Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A graceful dismissal of clerical feudalism

This moment when the Roman Catholic Church is going through its ritual exercises for picking a new head seemed a good time to pick up Catholic historian Garry Wills' Why Priests? The Real Meaning of the Eucharist. The author could hardly have known how timely its publication would prove!

The little book is a quick read so long as you are not well-versed enough in Hellenic Greek and scholastic Latin to contest Will's scholarship. The body of the book consists of deconstructing the (not really Pauline) Epistle to the Hebrews -- I think it is fair to summarize that Wills shows this late addition to the Christian canon to have introduced anomalous notions about human and animal sacrifice that have no support in Gospel accounts of Jesus' life. When he's done with Hebrews, Wills gets going on the medieval idea of "substitutionary atonement" -- that God the Father is really a rather nasty demon who had to cause his Son to be tortured to death in order to redeem creation (that's us.) Again, there's no real warrant for this idea in the Jesus story, though it fit well with a feudal and monarchical society and intrudes upon Christians' encounter with Jesus still.

Knock these two props over and the whole theology of the Eucharist as the exclusive gateway to God presided over by a mystically empowered clerical class collapses in Wills' thinking. As he recently put it in an op-ed,
There were no priests in Peter’s time, and no popes. Paul never called himself or any of his co-workers priests. He did not offer sacrifice. Those ideas came in later, through weird arguments contained in the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews. The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy. We are watching that era fade. But some refuse to recognize its senescence.
So is Wills still a Christian? Sure. He finds no contradiction between throwing out much of the medieval superstructure of church and continuing to experience the tradition. He affirms the Nicene Creed and other elements of church life he finds enhance his encounter with God, in particular faith that the blessed "body" and "blood" that Christians share in worship recall Jesus' radical practice of eating alongside everyone, even the "impure." And some parts of Church tradition seem to Wills very much worth cleaving to:
“I do not want to get along without the head of Augustine or the heart of Francis of Assisi to help me.”

… “If we need fellowship in belief — and we do — we have each other…"
Not surprisingly, reviewers have asked Wills whether he is still a Roman Catholic. Though he affirms that all people who name themselves Christians and also whoever seeks God through whatever portal have some window on the divine, he's sticking with the particular tribe of his personal history whether its rulers want him or not:
“No believing Christians should be read out of the Mystical Body of Christ, not even papists. It will hardly advance the desirable union of all believers if I begin by excluding those closest to me.”

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