Ethics & Public Policy Center

Dr. Wills Comes Unhinged


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


“Why isn’t there a ‘progressive’ candidate?” was, to some, one of the mysteries of this past April’s conclave. The fact that John Paul II had named so many of the electors was suggested as the explanation. But that didn’t work, as a quick riffle through the Vatican yearbook easily revealed the names of at least thirty cardinals whom no one would ever label “conservative” – and every one of them had been named by John Paul II.

At the time, I suggested that there was no “progressive” candidate because the campaign to compel the Catholic Church to deconstruct its doctrine and bend its moral teaching to a thin notion of freedom-as-autonomy was exhausted. Confirmation of that thesis now comes from a bizarre essay in the October 6 issue of the New York Review of Books. Under the rubric “Fringe Government,” Garry Wills proposes that Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Michael Novak, and your scribe are “situated at the contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House,” from which perch we are busily – doing what? Well, according to Garry Wills, destroying American democracy and turning the ecclesiastical clock back to the days of Pius IX, or maybe even Pius V.

I take it as an iron law of controversy that people turn to conspiracy theories and personal nastiness when they’ve run out of ideas. Dr. Wills is, evidently, out of ideas, or at least arguments. In the course of his New York Review essay, he doesn’t engage a single idea that Neuhaus, Novak, or I have proposed over the past twenty-five years. As our students will readily attest, my friends and I relish real debate; but how does one respond to cartoons masquerading as arguments?

Garry Wills is a very intelligent man who has made important contributions to our understanding of American history – which makes it all the more discouraging when his commentary on things Catholic comes unhinged. So, for the record, here are what I take to be some of the key ideas three of his Great Conspirators have been propounding:

1. The Founders and Framers did not intend the United States to be built around a “naked public square” in which religiously informed moral argument is deemed out-of-bounds in public life. The Supreme Court should recognize that the First Amendment was intended to create the legal and cultural conditions for the free exercise of religion – “no establishment” being one means to the end of free exercise.

2. The abortion license defined by Roe v. Wade is a grave injustice because it legalizes the willful taking of innocent human life. Similar threats to first principles of justice are entailed in euthanasia and in embryo-destructive stem cell research. These issues can be adjudicated on genuinely “public” moral-philosophical grounds, without appeals to ecclesiastical authority or “sectarian” doctrine.

3. The free economy is superior to state-based economies because it creates wealth more efficiently, distributes it more equitably, and reflects the economic creativity built into us as rational and moral beings. If you believe the poor are people with potential and your goal is to empower the poor to unleash the creativity that is theirs, you work to incorporate the poor into those networks of productivity and exchange that we call the “free economy;” you don’t keep poor people trapped on the welfare plantation.

4. The just war tradition, a tradition of statecraft, remains the normative Catholic method of moral reasoning about world politics and provides a public moral grammar by which free societies can debate their responsibilities in a dangerously conflicted world.

5. The pontificate of John Paul II was not a pontificate against modernity, but a pontificate advancing a distinctively modern appraisal of modernity, one that included both affirmation and critique.

6. The Catholic Church has a “form” given it by Christ. All genuinely Catholic reform is by reference to that “form.”

In the event that he pulls himself out of the slough of progressive Catholic despond, it would be instructive to learn Dr. Wills’s objections to these six points.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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