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.