The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has given new life to some very old myths about the papacy: that Saint Peter was the “first pope” and that Benedict, like all popes, was thus his successor. In fact, various popes forged this particular myth to harness the apostolic power, prestige, and affection associated with Peter. (This claim is easily falsified by examination of the non-biblical texts of the first century.) Later, popes claimed to be successors to Christ to augment their power even more.
In his recent book, Why Priests? The Real Meaning of the Eucharist, Garry Wills turns his critical gaze to the nexus of priests, power and Eucharistic piety. The driving question of Why Priests? is how early Christianity, which operated without priests, evolved into a tradition that made their role central and even indispensable. As the ex-seminarian Garry Wills correctly observes, almost no book of the New Testament even mentions priests; the one that does—Letter to the Hebrews—imagines only Jesus as a priest. Although the Catholic Church has for centuries maintained the opposite position, it is simply false—from an historical perspective—to assert that Jesus instituted the priesthood. Not only was Jesus not a member of the priestly class; it is simply anachronistic to say that any of Jesus’ apostles were imagined in priestly terms, either by Jesus or the apostles themselves.
How, then, did priests become dominant and then essential in Catholic Christianity? And why, Wills asks, in this provocative, historically rich, and slightly quixotic book, does the Vatican continue to sustain such falsehoods? Even more provocatively, Wills asks why the Church, at this moment of priestly scandal and diminishing numbers of parish priests, does not return to its ancient origins and simply dispense with priests altogether?
Wills’s convincing thesis for the ascendancy of the priest is that it originated in the Eucharistic celebration: the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. The Eucharist as a miracle of transformation, Wills shows, is officially a sixteenth-century invention. In the early Christian movement, from about 35 to 200, there were no consecrations of bread and wine, nor did anyone imagine the meal as a sacrifice—“the sacrifice of the Mass,” as Catholics still call it. Nor did Jesus intend—as the entire Catholic historical tradition since the Middle Ages has ludicrously tried to argue—that Jesus instituted the Catholic Eucharist at the Last Supper.
The power and originality of this book stems from the link that Wills establishes between priestly power and the priest’s believed ability to transform the bread and wine of the liturgical celebration into the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. Priests, who have a monopoly on this ability, become, in effect, “God-makers.” Equally important, Wills dispels the many historical myths about the origin and powers of the priesthood, most of them conceived and sustained, for over a millennium, by the Roman church.
Wills’s scrutiny of early Christian sources proves particularly compelling in service of his argument. One of the documents that he examines is an ancient writing called the Didachē. The document, discovered in the nineteenth century, purports to be “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”— didachē means “teaching” in Greek. Scholars speculate that this document was written in Syria in the second half of the second century (though this remains only a strong hypothesis), and it gives a clear window into second-century Christian ritual practices, especially the communal Eucharistic meal. The most striking thing about the document is that it lacks the so-called “words of institution” found in each of the first three gospels that frame Jesus’ “last supper” as a memorial and sacrificial meal—and are thus often interpreted as providing one of the foundations for the Eucharist as sacrifice. But Wills’s analysis of the Greek Didachē proves that Christians in the second-century eastern Mediterranean did not imagine their thanksgiving meal in the evangelists’ terms, even roughly a century after the gospel writers composed their account of Jesus’ last supper. So the Eucharist has not always been imagined in sacrificial terms.
The status and authority of the priesthood has stood or fallen with the claim that Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a sacrificial meal and that priests, following Jesus’ ancient command and example, offer Jesus’s body and blood as a sacrifice to God on behalf of their parishioners. Given Wills’s conclusion that the Christian Eucharistic celebration was not conceived as a sacrifice offered by the priest, the question then becomes, why does Catholic Christianity need priests at all? Neither questions like these, nor the title of the volume, should lead us to believe that Wills is hostile to priests. In addition to spending five years in the seminary himself, he has dedicated three of his books (including this one) to the great priest-scholars and priests-prophets, like Dan Berrigan, of his generation.
Wills intriguingly suggests that, rather than argue for the ordination of women priests, or married priests, or openly gay priests, the most logical and historically honest response would be to imagine Catholicism without priests. A priestless Catholicism, Wills argues, would more truly mirror early Christian practice than modern Catholicism. (As a Catholic, Wills has sympathy for the evolution of religious traditions, but for all branches of Christianity, origins remain normative.) As Wills concludes, “much of [the] condemnatory, accusatory, persecuting impulse” of popes through the ages “came from the jealousy of prerogative [and] the pride in exclusivity” of the priesthood. Set apart from all other human beings by their “unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” the priesthood has thus kept Catholics at a remove from other Christians and from the Jesus of the gospels. Why priests, then?
While quite intriguing to contemplate, Wills’s suggestion will never be seriously considered, either by Catholic priests or many parishioners. It is likely to be dismissed, therefore, as unrealistic, impractical and possibly unkind. This is a shame. Whatever one thinks of his proposal, Wills’s demolition of the many myths surrounding the origins of priestly status and function is in itself crucially informative and enlightening, especially for practitioners of Catholicism.
Kevin Madigan is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard and author of the forthcoming Medieval Christianity: A New History (Yale University Press).