I’m no stranger to Gary Wills. While I haven’t read his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America or his more recent Bomb Power: The Modern President and the National Security State, I have on the other hand read several of his other books, such as his biography St. Augustine from the Penguin Lives series in addition to his What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant. Besides dealing with religious subjects, all four books are rather short but also well-written and well-researched.
During one of my regular library visits I came across a copy of his 2002 book Why I Am a Catholic. After having decent success with Wills I thought what the heck and grabbed it. For good, bad or otherwise, unlike the four previously mentioned books by Wills, Why I Am a Catholic ended up being one of those books that took me forever to finish. While not a tome, nevertheless its 400 pages made it twice the size of books like What the Gospels Meant. Also with those books Wills employed a succinct, almost surgical precision with the presentation of arguments and supporting evidence. With Why I Am a Catholic, Wills using all his skills as a respected historian, threw in the proverbial kitchen sink. While this can make for slow reading at times, his book is insanely researched.
In a recent post, I lamented that Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible felt like two books instead of one. While it’s probably not lamentable, Wills’ book feels a bit like three. The first half of his book is purely autobiographical, in which he recalls his childhood, his Catholic education and his career as a writer. The second portion of Why I Am a Catholic is devoted to the history of the Catholic Church and it’s in this section that he brings his mad skills as a historian to full force, which makes it a challenge to read, but at the same time very educational. Lastly, perhaps as response to his critics who accuse him of not being Catholic enough, he ends the book with a kind of profession of faith by including his exegesis of the Apostles’ Creed.
Speaking of which, his book as a whole could be taken as profession of faith. After the publication in 2000 of his book Papal Sin: Structures of Sin, some Catholics took issue with Will’s critique of the less than savory aspects of the Catholic Church. In response to that criticism, with Why I Am a Catholic, it looks like Wills not only presents evidence of his Catholic bona fides, but by examining the thousands of years of Church history, is able to judge the last hundred and fifty years worth of Church excesses within a larger context of history. In other words, by looking backward into history, he wishes to use the lessons history taught us to challenge and maybe someday change the Catholic Church. (Ironically, this approach of appealing to the historical record in hopes of changing the present hasn’t been employed just by Catholics. Anouar Majid, a Muslim, did much the same thing with his 2007 book A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America.)
Of course, reading Why I Am a Catholic makes me want to read Papal Sin. It also makes me want to read Penny Lernoux’s 1989 book People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism. Inspired by Wills, maybe someday down the road I finally will.