A former seminarian’s chal­lenge to the priest­hood

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - WHY PRIESTS? A Failed Tra­di­tion By Garry Wills Vik­ing. 302 pp. $27.95 dra­belled@wash­post.com Dennis Drabelle is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor of Book World.

Pub­lished at a time when the num­ber of Catholic priests con­tin­ues to dwin­dle and the power of bish­ops over the faith­ful con­tin­ues to weaken, Garry Wills’s new book, “Why Priests?,” may ac­cel­er­ate both pro­cesses. A former Je­suit seminarian, Wills draws on his ex­per­tise in clas­si­cal lan­guages and his wide read­ing in ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal his­tory to ar­gue that the Catholic/Ortho­dox priest­hood has been one long mis­take (it would seem to fol­low that there’s no point in call­ing a con­clave to elect a pa­pal re­place­ment for Bene­dict XVI).

Wills bears down hard on the New Tes­ta­ment Let­ter to He­brews (au­thor un­known), the canon­i­cal source for the be­lief that Je­sus con­sid­ered him­self a priest. The text fails to sup­port that propo­si­tion, Wills ar­gues, and the corol­lary that Je­sus left be­hind a priest­hood to wield spir­i­tual author­ity over lesser mor­tals has no scrip­tural leg to stand on.

Wills also at­tacks the be­lief that Je­sus’s death was a sac­ri­fice. The main dif­fi­culty here was pointed out by Abe­lard in the 12th cen­tury, in a pas­sage quoted by Wills: “It seems ex­tremely cruel and evil to de­mand the death of a per­son with­out guilt as a form of ran­som . . . and even more for God to ac­cept his own Son’s death as the means of re­turn­ing all the world to his es­teem.” Wills aligns him­self with a “new body of Chris­tian thinkers . . . [who are] es­cap­ing the im­ported cult of hu­man sac­ri­fice ini­ti­ated by the Let­ter to He­brews.”

While bi­b­li­cal schol­ars de­bate the com­plex­i­ties of Wills’s rea­son­ing, the or­di­nary reader can ven­ture at least this far. If Wills is right, he puts to rest two of the big­gest anom­alies in Judeo-Chris­tian thought. The first is the ten­sion be­tween the no­tion of God as love and the no­tion of God as a needy tyrant whose ego must be fed by wor­ship and sac­ri­fice (an­i­mals in the Old Tes­ta­ment, Je­sus in the New). The sec­ond con­tro­versy has to do with Je­sus’s seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory mes­sages to the faith­ful. He is sup­posed to have as­sured all hu­man be­ings that they are equal in the sight of God, say­ing, “Who­ever ex­alts him­self will be hum­bled, and who­ever hum­bles him­self will be ex­alted,” only to turn around and es­tab­lish a quasi-aris­to­cratic caste to tell us how to live our lives, yea, ex­tend­ing into our very bed­rooms. For Wills, the sec­ond mes­sage is wholly man­made.

At the end, Wills ad­dresses a ques­tion he says he gets all the time: Why stay a Catholic when you cast doubt on the church’s ba­sic com­po­si­tion? His crafty an­swer turns the ques­tion in­side-out: “No be­liev­ing Chris­tians should be read out of the Mys­ti­cal Body of Christ, not even papists. It will hardly ad­vance the de­sir­able union of all be­liev­ers if I be­gin by ex­clud­ing those clos­est to me.”

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