So, to quote the book’s title, “why priests?” The standard Roman Catholic teaching is that all priestly authority derives from Peter, to whom Jesus bestowed “the keys of the kingdom”; the authority of every priest, according to Catholic doctrine, can be traced through a line of “apostolic succession” back to Peter, the first bishop of Rome. The teachings of Jesus, however, were radically egalitarian: “The last shall be first, and the first last.” Neither Jesus nor his followers claimed to be priests, Wills maintains, and “there is no historical evidence for Peter being bishop anywhere — least of all at Rome, where the office of bishop did not exist in the first century C.E.”
Having attributed the abiding conundrum of the priesthood to “the Melchizedek myth” propagated in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Wills writes that this new priestly class began over the centuries to arrogate to itself powers and prerogatives unimagined by Jesus and his disciples. Although Jesus had instructed his followers not to “address any man on earth as father,” priests demanded that very ­honorific.
Central to the priestly claims to authority, Wills says, was the importance of the sacraments, especially celebration of the eucharist, which could be performed, the church declared, only by priests. “The most striking thing about priests, in the later history of Christianity,” the author writes, “is their supposed ability to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
This exclusivity, according to Wills, derives from Thomas Aquinas rather than Jesus. The Thomistic view of the eucharist understands the Mass as re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ, from which all other graces devolve to the believer. The church, following Aquinas, vested the power of transubstantiation — the bread and wine of holy communion actually becomes the body and blood of Christ — in the priesthood. With that magical power, the priesthood increasingly set itself apart from the laity...Wills argues that an alternative understanding of Jesus and the eucharist, one more consonant with the New Testament (Hebrews excepted) and informed by Augustine, sees Jesus as coming to harmonize humanity with himself. The eucharistic meal remains a meal (as it was in the first century), not a sacrifice, one that celebrates the union between Christ and his followers. “One does nothing but disrupt this harmony by interjecting superfluous intermediaries between Jesus and his body of believers,” Wills writes. “When these ‘representatives’ of Jesus to us, and of us to Jesus, take the feudal forms of hierarchy and monarchy, of priests and papacy, they affront the camaraderie of Jesus with his brothers."Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. He is completing a biography of Jimmy Carter
Bridget Mary's Response:
I think that Gary Wills has done an excellent job of dismantling clericalism. Roman Catholic Women Priests are offering the church a new model of priestly ministry in a community of equals in which the people of God take their rightful role as celebrants of the sacraments. We are building a bridge between the institutional church as it is today and the discipleship of equals to bring the church full circle to its beginning, the Body of Christ sharing the Body of Christ with the Body of Christ.