Bestselling author to discuss Catholicism's future, Pope Francis
By Lou Fancher
Casting himself as a backstage spectator, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian, and journalist Garry Wills says the public has it wrong: The Catholic Church isn't a stilted, autocratic empire -- it's a living, constantly evolving theater.
Furthermore, Pope Francis, as the lead protagonist in the church's drama since being elected to the papacy in 2013, is either the destructive villain or the hero, depending on the script a believer of the faith prefers for Catholicism's future.
Adding to his prolific list of books on subjects from Abraham Lincoln to John Wayne to explorations of religion in America, Wills brings arguments and acumen to a new book, "The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis" (Viking, 2015). The New York Times-bestselling author and professor emeritus at Northwestern University will read and discuss his book at the Firehouse Arts Center on Wednesday at noon.
Provocative and scholarly, Wills began his professional writing career at age 23, when William F. Buckley, Jr. gave him his first platform as a drama critic for National Review Magazine. Eventually earning a Ph.D. in classics from Yale and becoming a history professor, Wills is known as much for his enduring Roman Catholic faith as for his hierarchy-toppling assessments of the Church's positions on contraception, women priests and other matters.
"God is not gender," "Catholicism should be ecumenical" and "Gay relationships seem quite natural to me," Wills has written or said in books or interviews. Never inflammatory without solid scholasticism to back up his stance, the essays collected in his new book "read history forward."
Presenting evidence that Francis is not the harbinger of change but a good indication that future change is likely, Wills writes of enormous changes completed or underway long before Francis' arrival. Wills lays historical groundwork for a Christianity that is continually dying and resurrecting in new formulations He addresses the church's break from Latin, a monopoly he says was created by the clergy to control who could read religious texts; anti-Semitism superseded by the Gospel, one result of the Second Vatican Council that he heralds; and the "coming and going" of the monarchy, confession and "natural law" that he says have led to flawed positions on abortion, women in the church, homosexuality and more.
"Over 80 percent of Catholics of fertile ages practice contraception, so that roadblock has already fallen," Wills says. "What happens is that things aren't formerly announced, they just fall into desolation and are no longer practiced. Change gets reflected with a huge lag."
Bishops have taken a hard line on contraception, the right to divorce and other subjects because of careerism, Wills says.
"The result is a lot of mediocre bishops. After all, who would agree to fall into line other than the submissive, those (who are) less-than sterling?" he asks.
Pedophilia in the church, he says "shook the attractiveness" and he predicts it will have a large impact on the church's teaching on homosexuality.
"It made Catholics distrust and some depart from the church," he says. "I wasn't as affected because I'm a historian and I knew abuse of women and children had been going on for centuries. Some brave people stood up and fought. A positive aspect is that there are heroes who stood up in the face of efforts to silence them. The worst aspect was that silence was bought."
Finding hope in an ironic statement ("The church rots from the head but is revived from below"), Wills says Francis has captured Catholics' imagination even as he threatens the status quo.
"Everything he does is symbolic: where he lives, what he wears. There's theater that places you at a distance and theater that brings you close. Francis doesn't live in a palace, he eats in the common room. He entered Rome for the first time in a police car. That kind of theater breaks down the theater of remoteness, pomp and personality."
As expected, Wills says much has changed since he completed the book in September. He will begin his talk by outlining how Francis has changed organizational structures indirectly; appointing unusual bishops, visiting unexpected places and encouraging change without dictating it.
Most remarkable, he says, is the pope's first major document, "The Joy of the Gospel."
"The Pope has done more to be open to Muslims: In (the document) he's said the Koran is something we can learn from. That's tremendously important, perhaps the most important thing he's done to tamp the move by some for a Holy War."