In his riveting and provocative Why Priests'. Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills poses challenging questions: Why do we have priests? Why did the priesthood develop in a religion that began without it and, indeed, opposed it? Would Christianity be stronger without the priesthood, as it was at its outset?
Wills makes clear that he is not opposed to the priesthood; in fact, as a young man he studied for five years at a Jesuit seminary. Nor does he advocate the elimination of the priesthood. 'It is not a personal issue but an historical one,' Wills states. Not one of the New Testament's apostles or early disciples is a priest - not Peter, not Paul, not one. After examining the early church's egalitarian structure, Wills studies the powers that later accrued to the priesthood, in particular the ability to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ: 'The Host, as a separate object of worship, outside and apart from the Mass, had become the whole point of the faith.' Though transubstantiation became accepted Catholic doctrine, Wills traces back through the centuries to show that other interpretations of the Eucharist have been widely held by leading Catholic theologians but stridently dismissed by the Church.
And on what basis did the priesthood arise? Wills contends that the idea of a Christian priesthood was a novelty introduced in an anonymous document, mislabeled a letter, which was written in the nineties of the first century of the Common Era. This 'Letter to Hebrews' was meant to solace groups in Rome and correct their backsliding ways. A late addition ot the New Testament, the Letter to Hebrews helped inject the priesthood into a Christianity where it did not exist, drawing on two brief Old Testament references to a king and priest, Melchizedek, to propose the eccentric views found only in this Letter: that Melchizedek was a priest eternally (without ancestry of any kind), that Jesus was a human sacrifice replicating on a higher plane the animal sacrifice of the Mosaic Law, and that Jesus advocates for his believers from a seat in heaven.
For the Roman audience addressed by the Letter's author - an audience that pines for the Mosaic Law - the author argues: If you respected the Mosaic Pact, this second Pact is even more majestic. As Wills explains the author's reasoning: 'Do the faltering Romans miss the priesthood of the Mosaic dispensation? Then he will supply them with a startling new priesthood, one not known or referred to anywhere else in the Christian writings called the New Testament . . . . Above all, it will emphasize the centrality of blood-offering in the worship of God, where the blood of Jesus trumps the blood of bulls and goats. All these things, vivid in the Mosaic cult but vanished with the Temple in Jerusalem, are given a new life in the presentation of Jesus as both the sacrificing priest and the victim being sacrificed.'
As the author of the Letter stresses, the blood of human sacrifice is absolutely central to the salvation of mankind. Wills explores the history of thought about atonement, the freeing from sin through the blood of Christ. As Wills emphasizes, the stakes for the writer and the church are high, for without the priesthood there would be no belief in an apostolic succession, the real presence in the Eucharist, the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass, and the ransom theory of redemption.
Wills concludes with a powerful statement of faith, as well as his own translation of the Letter to Hebrews. A tour de force, Why Priests? argues brilliantly and persuasively for a radical reenvisioning of the role of the church as the body of Christ and for a new and better understanding of the very basis of Christian belief.