A political conservative turned liberal, lifelong Roman Catholic and world-class curmudgeon, Garry Wills has called President Barack Obama a disappointment and Pope Benedict XVI irrelevant — and that was before the pontiff announced his resignation.
In his latest book, “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition,” the former seminarian turned historian goes after priests.
But hey, it's just history. Nothing personal.
“I have nothing against priests,” Wills says at the start of the book, ticking off the names of mentors, most of them Jesuits. “In fact, I tried for a time to be one. ... It should be clear, then, that I respect, and am often fond of, the many priests in my life.”
Wills has written nearly 50 works exploring a wide range of historical figures, including James Madison, Richard Nixon, Jack Ruby, St. Augustine and John Wayne. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America." Now at 78, challenging modern-day interpretations of his own church's teachings has become his trademark.
"Popes don't pay attention to me because I'm not a priest, and I didn't teach in a Catholic institution," Wills said in his characteristic acerbic tone, in an interview. "If I had done either of those things I would be in trouble with the church. But they can just shrug me off."
In "Why Priests?" Wills asks why a dependence on the priesthood arose in a religious tradition that didn't need it and, in fact, succeeded wildly without it during the time of Peter and Paul.
For the reform-minded, Wills articulates a call for change. But he doesn't want any part of the reform effort. He is quite content doing his own thing, worshipping in what he deems a historically accurate way and writing and writing and writing. So, one might ask, how did he become such an icon among liberal Catholic intelligentsia? In other words, why Garry Wills?
"He's not a theologian, representing the official Catholic view. He expresses views Catholics are discussing," said the Rev. Ken Simpson, Wills' former pastor at Northwestern University's Sheil Catholic Center, where Wills has worshiped for 32 years. "He speaks to views many Catholics have and captures what they're thinking."
Sitting on the couch inside the Sheil Center one recent snowy afternoon, a cane within easy reach, Wills talked about the journey that led him to his most recent book.
"This has been gestating for a long time," he said.
Wills wasn't always fond of priests, describing his childhood priest in Adrian, Mich., as "an ogre, an Irish tyrant." But the ordained and aspiring Jesuit priests who ran his high school set a different example, introducing students to the classics, music, theater and debate. It was also in high school that Wills discovered "The Confessions of St. Augustine," an autobiography written in the fourth century that examines the saint's conversion to Christianity. It was the Jesuits and St. Augustine, not the ogre, who inspired Wills to pursue a path to the priesthood.
It didn't take long for Wills to grow incredulous of the rules that governed seminary life and the lengths administrators would go to to get around them. For example, when secular books were forbidden during the first two years, author G.K. Chesterton and poet William Wordsworth were granted exceptions with a wink and a nod. Wills also wasn't permitted to get published himself.
After more than five years, a pile of unpublished articles and a severe bout of depression, the prospect of celibacy finally drove Wills to drop out. While pursuing a doctorate in the classics from Yale University, he wrote his first book on Chesterton, whose accounts of overcoming suicidal thoughts and depression had heartened young Wills.
While in graduate school, he also launched a career as a journalist, working alongside the late conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who founded National Review. The two went separate ways when Wills' coverage of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration steered him toward the left.
In 1957, flight attendant Natalie Cavallo plopped down in the seat next to Wills to tell him he was too young to be reading "The Two Sources of Morality" by French philosopher Henri Bergson. Fresh out of seminary, he failed to get her number. But the journalist in him tracked her down. They married two years later, raising three children in Baltimore, where he worked at Johns Hopkins University. They moved to Evanston in 1980 when Wills secured a post at Northwestern, where he earned tenure.
But tenure had a price, he said. The administrative duties and academic politics took time away from his writing. After chairing a hiring committee and finding his preferred candidate rejected for political reasons, he cast off tenure and started another book. Northwestern honored him by restoring his tenure in 2005. He continued to teach for a few more years during retirement, but no longer does.