A Feature Review of
Why Priests? A Failed Tradition
Reviewed by Joseph Krall
Three days before the publication of Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (Viking, 2013), Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. His action comes after decades of dissent within the Catholic Church and massive revelations of abuse from within the Catholic hierarchy. At such a time, Garry Wills’s question – “Why do we need priests at all?” – is particularly pointed, and particularly relevant.
Wills also has a strong claim to be able to answer that question. Having written on religion and politics for much of his life, Wills, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and lifelong Catholic, has spent the past decade engaging with the roots and history of his faith in books such as Papal Sin, Why I Am a Catholic, What Paul Meant, and What Jesus Meant. Such an undertaking requires not only scholarly depth but a strong sense of personal belief, and although the former seminarian has freely censured his church for its failings, Wills’s faithfulness to his church, his adherence to its creeds, and his mode of engaged but scholarly commentary has allowed him to reach an audience in this undertaking.
So the real surprise of Why Priests? is not Wills’s biting thesis that “priesthood . . . keeps Catholics at a remove from other Christians – and at a remove from the Jesus of the Gospels” (3), but rather the scope of the argument, which will encompass far more than the Catholic priesthood. At the book’s heart, Wills criticizes something more fundamental: the idea of sacrificial atonement.
The first layer of Why Priests? contrasts first-century Christianity, “a priestless movement,” with Wills’s own memories of the rituals, outfits, and hypocrisies of Catholic priesthood. Wills explains that “the priest is made powerful because of the Eucharist (34); Colbert Report viewers will recall Wills’s opinion that transubstantiation is “a fake.” Here, Wills posits “a theory of the Eucharist opposed to transubstantiation” (56) that originates with Augustine: “the view of the Eucharist-cum-church as a single Corpus Mysticum” (58).
Having negatively evaluated the present-day Catholic priesthood, Wills goes on and begins to cut into the very idea of a Christian priest. In the book’s second layer, Wills again starts by contrasting Jesus, “a radical Jewish prophet” (71), to the priests that killed him. However, one book of the New Testament complicates this picture, saying Jesus was “designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10, NRSV). Wills takes a long detour into exegesis, taking apart the argument and structure of what he translates as the “Letter to Hebrews.” (Wills offers a full translation in an appendix.)