Garry Wills’ sour screed against the priesthood


Review of Why Priests? A Failed Tradition
By Garry Wills
New York: Viking Press, 2013.
302 pages.

It was no surprise to see Garry Wills’ op-ed on the upcoming papal conclave published in The New York Times, Wills has been a longtime critic of the Church and her leaders—so when he titled his opinion piece, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” it was nothing new.  The author of the virulently anti-Catholic book, Papal Sin, Wills—a former Jesuit seminarian—gave up hope for Gwills_whyprieststhe Church many years ago.  Now, in his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, we find that in addition to giving up hope, Wills has now given up his faith.  Denying the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass, and the salvific mission of Christ, Why Priests? argues for a “re-envisioning” of the Church which removes the distinction between the ordained and the laity.  Rather than lobbying for female priests, or gay priests, Wills chooses instead to do away entirely with apostolic succession and the God-given power of the priest to consecrate the Eucharist. 

Indeed, Wills’ hatred for priests and the priesthood is palpable on nearly every page of his angry polemic.  But it is difficult to understand the source of this hatred because his examples of “clerical privilege” are so silly.  For example, on page 31 we begin to get an idea of his early anger toward priests when he describes his days as a young golf caddie who had to give priests “special treatment” on the golf course: “Men already prepared to tee off let him go ahead of them. It was presumed he had to get back to his spiritual tasks.”  Wills also recalled that priests often abused parking rules: “once when a priest drove me to the airport to pick up a friend, he stopped in a no-parking area just outside the entry…he told me he had a clerical sticker on his car.” (p 31)

So why did Wills enter the seminary and stay for five years if he had such hostility for the priesthood? It’s not clear. But he continued his animosity as an adult, recalling an old priest friend of his who “invited himself to our house every Saturday to watch his favorite TV shows. He asked that our kids be kept quiet and he ate the special meal my wife provided—without ever thanking her. He obviously assumed it was just his right.” 

The hatred escalates throughout the book and culminates in a chapter titled, “Killer Priests” where Wills pronounces that “priests killed Jesus. That is what they do.  They kill the prophets.” (p 80)  Appearing to see himself as one of the prophets/martyrs, Wills devotes his entire book to ridiculing the practices of the Church—including what he calls priestly imperialism and human sacrifice.   It is a difficult book to read only because it is always a tragedy to see a man lose his faith so publicly, especially a man who should know better and know more.

As one reviewer on states, “Once Wills was an interesting and provocative writer. Now he is simply a muckraker pretending to be an academic of deep erudition. Buy this book if you wish to see an example of an attempt to destroy the central dogmas of the Catholic Church.” Exactly right. It is one thing to rightly critique clericalism or acts of arrogance; it is quite another to rage against an institution without dealing fairly with the historical and theological evidence, and without acknowledging the great goods rendered by individual priests and the priesthood in general.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)