A considered reflection from a long-time believer is a force never to be taken lightly. Garry Wills is a lifelong Catholic and an intellectual. His book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was recommended to me by a friend and it is indeed a book that raises most profound questions. To someone born Protestant, such as the current writer, many of the arguments Wills marshals are strangely familiar. Many were lobbed in Fundamentalist harangues where clergy that believe in a literal six-day creation proved surprisingly adroit at finding the chinks in Catholic armor. The New Testament says nothing about the Christian movement having its own priests. And even the explicit command that seems to have come from Jesus—call no man father—is immediately reversed once priests become a fixture in a priestless faith. Wills explores the origins of these practices not to tear apart the religion of which he remains a loyal part, but to suggest that religious tolerance is the only proper solution. It is amazing how much of Catholic thought goes back to the disputed book of Hebrews with its mysterious Melchizedek.
While I have never been a Catholic, I have always been haunted by the idea that my religion was some kind of innovation. After all, the stakes were beyond stratospheric. If you pick the wrong one, at least according to what I was taught, Hell awaits at the end of the day. Then I discovered that my own Fundamentalism also had a history. We were called Protestants because we protested Catholicism. As I moved into the Methodist tradition, at least there seemed to be a continuity—John Wesley was an Anglican and Anglicans were really kind of English Catholics. Or so it seemed. Naturally, I became an Episcopalian since going Roman seemed like it came with exceptional amounts of accretions that were clearly not biblical. Such accretions are much of what Wills explores. Traditions that become doctrine. And exclusive. Those on the outside can hope for Purgatory at best, and the very Hell I was trying to avoid remained a distinct possibility. Who was right?
Religions suffer with time. The faith that Jesus seems to have proclaimed had already altered by the time Paul put pen to parchment. Ask any Gnostic. Already, within just three decades, the question became “now what did he say again?” And what exactly did he mean? The core of that message seemed to be love above all else, but that doesn’t make for sexy doctrine. Exclusivity achieves what love could never accomplish. Wills explores how sacraments evolved, and how Scripture became a sword dividing believer from believer. His most sensible solution? Its time to get beyond priests. He doesn’t actually suggest doing away with them, but asks Catholics why they don’t consider closely the implications of their roots. Melchizedek takes on a stature greater than anyone seems to have imagined for an imaginary figure. And a lifelong believer here asks the most basic of questions: what is Christianity truly about?