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.”

’Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition’ by Garry Wills (Viking/Viking)

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


A Failed Tradition

By Garry Wills

Viking. 302 pp. $27.95