This book is the follow-up to Papal Sin, in which Wills criticized the modern papacy’s intellectually dishonest attempts to defend indefensible doctrines in order to maintain its aura of unchanging and unquestionable authority. After so strongly and ably refuting doctrines that many Catholics feel make them Catholics, and criticizing the methods the papacy has used to hold on to them, some wondered why he remained in the Church. His answer turned into a whole book, Why I Am A Catholic.
Like Papal Sin, this book centers on the papacy. About 70% of the book deals in detail with the history of the papacy (not to be confused with the history of the popes). The topics covered include: the roles of Peter and Paul in the early church (before and after their deaths); early church governance by the original apostolic communities; the development of the concept of the papacy; and the development of its roles and powers in the Roman Church and in the world. As mentioned in earlier posts (links below), the much of the history of the papacy has consisted in a Machiavellian quest for worldy power, usually ending with the Church becoming the servant of the leading emperor/monarch/dynastic family of the day. (Confirming my theory that those who are basically good suck at being bad!)
Wills’ basic thesis about the papacy is that despite its checkered history and false claim to absolute power (whether in the world or in the Church), it has an essential role in preserving Church unity. He would like to see the papacy follow more closely the original charism of Peter, who was neither a pope nor a bishop of Rome, but whose commission to “tend my sheep” still and always needs to be executed in the Church. Paul’s charism of teaching authority is also a part of Wills’ concept of the papacy, while recognizing that the Holy Spirit’s guidance is to be found in all parts of the Body of Christ, not just in the papacy.
It was originally the people’s devotion to Peter and Paul that made Rome the Western Church’s center of power, as they flocked (and continue to flock) to their shrines in the city of their martyrdom. The effectiveness of their charisms, however imperfectly carried out since their deaths, is reflected in the unity of the Catholic Church. We do not have thousands of denominations (and counting) as in Protestantism. Wills is a perfect example of the Catholic spirit of dissenting without disuniting. He himself has no kind words for heresy—the desire to split off from the Church and create new sects. To prevent dissent from flaming into heresy is what the papacy is for (in theory), according to Wills.
To answer the question of why he is a Catholic, Wills’ answer is (relatively) simple: he believes in the Apostles Creed. I say “relatively” because he does some exegesis of it, explaining concepts that even Catholics can be confused about (like Mary’s “virginity”). He also gives a very interesting eschatological interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, a piece of Scripture which is particularly difficult to translate into English as we lack some of the verb tenses used in the original Greek. But always catholic, he feels it more important to pray it in community, in a bad translation, than to pray it himself correctly.
Personally, as a Catholic, I found much of the book difficult to read. Considering what the papacy could and (dare I say) should be, what it has been is truly heartbreaking. I have even more respect for the great mystics who maintained their faith in the face of gross papal (and priestly) corruption. I was greatly relieved to get to the chapter on Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, but my relief was shattered as I read about how subsequent papacies have undermined and destroyed his (and the Spirit’s) good work. It was worse than I thought, and the present Pope, in his former office, has been a major part of the attack on Vatican II, despite his avowals of support for it. However, like Wills, this does not make me want to leave the Church. I also believe in the Creed, and I believe this is the Church founded by Christ. Wills’ writing on the charism of Peter (and Paul) has fleshed that out for me. In fact this book has cleared up several matters for me, and I would recommend the last section to anyone, Catholic or not, wanting to understand a bit more about the essentials of Catholic faith. Wills is a fine example of how reason and faith, far from being antithetical, actually make each other stronger. If only the Church hierarchy knew that.