Even though I have long been a fan of Garry Wills, I must agree with Fr. John F. Baldovin’s criticism of Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition (“Cult Hit,” February 22). To privilege the first fifty years of Christianity, and to imply that later developments were necessarily contrary to pure Christianity, is an odd approach for a Catholic scholar. To subject the Epistle to the Hebrews to a tendentious critique that few books of the Bible could withstand is also strange. Why privilege some books of the canon against another?
Moreover, in his appearances on radio and television, Wills seems to reduce the Eucharist to a symbol, making no allowance for the realm of grace, a sacramental reality that exists somewhere between scientific reality and “mere symbol.” (Still, “transubstantiation” was an unfortunate addition to church doctrine. It first appeared officially at Lateran IV, about a decade before the birth of Thomas Aquinas. And it has too often been popularly understood as a simple and adequate explanation of the Eucharist, when in fact the nature of the Eucharist, like so much of our faith, is a mystery that will always defy definition.) Wills is quite right that the priesthood has evolved over the course of history. He is also right to believe that the evolution need not stop now. Contemporary culture and the extreme shortage of priests argue strongly for further change.
I was disappointed to read Fr. John F. Baldovin’s vitriolic review of Garry Wills’s Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. His praise for Wills’s earlier book on Ambrose of Milan and Augustine notwithstanding, it’s clear that Baldovin fundamentally disagrees with Wills’s point of view. He confirms that prejudice when he alleges that Wills’s book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2001) “exudes the same angry and bitter tone” as Why Priests? It’s one thing to disagree—and Baldovin is certainly entitled to do so—but it is quite another to base such disagreement on spurious claims.
Baldovin suggests that Wills’s notion that an original priestless society was transformed into “one that requires priests at every stage of one’s life” is an exaggeration. But is it? Only priests can preside at the Eucharist. Only priests can dispense absolution. Only priests can perform last rites. The list goes on, and God’s faithful are left on the shelf as ineffective eunuchs. Baldovin agrees that the Epistle to the Hebrews, which Wills uses extensively to prove his point, “is a rather strange book,” but he never makes a convincing argument that priests were an essential part of the early church. He favors tradition over biblical interpretation. It’s a complex argument, but his suggestion that we need “a serious book that moves the ball forward” is a red herring. Such a book would probably sink under its own weight. Rather than being a “sledgehammer,” Why Priests? is a valuable contribution to an important conversation.
With the resignation of Benedict XVI, the controversies surrounding sexual impropriety, the allegations of financial malfeasance, the censure of U.S. nuns, and many other unseemly actions, the Roman hierarchy has shown itself to be insular and self-absorbed. Still, the Holy Spirit continues to move where it wills, even if it apparently escapes the notice of the hierarchy. Garry Wills shows us a way forward. Will his message be heard?