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Wills at the <a href="/content/Lyndon_Baines_Johnson_Library_and_Museum" style="color:blue">Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library</a> in 2015
Wills at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in 2015

Garry Wills (born May 22, 1934) is an American author, journalist, and historian, specializing in American history, politics, and religion, especially the history of the Catholic Church. He won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1993.

Wills has written nearly forty books and, since 1973, has been a frequent reviewer for The New York Review of Books.[1] He became a faculty member of the history department at Northwestern University in 1980, where he is currently an Emeritus Professor of History.

Early years

Wills was born on May 22, 1934, in Atlanta, Georgia.[2] His father, Jack Wills, was from a Protestant background, and his mother was from an Irish Catholic family.[3] He was reared as Catholic and grew up in Michigan and Wisconsin, graduating in 1951 from Campion High School, a Jesuit institution in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He entered and then left the Society of Jesus.

Wills earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Saint Louis University in 1957 and a Master of Arts degree from Xavier University in 1958, both in philosophy. William F. Buckley Jr. hired him as a drama critic for National Review magazine at the age of 23. He received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in classics from Yale University in 1961.[4] He taught history at Johns Hopkins University from 1962 to 1980.

Personal life

Wills has been married to Natalie Cavallo since 1959; she was the flight attendant on his first flight on an airplane.[5] They have three children: John, Garry, and Lydia.[4][6]

A trained classicist, Wills is proficient in Ancient Greek and Latin. His home in Evanston, Illinois, is "filled with books", with a converted bedroom dedicated to English literature, another containing Latin literature and books on American political thought, one hallway full of books on economics and religion, "including four shelves on St. Augustine", and another with shelves of Greek literature and philosophy.[4][7]


Wills describes himself as a Roman Catholic and, with the exception of a period of doubt during his seminary years, has been a Roman Catholic all his life.[8] He continues to attend Mass at the Sheil Catholic Center in Northwestern University. He prays the rosary every day, and wrote a book about the devotion (The Rosary: Prayer Comes Around) in 2005.[9]

Wills has also been a critic of many aspects of church history and church teaching since at least the early 1960s. He has been particularly critical of the doctrine of papal infallibility; the social teaching of the church regarding homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and the Eucharist; and of the church's reaction to the sex abuse scandal.[10][11][12][13]

In 1961, in a phone conversation with William F. Buckley Jr., Wills coined the famous macaronic phrase Mater si, magistra no (literally "mother yes, teacher no").[8] The phrase, which was a response to the papal encyclical Mater et magistra and a reference to the then-current anti-Castro slogan "Cuba sí, Castro no", signifies a devotion to the faith and tradition of the church combined with a skeptical attitude towards ecclesiastical authority.[9]

Wills published a full-length analysis of the contemporary Catholic Church, Bare Ruined Choirs, in 1972 and a full-scale criticism of the historical and contemporary church, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, in 2000. He followed up the latter with a sequel, Why I Am a Catholic (2002), as well as with the books What Jesus Meant (2006), What Paul Meant (2006), and What the Gospels Meant (2008).


Wills began his career as an early protégé of William F. Buckley Jr. and was associated with conservatism. When he first became involved with National Review he did not know if he was a conservative, calling himself a distributist.[14] Later on, he was self-admittedly conservative, being regarded for a time as the "token conservative" for the National Catholic Reporter and writing a book entitled Confessions of a Conservative.[9]

However, during the 1960s and 1970s, driven by his coverage of both civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements, Wills became increasingly liberal. His biography of president Richard M. Nixon, Nixon Agonistes (1970) landed him on the master list of Nixon political opponents.[15] He supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but declared two years later that Obama's presidency had been a "terrible disappointment".[16]

In 1995, Wills wrote an article about the Second Amendment for The New York Review of Books. It was originally entitled "Why We Have No Right to Bear Arms", but that was not Wills' conclusion. He neither wrote the title nor approved it prior to the article's publication.[17] Instead, Wills argued that the Second Amendment refers to the right to keep and bear arms in a military context only, rather than justifying private ownership and use of guns. Furthermore, he said the military context did not entail the right of individuals to overthrow the government of the United States:

Public appraisal

The New York Times literary critic John Leonard said in 1970 that Wills "reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus."[19] The Roman Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr. considers Wills to be "perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years" (as of 2008).[9] Martin Gardner in "The Strange Case of Garry Wills" states there is a "mystery and strangeness that hovers like a gray fog over everything Wills has written about his faith".[20]



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