There is scarcely a mention of priesthood in the New Testament. Nor is the phenomenon of priesthood evident in the practices of the early church. How then, asks Garry Wills, did the priesthood become so central to Christianity, and particularly to the Roman Catholic Church, and why is there such an attachment to its continuation in a religion that began without it?
Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who, over many decades, has brought his impressive command of history to bear on some of the most fundamental claims of Christianity. In his new book he brings his acknowledged erudition to bear on the institution of the priesthood, arguing not only that it has no biblical basis but, more importantly, that, notwithstanding its doubtful heritage, it has played a seminal role in the construction and maintenance of many of the core beliefs of Christianity. Without priesthood, Wills claims, there would be no belief in apostolic succession, or in transubstantiation (the belief that the communion bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ), or in the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass.
Wills describes the early Christian community as “a priestless movement” that was essentially egalitarian. The only reference of any significance to the priesthood in the New Testament comes in the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter that was traditionally attributed to St Paul but that has long been acknowledged to be of unknown provenance. The writer of the letter describes Jesus as a priest in the line of Melchizedek (a Caananite king referred to in the Book of Genesis) and over the centuries, from this idiosyncratic text, the church began to construct an account of priestly power which implied that the priesthood was established by Jesus and that his apostles could also be understood in priestly terms. This, Wills insists, is quite simply false. It has no historical basis.
Over the centuries the priesthood acquired a status and power that is at odds with the vision of the early church. Wills analyses the acquisition of this power, arguing persuasively that the critical factor in the establishment of the power of the priestly class has been the claim that, in the Eucharist, priests have the power to transform the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. As Wills notes, nothing else a priest does matches this power. It is here that Wills’s position is at its most original and insightful. Through his expert reading of key theological texts he demonstrates how this assertion gained ascendency in the history of Catholicism. The most definitive articulation of the priest’s apparent ability to transform the bread and wine into the actual body and blood came only in the 16th century, and is thus a late development in Catholicism.
In the background, however, was Thomas Aquinas, with his Aristotelian philosophy of substance and accident, which provided the conceptual apparatus for the claim. Historians and theologians have long acknowledged that the official Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is a construct of the Counter-Reformation. It sought to impose, once and for all, a literal interpretation on an idea that, for most of the history up until then, was understood in symbolic terms. It drew heavily on the great theologian of the middle ages, Aquinas, to further develop a narrative which claimed that Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a sacrificial meal at the last supper, and that, in an act of unbroken succession, all priests continue to do this when they celebrate the Eucharist. Wills reminds his readers, however, that there is another equally compelling tradition of interpretation, exemplified especially by St Augustine and Martin Luther, which denied this claim.
According to Wills, in the early church, “there were no priests and no priestly services; there was no re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper; no ‘sacrifice of the Mass’; no consecration of bread and wine; nothing that resembled what priests now claim to do”. There is no doubt that, when taken together, such claims appear to be radical. However, much of the historical and theological analysis on which Wills builds his thesis is uncontroversial among scholars. What is controversial is the question he poses in light of his conclusion that Jesus did not institute the Eucharist in any way that resembles how it was subsequently developed by the church. He asks whether there is any point in persisting with what he regards as a failed tradition when there is ample evidence that Catholicism does not need the institution of the priesthood at all. He criticises those who argue for the ordination of women or men in married or gay relationships, suggesting that the most honest position would be one that seeks the abolition of priesthood entirely.
Wills is clear in this that his target is not the 400,000 individual priests, many of whom, he acknowledges, make a significant contribution to the lives of countless millions worldwide. Rather, his focus is on the institution, which, he argues, has a flimsy biblical heritage and a dubious theological justification and is an impediment to the development of a more egalitarian Christianity.
Running throughout the text, moreover, is an argument about the necessity of reform in the church. For Wills, the first and necessary step in any meaningful reform process is the repudiation of the sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist and a return to an understanding that is more consonant with the biblical texts and the practice of the early church. Not only would this restore the Eucharist to its original meaning as a thanksgiving meal, it would also have the effect of requiring the church to confront the exclusivism and hierarchicalism that have been embedded in its structures through the institution of the priesthood. He also sees this as a first step towards genuinely reciprocal relationships with other Christian denominations and other religious traditions.
One hopes that Wills’s argument will be seriously considered, though Wills himself regards this as unlikely. His passion for reform of a church to which he is deeply committed is palpable. However, one can see how this may be missed or misunderstood in the context of such a searing criticism of one of its central institutions. His task is a worthy one, namely to bring the institution of the priesthood under the gaze of historical and theological scrutiny. Moreover, it stands in a long line of critical investigations that focus on the ways in which certain teachings, institutions and practices have come to be embedded in the Catholic tradition. Through his erudite scholarship and his compelling argumentation Wills has made an important contribution to this field of study and, in the process, has written a book that is thoroughly absorbing and engaging.