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

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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Erik Campano

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

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.

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”

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.

Ann Fontaine

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

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