Book Reviews

Garry Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (New York: Viking, 2013), 302pp.Garry Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (New York: Viking, 2013), 302pp.

           The Catholic Church might hope for better days with a new pope, but historian Garry Wills wrote in a recent editorial that he has lost hope. And in his newest book, he says he has no need for pope or priest. Not that he thinks things will change, or that he even advocates a priestless church. He has nothing against priests, and even spent five years in a Jesuit seminary studying to be one. For him the issue is historical and not personal. The office of priests is a later addition to the original Jesus story. There's no evidence that Peter was the first bishop anywhere, "least of all Rome." In the gospels Jesus is a bitter critic of the priestly hierarchy that would mediate access to God. The earliest Jesus movement was "radically egalitarian" and characterized by charisms and functions, not powerful offices. There's nothing new in any of this argument, certainly not to Protestants.

           What makes priests so powerful, says Wills, is that they have the power in the Eucharist to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Wills thus makes a long and technical digression into the theological weeds that will be lost on a general readership. He contrasts the scholastic theology of transubstantiation in Aquinas and others with his beloved Augustine, who denied the physical presence of Christ in the eucharist. There follow long discussions about the mythic priest Melchizedek of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110:4, how the complex book of Hebrews construes Jesus as a priest and sacrifice after the line of Melchizedek, and about penal-sacrificial theories of the atonement (which Wills rejects).

           If Peter and Paul didn't need a priest, "neither do we." We do need "fellowship in belief," and for that "we have each other." So if Wills doesn't believe in the basic Catholic doctrines of "popes and priests and sacraments," what does he believe, and why does he stay in the Catholic church? "I get that question all the time," he admits. In a wonderful one-liner at the end of the book, he says he believes in those things which are central and essential and not incidental and peripheral, like the Apostles Creed. "That seems a fair amount to believe," he says tongue in cheek. Yes it does.