Is the priesthood a failed tradition?

Garry Wills, who once considered the priesthood, offers a probing inquiry into priests' powerful role in the church

Published February 28, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

                                                                               (Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

It takes a long time to write and publish a book, so Garry Wills certainly could not have predicted that his newest, “Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition,” would arrive at precisely the moment in history in which many thoughtful Catholics must be asking the same question.

If you’re expecting a polemic, you might get a quiet one, but you won’t get much in the way of bombast or grandstanding. Wills is a scholar, and his opposition is rooted in a position firmly inside the church. The book is dedicated to the memory of a priest, Henri de Lubac, S.J., and it begins with a long appreciation of the priests Wills has known and loved in a professional lifetime of reading and writing about religion, which itself began in a Jesuit seminary, where Wills studied for five years in hopes of becoming a priest.

This brief memoiristic opening quickly gives way to a historical account of the rise to prominence and power of the priestly class in the Roman Catholic tradition, which begins with the first generation of a priestless movement that hadn’t yet begun to call itself Christianity, and it is here that the reviewer of the audiobook edition begins to experience a special pleasure. So often the better audiobooks get their traction and build their momentum through their narrative qualities — the urgency of scene-making, the building tension of information that the listener is gaining alongside the speaker, the carefully modulated rising and falling of carefully shaped juxtapositions of events.

But when listening to “Why Priests?” in the pleasantly near-professorial cadences Michael Prichard expertly delivers, the pleasure rises from that calm authority, which so well matches Wills’ method of offering information in a steady, measured way, and then giving words to the ideas about the information that the listener has already begun to formulate for himself because the case has been prepared so intelligently. It is a feeling akin to taking an eight-hour road trip with your most intelligent and interesting friend, who speaks with great humility about the thing that troubles him the most about the thing that he knows most about. What you thought would begin as a verbal act of willful violence reveals itself instead to be a compassionate and thoughtful expression of a deepest love that manifests itself even in the presence of the injuries that have been inflicted by that which is loved.

There are two kinds of readers or listeners who might spend some time with “Why Priests?” — those who know quite a lot about Roman Catholicism and those who don’t — and Wills takes great care to be respectful of the intelligence of both. To the already knowledgeable reader, he offers an analysis that doesn’t shy away from the historical arcana upon which the rituals and practices of the church turn, and to the less-informed reader, he offers a clear, thorough and concise explanation of the vocabulary of Catholic theology and practice, which turns out to be an aid to the knowledgeable reader as well, because in his attempt to be clear, he ties each explanation to its special history, and shows how many of the ideas and practices that contemporary Catholics take for granted survive in forms very different from what they might have been in the time and place in which they originated.

Early in the book, to give one example, Wills offers this provocation: “The most striking thing about priests, in the later history of Christianity, is their supposed ability to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The technical term for this is transubstantiation, and it is something that only a priest can accomplish, owing to a power he receives by the sacrament of ordination, a power that cannot be revoked by anyone at any time before the priest’s death.

Lesser writers on Catholicism might take one of three approaches: 1. “Horseshit!” 2. “Church doctrine says it is so, therefore it is so.” 3. “Even though we both know this miracle is impossible, please allow me to explain it away as a beautiful metaphor, even as I must now pretend to its literality owing to my fidelity to an institution for which I must now simultaneously apologize and offer a defense.”

Wills, instead, offers without apology the theological basis for the claim (you won’t believe me if I tell you it’s a fascinating section about the ancient line of Melchizedek, but that’s how you’ll feel as you listen), the history of the Catholic understanding of the ancient line of Melchizedek, all its permutations through time and the competing cultures that lead us to now, what Mass is understood to mean in the Thomistic system (he offers a little help here, as well), how Graham Greene made these abstract ideas concrete in his whisky priest novel “The Power and the Glory,” the dangers for the early church with regard to allegations of cannibalism, the theological problem of the body and the blood of Christ becoming feces after they are ingested, the relationship between these theological reckonings and sexual abuse in the church, what Francis of Assisi said about the Mass-presiding priest as an avatar of Mary as she suckled the infant Christ at her breast, the significance of sacred garments, the history of all that regalia, the ways power was assigned to regalia, the hierarchical structures that regalia implies and how it has served to exclude entire classes of people (notably woman) at various points in history, the altar, the language of the altar, the relationship between the priestly class and education, priestly marriage or not and the consequences therein, pepperoni pizza, and the lack of historical evidence for Saint Peter being the first pope of Rome. And, mind you, all of it rather softly, without pyrotechnics, connected by associative logic that is reasonable and unassailable.

Wills’ subject, ultimately, is the relationship between human beings and power. There is an immediate problem in the Roman Catholic Church, he seems to be saying, and one way of addressing it is to address the historical reasons why power has been reserved for a special few in ways that have led to undeniable abuses that must be urgently and forthrightly addressed.

But the careful reader or listener also sees something else in Wills’ argument, which the book doesn’t explicitly tackle, but which it implicitly offers all the same: The Roman Catholic Church is only one of many institutions of temporal power that are dominated by a near-unchecked priestly class, which can dominate, keep secrets, punish, promote, hide, withhold, grant, improve or destroy quite nearly, at will. And like the church, these institutions — financial, governmental, social, national, commercial, industrial, military, familial, you name it — can only be held to account by a reciprocal will exercised by those on the inside who love and are nurtured by them, and by those on the outside who are excluded or injured by them, or who care about the exclusion or injury of others enough to raise their voices, do their homework, offer a clear-sighted explication of what they have found to be true, and then to argue on behalf of decency.

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By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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