Garry Wills, author of 'Why Priests?', talks about legitimacy of priesthood before his appearance at Savannah Book Festival

loberle@islandpacket.comFebruary 16, 2013 

  • WHEN: 4 p.m. Feb. 23


    WHERE: Trinity United Methodist Church, Telfair Square, Savannah


    COST: Free


    DETAILS: www.savannahbookfestival.org

"I have nothing against priests," says Garry Wills in the opening line of his new book, "Why Priests?"

In fact, some of the greatest influences in the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's life have been those in the priesthood. He studied at a Jesuit seminary for five years, and almost became one himself.

But in his book, which he will be speaking about at the Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 23, Wills poses the question: When did Jesus call for a priesthood? And where does the Bible mandate this?

Wills says it doesn't.

"There's nothing in the creeds or the Gospel about priests," he said in a phone interview recently. "More and more, people are realizing that the core of the faith is not dependent on medieval developments."

Wills argues that in the beginning of Christianity there were no priests, and Christianity today would be better off without them. He points out that nowhere in the New Testament of the Bible is there mention, or instructions, for a priesthood, or head of a church.

When the first men in the Bible chose to follow Jesus, there was no such thing as Christianity, but what Wills refers to as a "Jesus movement." And in that movement -- the beginning of Christianity -- there were no priests.

One priest is mentioned in the book of Hebrews, and that was Jesus.

Wills has published dozens of books and articles analyzing the church and challenging its ecclesiastical authority, doctrine (in particular, the doctrine of papal infallibility) and the church's social practices (such as contraception and celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy). His criticism of the authority, doctrine and hierarchy of the Catholic church began more than half a century ago. In 1961, he coined the Latin phrase, "Master si, magistra no," (literally "Mother yes, teacher no,"), meaning Catholics do not need to follow all the teachings of the church because they are not always the teachings of the Bible.

"These are things I've been exploring for a long time," Wills said. "It's written now because my researches have reached their culmination now."

His book is dedicated to the memory of Henri de Lubac, S.J., a Catholic priest considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. While he questions the formation and existence of the priesthood, Wills does not advocate for its elimination. He wants to tell the Catholic church that as priests shrink in numbers, they should not fear.

"(Christianity) stood without the priesthood at the onset, and it can stand stronger without it now," he writes.

"Priests are members of the body of Christ. They're our brothers in Jesus," Wills said. "But there's no reason we should think they have a monopoly on access to Jesus."

Wills lives in Evanston, Ill., with his wife, Natalie. He is an emeritus professor of History at Northwestern University and a member of the Sheil Catholic Center on campus.

"Jesus said you should not put yourself above your brothers and sisters," Wills said. "And priests that don't do that, they're fine. They should stay a part of the community because they are a part of the community."

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