I thought he was dead, but no. Garry Wills has a new book out, and he’s making the rounds on TV talk shows. The new Wills is the old Wills, which means the liberal Catholic who is angry at the Church.
Why Priests? falls below his usual low standards. The main thesis is that priests ruin everything. They’re power-hungry monsters who’ve taken over the Church, destroying the affirming, companionable, and egalitarian message of Jesus. Moreover, the priestly fixation on ritual sacrifice adds a bloodthirsty, prosecutorial, and altogether primitive cast to Christianity, which Garry Wills promises to deliver us from, restoring for the first time in two millennia the original spirit of Jesus and his followers.
How did this terrible fall from original purity happen? The culprit is the Letter to the Hebrews. As Wills points out, the documents that make up the New Testament mention “presbyters” (elders), “deacons,” and “bishops” (overseers) as offices or functions. But the office of priest isn’t mentioned—except in Hebrews.
This isn’t altogether true. The New Testament often puts Jesus into the framework of the priestly function of sacrificial offering. For example, the gospels have Jesus saying that if the Temple is destroyed, he will rebuild it in three days. It’s a verse that puts his death and resurrection into the context of the rituals of sacrifice. I Peter speaks of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb without blemish. 2 Corinthians refers to the cleansing blood of Christ. Revelation is full of temple imagery.
Only a flat-footed literalism can imagine that the Christian tradition developed its robust theology and practice of the priestly office solely out of the Letter to the Hebrews. But that’s the way Wills makes his argument.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation, “having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” This passage, which is emblazoned across the front of St. Peter’s in Rome, serves as one of the many scriptural texts that have encouraged Christians to interpret the saving work of Christ by way of the Old Testament laws of ritual sacrifice.
In that sense Wills is quite right. Although sacrificial imagery echoes in a great deal of the New Testament, it’s the Letter to the Hebrews that draws together the threads and makes explicit many Old Testament themes. Although Catholic theology is not built on proof texts, the tradition returns again and again to Hebrews, and especially references to Melchizedek, to adumbrate its theology (theologies, actually) of the priesthood.
What, then, does Wills propose to do? Our progressive knight in shining armor will of course slay the dragon. In the central chapter of the book, Wills engages in the comical exercise of “proving” that the appeals to Melchizedek in Hebrews are “fallacious on several layers.”
For example, Wills points out that Melchizedek is described in Hebrews as an eternal priest. But wait, he writes, Jesus is also called “a priest forever.” Is this not a contradiction, he asks? In another section he observes that Hebrews emphasizes that Melchizedek “had no lineage, no predecessors or successors,” but then goes on to describe Jesus is in the line of Melchizedek, which is to say his successor. Yet another contradiction!
To these sophomoric demonstrations of rustic illogic, Wills “proves” that Hebrews is “wrong” about Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews reads and uses the Bible with the “capricousness” one tends to find in the rabbinic and other ancient sources. Moreover, modern historical knowledge has conclusively demonstrated, says Wills, that Melchizedek was a priest of the Canaanite god, and so the whole letter is based on the ridiculous mistake of making a pagan priest the source of the Catholic priesthood. Gotcha yet again.
Oy vey. What is one to make of Garry Wills?
Some years ago I reviewed his book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. It’s a tendentious tissue of half-truths that, taken as a whole, amounts to willful distortion, which is quite ironic in a book that self-righteously presents itself as exposing the Church’s lies. There’s a lot of angry bluster in Garry Wills, but little else.
Recently, he was being particularly adolescent on the Colbert Report, leading Fr. Matt Malone, S.J., to make the following comment on the America website: “It is not really Mr. Wills’s unorthodox views that give us cause to question his Christian commitment; it is his manifest lack of charity.”
But his books play an important ideological role, which is why this inflated man continues to have currency. In America, Christianity remains a powerful cultural and political force, and Catholicism is often its most visible institutional form. For progressives of all stripes, it’s therefore ideologically important to discredit Christianity and Catholicism. That’s what Garry Wills sells.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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