Garry Wills’ book has a provocative title that suggests the priesthood is a Church failure. If his argument were more lively and stayed on track, he might better convince the reader that a religious congregation can do fine without an ordained leader.
Mr. Wills studied to be a Roman Catholic priest early in his life, and he opens his introduction with the sentence, “I have nothing against priests.” But there’s something about priestly powers with which he disagrees. In the early church, there were no priests. Bishops and deacons had particular nonpriestly responsibilities, and there was no need for a priest. Congregations tended to gather around a communal meal, which only later became the Eucharist of bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus’ words at the “last supper.”
The office of priest was created in the big Church councils a few hundred years after the time of Jesus, and priests were given sole authority over certain sacraments, especially involving the Eucharist when Catholics believe that the priest’s actions transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, also known as transubstantiation.
Mr. Wills objects to the sacramental powers being reserved for priests.
He doesn’t give much attention to other ministerial qualities, such as teacher, preacher, and pastoral caregiver. With his argument so focused on transubstantiation, the book doesn’t translate outside of Catholicism to other faiths. And that’s the book’s weakness.
Mr. Wills goes into great depth in transubstantiation and two other areas: the dependence on an Old Testament priest named Melchizedek to give Jesus a priestly heritage; and the priest language in and origins of the New Testament book of Hebrews.
The Roman Catholic priesthood has experienced much scandal, especially with more prominent news of priests abusing children and acting inappropriately related to the trust its leadership has established in the past. With scandalous actions violating priests’ sacred standing, a book that hinges on there being no need for priests for transubstantiation and questioning whether Melchizedek is an appropriate justification for them misses the mark.
Though Mr. Wills was thorough in his research, his book ends up as an ineffective argument. There’s too much on the beginning of the priestly tradition, too little on how it has failed today. So though he says the solution to the shortage of Catholic priests is to have no priests, at the end of the book the reader doesn’t have contemporary justification for that answer.