Mar 13, 2013
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.