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Review of Garry Wills' Why Priests?

The following review of Garry’s Will’s Why Priests? appeared in the June 2013 Chronicles:

Garry Wills identifies himself as a Christian. He says he accepts the creeds, along with prayer, divine providence, the Gospels, the Eucharist, and the Mystical Body of Christ as the body of all believers. He thinks it a bad thing that “article by article, parts of the Creed are fading from some churches.” He also identifies as a Catholic, and tells us he prays the rosary and is devoted to the saints.

On the other hand, his Christianity, and still more his Catholicism, are nonstandard, so much so that it is hard to be sure what he means by his affirmations. His Christianity downplays the miraculous, speaks of Christ mainly as prophet and comrade, and accepts the validity of other monotheistic religious traditions. And his Catholicism is a matter of personal connections and cultural positioning rather than membership in a concrete self-governing society. “I have not lived almost eighty years in the Catholic church without having deep memories for which I am grateful,” he says. Since that is so, why should he separate from that church today?

More particularly, his Christianity and Catholicism reject sacrifice, sacrality, and authority, and the point of this book is to debunk them. He opposes those elements of Christianity for a variety of reasons, but at bottom he seems to think they are so much religious mumbo jumbo that is fundamentally unhealthy, lends itself to misuse, and leads people to do irrational and destructive things. He spent over five years in seminary as a young man, but presents the doctrines and observances that relate to the priesthood and the Mass as patently absurd, so much so that to describe them is to refute them. The need to ask questions about what to do when a fly lands in the chalice, for example, counts for him as strong evidence against the Catholic doctrine that in the Mass the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

It is not just absurdity but bad practical consequences that he sees in the aspects of Christianity that do not fit smoothly into the outlook of a liberal American college professor. He gives example after example of how the priesthood, sacrality, and the idea of sacrifice become sources of evil. Some relate to petty personal resentments: One priest used to impose on his hospitality; another, the one who baptized him, made his mother change his middle name from Lee to Leo so one of his names would be Christian. (The latter, he complains, was an instance of the Church’s pointless regulation of family life.) Other examples are more serious: The sacrality of priests made people reluctant to believe clergy would engage in sexual abuse; that of the consecrated host led to the killing of Jews who were accused of desecrating it; and the principle of dogmatic authority led to horrendous religious persecutions.

The book’s basic strategy is to attack sacrality and authority in the person of the priest through what the author tells us is dispassionate historical inquiry. He says the priesthood is a foreign incursion into a religion that originally lacked and opposed it. In support of that view, he notes that Christ was not a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem and did not want to be one, that He criticized priests, and that “the priests killed Jesus.” (He adds, “that is what priests do. They kill the prophets.”) He further notes that the episkopoi and presbyteroi mentioned in the New Testament were not as prominent and did not have the developed attributes of the bishops and priests of later times. And he discusses, at great length, biblical references to Melchizedek, the Old Testament forerunner of Christ as priest, and claims they have been misapplied, do not make a lot of sense, and in any event were stuck into the Bible by some nobody and do not really belong there.

His most extended line of attack, however, is on the sacrificial and miraculous aspects of the Mass (or as he uniformly calls it, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper). Those are what give the priesthood its justification and special position: If the Mass is a sacrifice and central to Christianity, then whoever enacts it is evidently a priest and holds a central position in the Church. He carries on the attack by attacking the letter to the Hebrews, in his view another mysterious text by a no-name author that somehow slipped into the canon of Scripture, because it presents Christ as both priest and sacrificial offering. He also minimizes the effect of other texts that support the sacrificial nature of the Crucifixion and Mass, although he fails to mention most of them.

All such texts, he says, have been misconstrued, often ridiculously so, and if they belong in the Bible at all they really relate to something else. Their use to support the sacrificial aspects of the Mass makes no sense, he believes, because sacrifice itself makes no sense. It is a matter of giving God something He does not need so He will give us something we want, so quite obviously it falls below the level of true religion. Human sacrifice, like Christ’s self-offering on the cross, is even worse, a throwback to an archaic state of affairs that was perhaps mythological and in any case has been universally and vehemently repudiated.

Wills did not invent objections like the last one. Many disciples found it intolerable when Jesus described His flesh as “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world” and its consumption as the gateway to eternal life (John 6:51). Wills evidently feels as they did, and his attitude regarding such points is beyond argument. If Anselm tries to explain the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death by saying that justice requires that sin have real consequences, and the most perfect resolution for the situation was for God to take those consequences on Himself, then Anselm is audaciously binding “God himself in the chains of necessity” and saying that “justice killed Jesus” and “perfection killed Jesus.” The possibility of forcing such a description on Anselm’s views is apparently enough to refute them in the author’s eyes.

In spite of what Wills may say, the question for someone who wants to understand Christianity is what interpretation best makes sense of the material presented by Scripture and tradition. In many respects Wills must accept that point, since he accepts doctrines, such as the Trinity, that are not fully explicit in the New Testament but have since become accepted because they make sense of what is there. If he wants to discover actual Christianity instead of inventing a system of spirituality that suits his personal taste and the interests of his patrons, he should apply the same approach to sacrifice, the priesthood, and the Mass.

When we look at what is there, we see that expiation through sacrifice is basic to biblical religion. Priestly sacrifices were fundamental to the religion of Israel, and Jesus never questioned their legitimacy. At a more personal level, we already find in the Old Testament the prophetic figure of the suffering servant who makes himself an offering for sin (Isaiah 53). When we turn to the New Testament, Christ appears again and again as a sacrificial victim whose voluntary death takes away the sins of the world. That theme surfaces not only in Hebrews, and in the multiple accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, but in the images of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb (John 1:29, 1 Corinthians 5:7, Revelation 5:6), Who is put forward as an expiation by His blood (Romans 3:25), gives Himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2), is made to be sin Who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), and gives His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The sacrificial and expiatory nature of Christ’s death on the cross is thus integral to Christianity. The narratives regarding the institution of the Eucharist, which go back to the first decades of the Church, tell believers to re-enact that sacrifice through the blessing, division, and consumption of bread and wine. The question as to the Mass, then, is how literally to take Christ’s words “this is my body” and “this is my blood”: in other words, whether the re-enactment should be understood as merely commemorative, as a meaning attributed to a community meal or ritual, or as something more.

The answer that best suits the genius of Christianity is that it is something more. The Incarnation and Crucifixion demonstrate that it was necessary for God to become concretely present within the world, and to suffer and die for us. Did that necessity disappear, so that God’s concrete presence and sacrifice is no longer needed, and we can get by with historical accounts and theological interpretations? Or is it something that has to be made present to us again and again down to the present day?

The Christian answer has generally been the latter: If words and theories were not enough in the year 33, they are not enough now. So the Mass as we have it, which makes concretely present Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, is a natural and indeed necessary expression of basic Christian themes, and Christian communities that have rejected it have lacked strength and endurance. In any case, it seems clear that the true religion should fulfill what is basic and universal in the religious perceptions and aspirations of mankind. The idea of sacrifice is universal and still has immense power. If Christianity is true, it ought to do something serious with it, and Christians have always accepted that it does.

The author’s implicit response is that the religious history of mankind is bunk, and the history of Christianity has been a colossal mistake since shortly after the beginning. To avoid making that response explicit, he tries to construct an alternative tradition within Christianity: the Church as an aggregation of loosely organized democratic gatherings and the Eucharist as a common meal expressing the deep unity of the participants. He bases his construction primarily on the principle that he who says A must intend to deny everything that is not A. So if someone says Christ is a friend and example, he must mean that He is not a sacrifice. If he says the consecrated bread is a sign of the unity of believers, he must mean it is not Christ’s Body. And if Christ was not a Temple priest, and was at odds with those who were, then He cannot possibly have been a priest of any kind in any sense, and must have wanted to abolish priesthood as such. When He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, for example, it must have been to disrupt its operations rather than for the reason He actually gave, to purify His Father’s house.

This is agenda-driven interpretation run amok. The author’s method is more suitable to a combination of village atheist and political flack than to a serious thinker. He cuts religion down to his own size and then complains that it does not make much sense. Instead of arguments he gives us a string of gibes and partisan talking points. Writers he dislikes, like Anselm and the author of Hebrews, he presents in the most reductive, simpleminded, and unsympathetic way imaginable, but when he speaks of those he thinks he can make use of, like Irenaeus, caricature suddenly becomes bad, capacious concepts with multiple meanings become good, and passages that cut against his thesis, like Augustine’s description of Christ’s death as a remedial offering for mortal sin, vanish or lose all force.

All of which leads to the question: Why this book? Why is Wills treated as a major Catholic intellectual? His analysis is so obviously tendentious, and is presented in so ponderous a manner with such a show of erudition and such presumption, as actually to be comical. And he presents himself in a way that makes him seem entirely unworthy of trust—bigoted, resentful, obstinate, humorless, self-centered, self-satisfied, literal-minded, and totally indifferent to the truth of his claims.

To make matters worse, the version of Christianity that motivates this book cannot do much for anyone. Without a sacrificial element there is nothing in it that deals seriously with the extremes of evil and suffering we actually find in the world. And without authority there is no good way of saying what Christianity is about. The author says he agrees with the creeds, but those who disagree have, he claims, the same rights as Christians as anyone else, and he adopts a similarly inclusive attitude toward Jews and Muslims. From his general outlook it seems doubtful he would take a different approach to Buddhists, Hindus, secular humanists, or animists: After all, haven’t we all “set off on broken and blind adventures into mystery”?

Further, downplaying the Crucifixion means the author’s Christianity lacks a political dimension. For Wills, the death of Christ was simply part of His comradeship in the various phases of human life. He might as well have been hit by a truck. In fact, of course, He suffered a horrible death at the hands of legitimate and admired authorities, the Roman Empire and the Jewish Temple priesthood, and Christian doctrine makes that death and His victory over it the turning point of human history. That belief, together with the presence of an authoritative Church, does not destroy the legitimacy of institutional authority—the Gospels are quite clear on that point—but it does subject it to a standard that transcends it and is always concretely present.

With that in mind, the point of this book can be found in what the author says about the scribes, that they were middle-level functionaries who hung around the centers of power and made themselves useful to the higher-ups. Wills is a scribe who has undertaken the task of remodeling Christianity to suit America’s ruling class. Our rulers claim supreme social authority for themselves, and for a liberalism that deprives authority of justification, so their position rests on shaky principles. The result is that they find competition intolerable, and need to destroy other centers of authority. Wills obliges them by trying to eviscerate what has been the great counter­authority to worldly powers of all kinds, the Catholic Church.

The independence and authority of the Church have been the fountainhead of human freedom and dignity in the West, because they have limited the claims of the secular. Wills has no interest in limiting the secular, so he treats the traditional position of the Church as a simple power grab by priests. For historical Christianity he wants to substitute a tailor-your-own version suitable to the lives of comfortable suburbanites. Its lack of concreteness makes Christ a matter of concepts and dubious historical records that can be reconstructed and assimilated to whatever is wanted by those in power. The function of this book is to promote that process, and the author’s willingness to write such books is the reason our prestige press treats him as a leading Catholic intellectual.

[Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, by Garry Wills (New York: Viking) 320 pp., $27.95]