A Conversation with Garry Wills

Conscience: Your recent book is all about how the Catholic church has changed over the millennia, like abortion, for instance. How do you re­­­spond to someone who says you can’t be Catholic and prochoice?

Garry Wills: Abortion is not a theological matter. It is not mentioned in the Old Testa­ment, the New Testament or the early Creeds. The Vatican itself says it is a matter of natural law, where natural reason should decide. Yet informed people of intelli­gence and good will have reached no consensus on the matter.

The problem is not when life begins (it begins in the live sperm and ovum before con­ception), but when the person begins, and Augustine says that personhood is inter-­personhood, even in God. The pope has no privileged role in this nontheological arena.

Conscience: In your recent book, you also devoted a whole section on church-state issues within the church’s history. What do you think the church’s proper role is in the public sphere?

GW:; In a religiously plural state, believers should speak as citizens addressing the common good, not imposing their own religion over any other, nor being imposed upon by any other religion.

Conscience: Do you think religious liberty, or the bishops’ claims about it, is going to be a big issue in the 2016 election?

GW: It will arise in this election season because of an opportunistic junction of evangelicals, Catholics and conservatives in general. The religious liberty is not being taken away from any Catholic, who can have or not have an abortion. But the religious liberty of others to have an abortion is being limited or obstructed. This is not conscientious objection, which is for the affected agent, but usurpation of another’s freedom of conscience. The fact that the freedom being attacked or limited is to use contraceptives, which a vast majority of Catholics do, makes the argument a joke. They are exercising their religious liberty when they plan their families.

Conscience: How do you think Pope Francis has changed the papacy? While you support the fresh air that Francis has brought to the church, do you think he has a blind spot when it comes to the way women are treated in the church?

GW: He lives in a nest of vipers. He is disarming them so far by not taking on hot doctrinal debates, but subtly implying they are irrelevant to the great mission of Jesus, to the poor and to the victims of war and prejudice and religious hypocrisy.

Conscience: Do the shortfalls in church politics ever make you question your decision to remain Catholic?

GW: We have a Christian pope for a change.  Christians should rally around him.

Conscience: What else should the bish­ops do about the sex abuse scandal?

GW: Sackcloth and ashes all around. Take off the miters and grovel.

Jen Girdish is director of communications at Catholics for Choice and editor of Conscience.

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