Why Priests? A Failed Tradition
By Garry Wills, 2013
Admitting that fiscal limitations have limited my access to this book, I am stooping to a review of a review of a book I have not read but understand to contain themes and subject matter directly pertinent to the Mennonite experience and ideology.
First off, at 302 pages, Wills’ book does not sound like it will be an easy read. Two themes that come out from Randall Balmer’s review in the New York Times Book Review section (17 Feb), are a contextual criticism of the book of Hebrews and subsequently, a basic questioning of the role and authority of the priesthood within the historic Roman Catholic church. Why Priests? is hardly the first book to question the role and existence of the Catholic priesthood, yet, Wills’ position as a bona-fide birth Catholic and a former Jesuit seminarian should make his perspective intriguing to an the Anabaptist audience which had largely moved on from such questions some five hundred years ago.
Heirs of the Radical Reformation will note Balmer’s indication that much of Wills’ argumentation easily recalls that of Martin Luther circa 1520.
Basically, it seems that Wills attacks the notion first of Christ as priest, preferring to locate Christ more as a self-recognized and empowered prophet – a very different spiritual and religious role. Wills seemingly concludes that the concept of an elite, separated priesthood might in fact be somewhat un-Christian, or at least un-Christ-like. Like Luther, and the Mennonites, he would place such a role back into the position of the Radical Reformers, within the body of believers and the individual Christian his or herself.
“Wills argues that an alternative understanding of Jesus and the eucharist (sic), one more consonant with the New Testament (Hebrews excepted) and informed by Augustine, sees Jesus as coming to harmonize humanity with himself. The Eucharistic meal remains a meal (as it was in the first century), not a sacrifice, one that celebrates the union between Christ and his followers. “One does nothing but disrupt this harmony by injecting superfluous intermediaries between Jesus and his body of believers.” Wills writes, “When these ‘representatives’ of Jesus to us, and of us to Jesus, take the feudal forms of hierarchy and monarchy, of priests and papacy, they affront the camaraderie of Jesus with his brothers.”
“… [Wills] feels “no personal animosity toward priests,” nor does he expect the priesthood to disappear. “I just want to assure my fellow Catholics that, as priests shrink in numbers … congregations do not have to feel they have lost all connection with the sacred just because the role of priests in their lives is contracting… if the early followers of Jesus had no need for priests,” Wills continues, neither do contemporary believers. “If we need fellowship in belief-and we do – we have each other,” he writes. Catholic believers can also find sustenance “in the life of other churches.”
I will be searching out a copy of Why Priests? by Garry Wills so as to better understand how things have changed within the Catholic church and the priesthood over the last five hundred years, and how contemporary Roman Catholic believers might be encountering similar circumstances topics. Wills’ book might also be useful for encouraging and fueling a more comprehensive dialogue between believers within the Catholic church and the low church traditions. As such, it should be well worth the 302 pages read.