02/28/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Questions for the Next Pope: Is Garry Wills a Catholic? Am I?

Is Garry Wills a Catholic?

Am I Catholic? Are you?

Is The New York Times anti-Catholic?

These questions come to me as, almost simultaneously, the pope resigns, America's leading newspaper reports day after day about continuing sexual abuse, homosexual culture and political intrigue in the Church, and Professor Wills, this country's most longstanding and prolific Catholic gadfly, publishes perhaps his most iconoclastic book yet about Christian faith.

Each question, I suspect, may have several answers: yes, no, maybe, sometimes.

Wills, a onetime Jesuit seminarian and a prickly and pugnacious scholar of history and literature, as well as Catholicism, once wrote a book about the papacy entitled "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit," and last week told Charlie Rose that he didn't care who would succeed Benedict XVI. So if he is a Catholic (another of his 48 books is "Why I am a Catholic"), he is clearly not a papist. Now book No. 48 -- "Why Priests?" -- reaches even deeper into canonical Catholicism to poke at a far broader-based institution. He doesn't think this worldwide fraternity is essential, because there is no biblical basis for a sacerdotal class being extended from the Levites of the Hebrew Testament to the Christian community, nor is it proper that such a Christian class hold a monopoly on the dispensation of grace through the Catholic sacraments. The boldest opinion he expresses is that these men do not have the power to transubstantiate bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. That, it seems safe to say, is a Protestant view. So can one hold such a view and be a Catholic? Or, as I think Garry Wills would contend, is being a Catholic determined not by one's opinions about the Church, but by one's identification or profession of him- or herself as a Catholic (and, perhaps, by the sacrament of baptism)?

No. Yes. I don't know.

But I think I know this: A lot of people who attend Sunday mass, including me, have doubts about the "real presence" -- the divine content -- of the Catholic Eucharist, although we may not reject the doctrine outright. Many more have given up receiving the sacrament of Penance, involving the confession of sins to a priest. Perhaps most do not accept the Church's traditional teachings on eternal damnation. And it has been documented that the vast majority do not follow its directions on birth-control. And so on.

Certainly the long parade of revelations about sexual malfeasance among Catholic clergy and administrative irresponsibility among the hierarchy has made the question posed in Wills's latest title a timely and relevant one. Many quondam churchgoers now stay home because they have lost respect for and confidence in priests and their institutional church. Yes, the New York Times and other media voices are campaigning against the Church and to some extent might be considered anti-Catholic. The Times's executive editor until recently, Bill Keller, has put aside his boyhood Catholicism and has remained very interested in but no fan of the Church. A main purpose of newspapers, however, is to expose the sins and crimes and hypocrisies of institutions and individuals, and the Times's investigations of the Church have been above all a service to Catholics, if a hurtful one.

There was a time, half a century ago or less, when doubts and independent thoughts expressed by laypersons would have not only been vehemently condemned by the priests whom Wills deprecates, but also might have caused the excommunication of those who harbored them. And "time," I think, is a key word here. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which, intentionally or not, increased freethinking among Catholics, was about "time," about the nature and function of an ancient-medieval-Renaissance Church in the modern world. It was a brave confrontation with the reality that time changes perception, understanding and, ultimately, truth, or at least some dimensions of truth. And it bravely opened the question of how much the Catholic Church change could, and still be Catholic? A tough question, and one that obviously hasn't been resolved, nor will it be during the imminent papal-election conclave, nor the one after that.

Apropos of birth-control and damnation, Wills makes a keen point about the difficult dilemma the Church faces in adjusting its teachings. He tells that during the post-Vatican papacy of Paul VI, theologians counseled him that contraception was not a violation of natural law, and therefore permissible. But a hierarchical advisor then pointed out to him that the Church had preached for generations that those who practiced birth-control were grave sinners who, if they died unrepentant, would be condemned to hell. If the pope changed the rule, he would not only be admitting that the Church had until that moment been wrong on a profoundly serious matter, but also would be facing the awkward prospect of retrieving all those transgressors from the eternal flames. Paul let the ruling stand, thereby opening the most visible modern rift between hierarchy and laity.

Still, has Garry Wills gone too far? Apparently, but how much does it matter, if his conscience and his extraordinary mind have led him to the place where his own undeniably Christian spirituality rests? And is it right for any of us claiming to be Catholic, whatever that may mean, to deny the validity of his faith, of Protestant faith or of many other religious experiences?

May God help us all.