Friday, February 15, 2013

Michael Sean Winters Orders Garry Wills to Go Away, and I Order Wills's Book Why Priests? in Response

Michael Sean Winters tells Garry Wills "please go away" and "stop posing as a Christian commentator," and my immediate response is to check the online catalogue of my local library and see if it has Wills's new book Why Priests? It does--three copies. I've added my name to the list of those waiting to read the book.

As I've said before, the unforgivable sin that brilliant, widely read Catholic scholars like Wills make in the eyes of the powerbrokering centrist American Catholic commentariat is that they go public with reflections that tell gospel truth about the Catholic tribe's innards to the world at large. I've been noting a lot of the same sort of irritated small-minded centrist powerbrokering blather about Wills over at the Commonweal thread started by Eduardo Peñalver to which I linked yesterday.

Wills has ruffled the feathers of the inhabitants of the Catholic birdcage who imagine that the top roost should belong to them, and that they alone should own the right to crow Catholic "truth" to the wider world. He did so in this case (and in previous ones) by publishing a précis of the argument of his new book in the New York Times--a newspaper the tribalist Catholic birds loathe, because they imagine it's anti-Catholic--in the context of a reflection on the failure of Benedict's papacy.

A papacy the centrists are delighted to defend, despite Ratzinger's longstanding and ongoing attacks on one Catholic theologian after another, his suppression of women's rights, his disdain for gays and lesbians . . . . And, of course, as with so much else they write, in defending Benedict and his legacy now, the centrists show their true colors: they're not in the least in the center. They're perfectly happy to toe the line of the rabid right, while pretending to be objective, in-the-middle, center-of-the-road types who deplore the excesses of both left and right.

They're perfectly happy to pretend to occupy the center perch in a birdcage controlled by the rabid right, this is to say, because they want to assure their own power as gatekeepers of the Catholic conversation--their power, as they imagine to make brilliant scholars like Garry Wills vanish by demanding that they "go away"!

As I've written before, Wills "has more knowledge stored in his little finger about Jefferson and the foundations of the notion of religious liberty in American thought than all the pusillanimous Catholics advancing false omnidirectional arguments for 'religious freedom' have in their entire bodies." (And yes, Michael Sean Winters, I do mean you when I say this.)

Wills is quite simply far better educated than are the narrowly-schooled centrists now fatuously equating his view of the development of the priesthood with a simplistic theological originalism over at Peñalver's Commonweal thread (as I said yesterday, Peñalver himself found Wills's recent Times essay valuable), or demanding from their NCR perches that he go away. He's better read, and therefore far and away more thoughtful and more respectful of a wide range of academic discourse that counts in the academy at large, far beyond the boundaries of the solipsistic little Catholic academic tribe.

(And where have these fellows been lo this past half-century, when the theological-biblical arguments about the development of the priesthood Wills is summarizing have been made by one distinguished Catholic theologian and exegete after another ? Where were these fellows when students like me were reading Küng's book on the church line by laborious line in courses on the theology of the church at middle-of-the-road Catholic universities like Loyola in New Orleans in the late 1960s? Have they just awakened to a world in which Küng's arguments and Wills' have been par for the course for educated Catholics for decades now?)

Like any Catholic (and good Augustinian) who really aspires to catholic responses to the world around him, Wills engages communities of discourse well beyond the tightly patrolled tribal boundary lines. He reads their work. He thinks about what they have to say. He respects their arguments and responds to them respectfully even when he doesn't agree with them.

In short, he talks with somebody other than birds just like himself inside the birdcage. Unlike the Catholic centrist lot, who talk only to other Catholic Cabots and other Catholic Lowells . . . .

As Wills has noted repeatedly (e.g., in this recent essay in the New York Review of Books) his Southern roots introduced him very early in life to a variety of cultural perspectives that ipso facto moved him beyond the narrow boundaries of thought, culture, and belief that many tribalistic U.S. Catholics take for granted as the world tout court. His formative experiences have given him a feel for a much larger culture than the comfortable echo chamber inhabited by many tribalistic American Catholics, and his awareness of the complexity of the larger culture within which American Catholicism is situated makes his response to that culture far more sophisticated and effective--because it's intellectually grounded in a wide and convincing way--than the vain attempts of the Catholic tribalists to wag their fingers at and talk down to the wider "secular" and "irreligious" culture they use as a prop for their entirely unconvincing arguments equating Catholic identity with obedientialism. 

Wills has a much more accurate feel for the wider culture than obedience-fixated Catholics like Winters, who keep saying the same thing over and over no matter how dysfunctional their drumbeat calls to obediential tribalism become, even as their hero-pope resigns precisely because he recognizes the dysfunctional mess the Catholic church has become as it has once again taken this shallow finger-wagging, cut-off-from-reality approach to the world around it . . . . 

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