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A Matter of Conscience 

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills' latest work, Why I Am a Catholic, attempts to explain his church connection.

In the line of recent writings about the Catholic Church, Garry Wills' Papal Sin (2000) stands as a peerless polemic. In that book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author ranged across the latitudes of church conflict, from the 1968 birth control encyclical to the ongoing pedophile priests scandals. He marshaled citations from a grand supportive cast, notably Lord Acton, author of the famous line, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Dishonesty -- an addiction by popes and lesser church officials to the "use of falsehood to proclaim the truth" -- is the central issue of Papal Sin.

If Wills might be said to have role models in his examination of the church leadership's struggle for honesty, Acton and Cardinal John Henry Newman illumine those pages like truth-seekers with lamps. These figures return in Wills' new book, a sequel titled Why I Am a Catholic (Houghton Mifflin).

In this work, Wills begins with an earnest quest to have readers see his own faith as genuine, a concern that rolls through the prose like a subdominant chord. He writes of letters received in response to Papal Sin from Catholic readers -- "The first group asked how I stayed in the church. The second asked why I did not leave." -- and by non-Catholics who "thought I was right to criticize dishonesty in church leaders but wrong to expect anything else."

As every saddened believer knows, a search for harmony between faith and common sense is central to the Catholic experience. The disconnect is acutely felt in times such as these, with bishops mired in the muck of lies. One wonders how G.K. Chesterton, Acton or Newman would have reacted to this state of affairs. In Garry Wills, we get a pretty good idea.

Wills focuses on Chesterton's embrace of orthodoxy as tempered by a generous idea of Catholicism as a connective tissue: "The Church is not a movement or a mood or a direction, but the balance of many movements and moods; and membership of it consists of accepting the ultimate arbitrament which strikes the balance between them, not in refusing to admit any of them into the balance at all."

Those lines, which come in the epilogue, might easily have served as the prologue to a book whose title sounds an ironic echo to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. Faith is an animating principle to Garry Wills. "I am a born Catholic," he explains. "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."

Readers expecting a memoir will be disappointed. In one of his simpler yet most profound remarks, Wills states, "Having a conscience means feeling we owe the universe something in return." For Wills, that debt involves explaining the church, no holds barred, to believers saddled by worry about disasters of recent vintage. An opening autobiographical section evinces a tender side of the author, but the bulk of the book is given over to a probing history.

In a literary culture saturated with banal memoirs, one wishes that Wills had written more about his own faith journey. A man could not write a book like Why I Am a Catholic without a confident spirituality and strong intellect in equipoise, and therein lies the beauty of a work that even the papacy's most ardent defenders will have a hard time putting down.

"A person can have a lover's quarrel with [church] leadership," he notes in one of the tamer passages. Others are as blunt as a bulldozer: "There is nothing in Catholicism that says we have to suspend our common sense of dishonesty when faced with papal assertions like that of Paul VI that women cannot be ordained because they do not look like Jesus, or that priests cannot be married even though Saint Paul told the Corinthians that he had every right to be married, like Peter. Such 'teachings' are dishonest, naive, or stupid on their face."

If Wills is even-handed in apportioning out blame, he reserves some of his harshest judgment for Pope John Paul II and his theological alter ego, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger, who directs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (once the Holy Office of the Inquisition), has taken punitive actions against those in religious life who stray from lockstep marching to papal authority. He has been especially hostile to the bishops' desire for greater autonomy in their relationship with Rome. "When the bishops did not agree with Ratzinger, they lost the very right to exist in his scheme of things. ... Saint Paul addressed each church as a whole, not singling out parts of it; but this approach offends Ratzinger, for whom it carries unpleasant connotations of democracy. His is always a church of rulers and ruled."

For Garry Wills, the transcending arc of Catholicism springs not from the papacy but the Apostle's Creed, an affirmation of belief rooted in the New Testament. If Why I Am a Catholic subjects the reader to a greater mass of details about church history than some might want, the author's insistence that faith must reckon with history's sins carries a precious resonance that is likely to echo for many years to come.

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