Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Priests? A Failed Tradition by Garry Wills

Garry Wills once again takes on the Catholic Church, of which he is a life-long member (nearly eighty years now). This is an important point to remember, because many traditional Catholics—at least those aware of his many works on the Church—are prepared to drum him out. Wills includes a list of what he believes in, from God to the Communion of Saints, but some of trappings of the faith held by others don't make the cut. Suggesting that priests are unnecessary and not a part of the earliest Church will certainly not endear him to those who hold a strong attachment to the priesthood. 

It's somewhat ironic that Wills should write a book of this title. As he reminds us, not only is he a devout Catholic, but he studied for the priesthood (Jesuit), he dedicates the book to a priest, and he counts many priests among his friends and confidants. Indeed, Wills doesn't expect priests or the pope (about whom he's written as well in Why I Am a Catholic) to go away despite his withering criticism of the hierarchy. His criticisms include the betrayal of the faithful in many of the sex abuse scandals and the arguments (quite separate) set forth in this book. But in this book, the argument—and its importance—goes well beyond the office of the priesthood.

Wills argues that priests—at least during the time of the writings of the New Testament—didn't exist. Many offices receive mention by Paul and other writers, but only one, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, really pushes the idea of a priesthood. Wills argues that Hebrews is an anomaly in the New Testament corpus, at once more sophisticated in its writing style and more confusing in its theology. Hebrews gives us the argument that Jesus acted as a priest in the tradition of Melchizedek (a fleeting figure in the book of Genesis) and that Christ's death served as a sacrificial offering to the Father. Neither of these two contentions receives support from other New Testament writings, and both are central to establishing the priestly office within Christianity and to establishing the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering. 

At the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in the High Middle Ages, the idea of transubstantiation become the norm for Catholic theology, using Aristotle's metaphysics as a tool for establishing the concept. This overturned an earlier Augustinian tradition that saw the Eucharist as a remembrance and sharing and not as a sacrifice. Wills, an admirer, biographer, and translator of Augustine, argues convincingly that the Hebrews tradition that created the priestly office misleads and misinterprets the tradition and sets up a concept of the Eucharist that requires priests. 

Wills not only argues that the priestly tradition via Melchizedek isn't well supported, but the whole idea of Christ's death as a sacrifice to the Father is bad theology. Wills asks "Who Killed Jesus?" and he finds the usual arguments unconvincing, including the widely accepted argument of Anselm that the perfection of God required the supreme (perfect) sacrifice of the Son. The better question (and one implicit in Wills' question of "Who killed Jesus?") is "Why did Jesus have to die as he did?". In this, we can compare Wills argument that Jesus died to share in our humanity to Mark Johnston's argument (which I reviewed here) that Jesus died as he did to break the spell of false sacrifices and false righteousness. Both authors take important points from Rene Girard's understanding of Christ's death as a break from false sacrifices. 

Wills concludes that priests, if believers see the Eucharist as something other than transubstantiation based on Aristotelian metaphysics and more as a remembrance of Christ with the believers and among them, are not so important or necessary. The Eucharist becomes a remembrance and not a sacrifice. And with no sacrifice, no need for a priest to conduct the sacrifice. 

In a time when the number of priests is dwindling and the faithful cannot assume that a priest will be readily available to conduct priestly offices, Wills' book provides some serious points for consideration. Even if one doesn't accept all of Wills' arguments, his scholarship and concern for detail are very impressive. He also cares deeply about the Church and the world. For these reasons, his book requires some serious consideration by all Christians and those affected by Christianity. 

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