The hermeneutical key to Garry Wills’s preposterous book "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition" can be found in the second chapter, which is a memoir of the author’s Catholic boyhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He recalls a time when lay people were denied access to the chalice, when Catholic grade school children worried about what happened to the consecrated host once it entered their intestines, when cossetted and pampered priests wore “fiddle-back” vestments, maniples, and birettas, when women pinned paper tissue to their hair in order to satisfy the requirement that their heads be covered during Mass, and when priest golfers were ceded to on the first tee. I am 53-years-old and I’ve been a priest for 27 years, and I can testify that the only contact I have had with the world Wills describes is in Bing Crosby movies and John Powers books. Though the hyper-clerical Church of Wills’s youth has almost entirely evanesced, he is still railing against it. Why Priests?, it seems to me, is a sustained, deeply polemical, and finally irrational working out of that anger.
On Wills’s reading, priests have been bad news from the beginning. Jesus was a layman and a prophet, who was opposed by the Jewish establishment of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. But when those relatively ineffectual enemies of Jesus wanted to eliminate the troublesome prophet, they turned – like Don Corleone turning to Luca Brasi – to the priests: “The priests killed Jesus. That is what they do. They kill the prophets” (Wills, p. 80). I suppose Pontius Pilate, the Roman cohort, Judas, the Sanhedrin, etc., etc., had nothing to do with it. It was just those “killer priests,” whose distant descendants were undermining the true spirit of Jesus in mid-twentieth century America.
This bizarre association leads Wills down all sorts of strange paths. At the center of his argument is an analysis of the Letter to the Hebrews, a text that is not only part of the canonical Scriptures but that has worked its way deeply into the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church. The unknown author of this ancient sermon/exhortation/treatise famously used the language of temple, cult, sacrifice, and priesthood in order to explain the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He urged that Jesus best be understood as the recapitulation and perfection of the ancient Jewish priesthood and that his bloody death on the cross best be construed as temple sacrifice lifted into a new and higher context. What priesthood and sacrifice only imperfectly accomplished in the old dispensation, he wrote, was now fulfilled and brought to completion through the act of this new and unexpected High Priest.
Very much in the spirit of Martin Luther, who recommended that the Letter of James, which stood athwart Luther’s theorizing about justification, should simply be eliminated from the canon, Wills wants us to think of the Letter to the Hebrews as an egregious anomaly, the black sheep in the family of the New Testament texts. The priesthood and Mass as we know them today, he claims, flow exclusively from this unique and exceptional letter. No other New Testament author, he says, ever characterized Jesus as a priest or even hinted that his crucifixion should be given a sacrificial interpretation.
Now all of this is patently absurd. The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple, and its entire trajectory is toward the cross, which is given an unambiguously sacrificial reading by Jesus himself at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you … This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:19-20). More to it, the disciples who take this cup of blood are implicitly identified with temple priests whose task it was to catch the blood of sacrifice in bowls. Further, all the Gospels reference John the Baptist, son of a temple priest, who was doing temple work in the desert: washing the faithful in a kind of mikva bath and offering the forgiveness of sins. And the Gospel of John places in the Baptist’s mouth the words that clearly designate Jesus as a sacrifice: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Moreover, on John’s reading, Jesus offers his body and blood to his disciples at the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple (Jn. 13:1). Matthew tells us that, at Jesus’ death, “The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51). On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, having performed a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, would come past the veil and sprinkle the people with blood, symbolizing Yahweh’s forgiveness of his people Israel. No first century Jew would have missed Matthew’s implication that Jesus is the definitive High Priest who has performed, through his death, the final sacrifice and hence affected the final reconciliation of God and humanity. I could cite many more examples, but let these suffice to demonstrate that the interpretation of Jesus offered by the Letter to the Hebrews is anything but egregious. In point of fact, it is the summation and explicitation of priestly themes present throughout the New Testament. The priesthood and the Mass, with its strong sacrificial overtones, were hardly accretions distorting the New Testament, but rather developments of themes seminally present from the beginning of Christianity.
Another peculiar claim of Wills is that the early Fathers of the Church, including St. Augustine, did not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and that this doctrine, so tied to the distinctiveness and indispensability of the priesthood, was but a Medieval distortion. But St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century said, “The bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, heavenly and earthly.” Origen of Alexandria, writing in the third century, said that Christians rightly reverence every crumb of the consecrated bread. And Wills’s hero, St. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fourth century, said, “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the Body of Christ.” It also might be worth noting that all three of these worthy gentleman were ordained priests and two were bishops. To be sure, Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on transubstantiation represented a development and precision of these earlier views, but it was by no means a betrayal of them. To claim that Augustine and his patristic colleagues would subscribe to Wills’s repudiation of the real presence and the priesthood is beyond absurd.
According to Catholic theology, the ministerial priesthood is a unique participation in the High Priesthood of Jesus, which in turn is grounded in the coming together of two natures, divine and human, in the person of Christ. Affirming the distinctiveness and necessity of the priesthood, therefore, is tightly linked to affirming the divinity of Jesus. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that the author of this attack on the priesthood should conclude his text as follows: “Let me say simply this: There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers” (Wills, 259). Quite right: if Jesus is nothing more than one more prophet of God, then the Catholic priesthood is indeed an absurdity. But if Jesus is who the great Creeds of the Church say he is, then priesthood, real presence, sacrifice, and Eucharist remain as indispensable as ever.