it from above. ... Its councils voted on doctrine through representatives (bishops) who were themselves elected by the people."

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Reflecting on the doctrinists' intellectual impoverishment and how their "need to hang on to set ways stifles creativity," Wills quotes Francis: "Whenever we Christians are enclosed in our groups, our movements, our parishes, in our little worlds, we remain closed, and the same thing happens to us that happens to anything closed: When a room is closed, it begins to get dank. If a person is closed up in that room, he or she becomes ill!"

During the Q&A, I asked Wills whether he was, as I am, "disappointed and even justifiably angry that the Catholic church is not a pacifist church. There has never been a pope who tells Catholics, 'Don't go in the military.' The Catholic church now supplies chaplains. ... Do you think it will ever happen that the Catholic church will be a pacifist church, as are the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers and the Bruderhof?"

Wills' answer couldn't have been more pleasing, at least to a few of us who persist in seeing Christ as a teacher of nonviolence: "All Christians should be pacifists. All reasonable people should be pacifists. Paul VI, when he spoke at the U.N., said 'No more war.' Many popes have said no more war. This pope is now saying no holy war ever.

"But that doesn't get back down to the actual performance of Christians. And for a good reason. Popes led wars, led crusades. They had kingdoms. They used them in horrible ways. ... As [G.K.] Chesterton said, Christianity hasn't failed -- Christians have failed to be Christians. And that's certainly true. I hope this pope is nudging us a little more away from that."

The owners of Politics & Prose, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, both former Washington Post reporters, have the acumen to put all the store's speakers and signers on YouTube. Watch the full video should you want or need a few moments to get fired up by Wills' full talk.

In addition to questions from the Washington audience, Wills recalled one he had heard in Austin, Texas: Why do non-Catholics like Francis more than Catholics do? Wills answered, "Maybe it's because he reminds some people of Jesus."

[Colman McCarthy is the director of the Center for Teaching Peace. His new book is Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher.]

This story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: Wills still entertains with wit, wisdom .

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