Why I Am a Catholicby Garry Wills
In this provocative work, which could not be timelier, Garry Wills, one of our country's most noted writers and historians, offers a powerful statement of his Catholic faith. Beginning with a reflection on his early experience of that faith as a child and later as a Jesuit seminarian, Wills reveals the importance of Catholicism in his own life. He goes on to… See more details below
In this provocative work, which could not be timelier, Garry Wills, one of our country's most noted writers and historians, offers a powerful statement of his Catholic faith. Beginning with a reflection on his early experience of that faith as a child and later as a Jesuit seminarian, Wills reveals the importance of Catholicism in his own life. He goes on to challenge, in clear and forceful terms, the claim that criticism or reform of the papacy is an assault on the faith itself. For Wills, a Catholic can be both loyal and critical, a loving child who stays with his father even if the parent is wrong.
Wills turns outward from his personal experiences to present a sweeping narrative covering two thousand years of church history, revealing that the papacy, far from being an unchanging institution, has been transformed dramatically over the millenniaand can be reimagined in the future. At a time when the church faces one of its most difficult crises, Garry Wills offers an important and compelling entrée into the discussion of the church's pastand its future.
Intellectually brisk and spiritually moving, Why I Am a Catholic poses urgent questions for Catholic and non-Catholic readers alike.
"Wills . . . explodes much of what passes as institutionalized Catholicism . . . and in his closing and very close reading of the Apostles' creed, boils the question of why one could possibly be a Catholic down to its essentials."John Anderson The Nation
"It is hard to imaginea more timely book than Garry Wills's "Why I Am a Catholic" . . . it is a great satisfaction to have the Church's history analyzed by a mind so critical but still so in love."Joan Acocella The New Yorker
"Wills's book is well written and carefully referenced to support his point of view." Publishers Weekly, Starred
"The prolific historian offers a timely confession of faith and an apology in the true sense of the term." Kirkus Reviews, Starred
"This new book . . . is a powerful work of personal reflection and history . . . Wills . . . is simply the most astute Catholic writer in America today."James Carroll Boston Globe
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Why I Am a Catholic
By Garry Wills
Copyright © 2002 Garry Wills.
All rights reserved.
This book is an unintended sequel to my Papal Sin (2000)unintended because I thought that book treated a narrowly defined and self- enclosed topic, the papacy's dishonesty in its recent (anti-modern) era. Some read the book as something else, which they indicated by changing the title, from Papal Sin to Papal Sinsas if I were covering the whole subject of papal misbehavior over the centuries. It is true that I dealt with a number of disparate thingsfrom papal treatment of Jews to claims of priestly prerogative, from documents on gays to condemnations of artificial insemination. But these were brought up not for consideration in themselves, only for the way dishonesty was used, in recent times, to defend whatever papal position was involved. Some Catholics asked why I was exposing the church's "dirty linen," though I did not mention anything that had not been fully ventilated in public. The newspapers had been full of controversy over pedophile priests, or papal relations with Jews, or the dissent of Catholic women and gays. Those were all out in the open. I revealed nothing about themin fact, some conservative critics of my book dismissed it as containing "nothing new."
What was, if not new, then somewhat different, was my argument that these matters should not be considered in isolation, as if exhibiting different vices within the hierarchyits anti- Semitism, or antifeminism, or homophobia, or even a secret sympathy with pedophilia. I do not believe the modern papacy is afflicted with these attitudes. There has, on the contrary, been a sincere reaching out to Jews and women and gaysbut all these gestures have been checked or rendered abortive by a continuing nervous insistence that "the church" (by which these apologists mean the papacy) never really taught anything erroneous about these people. That is a claim that can be made only with the help of tendentious readings of history, suppression of evidence, or distortion of the evidence.
These maneuvers are justifiedby those who think they must shoulder, all alone, the Spirit's role of protecting the churchas necessary measures to protect the mission of Christ. One of the most common objections to the book was the "everybody does it" argument that is, leaders of every kind have to protect their organizations by stretching or evading or denying the exact truth about it. Those making this defense are the ones who do not really believe in the church, who think it can survive only by acting like any other political body. Admittedly, the rationale for such protective attitudes is different with church rulersbut only in the sense that they are protecting something more important than any mere earthly authority. This makes playing fast and loose with the truth more rather than less justifiable in their eyes. Anyone who doubts that this is the attitude should consider the long and energetic efforts of the hierarchy to cover up cases of priestly pedophilia. Abusing young innocence is not only a crime but a particularly vile crime, and covering it up is a crime added to a crime. Are the church authorities who did this moral monsters? What can have been their motive? They reasoned this way: since the saving truth of the gospel will reach more souls in need of it if they feel that priests bringing it to them are holy, it is necessaryfor the good of souls and the honor of Godto maintain the priestly aura with deception. That is: the truth must be served with lies. There can even be a certain moral pride in the sacrifice of one's own repugnance to the crime, a sacrifice in service to the higher good of the corporate body. The Holy Spirit must appreciate this aid brought to the cause.
Any other explanation for their behavior, I submit, does them an injustice. They thought they were doing the right thing naturally, since covering up the truth is such an ingrained habit with them. I was often asked, about my book, "Do you really think the pope and the pope's men deliberately lie?" Not quite. That is why the book's subtitle is Structures of Deceit. Given the priority of protecting the divine aura, and the terrible consequences of allowing it to be tarnished, the authorities do not allow the separate issue of truthfulness to distract them from the exigencies of their task. It is a luxury forgone, kept out of view, to be postponed while they meet immediate emergencies.
My book traced the same attitude in other and less lurid suppressions of the truth. I did not claim, for instance, that Pius XII sympathized with Nazism; I do not think he did. I expressly stipulated that he might have had a justifiable fear that action on his part would hurt those it meant to help. I focused instead on his post-war claim that he had not been silent, that he had spoken out "several times" against the Holocaust. That was dishonest. That came within the scope of my book. (Some of his defenders find themselves in the odd position of saying that his silence was justified but that he did not, in fact, keep silent. If silence was justified, after all, he should have maintained it.)
In the same way, I did not deny that the priesthood is a legitimate development in the history of the church; I said only that Paul VI was wrong when he denied that it was a development, claiming that it was instituted during Christ's lifetime. Similarly, on the subject of priestly celibacy, Pope Paul relied on a fundamentalist reading of Matthew 19.11¡V12, which speaks of eunuchizing oneself, though he does not read in a fundamentalist way a similar passage like that recommending that one tear out an eye or cut off a hand (Mt 5.29¡V30). It was dishonest for the same pope to write a lengthy encyclical on celibacy while suppressing the most relevant text (1 Cor 9.5). It was what I called "intellectually contemptible" for the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to say women cannot be ordained because they do not look like Jesus (Inter insigniores 27).
I did not deny that there is a justification for the papacy how could I, since I was praising John XXIII? I criticized a Curia that claims the papacy was not a development, that it was instituted in the New Testament, finding its first expression in Peter's (non- existent) role as Rome's first bishop. Strange to say, I was criticized as a fundamentalist when I pointed out that this fundamentalist argument is invalid. That did not mean, and I have never said, that there is no defense of the papacy. But that was not my book's topic. Dishonesty was.
I did not anticipate, though I should have, that people would write me, in large numbers, sincerely asking what would be a valid defense of the papacy. How does one remain a Catholic while criticizing some of the church's authority figures? I have never received mail of this kind or quantity in my forty years of writing. Most people who wrote me in the past were upset or outraged at something I had published. Those who agree with you just nod, most often, in silent agreement and move on; they have no need to vent their feeling. But in this case the overwhelming numberover ninety percentof letters and calls and comments began or ended with a thank-you for expressing what the correspondents felt, for letting them know they are not alone or that their own views could be expressed. These correspondents included priests and nuns who welcomed the call for candor in the church. That made all the more compelling some requests that I expand my book's closing comments on what positive things the church does or can do. What, they asked explicitly or implicitly, are the grounds of my own hope? Why am I still a Catholic? This I took as their way of exploring why they remain in the church. They were asking to compare notes.
Naturally, there were negative reactions to the bookin some cases, extremely negative. These differed from the first and larger group of responses in many ways. For one thing, the writers expressing gratitude proved by their questions that they had read the book. But some of the angriest letters I got admitted that the writer had not read my book, only some review of it in a conservative publication on the Internet or elsewhere. (I had not realized there are so many right-wing Catholic organs, ones I had never heard of, nor had Catholic friends I asked about them.) The first group asked how I stayed in the church. The second asked why I did not leave. Those writing out of gratitude assumed that I shared their (sometimes baffled) love of the church. The accusatory group flatly informed me that I hate the church, that I stay in it only to harm it, that I should get out before I do it irreparable damage. (Despite their belief in the church's divine mandate, these people express a great anxiety over its fragilityanother attitude that makes shoring up the church with any material, even lies, seem justified.) So this group, too, asked, why I am still a Catholic, but in a different tone of voice. They meant, "Why are you keeping up this pose?"
A third body of responses to the book was neither as approving nor as disapproving as the first two. This was made up of non-Catholics (and some ex-Catholics) who were puzzled or bemused by the book, and by responses to it. On the one hand, they assumed that Catholics cannot "get away with" criticism of church authorities, and wondered why I had not been expelled. Non-Catholics are more certain that the church is authoritarian than Catholics are. Since they do not believe that the church is the people of God, and not simply the pope, they equate criticism of the part with condemnation of the whole. On the other hand, they wondered why I bother arguing about the church, which is for them an irrelevancy, though an interesting one. These secular observers treated me as an anomaly, to be explained each in his preferred way. Martin Gardner in the Los Angeles Times said that I do not seem entirely nuttyI probably do not really believe, for instance, that a whale swallowed Jonahso I must not be a Catholic after all. Richard Rorty in the New York Times thought I was right to criticize dishonesty in church leaders but wrong to expect anything elseif the church tried to tell the truth, he said, it would perish. Falsehood is its necessary foundation. They too had a different tone of voice in asking why I am still a Catholic. They meant, "How can anyone not clearly a nut remain there?"
Of course I do not believe that one has to be nutty in order to be a Catholic (though there are nutty Catholics, just as there are nutty secularists). Nor do I think church leaders must lie in order to keep their organization afloat (some have actually told the truth, and it made the bark more seaworthy). But it seems unlikely I will convince those who are sure that the Catholic church cannot be taken seriously. I will mainly address, therefore, those in the first two groups, those who do take the church seriously but wonder how I can still take it seriously after having criticized its leadership so pointedly.
When I was growing up, saying why one was a Catholic would not have focused so much on one's attitude toward the papacy. For Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, the pope was a revered figure, but a distant one. We wondered why people like Paul Blanshard made so much of him, why Protestants and Others United for the Separation of Church and State were so sure that we followed his marching orders for the subversion of democracy. Actually, we didn't know much about the positions alleged against him. Our piety had other bases. But now the pope is a celebrity who has been given vast media coverage, especially when he visits our shores (something unthinkable when I was a child). Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council made Roman church politics a hot topic that literate people discussedadverting, for instance, to the long New Yorker dispatches from the council. Papal attitudes came under a new degree of scrutinyattitudes toward other hot topics, like women and sex. The church's historical relationship with Jews has become particularly contentious. And the pope is at the center of these debates. Vatican II was supposed to diffuse authority in the church, making it more collegial, a thing shared by the whole body of bishops. But John Paul II has been more the center of action than any pope of the modern era, thanks to his charm, intelligence, and energyand thanks to the uncompromising stand he has taken on issue after issue. He is an intriguing combination of personal popularity in service to unpopular positions. He is un-ignorable.
I cannot go back to the era when the pope could be, if not ignored, at least not made so much of. I am not a Catholic because of the pope. I am a Catholic because of the creed. I believe in that, and it does not mention the pope. In fact, it was formulated before there was a popebut even to say that involves one in long arguments on the history of the papacy. Some have asked, Why not just keep the creed but forget the pope? Why not go to the Episcopal or Lutheran church, or join Eastern Orthodox Christians? But the pope is one of the reasons I stay, not a reason for going. I continually read the New Testament, after all, so wherever I find Christ, I expect to find Peter close to him. But the Apostle's relationship to his savior, always close, is never quite the same from era to era, and its current form will no more be its permanent one than were any of the earlier embodiments. There have been many papacies, and reaching a reasoned relationship with the current one entails taking a long hard look at the history of the institution. It also means learning that no Christian church is perfectnot even the Episcopal or Lutheran or Orthodox. We flawed believers live with our flawed fellow believers, even with flawed brothers like the pope.
I feel a bit uncomfortable making this book so personal. The church is a big thing; it will survive; it does not need my small testimony. But the questions addressed to me were uncommonly personal. They make me think that I am speaking for the first group of people, who remain in the church despite their own criticisms of the papacy, against the charges of the second and third groups. If I am a false Catholic, an insincere or a nutty one, then so are they. If I am told to "get out," or to "wise up," then so are my fellow troubled believers. Troubled belief is not disbelief, though "true believers" take it for that. I began, like all born Catholics, with serene certitudes instilled in me by my family and teachers. But those cannot be sustained without change while the believer grows up. An unexamined faith is not a faith. It is a superstition. The process of questioning one's faith is one that I have undergone with many, if not most, believers, most certainly with the ones who said they shared my critical attitude toward the pope without losing their fundamental commitment to the church. Though I may not always be speaking for them, I think my own development as a Catholic is not peculiar to me but analogous to their experience. I am not a special case, but in many ways a typical one.
I begin, then, with my own experience of growing up Catholic. Critics of Papal Sin told me (and others) that I was expressing hatred for the church, reflecting no doubt some bitter experience with it, some resentment at what it did to me, some rebellion against what it asked of me. In fact, my experience with the church has been of a supporting and nurturing body, and I have never felt closer to it than I do now. I benefited from marvelous teachers, who taught me to question, and from a supportive family that was not disturbed by such questioning. I describe that world in this book's first part, establishing a background to answering the question, Why am I still a Catholic?
But it is only a background. Eventually, given the salience of the modern papacy, and the urgency of the many contentious issues it has addressed, my faith had to come to terms with the complex reality of the church's hierarchy. This leads to a long excursus on the history of Peter as a Gospel symbol, of the pope in the church (the first millennium of Catholicism) and of the pope above the church (the history of the second millennium) and of the church revitalizing the papacy (our modern condition). This excursusa long one, but necessary for addressing the issue of the papacy as a historical (not just a dogmatic) realityfills Parts II through IV of the book. Only when I have suggested how the creed can be integrated with acceptance of the papacy do I reach (in Part V) the real object of my belief, the creed. That, after all, is why I am a Catholic.
In 1928, when Al Smith became the first Catholic to run for president of the United States, he was asked about certain anti-democratic statements in papal documents. He said he had never heard of the documents. Neither had most American Catholics. We thought our duty to the pope was discharged when we learned the catechism and donated to the annual "Peter's Pence" drive for the Vatican. The pope was not a daily presence in our lives. Pius XII was as much the pope for my generation as F.D.R. was the president. But I knew more and cared more for F.D.R. than for Pius XII. I presume there was a picture of Pius on our school wall, though I presume rather than remember it.
Roosevelt, who took office two years before I was born and served thirteen years, was part of my mental iconography all through World War II, when my father was in the army and my schoolmates and I were fighting the war in our games, very much aware that Roosevelt was leading the war effort. Pius, who became pope five years after I was born and held that office for nineteen years, never had the same claim on my imagination or that of my friends. Catholicism for us meant the local church and school, priests and nuns.
There seemed to be a good feeling about Catholic culture in America, reflected in the movies, which was undisturbed by disputes over the popea feeling true to our own sense of the situation, even though it was sentimentally commercialized. Nuns were played by the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, and Alida Valli. The priests were Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, and Montgomery Clift. The TV face of Catholicism was Fulton Sheen, complete with an angel as the eraser-boy for his blackboard. One of the few dissonant notes was struck by Mary McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and that book had little to do with the institutional church, for the simple reason that McCarthy had had little to do with the institutional church.
In the 1960s, this saccharine view yielded to new memories of Catholic childhood, memories peopled with coercive nuns and creepy priests, not a single Bing Crosby type among them. Though I could see the sappiness of the old view, the new one did not reflect my own background. In 1964, while the Second Vatican Council was still in session, I was asked to contribute to an early volume of these souring recollections, The Generation of the Third Eye, edited by Daniel Callahan, but I had to confess that I had no life-darkening experiences to provide. The only nun I mentioned was the one to whom this book is dedicated, Anne O'Connor, who was still reading my writings then, just as she had when I was in the eighth grade, and as she continued to do till her death thirty years later.
Though I had encountered some less than admirable priests in my constant exposure to the church, I found fewer outright scoundrels there than I would later meet in the worlds of business and the academy and journalism. I could see the false note of forced jollity in The Bells of Saint Mary's, but the Saint Mary's I attended as a grade school student had done me nothing but good. I learned to be critical of my Catholic training, in large part because of that Catholic training; but this never made me believe less in the church. It always was, and still is, a flawed carrier of the truths of the faithnonetheless, it carries them. That is what makes it the church on earth and not a paradise that will need no church.
Saint Mary's and Campion
there is something eerie about having total strangers describe to you the inmost recesses of your soul. I opened letter after letter explaining to me in some detail why I hated my church, had it in for the Blessed Virgin, and dismissed the Holy Spirit. This was news to me, and would be to Catholics who know me, including the many nuns and priests who have been guides and helpers all my life. I am a born Catholic. I have never stopped going to Mass, saying the rosary, studying the Gospels. I have never even considered leaving the church. I would lose my faith in God before losing my faith in it. In fact, the closest I have come to disbelief in God was when I was deepest in the social coils of the church, as a seminarian studying to be a priest. Before that, my upbringing had made me as little questioning as most of the Catholics around me in the 1940s.
I had no reason to doubt the good will and piety of those who cared for me. It was the Catholic part of my lifethe Irish Catholic side of the familythat was most supportive and stimulating. My younger sister and I much preferred our mother's parents, Con and Rose Collins of Atlanta, to our father's parents, Garry and Ginny Wills of Oak Park. The Willses were originally Episcopalians from Norfolk, but Garry was an agnostic and Ginny had become a Christian Scientist by the time we knew them. When our grandmother Wills babysat us, during our parents' absence, she tried very hard to improve usour manners, our diction, our reading habits (out with the comic books). She loved us, I suppose, but in a cold and fussy way, a kind of love we found it hard to reciprocate.
The Irish side, by contrast, was all love and little improving. The Collinses had their faults, some recognized (the drink), some not (the racism), but they made children feel instantly at home. They had thick Southern accents (my mother's returned when she went back home), outgoing ways, and an unpretentious but omnipresent piety. Their house contained a large statue of the Sacred Heart that awed us, and many pictures of the Virgin. In Lent and on holy days we knelt down and said the rosary together. It was a Catholic home, even in stereotypical ways. It held a large family Rose had eight difficult childbirths, though four of the babies were either stillborn or died soon after delivery. Only one boy lived, Bernard. He entered a Jesuit college (Spring Hill) but had to withdraw almost at once, since Con lost his job during the Depression. Of the three sisters, only the youngest, Anne, finished high school, since the Depression was over by the time she reached her teens. The extended family on both the Collins and the Driscoll side was thick with priests, who dropped in for some of Rose's wonderful cooking, making friendly priests a part of my social world from the outset. When at Christmas or Thanksgiving we visited Atlantaor later, when the Collinses moved there, Louisvillethe house was webbed with aromas from Rose's kitchen, and there were more people than beds. My sister and I slept on the floorwe thought that a great adventure. The Wills home seemed sterile by contrast, full of boring classical music and of objets d'art we could not touch (Ginny was an amateur artist of some talent).
Though my father, Jack, was not a Catholic (he became one after we had grown up), he honored the pledge he took to raise his children in the church, so our mother, Mayno, brought us up in the atmosphere of the Collinses. After my birth in Atlanta, my father had to travel north looking for work in the Depressionfirst to Fort Wayne, then to Beloit (where my sister was born), then on to Albion, Michigan, and finally to Adrian, Michigan (just across the Ohio border from Toledo). In Albion, my parents ran a boardinghouse on the edge of Albion College, renting rooms to college boys. I was two at the time, and in the boarders I had a house full of big brothers who taught me to tie my shoes, throw a ball, and be a lure for neighborhood girls who came to gush over me and flirt with them. My mother was not happy at the fact that Albion had no Catholic grade school; but by the time for me to enter first grade we had moved to Adrian, which had a very good school (Saint Mary's), run by Dominican sisters whose mother house (Siena Heights) is in Adrian.
I was lucky to have a teacher there who remained a lifelong friend. She had been born on Bastille Day in Augusta, Georgia, and baptized Marie Antoinette in honor of the dayshe went by the second name, but shortened it to the less pretentious Anne. Her father, John Joseph O'Connor, was a graduate of the Jesuit college at Spring Hill (the same one my uncle attended briefly), and she had worked for the Willys-Overland car company in Toledo before entering the convent in Adrian. In honor of her father she took as her religious name Sister John Joseph (we kids called her Johnny-Joe behind her back). She was in her thirties when she taught me. In her fifties, when she had resumed her own name, she became the provincial superior of her order in California, and she had to steer women's colleges through the stormy sixties, which she did with a wise flexibility.
Most of my childhood memories revolve around the Adrian parish of Saint Mary's and the school attached to it. I later tried to re-create my days there in an essay, "Memories of Catholic Boyhood," which I included in my book Bare Ruined Choirs. It was an exercise in nostalgia that obviously spoke to many who had shared my experience, since I have had more requests to reprint it, or get copies of it, than for anything else I have written. Some excerpts will give a sense of the upbringing I am trying to describe now. Of going to pre-school Mass on a weekday, I wrote:
We came, in winter, out of the dark into vestibule semidark, where peeled-off galoshes spread a slush across the floor. We took off gloves and scarves, hands still too cold to dip them in the holy water font. Already the children's tin lunch boxes, left to steam on the bare radiator, emanated smells of painted metal, of heated bananas, of bologna and mayonnaise . . . Girls without hats hair- pinned Kleenex to their headsit fluttered as they strode to the communion rail, like a raffish dove ill-perched on each sharer in the mystery . . . Scapulars like big postage stamps glued here and there on kids in swimming pools. JMJ [for Jesus Mary Joseph] at the top of schoolwork. The sign of the cross before a foul shot. Fishing pennies and dimes out of pockets pebbled with the fifty-nine beads and assorted medallions of a rosary . . . Nuns who moved in their long habits with stately calm, like statues rocking. The deferential "ster" pinned to all sentences ("Yester" for "Yes, Sister") . . .Holy cards of saints with eyes so strenuously upturned as to be almost all white. The Infant of Prague bulkily packaged in "real" clothes. The sight, in darkened churches, of a shadowy Virgin with hands held palm-out at the level of her hips, plaster cape flowing down from those hands toward blue votive lights unsteady under her like troubled water. Sand under the votive candles for putting out tapers; and a box of large kitchen matches, for lighting tapers, stuck into the sand. The momentary waxen strangle of St. Blaise day, as crossed candles bless one's throat.
I concluded, fondly: "It was a ghetto, but not a bad ghetto to grow up in."
Beneath this weave of churchy incense at the school, there was a strict discipline supporting good teachers who stressed the basics. Grammar was instilled by endless outlining of sentences. Rhetoric was shaped by giving rhythmic breakdowns of the same sentences. In a way, this system worked almost too well with me. When, at age ten, I had to transfer to a public school, I was so far ahead of those who missed this kind of drill that another of my very good teachers, Mildred Byfuss (later Mrs. Duckworth), pitied my boredom in class (and countered my tendency to fool around for lack of other occupation), telling me to go to the school library and read books she suggested to keep me busy. Teachers, I suppose, could not get away with that today.
Though I loved to read, I missed the nunsI was back in Albion, where, since there was still no Catholic school, we were sent to Saturday catechism classes taught by laymen. My father had been drafted, despite his two children, for the final stages of World War II. This meant he could no longer commute from his Adrian job (selling gas appliances) to maintain the boardinghouse in Albion. So my parents rented the house in Adrian, and my mother moved back to Albion, where, helped by her sister, she could look after the boardinghouse. I acquired again that protective huddle of older brothers from the college, who now rode me around on the handlebars of their bikes and let me play catch with them on the college campus, just across the street from our house. (These days, I suppose, my mother would be criticized for letting the college boys give me rides without a helmet.) I had older friends than those I was going to school withan arrangement that was repeated, in a milder way, when Miss Byfuss persuaded my mother to let me skip sixth grade.
But when we returned to Adrian, after a year, the private reading Miss Byfuss had directed put me ahead of my fellow students at Saint Mary's, and Sister John Joseph said I should skip another grade. My parents, rightly opposed to my getting too far out of my age group, said no to this. She then recommended that I go to a more demanding school. She idolized her older brother, who was a Jesuit priest, so she suggested that I be sent to a Jesuit boarding school, Campion, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I began my freshman year there in 1947.
The Dominican nuns, who had treated me well, sent me on to the Jesuits, who were even better to me. For one thing, they dispelled any notion I might have that I was precocious. At Campion there were many people as smart as I or smarter, and I was privileged to have a number of them as friends. Some who went on to distinguished careers are Joe Schorck as a classical scholar, Bill Birdsall as an economist at the University of Michigan, Greg Lucey as a university president, Bob Baker in the CIA, Lewis Ellingham as a poet. We were given an anachronistic education in humane letters, part of the Jesuits' already-fading Renaissance traditions. Those of us in the honors program had four years of Latin and two years of Greek. We were back to outlining sentences, but in two new languages. There was great emphasis on memorizing, elocution, and debate. We were among the last to have this kind of training, since the key factor in itJesuit "scholastics"has now disappeared. Scholastics were Jesuit seminarians who interrupted, after the seventh year, their thirteen- year preparation for ordination to the priesthood. They were given time out to teach for three years in a Jesuit high school. Now there are too few Jesuit seminarians to sustain such a system, and the training of those who still exist has been shortened or altered to meet other needs, making the hiatus for high school teaching a rare exception instead of a regular part of the training. But while that system lasted, it was a great way to inspire and test adolescent boys.
The scholasticsmen still in their twenties, immersed in studies they enjoyed, highly motivated, many of them athletic enough to play with us (and beat us at will) in sportsmade ideal teachers. They were not only bright and hardworking in the regular classes. They had energy left over to run informal seminars on things like music appreciation, or to conduct reading groups, or to give extra-credit courses in everything from theater to theology. They got us interested in new books as well as old. When the article on which Evelyn Waugh based The Loved One ran in a special edition of Life, the scholastics quickly passed it around to each other and to those of us they thought would like it. Almost all my later interestsin Greek drama, in the New Testament, in Shakespeare, in opera, in movies, in authors like Newman and Ruskin and Chestertonwere initiated or accelerated by my four years at Campion.
I didn't love everything about Campion. Compulsory ROTC courses were taught by military hacks, whose dullness was made more grating by contrast with the scholastics in our regular classrooms. As a freshman, I joined the debate team, whose star was Bill Sullivan, then in his senior yearhe would soon enter the Jesuits and became a distinguished theologian (later the president of Seattle College).My first day out for ROTC drill, when I saw Bill Sullivan, my fellow debater, strutting about in an officer's uniform with a silly-looking saber, I snatched the sword and made him run after me to get it backwhich he did not think very funny. He didn't think much, either, of my dating his sister Kathy (the Sullivans lived in Prairie du Chien). When I met Kathy as a sophomore, I asked after Bill, who was by then a novice at the Jesuit seminary. She told me she was amused by the way novices addressed each other in Latin as Carissime ("dear fellow"), which they pronounced Criss-Me. Since Kiss Me, Kate was still a new show then, I addressed my first letter to her as "Criss-Me Kate." I wrote her on Sundays whenever I could not go into town to see her because I had a "lost weekend."
That was another problem for me at Campionits system of "jugs" and "lost weekends." A jug punished minor infractions by depriving the culprit of recreation time, consigning him instead to the memorization of long poems, which he must recite in order to be released. (I still remember scraps of those many verses.) A certain number of jugs within a week led to a lost weekendin which all one's recreation time on Saturday and Sunday (the only days we could go into Prairie du Chien) was spent sitting in a chair in the hallway outside the office of the school's president, Carl Reinert, S.J. I ran up record totals of jugs, often because I had missed daily Mass, for which we were forced to rise at six a.m. I was insomniac in my youthdoctors in those carefree days of pharmacology gave me strange mixtures of medicines for itso I often ended up, after early lights-out, in the one room lit on each floor, the john, reading in a stall, lifting my legs when anyone entered, in case it was a Jesuit checking the room. Then I would sleep through Mass in the morning. After my jugs reached a certain total, I was expelled from the senior residence hall, where we got private rooms in our fourth year, and sent back to the juniors' dormitory.
That experience led me to a realization that my idolized scholastics were not all "the best and the brightest" men that the church had to offer. There was one genuine psychopath among themhe did not last long, I was later told, but I wondered how he had got that far. He had a grudge against the "honors boys," which he took out in naked hostility. One night he caught me, after my expulsion from the senior residence, roaming its halls after dinner, when the building was out of bounds for all but its inhabitants. He said with manic glee, "Now I really have you." He had been part of my getting expelled in the first place, and I did not know what new penalty he could inflict, but I was undoubtedly obnoxious when I laughed at him and said, "No you don't." I produced a written permission for me to be there preparing for a debate with my partner, Bill Birdsall. The scholastic's face was instantly contorted with pure hate, and he lunged at me. I ran down the stairs to the first floor, out onto the porch and down its stairs, and off across the length of the football field that lay beside the hall. Sheer panic gave me speed, since he was clearly in a murderous mood and he just kept coming. At last I wore him down (he was not one of the athletic Jesuits). It was a bitter winter night, and I had left my coat in Birdsall's room, but I stayed out for as long as I could bear the cold, and then circled the long way back to my dorm, in case he was lying in wait for me (I think he was).
This one exception to the general excellence did not tarnish my view of the scholastics. Nor did I ponder much the difference between these young men and the older Jesuits, already priests, who held administrative and some teaching posts at the school. The energy and curiosity of the seminarians had faded into odd hobbies or rote performance of duty in many of these elders. It is true that the president, Father Reinert, had great vigor, but much of it was expressed in bullying, not only of students but of the scholastics, so we had an unspoken sympathy for each other's plight. I did not know then, but learned later, that the year before I came to Campion, Father Reinert had forced reluctant scholastics, under holy obedience, to become informers on a group of students who protested an unfair example of mass punishment.
My admiration for the scholastics was so common with others that many of us considered joining them in the Jesuit order. Though I had applied and been admitted to Marquette University, in Milwaukee, with a vague notion of becoming a lawyer, I asked what entering the Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, would entail. I was drawn to this inquiry in part because of a book that had been recommended to me, a two-volume life of an Italian controversialist of the Renaissance, Saint (then Blessed) Robert Bellarmine. The book, written in a genial style by the Irish Jesuit James Brodrick, was the first scholarly work I had ever readby scholarly I mean one working from archives and citing sources in the original tongues (without translation). I could not read the Italian passages, but I wrestled, after my four years of Latin, with the Renaissance language of debate. Father Brodrick made the ideal of consecrating one's intellect to the service of God very appealingthough the book was hagiographical, it was not entirely sicklied over with piety. (Brodrick admitted, in a later and better edition of the work, that he had whitewashed certain aspects of Bellarmine's activitiese.g., his role in the trial of his friend Galileo.)
When I asked about entering the Jesuits, I was given a physical exam. There was no psychological evaluation in those days (there is now), but there was a good deal of questioning about my number of jugs, to decide if they reflected some deep rebelliousness. Apparently it was concluded that it did not, and I said a sad goodbye to Kathy Sullivan, hoping to follow what seemed to me the highest calling I had been exposed to. It was a trial for me when Kathy showed up occasionally to visit her brother, who was farther along in the seminary but still on the same grounds. She later entered the convent of a teaching order of nuns and became a professor of mathematics.
Excerpted from Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills. Copyright © 2002 by Garry Wills. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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