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Spotlight Report

  Garry Wills, author of "Why I Am a Catholic," during his recent Boston stop. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

An author reflects on Catholic crisis

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 7/24/2002

With the recent revelations of sex abuse by Catholic priests, historian Garry Wills's just-published book, ''Why I Am a Catholic,'' comes out at a time when many Catholics are reflecting and agonizing over the church and their relationship to it. Though the book was written before the latest scandals arose, and focuses largely on the dilemma of the loyal Catholic who does not agree with the pronouncements of the pope, it has clear implications for the current Catholic crisis. Wills spoke about these matters in an interview during the Boston stop on his ongoing book tour.

Q. What do you see as the long-term effects of the sex-abuse scandal?

A. It's clear that there is something drastically wrong with the Catholic church, and that is why what has happened in Boston and America is really a godsend, despite all the hurt, all the shame. [The abuse] was going on before, but now we know it's been going on, and now people are doing something about it. There have been a whole series of statements from Vatican officials in the last few months saying, ''The people in Boston who are critical of Cardinal Law are like Hitler, like Stalin, like [the Roman emperor] Decius, the persecutor of Christians'' - all saying, ''You cannot turn a priest over to civil authorities, you cannot submit to lay oversight of our actions.''

What happened at Dallas [at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops] really destroyed that. They took very harsh stands: a very broad definition of sexual abuse, the turning over of every allegation [to civil authorities], not just every credible allegation. That happened despite all these signals from Rome, saying, ''Stand up to them; don't give in to the press.'' But they knew how desperate things are. They said over and over, ''The people won't put up with anything less.'' They were looking to the people. That is a huge change.

We used to be told that a celibate priest cares more for you because he doesn't have the distractions of a wife and children. Who can think that now, with the pedophilia scandal? Would they have been less caring if they had had a wife to say, ''You can't do this to children?'' Or if a bishop had a son who had been raped? The old concepts of the priesthood are crumbling, and now more than ever the rate of change is going to pick up. What happened in Dallas is a good example: These are not guys who were going to do any of that stuff before they were forced to do it, and the reason they did it - despite tremendous pressure from Rome not to do it - was that the people demanded it.

A majority in every poll I've seen has said the bishops will not regain any credibility as long as none of them are fired. They can go around firing priests, but what right do they have to do this, when they have covered up for [abusers]? There is a degree of angry activism that we've never seen in the American church.

Q. How will it affect the church in terms of people's loyalty?

A. I think it will increase people's loyalty. The church has become more democratic, more accountable recently. Not enough so, but the demand is very strong. I think that's going to be speeded up, and that will increase loyalty.

Q. But what happens when people's trust is deeply wounded?

A. The polls have shown that most people still trust their parish priests, and they trust each other, which is even more important. What the bishop and the pope do matter, but they are not the first locus of trust. Most of the polls report people saying, ''My faith is not destroyed - I might withhold money on this or that as a tactic, but I won't withhold money from the long-term mission of the church.'' I think people are making very smart distinctions. Catholics have now reached a very large consensus that on certain things, the Vatican is simply nutty. To say that women cannot be priests because they don't look like Jesus is nutty. It's nutty to say, as the Vatican does, that a husband who is HIV-positive, and loves his wife, cannot use a condom. Catholics have no problem recognizing that it is nutty, and that hasn't disturbed their faith over the last 30 years, so I don't think their faith will be disturbed now.

Q. Your title, ''Why I Am a Catholic,'' answers an implicit question. Are you often asked that question?

A. I am asked it all the time - a lot of Catholics are asked it. It is obvious that in America, many don't agree with what the pope tells us, and it's also obvious that loyalty to the papacy has been made the test of what makes you a Catholic. So if 80 percent are not in agreement with the pope, what has happened to the church? Is it a nonchurch, is it schismatic, is it in rebellion? Most Catholics I know, including myself, have not felt it to be a problem. That is, with our experience of faith, the way we live our lives as people going to church, receiving the sacraments, communicating with one another, doing the works of the church - charitable and other - it is not conceivable to us that because the papacy and the hierarchy have taken certain positions, that we are not Catholics.

Q. Your book is full of learning: in history, theology, in ancient languages. It has been difficult for lay Catholics to gain access to that sort of learning in the past. Do you think the shock of these events will cause people to want to learn more, understand more, take less for granted?

A. Absolutely. People are asking for that, from history, from scripture, from tradition. It's not as hard as it was when all the documents were in Latin. There have been two tiers: a circle that was supposed to know those things, and the simple faithful who were not supposed to know. I remember visiting a church in Baltimore once, and saying to the priest, ''I liked the visiting priest's sermon.'' He said, ''Oh, he's a Jesuit; they like to tickle your ears with fancy things, but they don't feed the simple faith.'' The anti-intellectualism of the church has been a theme for many years.

Q. You write about the valid unifying function of the pope. How does that work?

A. I have had two people say to me in a television interview recently that if the pope changes his stance on this or that, the church is gone - our whole claim will disappear. They believe that the entire claim of the church is authority. There is an authority, but it's not our first claim. The first claim is as a community of life, as believers in the saving truths.

The papacy stands for a number of things the right wing of the church wants to forget: efforts for peace by Paul VI, against nuclear armaments, against Third World poverty, all of that has been fueled through Rome. And the present pope as well has made a number of important initiatives. For all its faults, it's a grace and a blessing, and it holds us together.

What I like about Catholicism is that it takes seriously the symbolism of Peter in the way that some churches don't. What is Peter in the Gospels? He is the bond of love. What does Christ ask him: ''Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.'' If the pope is really Peter, he's very fallible: Peter never does the right thing; he's never thought of as a teacher or as an intellectual. But he's our guy; he's our leader.

Q. Have you ever thought of leaving the church and joining another?

A. No, the Catholic church is my home. I love it, love its liturgy, its devotion. I am critical of my church, but I see many things to be critical of in other churches. They are not perfect, either.

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 7/24/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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