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Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition Hardcover – February 12, 2013

3.6 out of 5 stars 180 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

As a boy caddying at a local golf course, Wills marveled at how overawed golfers would surrender their tee times to any Catholic priest showing up with a golf bag. Now a mature author, Wills explains such deference to clerics as a trivial but telling instance of priestly privilege. That privilege, Wills argues, reflects the position of the priest as the singularly holy figure who presides over the ritual of transforming the consecrated host and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood through the miracle of transubstantiation. Wills sees no trace of this miracle in the gospel account of the Lord’s Supper, nor any evidence of priests’ leading the church of the New Testament. The scriptural text typically cited to justify the Catholic understanding of the eucharist and the priesthood—namely, the Epistle to the Hebrews—here receives skeptical scrutiny as a dubious late addition to the canon. Professing faith in the Catholic creed but attacking the Catholic priesthood with Protestant zeal, Wills invites readers into a dialogue outside of ecclesiastical boundaries. --Bryce Christensen



Praise for Why Priests? by Garry Wills:
“Wills draws on his expertise in classical languages and his wide reading in ecclesiastical history to argue that the Catholic/Orthodox priesthood has been one long mistake.”
The Washington Post

“Wills sets out to persuade his fellow-Catholics that the priesthood is both unnecessary and un-Christian. . . . Wills is not attempting to break with the Church or to dismantle it. Rather, he wants to assure the faithful that they can get by without priests. ‘If we need fellowship in belief,’ he writes, ‘we have each other.’”
The New Yorker

“How. . .did priests become dominant and then essential in Catholic Christianity? And why, Wills asks, in this provocative [and] historically rich . . . book, does the Vatican continue to sustain such falsehoods? . . . Wills’s demolition of the many myths surrounding the origins of priestly status and function is in itself crucially informative and enlightening.”
The New Republic 

“Pulitzer Prize winner Wills, a venerable voice on church history, thought and practice, provides a stunning critique of the Roman Catholic priesthood.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Using his linguistic skills and his impressive command of both secondary literature and patristic sources, Wills raises doubts aplenty about ‘the Melchizedek myth,’ and the priestly claims for Jesus in the ‘idiosyncratic’ Epistle to the Hebrews … His final chapter is a model of elegant simplicity, a contrast (intended or not) to the flummery often associated with his own church … ‘There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets,’ Wills concludes, ‘and I am one of his millions of followers.’ For those millions, scattered across time and space, that’s an affirmation worthy of celebration.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Do we really need Catholic Priests? Wills, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Why I Am a Catholic, dares to pose this controversial question[.] . . . One cannot help but be impressed with this brilliant work written by a scholar whose love for the Church compels him to make it better.”
Publishers Weekly

“Clearly a thought-provoker destined to inspire debate.”
Library Journal

“Wills’s . . . position is . . . original and insightful . . . [and his] task is a worthy one, namely to bring the institution of the priesthood under the gaze of historical and theological scrutiny. . . . 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.”
Irish Times
“[Wills] combin[es] historical and literary analysis with journalistic observations on the present Catholic church. . . . Why Priests? should be required of all seminarians.”
National Catholic Reporter




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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (February 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670024872
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670024872
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (180 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #672,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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As a priest who was raised in the pre-Vatican II era Church, experienced (and celebrated) the radical changes that came afterward, and now have lived long enough to see a marked backsliding into the same kind of clericalism that we had hoped had been finally overcome (I'll give Wills two stars for trying) I would have given this book a much higher rating than I have, except for what I see as a couple of major flaws (thus the denial of several stars) in his argument.
First, despite Wills' deep knowledge of the Greek language, of perhaps because of it, he plays fast and loose with the earliest patristic traditions, quoting passages that he thinks supports his claims, but generally ignoring those that would make the reader think twice. This is most evident in Wills book when he quotes the passage in Justin Martyr's
famous "Apology" (Chap 66) to show how Christians saw the Eucharistic meal not as a "sacrifice" but strictly as a commemorative meal, even while skipping where Justin explains where the bread and wine are received not as ordinary food, but as "we have been taught ...is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
Second, I find his rejection of the "priesthood" of Christ unconvincing -- mostly on the basis of his rejection of the letter to the Hebrews. In this, Wills, reminds me of Luther in his rejection of the Epistle of James, because it didn't fit his overall thesis. Ironically, if Wills really wants to reject the Roman Catholic notion of a specially ordained priesthood, he would have done much better to follow Luther in his insistence of the true priesthood of Christ (especially as expounded in Hebrews) and the share in it that every Christian has. In this regard I think that Wills himself is a bit confused as to what is meant by the word "sacrifice".
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Format: Kindle Edition
On p. 16, Wills quotes a passage from Sermon 227 by St. Augustine, which Wills claims is "Augustine's denial of the real presence of Jesus in the elements of the meal."

But Wills omits a preceding passage in the same sermon, where the Bishop of Hippo writes: "You ought to know what you have received, what you are about to receive, what you ought to receive every day. That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with his body and blood, which he shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins. If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive."

That, in fact, is a brilliant explanation of the Real Presence.

On p. 17, Wills also says that, at least up through the St. Augustine's time in the early Fifth Century, there was "no reenactment of Jesus' Last Supper, no 'sacrifice of the Mass,' no consecration of bread and wine; nothing that resembled what priests now claim to do."

Yet the bishop of Hippo also writes in Sermon 227, "after the consecration of the sacrifice of God... we say the Lord's Prayer."

By not bringing up these quotes from the exact same sermon he distorts, Wills completely misleads the reader.
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This book arrived today and I spent several hours with it, reading, underlining, making notes. It's well written, well reasoned and very well documented. I'll be studying it for quite some time. ------ I will be purchasing copies of this book for some Catholic friends. ------ This is exactly the kind of deep exploration of Catholic beliefs that I welcome with all my heart. I welcome the effort here of a scholar to go back to the biblical passages upon which a seemingly crucial belief is supposedly based, and examine those passages carefully, moving on then to the Didache, and to the work of the Church Fathers who supposedly influenced the evolution of the belief. (I myself in my own unscholarly and amateur way feel drawn to do this. And long ago, I searched my New Testament diligently to try to find a justification for an anointed all male Catholic priesthood and I could find none. ) --- This book goes much deeper than I could ever go into the concept of the Eucharist and the concept of Transubstantiation, and into Atonement theory, and into many other related vitally important theological matters as well. The scope is immense. The implications of Wills' questions are immense. I found the discussion and the documentation to be a great gift. --- I wish I were able to describe in greater theological detail why I find this so valuable. For me this is fresh air. This is bright light. The 2,000 year old complex and multi-layered Catholic Belief System needs this. This is an honest and timely and illuminating pursuit of truth.
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Being a Catholic priest, I was very interested in what Gary Wills has to say about us priests. Mr. Wills writes well and he seems to have a wealth of material to use. I have enjoyed some of his other books and articles. The one thing I have to say and it's important: Mr. Wills is writing about priests that are no longer trained in the way he described. He needs to go to seminaries (if he can find a "traditional one) and find out how they are preparing men for ordination. You will find the seminarians out in the neighborhoods around the seminary. Sit in on classes that address contemporary social justice issues. He does not convince me that this tradition has failed.
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