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