Baby, Meet Bathwater
  • Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review by Samuel Keyes

Despite his book’s subtitle, Garry Wills never tells us clearly why he thinks that the Catholic priesthood is a failed tradition. That it is merely a “tradition,” one that has no reason to exist besides arbitrary clerical self-importance, he reminds us at every turn. The answer to the title question is that it is unanswerable. There are no reasons, according to Wills, that Christians should have priests. But none of this really tells us why priesthood, and the whole Catholic sacramental system, has failed.

That the priesthood, or the sacraments, might not be a failure is not really something that enters Wills’s imagination, despite his repeated insistence that he has nothing personal against priests. And it is this failure of imagination that clouds the whole book.

Why Priests?
A Failed Tradition
By Garry Wills.
Viking. Pp. 302. $16

All the same, Why Priests? is the work of a formidable intellect. Wills reads Greek like a first language. His exegesis is interesting and at times edifying. But his principal argument — that the early Church had no priests and no sacraments — cannot do the work he wants it to do (to show all priesthood as failure), because it relies on a naïve and positivistic reading of history. Wills is not alone in thinking that if we have no written record of something in another age, it must not have existed. But a serious historian might question the facility with which Wills repeatedly asserts that the early Church was completely lacking in anything related to priesthood, sacraments, sacrifice, and hierarchy.

I, for one, do not share Wills’s urgent need to shove the epistle to the Hebrews out of the New Testament canon. I also wonder what Johannine talk about a “Lamb of God” means if it does not refer to sacrifice.

The chief error in Wills’s attempt at primitivist reformation is the mistaken assumption that first-century people must be just like 21st-century people. The picture we get of the early Church in Why Priests? is a demythologized reversal of a fanciful Catholic Last Supper, with Jesus wearing a fiddleback chasuble, stole, and maniple. Rather than take pains to show why early Christians must have really meant and implied everything that the Council of Trent taught, Wills takes pains to show why early Christians must have really denied and abhorred everything that the Council of Trent taught.

Wills might consider the possibility that first-century people did not think and keep records like 21st-century people do. Not only was their culture more deeply oral; compared to ours, it was so saturated in ritual and cult that the unbloody “oblation” of Christians to their one God would have seemed utterly atheistic and anti-religious.

Pagans had trouble recognizing Christianity as a religion not, as Wills suggests, because it had absolutely no sacrifice and no priests, but because its sacrifice bore little resemblance to anything that they called sacrifice, its priests differed markedly from their own cultic leaders, and its God seemed unrecognizably divine.

It may be that Wills is correct in his assumption that the priesthood and the sacraments developed as they did only on the false teaching of power-hungry leaders. How such idyllic, lay-only communities could have, in the second or third century, manufactured the vocabulary of hierarchy and sacramental theology from thin air I do not know.

Even if Wills’s main thrust against the hierarchical system were good and true — and he is of course right about many of its abuses — one trouble would remain in his thinking, namely, its omission of any priesthood for Christians, even the most banal Protestant “priesthood of all believers.” What we are left with, in Wills’s universe, is not just a Christianity without hierarchy and sacraments, but a Christianity without any mediation: without, in other words, any room for prayer.

The Rev. Samuel Keyes is priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Church in Greensboro, Alabama, and a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.


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