Book review: Garry Wills’ ‘Why Priests? A Failed Tradition’

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2013 

  • Nonfiction Why Priests? A Failed Tradition Garry Wills Viking, 320 pages

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills is regarded as one of this country’s pre-eminent Christian intellectuals, an enemy of dogma and a scourge to prelates.

The onetime Jesuit seminarian and dissident Catholic has already established himself as a tireless critic of the papacy. His newest cannonade, “Why Priests?” takes direct aim at the pulpit by declaring the illegitimacy of the priesthood itself.

Wills presses his charge while declaring admiration for individual priests he has known, men whose deep, abiding faith has shamed his own. He professes impeccable Catholic credentials: On core matters of faith, Wills never wavers from his belief in the rosary, the Trinity, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.

Wills simply contends that priests don’t have a basis in Christian Scripture, and he is unsparing in his indictment.

“The priests killed Jesus,” Wills writes. “That is what they do. They kill the prophets.”

Wills’ book was sent to the printer before Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned and was succeeded by Pope Francis. The Vatican turnover, and a new pope from South America who prefers public transportation, has inspired millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Wills has seized the opportunity to publicly question the legitimacy and relevancy of the papal office in articles and interviews. In erudite and forceful prose, he contends that the Body of Christ consists of the laity, the church faithful. The bureaucracy of the curia is an appendage and encumbrance, he writes.

“Why Priests?” doesn’t dwell on the pedophilia scandal, or dwindling ordinations, or on any other temporal crisis afflicting the clergy. Rather, it’s an erudite deconstruction of the origins of the priest’s Eucharistic power to transubstantiate bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The analysis is designed to withstand scrutiny regardless of whether priests of the moment are monsters or saints. Wills quaffs deeply of the medieval theology of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas; portions may be all but impenetrable to a casual reader.

Still, there are some light and even perplexing moments, as when Wills broaches the implications of the consecrated wafer traveling through the digestive tract on its way to exiting into a porcelain bathroom fixture.

In a digression on priestly vestments, Wills portrays the priest as “wrapped and enclosed like a human treasure.” Depending on rank and function, the priest is enveloped in a Roman collar, cassock, biretta, habit, cowl, cincture, mantelletta, mozzetta, ferraiolo, amice, alb, maniple, chasuble, zucchetto, lace shawl, rochet or pallium.

The pope is additionally cloaked in a subcinctorium, falda, mantum and red shoes.

The saner option, Wills writes, would be to do away with all the frippery and opt for pastors and ministers, like the Protestants.

“Not only is there no mention of a single priest among the Followers and Learners in the New Testament, there is no mention of the acts we now associate with the priesthood – no hearing of confessions, no giving the last rites, no marrying, no confirmation, no presiding at the Mass, no consecrating of the Eucharist,” Wills writes. “In fact, pagan critics of the Jesus movement said that it could not be a religion at all, since it had no priests, no altars, no designated places of worship.”

Wills is not suggesting a return to first-century Christianity, which was then a messianic movement within Judaism. He is, after all, the author of “Why I Am a Catholic,” a spiritual self-defense published in 2002 to counter charges of critics – fellow Catholics – who consider his theology preposterous, unsustainable or subversive.

Still, one can only imagine that in the coming weeks Wills will get some funny stares during Mass, administered by primly frocked officiants whom he admires on a personal level yet regards as cloistered, cosseted, quaint relics.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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