Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pulitzer Prize-winner questions need for priests

  • Print

THE surprising news that Benedict XVI became the first pope in more than 600 years to abdicate as head of the world's Roman Catholics has given added currency to the latest book by Garry Wills, one of North America's most prominent Catholic scholars.

In Why Priests?, The Real Meaning of the Eucharist, the Pulitzer Prize-winner, whose previous books include Papal Sin and Why I Am a Catholic, wonders aloud about the history of the priesthood. In light of sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the church in recent years, especially since Benedict succeeded John Paul II in 2005, Wills spends almost 300 pages exploring the idea that the church could survive quite well without priests.

He emphasizes repeatedly that he has nothing personal against priests. Indeed, as a young man he spent five years in a Jesuit seminary, studying to become one. But now he seems to argue that the priesthood may have been a major mistake in the evolution of the church since the time of Jesus Christ.

Among the evidence that Wills scrutinizes is the New Testament Letter to Hebrews which is often cited by religious scholars as proof that Jesus considered himself a priest. In Wills' view, the text does not support such a belief.

Wills also uses the same letter to challenge the belief that the crucifixion of Jesus was a necessary act of atonement. According to this long-held belief, an angry God demanded the sacrifice of his own son. Wills argues against that on several different grounds.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the authority vested in priests derives from Peter, the man to whom Jesus gave the "keys to the kingdom." He was the first Bishop of Rome. Wills argues that Jesus was rigidly egalitarian, and there is in fact no evidence that Peter was bishop of anything.

The book seems to argue that it was from that point on that priests became guilty of abusive behaviour of one sort or another because they stopped following some of Jesus's most fundamental teachings. Jesus instructed his followers "not to address any man on earth as father," but priests have demanded that honorific almost since the very beginning of Christianity.

Perhaps the most important authority reserved for priests in the Roman Catholic church is their fundamental and exclusive right to administer the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Wills argues that the central belief that priests alone have the power to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ derives not from Jesus himself, but from Thomas Aquinas who wasn't even born until 1225.

He says the alternative understanding that flows from the teachings of Augustine and others in the New Testament regards the eucharist more as a meal and not as a sacrifice.

There could almost be a straight line drawn at that point in the historical study to the teachings of Martin Luther. In 1520, Luther argued against the pretensions of the clergy, saying "priests or bishops are neither different from other Christians, nor superior to them."

If then, as Wills argues, the early followers of Jesus had no need for priests, what does the author believe to be the way forward? In his elegant final chapter Wills reaffirms his belief in the fundamental pillars of his Catholic faith as spelled out in the Nicene Creed.

He says, "There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets." Wills concludes by proclaiming himself to be "one of his millions of followers."

Why Priests? is a rigorous exercise for those who enjoy examining issues of faith with an open and curious mind.

 

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster who attends the Anglican Church.

Why Priests? The Real Meaning of the Eucharist
By Gary Wills
Viking, 290 pages, $29.50

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J7

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Keri Latimer looks for beauty in the dark and the spaces between the notes

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS June 23, 2011 Local - A Monarch butterfly is perched on a flower  in the newly opened Butterfly Garden in Assiniboine Park Thursday morning.
  • A Great Horned Owl that was caught up in some soccer nets in Shamrock Park in Southdale on November 16th was rehabilitated and returned to the the city park behind Shamrock School and released this afternoon. Sequence of the release. December 4, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should political leaders be highly visible on the frontlines of flood fights and other natural disasters?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google