Review

Why I Am a Catholic

by Garry Wills



Garry Wills is a bonafide intellectual, with a lot of prestigious
book awards as proof --- but don't let that scare you off. There
are no long passages here in other languages without translation,
and no footnotes to stumble over - though, if you're interested in
reading further and knowing sources, there are endnotes, plus an
index for ease of later reference. But mainly there's a lot of the
same clear writing and passionate belief in his subject that won
Mr. Wills those awards, like a Pulitzer and a couple from National
Book Critics, and the National Medal for the Humanities
(1998).

I first became aware of Garry Wills when I read BARE RUINED CHOIRS
back in the early 1970s. I read (and write) mostly fiction, and I
admit I was drawn to that title because I'm a certifiable Gothic
nut. But no matter what attracted me, I stayed with the book and
have always been glad I did. A couple of years ago I read PAPAL
SIN, which, as Wills says in his introduction, directly inspired
the writing of WHY I AM A CATHOLIC. The present book stands very
well on its own, and you don't have to be a practicing Catholic to
appreciate it. The book gives to its reader on a lot of different
levels, depending on what experience you bring to your reading, and
what you want to get back.

In a first and perhaps too brief section, Mr. Wills gives a
barefaced, affecting account of growing up Catholic in a
working-class family, going to Catholic schools and being taught by
nuns and priests, of what happens and doesn't happen when you're a
really smart kid who thinks maybe too much. His memories are sharp,
poignant, and evocative of a time not long ago, yet now gone
forever. (Confession: I'm about a decade behind him in age, and my
eyes were moist more than once with remembering things like how we
girls in the choir used to play canasta behind the organ during
certain long sections of the solemn high masses of Holy
Week.)

Given that he skipped a grade of elementary school, Garry Wills
couldn't have been much more than 17 when, in the early 1950s, he
graduated high school and went immediately into the novitiate at a
Jesuit Seminary. There he had difficulties, which he tells with
courage and candor. He lets us see how the problems of his early
years gave rise to the man he became. Certain themes, and the
admiration of certain men and their minds (Chesterton, Augustine,
Aquinas), began then and have been worked, reworked, refined into
the vision he presents later in this book --- and in fact, in all
his books.

The middle section of WHY I AM A CATHOLIC is the book's longest and
most scholarly. The material is essentially the same as in PAPAL
SIN, yet it is presented differently. As fascinating as it is to
have read the earlier book too, I think the presentation here is
more meaningful in some ways. Wills spells out the history of the
errors of the papacy --- including the whole "I say to thee thou
art Peter and upon this rock" thing. Wills wants us to understand
that the papacy is not the Church. Popes do make mistakes (gross
understatement). You can be a good Catholic and disagree with
what's coming out of Rome; in fact, you might be a better Catholic
for having reasoned out for yourself, and for having expressed your
disagreement, in whatever way you chose. You could even write a
couple of books about how you disagree, yet still go to Mass every
week and say the rosary every day --- as Wills himself does.

The concluding section, an analysis and defense of The Credo, AKA
the Creed, AKA the Apostles' Creed, I thought was something of a
letdown. I believe my reaction was a personal one --- even though
when I'm reviewing a book, I try to read more objectively than I
otherwise might. But WHY I AM A CATHOLIC had become personal to me
by that point, I can't deny it. I cared, I was examining myself and
my own vacillations and permutations of faith, I was taking it all
to heart. Other readers may find this third section to be, as Wills
appears to have intended, a natural, moving, affirming outgrowth of
the previous two.

Originally scheduled for publication about now, WHY I AM A CATHOLIC
was moved up to mid-July 2002 because of the conference of Catholic
bishops called in the United States for that same time --- the
conference that developed groundbreaking policy for dealing with
priests accused of sex abuse of minors. In October, the Vatican
(i.e., the papacy) refused to accept the recommendations of the
United States bishops. That news was pretty much obscured by The
Sniper and Bush vs. Saddam, but I'm sure Garry Wills noticed.

I'm equally sure he was not surprised that the Vatican refused to
accept the decision of the US bishops. He's disappointed, maybe,
but he will still be a Catholic. His passion for his faith is a
bright light, one that illuminates and does not blind.

Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 24, 2011

Why I Am a Catholic
by Garry Wills

  • Publication Date: October 8, 2003
  • Genres: Christian, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0618380485
  • ISBN-13: 9780618380480