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Why Priests?

3.41  ·  Rating details ·  284 ratings  ·  73 reviews
In his most provocative book yet, Pulitzer Prizewinner Garry Wills asks the radical question: Why do we need priests?

Bestselling author of Papal Sin and Why I Am a Catholic, Garry Wills spent five years as a young man at a Jesuit seminary and nearly became a priest himself. But after a lifetime of study and reflection, he now poses some challenging questions: Why do we
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published February 12th 2013 by Viking (first published January 1st 2013)
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Harry Allagree
Apr 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
When I first saw this book advertised, I was interested because of the title. It surprised me that Garry Wills was the author, as I had a vague knowledge that he was pretty conservative politically & a Roman Catholic...therefore, not someone with whom I'd probably have a lot in common. I found the book intriguing, not so much for what it said about priests, because he pretty much emphasizes in the first chapter something that should be quite apparent: there was no "Church" or "priests", in ...more
Vince Darcangelo
Mar 19, 2013 rated it really liked it

Why Priests?, the latest book from author and historian Garry Wills, is one slippery fish. The provocative title suggests a foundation-shaking argument, but the book is as much biblical history as contemporary critique. At first glance, the title may sound anti-Catholic, but Wills is a Catholic, and even dedicates the book to a priest.

And his argument has nothing to do with church scandals, church politics or past or current leadership.

So slippery is
Mar 17, 2013 rated it really liked it

Gary Wills asks the question of why Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism, needs priests in the first place? He would keep priests around, but only as church administrators and functionaries, stripping them of their special sacred position, and would move toward a more Protestant model. Some might ask if Wills isnt a disguised Protestant already, but he insists he is a loyal Catholic and doesnt want to dismantle the church, only make some needed changes. Hes certainly written a
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book was over my head. I don't have a sufficient background in theology or bible history to understand most of the arguments he was making. I suspect this comment would frustrate him because he clearly went to great lengths to make this book "user-friendly". And to a large extent, he was successful. I finished the book and learned a lot. But I could not recapitulate his major discussion points. I was there. I am glad I read it. It addressed questions that have perplexed me for years.

He is a
Mar 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Garry Wills' thesis is that there is no New Testament support for a priesthood in Christianity except in the Letter to the Hebrews. Wills provides his own translation of this Letter and analyzes commentaries by 8 to 10 Bible scholars to show why the Letter to the Hebrews is so out of step with everything else in the New Testament. He also concludes that at the "Last Supper" Jesus did not "ordain" his apostles, nor did he institute a Eucharistic meal with transubstantiation.

While Wills lays out
John Pappas
Feb 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An amazing piece of erudition and a very provacative read about the assumed importance of clergy. Far from a diatribe against the Catholic Church (although I can understand how one emotional invested in organizated religion would see it as such) Wills attempts a deconstruction of faith through a removal of those that deliver or manipulate it. Through a subtle and profound reading of the few passages from the New Testament that promote an organized clergy while focusing on passages that extol ...more
Aug 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Provocative take on the Roman Church's exaltation of a cultic priesthood whose only scriptural basis is found in the Letter to the Hebrews. Wills suggests that the Letter was intended as solace to earl Christians who missed the certainty of the Mosaic Law, and offers them the fulfillment of the Jewish priesthood in the human sacrifice of Jesus. That notion was used in turn to "fetishize" the person with the "power" to repeat that sacrifice, namely the priest.

While he doesn't seek the abolition
Apr 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads
More esoteric than I expected - it reminded me of the books I index. Super interesting, but not for the casual reader who isn't prepared to delve into scriptural exegesis.
Feb 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
I saw Garry Wills interviewed by Stephen Colbert Feb.12, sounded interesting so I ordered from the library.
Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wills affirms my conviction that we need no intermediary to commune with God and that those who do worship through intermediaries or sacraments subject themselves to manipulation by men.
Jul 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Want to know how NOT to write a book? Read this one. So painful to get through. It cat-fishes you, knowing when you see a title such as "A failed tradition", you are looking for juicy details related to the history of the priesthood. But instead, you get this drawn out theological explanation of how the priesthood came to be, etc.

The first two chapters managed to captivate me, but after that, it was just quote after quote after quote. I say, if you took all the quotes out of the book, the book
Trevor Smith
Dec 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was a bit of a roller coaster. I began very interested in Wills' indictment of the priesthood. Then got a bit confused when he seemed like he was veering far away from his thesis. I got very annoyed during his diatribe about the book of Hebrews. Then I was blown away when he brought everything together at the end of the book. Finally, I was perplexed by the last line, "There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers." Was that a clever way ...more
Steve Greenleaf
Feb 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion
Garry Wills once again takes on the Catholic Church, of which he is a life-long member (nearly eighty years now). This is an important point to remember, because many traditional Catholicsat least those aware of his many works on the Churchare prepared to drum him out. Wills includes a list of what he believes in, from God to the Communion of Saints, but some of trappings of the faith held by others don't make the cut. Suggesting that priests are unnecessary and not a part of the earliest Church ...more
This book was quite different from what I had expected. To being with, it is DEEPLY steeped in theology to the point of discussing the finer points of Greek participles that make translations of biblical texts difficult. Similarly, though the author starts with an argument as to why priests are unnecessary for the faithful worship of god and only serve to put a distance between the worshippers and god, he then veers into a deep theological argument that hinges on the lack of justification for ...more
Brian Saul
Feb 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Why Priests- a Failed Institution Intriguing title, no? I've read and re-read this book (or from it) several times. I appreciate Garry Wills' methodical research into numerous aspects of my faith and the role priests have, for a long time, played in it. It is an eye-opener, and I can't emphasize that enough. I used the word "played" in an earlier sentence; I might have said "controlled" instead.
I guess it has fascinated me for years how, for example, throngs of people-even whole nations
Mar 04, 2013 rated it liked it
Overall, this book was somewhat of a disappointment to me, although I acknowledge that disappointment was at least in part my own fault. I expected what Wills delivered in the first 40 and last 40 pages of this 259 page book. In the first segments he gives us a cogent summary of how Christians worshiped, sans priests, in the early church and how unnecessarily hierarchical the church became once priests were determined to be essential to the process of salvation, a subject on which he elaborates ...more
Oct 19, 2013 rated it liked it
Having grown up in the Anabaptist, "priesthood of all believers" tradition, I did not really need a book of theology to tell me that the priesthood is unbiblical. However, I enjoyed reading this book anyway. What I appreciated were the sections on the Eucharist/Lord's Supper and the atonement. Many Christians (and not only Catholics) are taught the "Jesus as sacrifice" view of the atonement as if it is the only one, but as Garry Wills aptly demonstrates, this is not the case, and never has been. ...more
Joe Cummings
Apr 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Garry Wills outstanding 2013 book "Why Priests?:A Failed Tradition" could have easily been entitled "Why Transubstantiation?" or perhaps "Why 'Letter to Hebrews?'" In this well-researched book, Wills discussed why was the "Letter to Hebrews" was made a part of the New Testament despite its many flaws. He also discusses how priests eventually became a Christian tradition despite Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples seemingly personal disdain for the priestly class of his time. As with most of ...more
Andrea Mullarkey
Dec 02, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Wills is a Catholic writer who can take fairly complicated material that has been explored at great length and make it both understandable and fresh. I particularly enjoyed What Jesus Meant, as much for Wills's clarity of argument as for the joy he brings to his study of it. In Why Priests? Wills is deconstructing a tradition, not a sacred text, and that is a bit less interesting territory to me. He does go into great length exploring the scriptural basis for the priesthood (in particular the ...more
Sep 20, 2013 rated it liked it
I recently read Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith, and I'd almost guess that Garry Wills shared an office with him as they wrote their two books, so completely do they dovetail. This one points out that "priest" is not a good word in the New Testament, that the word almost always denotes an enemy of Jesus, and that Jesus plays the same role antagonistic to priests that the prophets do in the Hebrew scriptures. Priests always seem to be legalistic promoters of empty ritual, maintaining their ...more
Jun 04, 2013 rated it liked it
The author argues that there is no worthy biblical support for the ideas that Scripture refers to Jesus as a priest or that his church should be run by priests. In fact, he says, Jesus, like other prophets, was anti-priest--priests in effect hijack a religion. There is also no good grounds to believe that, at the Last Supper, Jesus intended to initiate what we now know as Eucharist, and the author debunks the idea of transubstantiation. Eliminating Eucharist and transubstantiation eliminates the ...more
Jan 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
In his book, Why Priests?, Garry Wills is not attacking the faith of the Catholic Church as contained in the Creed; instead, he disputes the need for a hierarchical priesthood based on sacrifice which, he claims, was never part of the early church. The book contains lots of interesting historical information beyond the practices of the early church, such as the purposes of clerical vestments, a whos who of Jewish factions in Jesuss time, and how each of the sacraments developed over the ...more
Apr 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Wills makes a thoughtful, thorough case against any Biblical or theological basis for the centrality of the priesthood to Christian life. He's not arguing against the priesthood wholesale, just the "magic hands" (cheap term) role. This book is written about the Roman Catholic priesthood, but is also be very relevant to Anglicans and Orthodox Christians. I appreciated his historical, theological, and Biblical take on priesthood - reminding us that most of the Old Testament is anti-priest, so is ...more
Justin Morgan
Feb 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Excellent and important examination of the origin and legitimization of the priesthood in early (and priestless) Christianity. The book is excellently researched and thought provoking but is more of an in depth examination of scriptures rather than a complete historical/social profile. If you've read Wills' earlier books, What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant, you'll see how this latest is really a sequel to those two. It's full of amazing information and I've found myself referring back to it ...more
Fr. River
Garry Willis in "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition" presents the argument that the priesthood is a tradition developed by the Church and has failed, and that it is not necessary. He is right in the failure of priests in the power structure of the church. But I also believe he is wrong that the priesthood is not necessary. I am a priest, I believe one aspect of being a priest is a "keeper of the mysteries," one who passes down the tradition as it evolves. The priesthood is shared by everyone, but I ...more
Ishmael Seaward
Jun 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
If you are willing to examine your Christian beliefs, this book is for you, especially if you are Catholic. If you are interested in how Christianity changed over the last 2000 years, this book is also for you. It focuses on a seemingly narrow topic: Why do we have priests?
In the very early years of Christianity, there were no priests. Jesus definitely did not like them. And Christian priests did not come into play until about 150 CE or later.

The rationale for them seems to be based on a single
One wonders indeed why bother being Catholic at all after having written a book basically chopping into pieces some of the basic assumptions most Catholics have about their own theology; somehow the two last pages explaining why seem a bit "light" to me, although I guess the underlying reason is that it's of no importance whatsoever what "persuasion" you follow, because any institutional church will remain just that -- an organization pursuing its own organisational goals... Otherwise the book ...more
Judy Owens
Jul 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Last Sunday I heard Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, teach that the various Christian denominations are merely branches of the Jesus Movement - which he describes as the simple act of following Jesus' message of love. The Episcopal Church, he said, is just a branch of the Jesus Movement. Focusing on the Jesus of the Gospels is an important part of this great book. Wills points out that priests and the functions priests have carved out in the Catholic Church were never ...more
Apr 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, religion
Garry Wills is a clear and agile theologian. He is also a practicing Catholic, which makes his fervent argument against the existence of the priesthood particularly interesting. I find myself convinced by his points (although I confess I got rather lost in his intense discussions on the text of the book of Hebrews), but his arguments (essentially, there is no basis for a priesthood in New Testament scripture and Jesus would probably strongly object to the form that the modern Catholic priesthood ...more
Jun 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a deeply theological book relating to the central practice of Catholicism, namely the priesthood and Eucharist. The author traced all the theological debates starting from the Scriptures to the modern day Catholic scholars.

This book requires far deeper readiness in biblical and theological knowledge than I possess at this moment. It is beyond my rudimentary understanding of Roman Catholicism but it may come in the future if I find the questions of Why Priest, What does Eucharist mean,
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Garry Wills is an author and historian, and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. In 1993, he won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which describes the background and effect of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

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