Reading the History of the Church Forward


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A Review of The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis By Garry Wills. If you are expecting a full biography of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio now Pope Francis I and an cheery endorsement of the changes that he has set in motion, you should look elsewhere. The introduction and epilogue of Wills’ book do provide a cautious optimism about the positive changes afoot in universal Catholicism due largely because of the administrative changes, the reorientation of dogma, and the “life-style” choices that the man made before he was pope and continues to make since he was selected. Wills finds refreshing the new pope’s decision to decentralize the work and power of the Curia. He appreciates greatly the challenge to the obsession with and harsh punishment for sexual sin and deviance, while welcoming what seems to be an earnest attempt to atone for the scandals of clerical child abuse. And he applauds the new popes pastoralism which has lead him throughout the later stages of his ministry to live modestly and to spent time amongst the poor, a decision that aligns him with the saint whose name he has taken.

But Wills, thorough Church historian that he is, reminds us that St. Francis was a better exemplar of the simpler life than a model for administration in a complicated world, thus his caution. Wills finds telling Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s willingness to admit that when he was Jesuit’s leader in Argentina he did not make decisions that aligned his administrative with the message of the gospels, especially the ways that South American priests and laymen were reading the gospels to preach a liberation theology that would change social and economic relationships among the poor laity and the nations’ ruling classes. Wills finds it difficult to find in past highly place Church leaders this honest reappraisal and public confession of past mistakes. Even under the likeable but conservative John Paul II silence and denial prevailed. Wills is hopeful that Bergoglio’s personal transformation and his reassessment of the Church’s top-down decision making will lead to a church changed for the better, and that these changes will be led by the body of Christ, the full membership of the church.

It is the history of the Church’s changes and its remarkable resilience as an institution that is the real subject of Wills book. By taking up a four case studies in change, Wills endeavors to show that emerging realities within the church, often breaks with the past hard to imagine a generation ago,  are hardly unprecedented. The church has always been and will continue to be a changing institution despite the mighty efforts of church leaders to fix dogma and to freeze practice in some magical time outside of history.

Wills believes that the preservationists of the status quo (and their own privileges within the church) are guilty of bad historical consciousness. They choose to read history backwards, that is, they strive to show that present practices and arrangements have always been there, justified by scripture that possesses only a singular meaning and an immutable set of traditions fixed at the time of Christ’s life and ratified by a series of councils and papal encyclicals. Thus, the case for a male priesthood is grounded in ideas about Jesus’s selection and “ordination” of twelve men as recorded in the gospels that say little or nothing about priests or about a host of other things like homosexuality. Thus the case for the doctrine of papal infallibility, not a feature of the early church but a relatively recent 19th century invention of besieged Pope Pius IX who proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of Mary, an idea that had no scriptural warrant.

This notion of an immutable church participating in but ultimately existing outside of history is the harmful notion that Wills wants to expose. The tools that Wills uses for the task are his remarkable understanding of the classical world, his deep familiarity with biblical scholarship, his thorough grasp of church history even when it is most arcane, and a fine sensitivity to American Catholicism in a contemporary world of variations within the church.

He focuses on four particular areas for his “reading history forward” explanations and shows the interrelationships between them. If there’s a fault here, it is at times the dense, microscopic presentation of intra-church disputes and deep exegeses of scripture that may only please biblical scholars already familiar with the controversies about the origins and meanings of texts.

To constantly remind us of the ways that cultural history has shaped church history, Wills says that each of the four sections are devoted to the “comings and goings” of a phenomenon. The thickest of these is the section on the relationship between the church and state; it’s a section that demonstrates the complex relationships between church leaders and monarchs and state rulers over time. If you are interested in questions about how Rome, a city on the margins of the early Christian world became the center of “universal” Catholicism, or if you are interested in ways in which the early church offered resistance to civil powers through the veneration of martyrs of ascetics, then you’ll appreciate this chapter.

Another chapter well-grounded in the history of the early church and in the formation of the gospels and other canonical texts is the one devoted to the Church’s testy relationship with Jews. Wills is not the first to contend that the gospels were in part fictions designed not to reflect historical truths but rather to justify current practices, like the vilification of Jews. Wills documents the anti-Semitic strain that runs through the gospel of John, attitudes that run like a crooked arrow through two millennia of history and very well may account for the silence of Pius XII about the German “master plan.” The Holocaust did not produce a rapid reappraisal of church prejudice; the request for forgiveness has been a recent phenomenon. The denunciations of anti-Semitism in 21st century Europe are more commonly heard from state leaders like Andrea Merkel and David Cameron than from Catholic Church leaders.

As a young altar boy coming of age during Vatican II,  I stood on the divide between a Latin-based and a vernacular liturgy, so I was particularly interested in Will’s examinations of the comings and goings of Latin. He provides a swift and readable account of how Latin was a necessary instrument for inclusion in the early church, but that by the Middle Ages it had become a means of exclusion. And in the 20th century the argument was made that the inability of a benighted laity to understand a word of the mass was an asset rather than a liability. What better way to manifest the mystery of the deity and the special necessity of ministers closer to God than the laity than to have Latin as the language of the sacraments of the church?

The final element in this four-layered sandwich is the debate about abortion and contraception. Wills points to the singular focus of the right-to-life wing within the Catholic Church as evidence of a misguided concern with sins of the flesh and an unflinching judgment of others devoid of compassion. [Another brief section on the “coming and going” of confession drives home the point about the clergy as overzealous monitors of behavior.] Suffice it to say that in this section, Wills dismantles the “natural law arguments” advanced by Aristotle and Augustine that advanced misguided notions about human nature and development. The church has made use of these natural law arguments in the absence of scriptural prohibitions. Building upon Aristotle and Augustine’s ideas, the church has concluded that since intercourse is the means to procreation, that intercourse should only be used for procreation, this despite the fact that the church has long supported the idea that the eating of food (especially the body of Christ in the Eucharist) has other functions (expression of communal solidarity and joy) than bodily nourishment.

The church found in mid-20th discoveries about optimal times for fertilization an opportunity to advance the rhythm method as the only acceptable a means of control; it turned out that the signs for intercourse without fertilization were hard to determine and that the method was hardly foolproof. On no single issue did the good Catholic faithful depart more fully than from Vatican teaching than on this matter. While the church was receptive to science that supported its doctrine, it has been resistant to the work of neuroscientists and embryo-development specialists who have weighed in on the issue of the viability of the fetus and on the status of the newly conceived as full persons. The discovery that many more fertilized eggs fail to attach to the womb is an inconvenient truth for pro-life groups. Despite the forcefulness of his argument, it’s difficult to imagine that it will lead the church to a more nuanced view of the practice of abortion.

Wills, who remains a practicing Catholic, has a lover’s quarrel with the church. This works and others (like the recent Why Priests?) are focused more on the sordid and scandalous and soul-destroying than on the saintly features. His faith stems from his knowledge that some scriptural scholars and church histories and interested in promoting the essential messages of the gospel and Christ’s teaching. He knows that he does not have to leave his discerning intellect on the church steps and that he can use it to advance the church’s mission. His faith also stems from his familiarity with communities of the faithful who are refashioning Christianity, as it has always been refashioned, to provide what they need as spiritual beings in a loving community of peers. Reading a work like The Future of the Church may move you to become a member of such a community if you are not there already.





About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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