Why Priests: A Failed Tradition

By Garry Wills, The Penquin Group of Viking Press, 2013

Reviewed by A. Regina Schulte, MA, PHD

Not surprisingly, the dual papal events this year have fascinated people around the world – due partly, no doubt, to their staging as Vatican spectacles, and also partly due to their religious significance.

Garry Wills believes in neither popes nor priests, but has an academic interest in them.  This, his latest book, is a study of priesthood, the entry-level position required of all would-be popes.  It has arrived at a good time.

In the meticulous scholarly research comprising this work, Wills exposes a frail and dubious hodge-podge upon which rests the belief that priests and the sacramental system as we know it are essential for the life of the church.

“It’s fake!” he says.

These words may seem acerbic in tone but Wills denies that he intends to denigrate priests.  He bears them no personal animus; his concern is historical.  He wants to set the record straight and to reassure fellow Catholics that the continuing decline of priests for ministry does not spell the end of the Church.  It can survive quite well without them; it did so in its origin and still does in many Christian denominations.  “Some think that the dwindling number of priests can be remedied by the addition of women priests, married priests, openly gay priests.  In fact, the solution is: no priests.”

An ordained priesthood is not foundational to the Church, he says.  It is without origin in the time of Jesus, without basis in the lives of the apostles, and without mention in the practices of the nascent church.  Contrary to an oft-used argument, Jesus did not institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper, nor did he “ordain” anyone at that meal.

In the current climate of the Church, more and more of the laity have already begun asking hard questions about the role of priests.  Beyond mere questioning, intentional faith communities sprouting up “outside the walls” attest to the fact that many no longer feel it necessary to have a priest preside over their liturgies.

Garry Wills’ contribution to this developing trend is the depth and scope of his scholarly probe into the history of the tradition, and the creeping control priesthood eventually assumed over the entire sacramental life of the Church.

He builds a strong case from biblical, historical, theological, and anthropological sources to support his thesis.  Scholarly acquaintance with the classics and fluency in both Greek and Latin enable Wills to use primary sources in their original languages.  He finds enough evidence to counter the Church’s claim regarding priests’ exclusive ownership of power to sanctify – a power that this tiny ordained minority wields over the lives of the majority from birth until death.

The thesis of this book is neither new nor original to Wills.  Other scholarly theologians, Church fathers among them, have similarly voiced either this theory or antecedent theologies that would ultimately lead to it.  Wills names them and they include such giants as Augustine, Irenaeus, Origen, Abelard, Henri deLubac, (to whom this book is dedicated), Dutch Dominicans, and others of the Roman Church.  He finds historical evidence from other sources also, (In 1971, highly regarded Swiss theologian, Hans Kung, published a monograph also titled “Why Priests?”)

Priesthood is the outgrowth of the notion that the bloody execution of Jesus was willed by God, was voluntary on the part of Jesus, and was religiously sacrificial.  The initial idea for this seems to lie in the central claim of the The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament – that Jesus was a High Priest who offered this sacrifice.  The letter is an anomaly, with enough mystery surrounding it to delay its inclusion in the canon until the end of the fourth century.  Its author has never been identified, its content is alien to the rest of the New Testament, and the location of those to whom it is addressed is not given.

In putting together an argument for his message, the author plucks out of Fenesis the mysterious Canaanite (“pagan,” in Church parlance) priest, Melchisedek.  Although he has no identified priestly lineage, the author of Hebrews uses him to create a priestly one for Jesus out of thin air, so to speak.  Although described as “according to the order of Melchisedech,” it would be a wholly new one and Jesus would then be the new high priest, not from the line of Aaron and Levi.  The priesthood of Jesus begins and entirely new order.

In the imagination of the author, this little nugget from Genesis becomes radioactive.  “Melchisedek was… and invitingly blank slate on which the wildest imaginings could be scripted,” says Wills.  He roams “sinuously” through the Letter on a long path of contortions and illogical connections to justify the claim that Jesus is the High Priest who offered himself in sacrifice for humankind.  As Wills describes it, Hebrews is difficult to take seriously.  It “slides through or leaps over fallacies.  It is sometimes devoutly eloquent, sometimes borderline silly.”

In Hebrews content, the bloody execution of Jesus becomes an unrepeatable sacrifice offered by Jesus for human sin.  There is a contradiction here in that Jesus, the priest who offers the sacrifice is, at the same time, the willing victim.  There is also a missing piece in that the receiver of the offering remains wholly unidentified.  Nevertheless, its author is undeterred by these neglects.  Theologians were not that dismissive.

The gap left in Hebrews gave rise to questions that waited to be addressed in later centuries.  It was the “atonement” theology provided by St. Anselm that eventually rose to prominence, was endorsed, and thereafter embedded in Church teaching where it remains to this day – though now looking quite tattered.

Anselm’s explanation strained human emotions and rationality.  The death of Jesus on the Cross was a sacrifice offered in obedience to God the Father who willed it as an act of justice for humankind’s dishonor of God by sinning.  With both divine and human natures, Jesus could legitimately play the dual roles of priest (equal to God) and victim (human).  This act of sacrifice “bought” redemption for all humankind.

To make its salvific effect available to the followers of Jesus in the Church, it is re-enacted (in an unbloody manner) at the Eucharistic liturgy, by men who have been given the priestly power to do so.  The required priestly lineage is now a mimicking substitute – a sacramental one supposedly passed hand-upon-hand, straight from the apostle Peter.

The Eucharist is the center of sacramental life in the Church.  Aquinas called it “the sacrament of sacraments.”  All other parts interconnect with it.  Priests are said to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, which communicants then eat, drink, and digest into their bodies.  Because the Last Supper was a meal wherein the Gospels relate the “words of consecration” (“This is my body.  This is my blood.”), the meal symbolism is included in the Eucharistic rubric.  However, in dismissing the original practice of the early “Followers” for whom a shared meal was central, the doctrine of sacrifice overtook it, leaving the “meal” aspect to merely providing the setting.

The tradition as it has survived in doctrine and practice is this: the Mass is the (unbloody) sacrifice of the Cross in which the bread and wind are transubstantiated into the living Jesus.  This takes place when the presiding priest (and none other than the priest) pronounces the sacred words of consecration over the bread, “This is my body,” and over the wine, “This is my blood…”

All of this is a departure from the theology of Augustine (and of more recent theologians) who symbolically place the community, i.e., the “Mystical” Body of Christ, on the alter.  It was Thomas Aquinas, however, who explained away the obvious appearances of bread and wind – not real blood and flesh – remaining on the alter.  With the Aristotelian categories of “substance” and “accidents,” he supplied the capstone for this version of Eucharist.  It is only the substances of bread and wine that are changed into Christ; the accidents remain unaffected.  (Quite a miracle!)

Under the intense scrutiny of Gerry Wills, this entire matter glows neon with unsubstantiated premises and illogical conclusions.  As a history scholar, he is at home in classical literature and with the Fathers of the Church, knows the writing so Augustine forward and backward, and is also a scriptural scholar of note.

In the manner of a sharp trial attorney, Wills exposes the flaws and fragility in al of this, shrewdly casting reasonable doubt on the supports, scriptural and otherwise, for the Church’s sacramental system.

The purpose and space here prevent a detailing of all that Wills discovers and concludes to as he translates, compares and connects relevant texts in exegetical style.  However, this review would seem incomplete without at least a few intriguing samples.

  1. By admitting that he is having difficulty in explaining it, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews appears to be spinning a new idea out of his head.
  2. Anselm’s atonement theology, would have God revert back to the barbaric practice of human sacrifice that had, in more enlightened cultural evolution, been replaced by animal sacrifice.
  3. Baptism is the only sacrament specifically mentioned in the New Testament.
  4. The Epistles list many forms of service, many functions in the early Jesus movement.  “Priest,” nor an equivalent, is not among them.
  5. Apart from Hebrews, there is only one place (Eph. 5:2) in the New Testament that says Jesus was sacrificed, and the Pauline authenticity of that epistle is contested.
  6. Jesus was not a priest.  Peter was neither a priest nor bishop.  Paul was not a priest.  There were no priests (nor bishops) in the early generations of “Followers”.
  7. Jesus did not “ordain” anyone at the Last Supper; furthermore, if that Supper actually took place, it was very likely an ordinary meal.
  8. Augustine did not believe in “the real presence” (as we call it) of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Furthermore, Augustine held that the Incarnation was the source for our salvation, not Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

In examining the Scriptural passages upon which the Church has based it premises for claiming the seven (a sacred number) sacraments, Wills finds that the Church, has injected meanings and connections where they are dubious at best, to correspond to the symbolic biblical number of seven (e.g., Jesus instituted the sacrament of matrimony at the wedding feast in Cana).

He doesn’t appear to dismiss the benefits of symbolic prayerful gestures that we call the “sacraments;” he simply denies that only an ordained priest can bring them about.  The entire faith community can and should do this for its members.  There is no magical power involved that needs attribution to priests, and therefore exclusive control of “sacramentals” is not theirs to claim.  Any one or all in the community of believers may bring these graces to the others.

There is a peripheral effect that insinuates itself into the church community with ordination, says Wills: the supposed de facto holiness of priests.  This perceived holiness arises from their aura of power over the laity, who are dependent upon priests for the grace of all the sacraments.  “Holiness equals power,” he says.  A man given the totally awesome power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus is seen as tremendously powerful.  And, tremendously holy.

Take away sacrifice and sacraments, and what, then, is left?  From what he reveals about his personal religious practice, it seems that Wills would answer: community, creed, and prayer.  And, for him, “community” is fully ecumenical, embracing all the children of God, no matter what the differences.

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One Response to Why Priests: A Failed Tradition

  1. I have for some time felt what Wills elaborates in his scholarly analysis. The priesthood as we know it in Catholicism is a later development than the time of Christ. That does not mean it remains unimportant or unessential to the life of the Church. The Spirit guided the Church in her development (Tradition) so we can look to more than the biblical word (Word) and apostolic times.

    I especially like Will’s affirmation that sacraments remain important. It is the sense of the whole Church involved in this sacramental life that needs to be affirmed, as indeed it has been in Vatican II and post-Vatican II.

    A special word of thanks to Concerned Catholics of Montana! Keep witnessing to the Spirit….

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