Garry Wills asks: “Why priests? A failed tradition”

Garry Wills new book “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition” is getting significant airtime from The Diane Rehm Show to The Colbert Report.

Kevin Madigan reviews the book in The New Republic in an article entitled Why Priests Have Power:

In his recent book, Why Priests? The Real Meaning of the Eucharist, Garry Wills turns his critical gaze to the nexus of priests, power and Eucharistic piety. The driving question of Why Priests? is how early Christianity, which operated without priests, evolved into a tradition that made their role central and even indispensable….

Wills intriguingly suggests that, rather than argue for the ordination of women priests, or married priests, or openly gay priests, the most logical and historically honest response would be to imagine Catholicism without priests. A priestless Catholicism, Wills argues, would more truly mirror early Christian practice than modern Catholicism. (As a Catholic, Wills has sympathy for the evolution of religious traditions, but for all branches of Christianity, origins remain normative.) As Wills concludes, “much of [the] condemnatory, accusatory, persecuting impulse” of popes through the ages “came from the jealousy of prerogative [and] the pride in exclusivity” of the priesthood. Set apart from all other human beings by their “unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” the priesthood has thus kept Catholics at a remove from other Christians and from the Jesus of the gospels. Why priests, then?

Steve Pankey reacted to hearing Wills on The Diane Rehm Show in a post “On the Role of Priests”, listing some of his problems with Wills’ line of argument, excerpted below:

—There is no mention of priests in the New Testament outside of The Letter to the Hebrews. He flat out refused to accept that “presbyteroi” (elder) infers the same meaning in places like Acts 15, calling it, “a [Roman] Catholic distortion, not a real translation.” I’d like to ask him who decides what is a “real translation” of a 2,000 year old text.

—The pretense of the Eucharist (on Colbert he called it a “fake”) is the Church’s way of securing power in the priesthood and the hierarchy. That is to say, if only priests can turn bread and wine into body and blood (which he argues is “impossible”), downgrades the rest of the body of Christ (by this he means lay people and maybe deacons because bishops and the Pope are all priests, after all). He goes on to add that he objects to “the idea that the priest is the sole conduct of grace… only the priest can forgive sins…” Here, I’m stuck because I don’t know Roman Catholic doctrine well enough to argue the point, but in my tradition, priests do not forgive sins, but rather, “declare and pronounce” pardon, as is mentioned in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy referenced above.

—That after he used his “magic wand to disassemble the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church” it would look like his vision, “Those who wish to teach, can; those who wish to preach, can; those who wish to offer healing ministries, can.” I’m all for the priesthood of all believers, but I would argue (and Wills says himself elsewhere that he agrees with me) that teaching and preaching are very different than healing and other ministries. While Wills doesn’t like dogma, he does seem to believe in doctrine, that there are some things that are true and some that aren’t, and somebody needs to be trained in the difference.

The reality of it is, I’m sitting behind a desk in my office at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, looking at two ordination certificates with wax seals and a M.Div diploma, wearing a clerical collar, preparing to preach at a third Ash Wednesday Liturgy in about 90 minutes. I am deeply tied into the hierarchy of my own tradition, while I stand within and attempt to say, “this isn’t exactly the way it was meant to be.” I’ll never be able to agree with Mr. Wills, if for no other reason than my pension depends on it, but I applaud him for asking these questions.

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  1. Rod Gillis

    Mea Culpa. Just finished reading the actual entire review of Gary Wills by Kevin Madigan online–something I ought to have done before replying to the article here. Madigan is an historian and commends the book for consideration. Little egg on the old parsonical face here.I have a better grasp of what the Book stives to accomplish. Not sure, I’ll read it. I’d be more interested first in looking at NT shcolars say about Mr. Wills’ treatment of the text. Notwithstanding, perhpas The Cafe would be kind enough to take my inital post down.

  2. Jim Pratt


    I wouldn’t consider Garry Wills a “90-day wonder”. He has been on the academic scene for 20+ years, first as a political scientist with a historical bent (I read his book on George Washington for an undergraduate course in the early 80s). More recently he turned his attention to theology, and had a well-received book on Paul a few years ago (I have not read it).

    I’d be inclined to give the book a read and consider Wills’ arguments.

    When I was a seminarian, I happened to be in Cape Breton on Corpus Christi, and as the RC church was the closest, went there. In the sermon, the priest described celebrating the Eucharist as his greatest joy and most important part of his priesthood. I left thinking to myself, “I hope that’s not all there is to being a priest”. Thankfully, I have not been disappointed in that way, and see presiding at the Eucharist as a small part of my vocation. But that sermon has given me insight into the common RC understanding of priestly ministry that Wills is challenging.

  3. Rod Gillis

    Thanks Jim. Re Gary Wills, Right on. I understand he is a journalist writer and intellect of some standing. As I said above in my mea culpa, egg on my face. After reading the review, I realized I tripped on my own tunnel vision. I get riled when journalists who are not biblical scholars make a big splash and then it blows over. However, my mistake for sure in this instance. The church needs more, not less, iconoclasm.

    Having said that, I’ll be interested to read an assessemnt of Wills ideas by professional theologians and historians. The review by Madigan is a start.

    Re the priest and the Eucharist, and the view of the chap you heard on Corpus Christi on The Cape, I think that is widely held by R.C. priests and some Anglicans as well. However, I’m from that part of the world. Some of the Roman Catholic clergy there,of a particular generation,have deep roots in social justice, community development, and a good grounding in priesthood as part of the laos, “the whole people of God”. A couple of them I ahve been pleased to know as mentors.I rememeber telling one of them when I was off to Divinity School that I would be studying Greek. The guy was a classicist, but his reply to me was, “don’t forget about the ‘laos’, that’s Greek for all God’s people.”

    One interesting jumping off point in all of this for Anglicans re Eucharist, priesthood, and “priestless” churches, is the contribution it may make to lay presidency of the Eucharist.

  4. tgflux

    I’ve enjoyed Garry Wills for many years…

    …but in seeing him on “The Colbert Report” (what a perfect guest to have *coincidentally* scheduled for the day the Pope resigned!), I was rather shocked how “orthodox” (conservative?!) he made me feel. The Eucharist being only symbolic? You and Melancthon can keep that, Garry: I’m REAL PRESENCE all the way! Need to eats me some Jesus! 😀

    JC Fisher

  5. Bill Dilworth

    ” Some of the Roman Catholic clergy there,of a particular generation,have deep roots in social justice, community development, and a good grounding in priesthood as part of the laos.”

    The overarching importance of the Mass (to which I personally subscribe) used to be the driving force behind a lot of Anglo-Catholic social justice, as well, as witnessed in the work and writing of clergy like Percy Dearmer and Frank Weston.

  6. Catholics, including some Anglo-Catholics don’t believe that women can do the Magic Act and so appose women’s ordination. I can appreciate their concern: they think that those of us who support women’s ordination are theological reductionists, who don’t recognize the Magic–who think clergy status is just a non-supernatural leadership position.

    OK. I propose a division of labor. Ordain any old guys who have the y-chromesomes, male genitals, or whatever it takes to do the Magic Act. Trot them out at church, along with the elderly, infirm and senile priests, to zap the bread and wine. Then send them back and get on with business. Women, and married men, do all the other business–preaching, organizing parish affairs, etc. and everything goes fine. Just wheel out one of these ordained guys on Sunday for a 10 minute transubstantiation gig.

    I’m fine with this. In fact I think that this already the way it works in a number of RC parishes already.

  7. Rod Gillis

    Bill, I think you are correct in that regard. In my part of the world here, beginning back in the days prior to World War II, there was the Anglican Fellowship for Social Action or (AFSA). The priests leading that movement were all cast in the Anglo-Catholic mold, and worked with poor and working people, often in rural communities–and they were excellent pastors as well.

    A similar movement existed in the local Roman Catholic diocese at that time under the leadership of two priests, Jim Tompkins and Moses Coady. The two were old fashioned clergy in many ways theologically, both died before Vatican II, but left a legacy in the Antigonish movement grounded in adult education, credit unions, and the like. Tompkins was actually “exiled” to a remote fishing village by his bishop because of his commitment to the poor and his critique of corruption. Today the local Tompkins Institute for Human Values keeps his vision alive. Coady enjoyed more mainstream acceptance. The Coady International Institute in Antigonish, NS, is named for him. He once wrote in one of his letters, “There is, of course, no more intimate union with Christ than the one He, out of his great love, left to us, the Blessed Eucharist.” Its a spirituality that would have been acceptable to a great many Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic pioneers. Interestingly, I’ve heard Jean Vanier say much the same kind of thing when talking about L’arche.

    It seems to me the problem is not priesthood, but clericalism. Separating out the two is not often easy, and perhaps that is what Gary Wills is attempting to get at in part.

  8. Ronald Caldwell

    It sounds to me as if Wills is saying the same thing Luther and the other Protestant voices said in the sixteenth century. Their complaints were primarily against the structure of the old church. They said it was more concerned about perpetuating itself than by carrying out the Gospel in the world. Perhaps this is the really exciting thing about Pope Benedict’s abdication. He is overthrowing centuries of deeply embedded tradition. I say good for him.

  9. I haven’t read the whole thing, but the idea that the priesthood “keeps catholics at a remove from other Christians” is silly. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have priests, and they collectively constitute the vast majority of all Christians in the world. Plus they (we) have the vast span of apostolic tradition on their (our) side. It’s Christians without priests, bishops, and deacons who are at a remove from other Christians.

  10. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Chris, the Roman tradition does see itself as the only one. It does little good to say that Anglicans have priests and bishops because the other side won’t recognize our orders.

    Gary Wills’s argument seems to allegorize the situation of liberals within the Roman Church, where women and out LGBTs are denied ordination. Rather than jump ship, they argue for allowing lay people to do more. He may be channeling Luther, but he may simply be shifting the terms of the debate in an inhospitable tradition.

    Not much of this seems generalizable to the Episcopal Church, where both the priesthood and the episcopate have recently been opened to women and LGBTs, and there has been pluralism in eucharistic doctrine for centuries.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  11. William R. MacKaye

    I’m startled at the unfamiliarity of some of the commentators above with Garry Wills’s work as New Testament scholar. He was an academic before he was a journalist, he is fluent in Greek and Latin, and he is widely read in theology and biblical studies. His books What Paul Meant, What Jesus Meant, and What the Gospels Meant are delightful, easy-to-read introductions that deserve a wide audience. His books Saint Augustine’s Childhood and Saint Augustine’s Memory , which are translations and commentaries on Book One and Book Ten of the Confessions, are among the finest work on Augustine in print.

    Furthermore, Wills is hardly the first to say that what many priests have become in the Roman Catholic Church (and, need I add, to some extent, in Anglicanism?) is a far cry from the apostolic church, where presbyteroi barely emerge as a distinct order in the latest New Testament books. If the priests who are commenting on this thread aren’t thinking long and hard about what it means to be a priest in 2013, they ought to be.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  12. Ann Fontaine

    He also loves Baseball so a member of “the church of baseball”

  13. Rod Gillis

    Re William R. MacKaye and unfamiliarity with Gary Wills, Guilty! I’m still a bit sheepish about having mistaken him for a Johnny come lately journalist writing another pop theology book. I’ve been trying to atone for my faux pas by doing a little research to get up to speed re his work as an historian. Clearly the guy is accomplished.

    I have to fess up and say neither am I familiar with the religious titles of his you mention–an oversight I will look into.

    However, with regard to the area of New Testament scholarship, I did a quick bibliographic search of the hard copies on my shelf of some major NT scholars, and could not find one entry for him in the titles I have. I’m not saying these scholars would not know Wills,likely they would, but his NT work isn’t referenced in these works that I could find.

    I read biblical journals at our local Divinity School library regularly. I cannot recall seeing an article written by, or a review of, Mr. Wills.

    However,having shot myself in the foot once on this, I have a sincere request. I’d be very interested in directions to reviews of Wills’ NT work in various journals, or treatment of his ideas by other NT scholars. It may be that other posters/readers here would welcome the same.

    I went back an watched the “Colbert” clip. Its pure Stephen, of course, but what would be of interest is an evaluation of Wills exegetical work in a scholarly journal like the SBL or the like.

    However, I would hope that no one would mistake unfamiliarity with the work of a particular cross over scholar with a reluctance to think about or reflect upon what it means to be a priest and pastor in our time.

    As a footnote, I would agree that the ambiguous relationship between the so called “orders” of presbyters and epscope is a well known NT issue of long standing ( see Raymond Brown era gound breaking work for example). It is precisely because of the lack of systematic clarity in the NT that widespread debate on modern orders of ministry remains fluid and rich.

    Interestingly, one of the most informative places to look these days for a critical evaluation of the roots and wings of priesthood is in the work of Roman Catholic theologians ( both male and female) including, just for instance, the work of Joseph Fitzmyer.

    Having said all of that, I’ll plead. I really should try and get out more.

  14. Rod Gillis

    Quick follow up note, illustrative of my second last para, previous post. check this out if interested:

    “Author: Brian Gleeson CP is a Passionist priest, and lectures in christology, ecclesiology,

    sacramentology and liturgy, at the Yarra Theological Union, Box Hill, Victoria, where he is

    also Head of the Department of Church History and Systematic Theology”

  15. Jan Rogozinski

    These speculations by Wills and Gleeson are oddly abstract and bloodless.

    1st century Christians lived in worlds that were saturated with organized religion. The city of Rome and all other cities were also “churches,” in that there were official groups of priests appointed by the city’s governing officials to lead religious services.

    In the Greek and Roman tradition, the liturgies of these official cults were performed in a serious and grave, solemn manner. The words of the liturgies were fixed, often centuries earlier. In addition, there were also other mystery cults (in addition to Christianity), which could be more emotional, but which also had fixed priest and liturgies.

    Now all 1st century gentile Christians were familiar from birth with permanent priesthoods, solemn chanted services, and fixed liturgies. Hymns also were fixed and not spontaneous.

    Yes, of course they had the “liturgy of the word” and preaching. BUT, I find it impossible to believe that when they had eucharistic services, these were free-form and spontaneous. I am firmly convinced that as citizens of the ancient city, they brought their traditional system of priests presiding over solemn liturgies with them.

    As I believe Luther once said, even if any man could preside, it is better to have someone ready to do so each Sunday. Otherwise we would just sit around waiting for someone to do something.

    I am sure that 1st century Christians agreed and early on had an organized structure of worship. Which they surely would have patterned on the existing system of priests and fixed liturgies they had grown up with.

  16. I was wondering whether Wills’ analysis applied to Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox priests, so I asked him.

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