US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: Why Priests? A Failed Tradition

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By Garry Wills (Viking, 2013)

One of the church’s most noted inside critics, historian Garry Wills, shows no signs of slowing at nearly 80 years old. In fact, his latest thesis in Why Priests? A Failed Tradition is as controversial as he’s ever set forth: that the priesthood was a mistaken notion later introduced to Christianity; that it has needlessly separated Catholics from their fellow Christians; and that it has propped up equally wrong doctrines—such as the real presence in the Eucharist and the priesthood of Jesus—that otherwise never would have come into being.

The book is well researched, with Wills drawing on a variety of early Christian sources and New Testament passages to make his case. Wills devotes a lengthy section to debunking a claim in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek. Learned readers of scripture may chafe at his bluntly literal reading of Hebrews, a book rich in allegory and symbolism. Critics such as Rusty Reno and Father Robert Barron have replied that the church does not derive the whole of its scriptural teaching on Jesus’ priesthood from Hebrews. But Wills disappointingly ignores other passages from the gospels that depict Jesus in priestly, sacrificial terms, making his account less than complete.

Still, the questions Wills raises are worth wrestling with for anyone interested in the history of the priesthood, as are the dissenting responses. And the topic’s timeliness will provoke dialogue on the increasing responsibility of laypeople in an age in which priests are numerically dwindling.

The things that have for decades made Wills essential reading for the wider public—his provocative questions and historical insights—make him an engaging conversation partner in the church, even if his judgments can be overdrawn. Wills’ act as the church’s resident agitator may be a bit long in the tooth, but the questions he asks are here to stay.

This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 7, page 43).