Garry WILLS Bare Ruined Choirs. Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion [First published in 1972- Paulist Press. Reissued 2014. Pp 300 ISBN 978-0-8091-4819-6. Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045
Gary Wills has written dozens of books on politics, history and religion, with important work on how they intersect in American history and culture. He writes on Catholicism with great passion and a remarkable mix of nostalgia, commitment, and acerbic, sometimes devastating criticism. Among his books on religion I count six on St Augustine alone, three on what the Gospels and Jesus mean, and others on issues ranging from Papal Sin (2000) and the priesthood (Why Priests? 2013) to reflections on his own faith and experience (Why I am a Catholic, 2002).
Bare Ruined Choirs (1972) was one of his earliest books and is reissued here with a short preface. This book is written with evident personal feeling, and combines an account of what it was like to be brought up as an American Catholic before Vatican II with a discussion of the enthusiasms, disillusions, and failures of radical and liberal Catholics (and other theologians, among them Harvey Cox) in the 1960s. The diagnosis is complicated and multi faceted. The world that Wills evokes (Ch 1 “Memories of a Catholic Boyhood”) is perhaps most notable for its fixity, its self reassuring nature, and for the all encompassing and closed nature of the life it promoted. (Cf the novels of Mary Gordon or a book like James Carroll Practicing Catholic) This was not a church of much intellectual development. One went to church not to hear sermons or consider Scripture but to participate in the mystery in established ways. As depicted, this world was satisfying in its way, but “stunted” and so dependent on routine and authority that any doubt, any change, could shake the whole edifice and undermine its foundations.
At least that is the sense one gets from Wills’ account, which was written in the aftermath of Vatican II. The author underscores the importance to American Catholics of the “two Johns” who marked the early 1960s –the President and the Pope --but harshly critical of others (like Sr. Jacqueline Grennan, later Jacqueline Wechsler) who uncritically accepted power and “establishment” as reference points. Wills also devotes considerable attention (Chapters 8, 9, 11) to the Catholic hierarchy’s problems with sex (and with women) , especially as manifest in arguments over contraception and celibacy. His chapter on Humanae Vitae remains a powerful critique that goes beyond the document to the broader issues of how and why sex has posed such a problem and caused so many defections.
The diagnosis is dire. The certainties of the past are eroded, institutions like religious orders thrash around trying to reinvent themselves in more “relevant ways” (Ch 7 “Doubting”, on the Jesuits), and masses of the faithful ignore “official” teachings (on sex or politics) or simply move on, sometimes to other churches, sometimes nowhere.
This diagnosis is also more than forty years old, and it is worth asking if and in what ways it remains valid. Do we need to add anything to the analysis to make sense of likely and possible futures? Much of what Wills wrote in this book has been certainly been confirmed over the years. The church has not kept up with demographics, and is regularly pronounced dead or dying, a sure loser in competition with other churches, not to mention with “the world”.
But reports of the Church’s death remain premature. Despite itself, and sometimes at war with itself, the Catholic Church continues to generate ideas and elements of transformation. So one wonders how the author views his own analysis, more than four decades later. Unfortunately this edition is identical to the original, with only a 5 page Preface in which the author mostly reaffirms his core of his critique, and underscores the importance of seeing the church as more than its hierarchy or formal structures.
This is certainly so, and the message remains relevant, but there is more to say and Wills is the one to say it. Issues of sex and gender continue to be central, but they have morphed into new areas ranging from clerical sexual abuse to same sex marriage and the status of women in the church: we are well beyond contraception and abortion here. Reform and real internationalization of the Vatican bureaucracy (this is a church of the global south) are all on the agenda, as is greater transparency in finance. One could easily extend the list. Wills himself is scheduled to publish a book this year on The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis I look forward to reading it