Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why Priests? or, Gary Wills is a Bad Catholic

American writer Gary Wills is a Catholic who seems to dislike almost everything that makes the Catholic church different from other churches. I find this sort of thing bizarre; if I don't like what an institution teaches, I leave and go somewhere else. But Wills seems determined to remain a Catholic, even if the reforms he wants would pretty much end the Catholic church as it has existed for a thousand years.

His latest book, Why Priests? is an attack on the Catholic priesthood:
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.
It is not news to anyone raised Protestant that there is no scriptural basis for a Christian priesthood; it was one of Martin Luther's central arguments. What Wills really seems to be after, though, is not theology but power. He dislikes the hierarchical authority of the church and wants to empower the laity the run things as they wish, so there would no longer be conflicts between the hierarchy and the members over things like birth control and gay marriage. Wills is also angry, like many Catholics, about the way the church abused its power in covering up sexual abuse. But if Wills wants to belong to a church where the laity is in charge, why doesn't he become a Congregationalist, or a Unitarian? The Catholics have had a hierarchy for about 1800 years, so it seems unlikely that they would change for Gary Wills.

Wills also has a view of the Mass that is very common among non-Catholics:
Historians and theologians have long acknowledged that the official Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is a construct of the (16th-century) 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. 
Here we get to what has always been for me the great weakness of Christianity, the insistence on exactness in theological matters that really ought to be left vague and mysterious. What does hoc est corpus meum mean? Or I and the Father are one? Better not to ask, but just to wonder. But Christians have always had a weakness for theological warfare, going back to their very early days, and those wars have led to ever greater precision in defining the undefinable, and a steadily lengthening list of beliefs one has to hold to be orthodox.

Reading about Wills' new book I was reminded of another great Catholic skeptic, Montaigne. Montaigne also doubted the truth of almost all the church's doctrines, and whether it was possible to know such things anyway. But unlike Wills, Montaigne was not a reformer. His attitude was that since there was no way to know what sort of church God intended, you might as well just attend the nearest one and worship as your neighbors did. That the Catholic church had existed for a thousand years was, for him, a good reason to leave it alone, since it must have being doing something right to have lasted so long, and that is about all we can expect from human institutions.

Wills' problem is that he wants his church to endorse his politics. When the bishops attack something he holds dear, like providing birth control to poor women, he is enraged at the church and wants it to change. He can't change it, so he writes polemical books. Ok, fine, we all deal with our demons as we can. But doesn't it make him wonder, a little, about the changeability of social mores, and the relationship of those changes to any sort of eternal truth? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God calls us to be just. How are we to know what is just, without reference to the society in which we live? And if notions of justice start to change, should a religious person immediately adopt the new understanding? If the priesthood is unhistorical, so is the notion that you can't be a just and caring person without endorsing birth control and gay marriage.

One of the values of religion, in my view, is that it calls us to take the very long view. To drag the church into the latest political brouhaha, as both Wills and the bishops are doing, to my mind defeats the whole purpose of having a church. It should, I think, exist beyond whatever is preoccupying you at the moment, and call your attention to things that are not on the Congressional agenda. By all means, if you feel that your belief in justice or mercy calls you to action, take action. But a God of the whole universe has a lot of territory to look after, and it seems to me a stretch to assume he or she has a strong position on the Affordable Care Act.

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