As I noted on Monday, the "On Faith" section at the Washington Post is hard at work attacking faithful Catholics by publishing, bit by bit, excerpts of a Sally Quinn interview with Garry Wills, a critic of the church. Well, on Tuesday -- the day of Pope Francis's installation Mass -- the attack continued with another excerpt in which Wills was given a platform to wish the papacy would become a mere figurehead position, much like the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On Faith editor and religious agnostic Sally Quinn opened with the query, "What do you think should be done with the papacy? Do you think it should be abolished?" That softball over the plate allowed Wills to swing for the fences with his attack on thousands of years of church tradition. Wills went on to give his advice to recalcitrant Catholics, which was not to leave the church but rather to simply ignore the pastoral oversight of the bishops and the pope himself, whom the church teaches is the successor of St. Peter:
Wills: “No, it should just fade into symbolic irrelevance, like Queen Elizabeth, you know. Keep his palace, gorgeous palace, keep his gorgeous costume, and don’t have, have some kind of sentimental ties with the past. And the Vatican is good museum if you don’t care about the Gospel. So I think in time, he will … he’s an anomaly, he’s a monarch in a democratic age. It’s very, very hard to sustain real power that way. Symbolic power of some sort fading will be the role of the queen and the pope. They can get together and compare fabulous pasts.”
Quinn: “All right, but the problem is that, you know, he does have a lot of power over people’s lives, because he can say this is a sin, or that’s a sin. And he can ruin homosexuals’ lives, he can ruin women who[don’t] want to have babies.”
Wills: “We can’t hope for him to change. We just have to ignore him. It’s to say he has no power over the natural law, none at all. And for him to claim that is absurd. And more people are doing that, and more will do that. Even they have a hard time keeping up pretense.
“For instance, when I was young, if you met a bishop, that was a big thing, and you genuflected and you kissed his ring. If you try to do that to a bishop now, he’ll say, ‘Oh, cut that out, cut that out.’ Because he knows, those monarchic airs don’t work anymore. So that more and more, I think, he’ll fade.”
Quinn: “So what does that mean for the Catholic Church?”
Wills: “It means that we have to continue what we’ve always done, live by the Spirit. Support … You know, the Church does wonderful things. It heals lots of people, it teaches, it promotes education. All those things go on, and can go on forever without a pope or without any priests being involved.
“You know, the nuns have done all the wonderful work, and the pope tries to stop them, and you notice there’s a big surge for support for the nuns in America.”
Quinn: “I know.”
Wills: “That’s the real church. That’s what Catholics are saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re not being the real church, the church that goes out and tries to deal with people with AIDS.’ You know, the papacy tried to quash that at the beginning. You can’t do that, because that recognizes the legitimacy of homosexuality.”
To Wills, the "real church" is the laity and the spiritual leadership of the clergy may simply be ignored with impunity. That is not merely antithetical to Catholic teaching and tradition, it's antithetical to biblical teaching, which commands Christians to be spiritually submitted to their leaders, insofar, of course, as their leaders are submitted to Christ and to sound doctrine [see Hebrews 13:7,17].
Whereas the Protestant traditions sought to reform the Church and, failing to do so, broke communion with Rome, Wills counsels socially liberal Catholics to be in open rebellion while remaining Catholic. That's like telling a petulant 20-year-old insisting he should insist he can stay rent-free and eat from the fridge as he pleases all the while breaking the rules of the house and having his girlfriend shack up with him in the basement.
There are plenty of well-reasoned and polite debates that can be had regarding ecclesiology in Christian churches at large and in the Catholic Church in particular. But the way that Wills and Quinn are going about this isn't one of them.