The Gospel According to Garry

For more than a decade, Garry Wills has been devoting much of his energy to Catholic matters.  In Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000), he explained that the papacy was never intended by Jesus and that most popes have had a malign influence on the Church and the world.  In 2002 he followed with Why I Am a Catholic.  In this work he continued his critique of virtually all popes and many Church teachings, but noted that he believed in the Apostles Creed so he should be considered a Catholic in good standing.  In 2006 he tried his hand at biblical criticism with What Jesus Meant.  In reviewing this short primer, the Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson wryly noted that “Jesus gives voice to views remarkably similar to those espoused by the author.” And now Wills has favored us with still another theological study: Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, which the publisher promises is his “most provocative book yet.”

Wills begins this work by noting that he spent five years at a Jesuit seminary where he encountered priests who were “some of the most benign influences” in his life.  That may be the case, but he has no use for virtually any of the other priests that he describes in the book.  One priest that Wills knew regularly used his clergy sticker to park illegally.  Another liked to invite himself over to the Wills’ home on Saturday nights so that he could eat dinner and watch his favorite TV shows.  A third priest had the temerity to tell Wills and his wife-to-be that they had to attend a Cana Conference before he would marry them.

why-priests-book coverWhile Wills recounts a number of other unhappy encounters with priests, most of his book is focused on more fundamental questions.  He stresses that Jesus, who was a “radical Jewish prophet,” had no intention of establishing a priesthood.  After all, the Jewish priests were his rivals who plotted to have him crucified. What Jesus envisioned was an egalitarian community of believers without any priests or bishops, for that matter.  Wills admits that there are references to “bishops” in the New Testament, but he thinks “overseers” is a better translation.  In the first century AD (or CE as Wills styles it), the overseers’ role was a “diplomatic one, making for good relations between communities.”   So overseers/bishops were meant to be facilitators with no authority of any kind over the Church.

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Just as Jesus was not interested in having a clergy or any form of hierarchy, He was similarly unconcerned with sacraments.  Wills contends that the sacramental system was later instituted by clerical officials to give themselves a controlling influence over each stage of a believer’s life. He goes through the sacraments one by one and tries to show that all of them—except baptism—have no biblical basis.  To support his arguments, he is forced to make some petty distinctions.  For example, we learn that the sacrament of the sick is unscriptural because priests use olive oil but Jesus did not use oil when He ministered to the sick.

Of all the sacraments, Wills is most interested in the Eucharist, which he claims should be understood as a meal and not associated in any way with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  Furthermore, Holy Communion should be seen as a symbol of Christ and not as the actual Body and Blood of Jesus.  In Wills’ rendering, the doctrine of transubstantiation gradually became dominant in the Middle Ages, through the efforts of St. Thomas Aquinas and some of his contemporaries.  This claim that Catholic belief in the Real Presence is a medieval accretion is particularly odd.  Wills seems unaware of the many Early Church fathers who affirmed this doctrine.  For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d 117 AD) referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for evermore.”  St. John Chrysostom (d 407 AD) was even more explicit: “It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself.”

Wills seems more aware of the difficulties that he faces in trying to disassociate the priesthood from the Early Church.  One of the New Testament epistles, the Letter to the Hebrews, has several references to Jesus as “our high priest” and repeatedly speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial death.  Consequently, Wills goes over the letter in painstaking detail.  He discusses its authorship, its intended audience, its wording and its key themes and he even includes his own translation of the letter in an appendix.  While admitting that the letter is elegantly written, he is troubled by its substance.  He speaks of the “flimsiness of its arguments,” and laments the author’s “capricious” and “eccentric” views. In the end, it is not clear where Wills is left. It seems that he wants to strike it from the New Testament canon, but he does not say so expressly.

Wills concludes by noting that he does not “believe in popes and priests and sacraments.”    He then raises the question which by this point must have crossed the minds of all of his readers: “Why do I hang around where there are popes and priests telling me what to believe?” He offers a couple of curious explanations.  He considers himself an ecumenist, so therefore he does not want to cut himself off from any other Christians, including Catholics: “It will hardly advance the desirable union of all believers if I begin by excluding those closest to me.” He also falls back on some of the points he made in Why I Am a Catholic, noting that he accepts the Apostles Creed and is devoted to the Virgin Mary and to the Rosary.  However, the faith statement that he affirms at the end of this book is much vaguer than the one he professed at the end of Why I Am a Catholic.  This time all he is willing to say is:  “There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers.”  One wonders what Wills’ Jesuit seminary professors would make of this statement.


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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