Five Falsehoods from Garry Wills

It’s hard to believe that the Garry Wills formerly known as an intelligent and elegant writer has sunk to a point so low and embarrassing that his “arguments” are on par, if just barely, with elementary school playground spats: insults, name calling, and falsehoods. His little screed, “Contraception’s Con Men” (The New York Review of Books blog, Feb. 15, 2012), is revolting in its sneering vitriol and revealing in its rejection of basic facts.

It stands as yet one more piece of evidence that if a man dedicates his life to defending and promoting a sin, he will end up a sad and bitter shell of his former self. “Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception”, wrote Thomas Merton. The hatred in Wills’ piece is directed at “a revolting combination of con men and fanatics”—that is, all Republicans; all Catholic bishops (who are “stupid”); Popes (Paul VI is referred to as “crazy”); any Catholic who follows Church teaching and obeys Church authority; and the “nice smiley fanatic” Rick Santorum, who is equated with Torquemada. For a man who is so enamored with “love”, he doesn’t show much love.

As for illusion, Wills cannot conceive (pun intended) that the HHS mandate is a direct assault on religious liberty and simple civil respect for conscience. (Even Douglas Kmiec has recognized the mandate was an “insult” and a “failing”, though he fails to admit that his perception of Obama was largely incorrect.) Wills harbors the further illusion that President Obama’s “accommodation” was somehow an honorable admittance of lines crossed and rights crushed rather than the cynical shell game it really is.

But the real problem is one of deception, for having deceived himself about the nature of the Church, Church authority, and Church teaching, Wills now works to deceive his readers about the same. I suspect that in doing so he is not even being knowingly duplicitous, because there comes a point in a lifelong mad pursuit of the glittering “My precious” that reason, judgment, and reflection are burned away, leaving only naked pride and sterile rage.

Examples abound in Wills’ diatribe; I will highlight just a few:

• “The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a ‘conscience exemption.’ It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.”

This is stunningly upside down and backwards, as if the person who burglarized your home sued you for locking your valuables in a safe, allowing him only partial access to your private, personal belongings. The federal government has passed a law stating that Catholic institutions such as schools and hospitals must pay insurance coverage for medical treatments contrary to Catholic moral teaching. The perversity of this was expressed well in a recent statement by the Sisters of Life:

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act each of us will be required by law to obtain health insurance, or face fines.  Since this HHS mandate will require every insurer to include abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception, we will not be able to obtain any coverage that is free from those “services,” and we will be forced to pay for them directly.  Since we are neither employers, nor employees, of any religious institution, we cannot even take advantage of the “religious exemption” contained in the new regulations or the “compromise.”

That an unprecedented act of federal fiat against the Church is construed as an imposition of religious requirements by a “religious dictatorship” can only be explained by a devotion to libertinism that is as immoral as it is statist, as explained so well by George Weigel in a recent column. Having abandoned the Church, Wills has made an idol of sexual “freedom” and a “church” of Leviathan.

• “Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden.”

Religion, properly understood, as to do with one’s relationship with God. And since God is creator and the author of life, and since both divine revelation and reason make known the importance of life, marriage, and procreation, it follows that the purposeful thwarting of life and procreation is indeed part and parcel of religious belief. And nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is child pornography or dog fighting expressly forbidden, yet all reasonable people agree they are, respectively, gravely evil and very disturbing acts. These are simply cheap and pathetic appeals to shallow minds and shaded souls.

• “The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence ‘unnatural.’ One can eat, beyond the bare minimum to exist, to express fellowship, as one can have sex, beyond the begetting of a child with each act, to express love.”

Much could be said here, but suffice to note two facts. First, the Catholic Church does not teach that sexual union in marriage is only for procreation, or that having marital relations when a woman cannot become pregnant—because of her cycle, her age, or infertility—is wrong. It teaches that the marital embrace must always be open to life.

Secondly, to pick up Wills’ analogy, this means that whenever we eat—whether due to urgent necessity or in a leisurely, festive context—we do not force ourselves to vomit up the food later. Such purging is rightly seen as unhealthy, both physically and emotionally, and indicates an improper understanding of both the nature of food and the act of eating. If I eat cake at your birthday party, even though not hungry, I am not thwarting the natural process of digestion and nourishment that follows; but if I “purge” that cake from my stomach, you might rightly wonder: “Why did you eat it?” Likewise, a married couple may have relations just once a month, or twice a week; the regularity is not the issue. But if they “purge” themselves, so to speak, of the natural and proper process of conception and reproduction, they are like the person who suffers from an eating disorder, failing to have a proper and healthy understanding of the nature of food and eating.

• “Catholics who do not accept the phony argument over contraception are said to be going against the teachings of their church.’ That is nonsense. They are their church. The Second Vatican Council defines the church as ‘the people of God.’ Thinking that the pope is the church is a relic of the days when a monarch was said to be his realm.”

The amount of theological error contained in this short passage is impressive, albeit in a most negative way. The people of God, stated Lumen Gentium (pars 9ff), are the people of the new covenant established by the divine authority of Jesus Christ. “That messianic people has Christ for its head” (par 9); the Church is, to draw upon Scripture (which Wills appeals to in other contexts), the body of Christ. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church further states, on the matter of authority:

The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. (par 12)

That sacred teaching authority, of course, is the Magisterium, which rests upon the authority of Christ, handed on by him to the apostles and then to the bishops, by virtue of apostolic succession (see pars 18-29). And: “The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (par 22). Wills says that Pope Paul VI was “crazy” to condemn contraception in Humanae Vitae, but he fails to explain why we should accept the magisterium of Gary Wills when it was Paul VI who oversaw the conclusion of the very Council (appealed to incorrectly by Wills) that expressly teaches the pope has the power to teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. Wills is either being sloppy or misleading, or both. Besides, it cannot be overlooked that Wills is assuming those American Catholics who use contraception are somehow, against any decent sense of logic, the “people of God” referred to by the Council, which begs the question, to put it mildly.

• “When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony.”

He is right that many Catholics rejected the teachings in the 1968 encyclical. But it is misleading to say the document was  “formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant”; that, again, was the point of the Vatican councils! Rather, Humanae Vitae sought to explain the truth of the Church’s teaching about sex, procreation, and marriage. Everything that Paul VI warned that would happen if contraceptives became the norm has come about: the breakdown of marriage, sexual immorality, increased numbers of abortions, infidelity, divorce, and on and on. In the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput, “Contraceptive technology, precisely because of its impact on sexual intimacy, has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility, and marriage itself. It has detached them from the natural, organic identity of the human person and disrupted the ecology of human relationships. It has scrambled our vocabulary of love, just as pride scrambled the vocabulary of Babel.”

It has surely scrambled the thinking of one Garry Wills, whose sorry and embarrasing attempts to slander and smear those who stand up for life and Church teaching are a reminder that illusion and deception always follow when sin is presented as virtue and virtue mocked as vice.

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About Carl E. Olson 1216 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.