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Challenge to the Church

Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, celebrating Mass in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, 1998


Garry Wills’s latest book on Catholicism coincides with a crisis in the church that has been developing since Pius IX (1792–1878) set the course of Peter’s barque against the winds of Enlightenment and revolution. Driven from Rome by the rioting of 1848, the pope returned under the protection of Napoleon III and retreated to the Vatican, refusing to recognize the new Italian kingdom (recognition did not come until the Lateran Treaty in 1929, signed by Pius XI and Mussolini).

From his self-imposed “prison” Pius IX issued his sweeping condemnation of “modernism” in 1864 with the encyclical Quanta Cura, including “The Syllabus of Errors,”1 which remained an embarrassment to many if not most of the church’s scholarly and intellectual members for the next ninety-eight years, until John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council. Donald Attwater’s authoritative and orthodox A Catholic Dictionary (Nihil Obstat plus Imprimatur!), first published in 1931, cautiously concludes its article on the Syllabus and Pius IX’s subsequent self-declared infallibility when speaking ex cathedra with the world’s bishops (a doctrine opposed by Cardinal Newman, Lord Acton, Baron von Hügel, and other prominent Catholic intellectuals of the period) by saying of the Syllabus, “it is not certain that every proposition is condemned infallibly and therefore irreformably.” (With such equivocations did Catholics live before John XXIII.)

Wills has been a critic before of his church, into which he was born in 1934 (half-born into it, so to speak, as his mother was Irish Catholic—and a southerner, from Georgia). His father, whose own parents were an agnostic and a Christian Scientist, did eventually become a Catholic, but he was not one while Wills was young. By Wills’s own account the greater influences on him were his mother’s family and the Catholic grade school in Adrian, Michigan, where he was raised (the school was taught by an extraordinary community of Dominican nuns), and the Jesuit boarding school he attended in Wisconsin, both of exceptional quality. (At the time, Catholic primary and secondary education—disciplined instruction in grammar and rhetoric in primary school, with much memorization, and introduction to the classics in high school—was in the Midwest at least generally superior to public schools.)

The family was reduced by the Depression to running a boardinghouse and Wills’s father, before being drafted during World War II, sold gas appliances. The young Wills’s commitment to classical studies (the subject of his eventual doctorate at Yale) began with the Latin and Greek taught by the Jesuits. When he left high school he entered a Jesuit novitiate and seminary outside St. Louis. He left after five years (of the customary twelve years of study necessary for ordination), deciding that the life was not for him.

Wills published a widely noted book in 2002 called Why I Am a Catholic. His critics may complain that his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, amounts to a denial of his Catholicism, since it formidably attacks the Catholic priesthood as a self-serving class that exploits to its own advantage its canonical privilege of celebrating Mass, which consists essentially in performing the consecration of wine and bread. This, in the present orthodox understanding, causes them to become by “transubstantiation” the real presence of the second person of the Triune God (composed of Father, Son—who is held to have become a fully real man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, dying on the cross in Jerusalem, rising from the dead after three days, subsequently “ascending to heaven”—and the Holy Spirit, who is present and active among mankind today).

Wills’s argument is less that the Catholic priesthood is a “failed” tradition than that it is an illegitimate one, formed by what amounted (intentionally or otherwise) to a coup d’église, installing a leadership that lacks the right to be there. It replaces what originally was (and should again become, Wills implies) an informal community of believers and worshipers without structure or fixed leadership, although Wills mentions instances, in the early second century, when a “presider”—proestos (literally “stander-in-front”)—offered prayers of remembrance and thanks, drinking a mixture of wine and water, and concluding with the Hebrew “let it be done” or “Amen.” (Wills is citing Saint Justin Martyr, writing in the first half of the second century.)

This and other accounts by the same source of sacred ceremonial meals are judged by Wills not to have constituted Masses in the modern understanding. He says:

Later, as the priesthood developed—along with the concept of the Eucharist as less a meal than a sacrifice [i.e., a reenactment of the sacrificial death of Jesus, which is the orthodox modern Catholic understanding of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine at Mass]—the community was reduced from participation to spectatorship, and parallels with Jewish Temple procedures were adopted from the Letter to Hebrews. This went against the whole tradition of Jesus’ table fellowship, of all the Lord’s suppers that had preceded the Last Supper.

The concept of transubstantiation makes use of the Aristotelian philosophical distinction between the “substance” and the “accidents” of things, adopted by Thomas Aquinas (circa 1224–1274) in his creation of the philosophical system thereafter generally adopted by the Catholic Church and known as Thomism. The substance is what a thing is fundamentally. A thing’s “accidents” include its appearance, form, quantity, taste, and so on.

The priest’s consecration of the bread and wine at Mass, which is what makes a Mass a Mass in the contemporary understanding, causes the substance of bread and wine, while truly remaining bread and wine, and retaining the physical and material “accidents” of bread and wine, to become at the same time the true substance of the body and blood of Christ, the Messiah whom God had promised to the Jews. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine become a new species (again, a term from Aristotle). This definition (by the Council of Trent in 1545–1563, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation) marks the difference between Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics on the one hand, and many of the other Christian churches, for whom the Eucharist is merely symbolic or a memorial of Jesus.


Wills says all this is mistaken; transubstantiation does not happen; and the manipulation of this error made it possible to establish among the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth a caste of leaders who were to become the Christian priesthood, and would over the centuries develop into the clerical hierarchy that reigns over Catholicism today, in March electing as its head the new Pope Francis.

Wills lays part of the blame for this on the misunderstanding or manipulation of the New Testament document called “Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews,” or simply “The Epistle to the Hebrews” (because there is controversy over whether it was actually written by Paul), which seems to support the early development of a Christian priesthood.

Wills’s argument, which he holds as Augustinian in source, is that the Mass originated in a leaderless communal meal taken by the earliest followers of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, commemorating their own and their descendants’ and converts’ common participation in what the Catholic Church today calls the Mystical Body of Christ. (This is defined as “the members of the church bound together and to Christ, their head, into a spiritual though real body by the supernatural life of grace received in Baptism”).2 While bread and wine might have been part of this meal, consuming them was not considered a commemoration of Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples and had no sacramental quality.

As I understand him, Wills would like a restoration of a common and unstructured meal that in his view (and that of others, whom he cites) itself constitutes the sacrament, having been the original form of Christian worship. But it is not entirely clear what Wills wants. A leaderless meal taken in common by followers of Christ, but without a “sacrifice” (an idea of the Eucharistic consecration to which Wills objects), and stripped of later accretions? If this were accepted (and were feasible, which I would think not), it would remove the justification for a clerical class or special body of men to officiate at these gatherings. He says that for him to attack transubstantiation, the clergy, and the papacy is not to renounce his Catholicism but to purge it of error. He insists on his belief in the essentials of the church. He cites his friendships with priests, and his devotion to the Virgin Mary and to the meditative daily recital of the rosary.


Wills describes his contrary view of the Eucharist as going back to Augustine, as well as citing for support a number of contemporary or near-contemporary theologians, including the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac (to whose memory the present book is dedicated), who in 1944 traced the existence of a tradition concerning the nature of the Eucharist that goes back to the first Christian century. The Jesuit authorities eventually suppressed this book and Lubac was dismissed from his teaching post, but after his nomination as a peritus, or expert counselor, by John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council, he and a number of other so-called liberal theologians were vindicated. John Paul II made Lubac a cardinal.3

Moosbrugger/Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection
Henri de Lubac, 1968

Wills’s other attack on the priesthood raises a simple political and historical consideration concerning organizations. How does a religion survive without structure and a self-perpetuating leadership? The practice of naming bishops to lead the church in various Christian centers has existed since apostolic times. Aside from the questions of doctrinal authority and leadership in worship, there are inevitable practical problems of livelihood, shelter, and finance, propagation of the movement, relations with political authority, and so forth. Clerical organization seems to me the pragmatic and indeed inevitable solution to the problem of religious and other spontaneous communities that wish to survive the deaths of their founders or charismatic leaders.

The last was a particular issue for the Christian Church because at its beginning it seemed a politically suspect sect in the Roman Empire, persecuted for more than two centuries by the Roman authorities. In 313 Constantine the Great decreed that the Christian religion would be tolerated in the Empire. He subsequently gave it a favored position and summoned the first ecumenical council, at Nicaea, making the Church supreme in religious matters, although he was not himself baptized until his deathbed. Christianity was very soon adopted in the Eastern Roman Empire as the state religion (which was the origin of caesaropapism—state control or interference in the Eastern Orthodox churches—a problem those churches continue to experience to the present day).

In Western Europe, the Bishop of Rome became well established in a weakening Roman Empire. Despite three subsequent centuries of heresies (mainly Arianism) and other doctrinal quarrels, during which the great “Fathers of the Church” emerged and councils of bishops succeeded in establishing agreement on the essentials of Christian doctrine, by the year 800 an alliance between the Frankish leader Charlemagne and the papacy became feasible and advantageous, and the “Holy Roman Empire” was established—to endure until the nineteenth century and play a crucial part in the development of Western Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire, to the subsequent great advantage of the West, a clear separation was defined between the religious authority of the pope and the political legitimacy of the emperor, thus to “render unto God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

It is difficult for me to see how Western political civilization could have flourished without an international clerical class and leadership parallel to the secular development of the Empire. Islam still struggles with its failure to separate state from religious authority. Surely the clerical bureaucratization of the church had begun by Constantine’s time.

  1. 1

    In the “Syllabus of LXXX. Errors Condemned by His Present Holiness,” included in the 1864 encyclical, is the following “error”: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilisation.” 

  2. 2

    The Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary, edited by Donald Attwater (Macmillan, third edition, 1961). 

  3. 3

    Henri Sonier de Lubac (1896–1991) alerted his superiors in the early 1940s to the paganism of Nazism and was astonished by the episcopate’s silence. He was active in the Resistance press and especially in the combat against anti-Semitism. He was made a member of the French Institut in 1958. 

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