This was actually loaned to me by a family member, who rather adorably hopes I will one day come to my senses and return to the One True Church. I humor him, because pretty much all religion books fascinate me, but also because it cracks me up that I grew up Catholic (ish) and he converted about two years ago, so his attempts at conversion are just wondrously unexpected.
Let me tell you right off that this is not, despite its title, a memoir beach read. Far from it; in fact, Wills only has a very little bit of memoir at the beginning (which is quite interesting; it’s very much the 50s Catholic upbringing of my mother, in some ways, so reading that account was neat for me). After establishing his “credentials” of Catholicism, though, Wills leaves himself behind and proceeds to the Church. All of it.
Well, perhaps not all of it. But he does narrate an epic survey of the history of the Church through the lens of the popes; Wills catalogs their successes, their (many) failures, their impact (or lack thereof) on the people of the Church, and the ways in which they have been bypassed or otherwise lovingly circumvented over the years by the very faithful they’re supposed to represent/lead. It’s a fascinating overview that I will definitely keep around as a reference tool for future classes, but it is a lot of information, so be warned. The writing is incredibly accessible, but the amount of material makes it dense.
The thing about this middle section is that, for most of it, this is why people aren’t Catholic. I study the Middle Ages, so this was kind of like doing more research for me (which is part of why it took me so long to finish; when you read about a topic for ten hours a day, it’s hard to have the same thing be your bedtime stories), so I’m kind of “used” to the corruption and idiocy of the Church. But the blunt and uncompromising descriptions Wills gives would make any sane person run like hell from this institution. Many times, in the middle of this book, I wondered if perhaps Wills had meant to write a different book about church history but had accidentally stuck this other title on it when it went to the publishers. I couldn’t for the life of me see this as a defense.
And the brilliant thing about this book, the reason I recommend it, is that it’s not a defense. It was never meant to be. Wills isn’t Catholic because there’s nothing wrong with the Church. He’s Catholic because it’s a human institution and he can see beyond that to the One it serves. In the third part of the book, after you get through the last gasping wounds of the papacy’s faults (it’s a bit dated, now, as Johnny Paul was still pope when this was published; I’d love to hear Wills’s ideas on Benedict as Maximus) and you feel like you’d rather go worship in an oak grove somewhere without people, Wills turns to the Apostle’s Creed, in some ways the bedrock of what the Church meant to be. He teases out each piece of the Creed with such love, acceptance, and patience that you realize exactly why this matters to him. He re-translates the Pater Noster with such brilliance and freshness that I would read a whole other book on that alone. And he lays out the idea that loyalty to the Church doesn’t require blindness or stupidity. It requires love, forgiveness, gentle reprimand—in short, it requires all of the things that we need from God for ourselves, because again, it’s a human institution.
My poor family member will have to keep waiting, because even this isn’t going to bring me back into the fold any time soon. But having read this, I have a new respect for the people of the Church, for the glorious Bride it is meant to be (and that’s for the Protestant Church, too, as we’re off the path a lot ourselves). I totally get why Wills is a Catholic, and again I see how incredible this diverse body of believers really is in reflection of the mind-bending amazingness of our God.
Rating: Four and a half stars