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Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church’s top priest, took the world by surprise with his decision to resign. Pulitzer Prize-winning author — and lifelong Catholic — Gary Wills asks why we need priests and suggests Christianity would have been better off without the priesthood.
- Garry Wills Professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg," "Saint Augustine" and "Why I Am a Catholic."
- Monsignor Charles Pope Pastor, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C.
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Why Priests?” Copyright © Garry Wills, 2013.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pope Benedict took the world by surprise with his recent decision to step down, the first time since 1415 when Pope Gregory VII resigned. In the new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Garry Wills, asks, why we need priests at all. He suggests Christianity would've been better off without the priesthood.
MS. DIANE REHMHis book is titled, "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition." And Garry Wills joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you will want to chime in. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you Gary, it's good to see you again.
MR. GARRY WILLSGood morning.
REHMThank you. I wonder about your thoughts on the resignation of Pope Benedict and what it could mean for the future of the Roman Catholic Church?
WILLSWell, I don't think it means much. After all, he is at the top of a structure which has built into itself, resistance to change. They have refused to change the teachings on contraception and other things. They, in fact, doubled down. And the conclave that will choose the pope, almost all are chosen by these same men who have enforced that discipline all the way to priests through their bishops who are also chosen for loyalty to this structure.
WILLSSo, you know, the papacy became a monarchy in the Middle Ages when that was expected, all authority was pretty much male and monarchial. It tried to continue to be through the 19th century but Italy took away that. And Pius IX doubled down and said, well I may not be of temporal monarch anymore but I'm a moral monarch, I'm infallible.
WILLSHe got that pushed through the council and the attitude since has been, even when the pope is not infallible he's talking in eternal truths. And those don't change, the church doesn't change, the truth doesn't change, doctrine doesn't change. And Cardinal Ratzinger said that expressly when he, before he became pope.
WILLSSo why should we expect anybody they choose to change that or if by chance they should choose somebody who wanted to change it, could he? When you have to kick down the whole structure because they've obviously recruited priests on these grounds, the ones who are in place.
WILLSThey've recruited bishops on these, appointed bishops on these grounds. They've elevated cardinals on these grounds and a man who gets to the top of that structure will hardly kick it down. So I think we can expect more of the same, just as a matter of practical expectation.
REHMWhat happens now? The pope said he'll step down as of February 28th, how quickly do you expect the emergence of a new pope?
WILLSWell, they say by Easter. I don't know if that's true, depends of course.
WILLSThose votes can go on a short time or a long time. They've not been going on a really long time recently. One of the last ones was multiple votes was for John XXIII. It just barely edged his closest. He said at the time, "We were like ceci beans popping in the skillet. Me up one minute, he up the next minute." But normally they're pretty fast now.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, what about the emergence, possible emergence of someone like John XXIII who was expected to be simply a transitional pope but actually uttered in Vatican II.
WILLSThat's right. He was first a compromise and then he would, he was not expected to live long for one thing, he was quite old when he was appointed. And they didn't think he was a trouble maker but of course he was. But the thing is, he called the council and the council made the changes. And he accepted, took out of the council certain matters, celibacy, the priests, contraception, etc.
WILLSSo even he was not very forward in some ways. But what he did was release a pent up body of theological debate that had been silenced under Pius XII after World War II. So a whole generation and more of new theologians came into Rome and people who had been silenced, demoted, criticized like John Courtney Murray or Henri de Lubac or Yves Congar, all got voices at that council.
WILLSAnd the council was able to make, against great resistance, immense changes especially, two of the hardest fought things were that the state should have a recognized Catholic government. That was Pius IX's position and John Courtney Murray had been silenced for saying no, you can have the American situation.
WILLSWell, they fought that hard and they did change. The other was the Jewish question and they fought that very hard. Luckily, although there's a terrible history of persecution and denigration and discrimination and prejudice against Jews, there had never been a formal papal statement on the matter, which made it a lot more possible for them to change. It's very difficult to change once you have a formal papal statement in place. Very luckily for that one they didn't have one and that's what saved the day.
REHMGarry Wills, his new book is titled, "Why Priests?" with a large question mark on the title and he subtitles the book, "A Failed Tradition." You can join us, 800-433-8850. You have been, and I gather, remain a lifelong Catholic and one of the religions' most vocal critics. I wonder why you have never exited the Roman Catholic Church.
WILLSYes. Well, the church is the people of God, not only the Catholic Church, the whole of Christian church. Why would I leave the people of God to join the people of God? I don't consider myself or other Catholics divided. You know, one of the most important texts is from the gospel of Luke when the first time the disciples go off on their own.
WILLSThey come back and Jesus says, how did it go? And they say, very well but we came across a person who is casting out devils in your name but he wasn't one of us. So we made him stop. And Jesus said, why did you do that? He was doing it in my name. If he's doing it in my name he's not against me. Well, that's the attitude that Christians should have toward each other.
WILLSAll of us doing things in the name of Christ are a part of the body of Christ and it's the tragedy and the humiliation of Christianity that we have centuries of Christians killing Christians. Of popes killing Albigensians, of Mary I killing, burning Protestants and of Elizabeth I torturing and maiming, chopping up Jesuits.
WILLSOf people in Calvinist, New England hanging Quakers, of American Protestants burning Catholic convents, how can that happen when Jesus says if they're doing it in my name they're part of us. So why would I leave the body of Christ and pretend that it's different, join something different and say there is a difference when there isn't.
REHMWell, then what about priests themselves? Why would you question that they should continue to be?
WILLSWell, priests are a divisive part of the Catholic Church because they say only they can change the bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus. No one else can, in another, you know, Anglicans can't because they don't the apostolic succession. Lutheran priest can't and of course most Protestants don't even have a communion of our sort.
WILLSWell, for the last three decades I've been mainly studying, commenting on, translating and writing about St. Augustine. And St. Augustine denied that the body, that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ. Denied it repeatedly in his sermons, he said, "We do not eat Jesus, digest Jesus. That's impossible."
WILLSHe said, "We are the body of Christ, we are his body." And that's what we celebrate when we feed that body with the symbolic nourishment. And, you know, when Jesus sat at the Last Supper, "Take this bread and eat it as my body," he was in his body when he said that, that was his real body.
WILLSThe bread was obviously a symbolic communion union. He didn't say, start eating my hand or start eating my arm. That's cannibalism and that's what Augustine and a whole series of other neglected or condemned people in a tradition have said about the Eucharist all along.
REHMBut after all there is this notion of transubstantiation where the bread and wine are...
WILLSYes, that's a very late notion and a very silly one. Augustine and other scholastics...
REHMLet me stop you right there and we'll come back to transubstantiation after a short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Gary Wills is with me. He is, of course, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and historian. He's written about American history, politics and religion. His latest book is titled "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition." And just before the break we were talking about the notion of transubstantiation. You pick it up, Gary.
WILLSYes. Well, in the 9th through the 11th centuries, there was great debate on trying to explain, if this really was the body of Jesus how can you explain he's here, he's in Heaven, he's in all of these. And the scholastic theologians, and especially Thomas Aquinas, came up with the idea, well, Aristotle taught that substance and accidents are different.
WILLSThe substance dog can have different accidents, white dog, black, dog, small dog, big dog, but it remains a dog, substance dog. And all those other things are accidental. And so Thomas said, oh well then we'll have the substance of Jesus but the accidents of bread. But the thing is Aristotle said you could distinguish them, but you could never separate them. You can't have a dog who's not white or black or some color. And you can't have a color just existing without some substance to exist -- to be accidental to.
WILLSSo it was an explanation without an explanation. It was a kind of shell game. And the extraordinary thing is that the will to believe was such that it became the official doctrine of the papacy. But Catholics themselves, most don't even know that explanation. They don't know the difference between substance and accident. And more and more they don't believe in fundamentalist literalism with regard to the Eucharist.
WILLSYou know, when I was growing up and I was an altar boy, if you dropped a host or bit of a host or that kind of thing that was God on the floor. Now we eat crumbly bread and it crumbles all around and nobody says, oh we got to go pick up all those breads and put them...
REHMWell, I must say, when I receive holy communion in the Episcopal Church I'm given a wafer and the priest says, the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven or the blood of Christ. And I've forgotten what the second part of that is. But there is no claim that I am eating Christ's flesh.
WILLSNo. It's a symbol. It's in figora (sp?) , as people said in the Middle Ages before Thomas Aquinas. So the idea that we are the body of Christ when Augustine said, you don't -- that's not what you're eating. You're not eating Jesus. He said, well, where is the body of Christ? He said, you're it. St. Paul says you are the body of Christ. And in fact, when he says, you've disgraced the body of Christ, when he's talking to the Corinthians, he doesn't mean they've insulted the bread and the wine. Actually, they all brought their own food down.
WILLSIt wasn't -- but he said you've had the visions. You've torn apart the body of Christ, which is you. So there's a whole tradition in the middle ages, which was kind of quashed by the church, which Henri de Lubac, the French theologian resurrected, which followed the Augustinian quite through. (unintelligible), all of those people didn't think that it was the literal body and blood of Jesus. They were part of an Augustinian tradition.
WILLSAnd I went to the leading authority on St. Augustine and I said, why is the fact that Augustine didn't believe in the literal body and blood made so little of? And he said, that's always puzzled me. He said, I had some Catholics -- he's an Irish Protestant -- I had some Catholics say, oh it's disciplina arcani, that is the secrecy code of the early church. Well, there was one. You, for instance, couldn't write down the creed.
WILLSWhen you prepared for baptism you had to memorize it and -- but that was the main secret. But there's never any question of keeping secret what the bread you eat is the body. And he said, that's a false explanation. He said, it's just wishful thinking. They wish Augustine hadn't said that.
REHMAll right. And just to get over my mind freeze, the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven, the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. You call the priesthood a failed tradition. Why?
WILLSBecause as I say, it's been a bone of contention and it downgrades the other members of the body of Christ. You know, the priest is a member -- whatever leader we have is a member of the body of Christ. But the idea -- you know, Jesus said, don't be called Rabbi. Don't be called father. You have one Father in Heaven, you have one teacher in Heaven. He said, you should not put yourself above each other over and over. But we've done that.
WILLSBut, you know, the interesting thing is that when I went back and realized that it was the belief in the body and blood and the power over that that gave the priests the power, I went back and looked more and more at where the priesthood came from because...
REHMAnd how early it developed.
WILLSWell, not -- yeah, but not for a long time. After all, Paul wasn't a priest. He mentioned all kinds of ministries. Peter was not a priest. He certainly was not a bishop. There were no bishops in the first century. Jesus was not a priest. He was a layman. He couldn't be a priest. He was not a Levite descended from Aaron. He was of the tribe of Judah. So there were no priests in the gospel days.
WILLSAnd the question is, when did it come in? Well, the early Christians did have priests but they were Jewish priests. Remember the early Christians still went to temple, still went to synagogue. When Paul comes back from travels, James the head of the church in Jerusalem says you've got to go to temple and be purified, and Paul does. So there was not that break yet. There were fights about -- but it was a family quarrel of Jews, some accepting Jesus as the Messiah, some not. But all still being Jews. There was no such thing as Christian. The word didn't exist in their time. But of course the Jewish priesthood ended in 70 when the temple was destroyed.
WILLSWell, an odd letter called the Epistle to Hebrews -- no one knows who wrote it, appears toward the end of the 1st century, is addressed to people who miss the priesthood. They are people who had obviously been temple worshipers and Christians. And then in the '80s, they began to miss that and they said, well, why can't we have sacrifice and priests the way we always have?
WILLSAnd so this letter says, don't worry. You have a better sacrifice than the temple sacrifice. The temple is gone, but Jesus offers not animal sacrifice, but human sacrifice, as if that were more enlightened. He offers himself to God as a sacrifice to placate your sins as, you know, very much following the Jewish idea that this is an offering for sin.
WILLSAnd he says, well but Jesus couldn't be a priest because he was not a Levite. He says, well remember there's that guy in Genesis named Melchizedec. It says, Melchizedec was a priest and a king and Abraham on his way back from conquest offered him tithes. And so therefore Aaron offered him tithes because he was a descendent. So he was in the loins down the line. And because he offered tithes, that means that Jesus could be a priest according to the order of Melchizedec.
WILLSBut the letter says it's a one-time offering and it says -- see the Jews had to sacrifice over and over and over and over because they didn't really work. This is only a one-time sacrifice and it really works. It'll never be repeated. So there's no room there for other priests than Jesus. It's after the letter to Hebrews that other priests -- the idea of other priests -- and connecting that with the celebration of the Last Supper. That was a connection that took place in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
WILLSBut all of that is not in the gospel and very far from Jesus. And of course, as I say, it's been a sign of division. And it's also been an impoverishment. You know, our attitude in the past has been, well if you got to church and the priest can't come and consecrate, there's no point being there. What are you going to do, pray? That's all you do. That's what -- when we're not better than Protestants. That's all they can do. Well, that's all Peter's and Paul's community could do. They didn't have any consecration. They didn't have any priests. They didn't have any of those things.
WILLSSo it's a very divisive thing and it's imperialistic. The idea that the priest is the sole conduit of grace means that he now starts tending us from birth to death, from baptism, confirmation, marriage, death, penitence. Only the priest can forgive sins. That's again...
REHMBut are you truly suggesting that the church would be better off without the priesthood...
REHM...at this point?
WILLSYeah, it can't happen overnight. And I say -- I don't want to get rid of priests. I -- they're brothers in Christ. I've learned and loved a lot of them. I want them to stay around. I still want them to preach if they've studied the scripture. I would want them to do all those things. I just don't want them to say, if I'm not around nothings happens to this community. And also I would not like to see -- one of the bad things about the priesthood is that you get whatever the bishop assigns you. We don't choose our own priests, as they did in the early days. In fact, they chose their own bishops. And once they chose a bishop he couldn't leave them. He was wed to them for life.
WILLSBut, you know, now we get whatever priest comes with the result that, for instance, in the church that I've been in for 33 years, it's a campus church, we've had five priests that come and go. And the real bond of unity there has been in two women, one after the other, who did catechetics, who prepared people for baptism, who prepared people for marriage, prepared people for first communion. The second one who's a theologian herself has preached to us. I think the bishop doesn't like that.
WILLSBut anyway that's the bond of that church. When Mary Kincaid, the first one, resigned students who had been there in their student life from around the world came back to say goodbye to her. That was not...
REHMWhy did she resign?
WILLSBecause she was old. She's still there. I see her at church every Sunday.
REHMShe wasn't forced out.
WILLSOh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Now we have another one who's had the same role, more important than the priest. And by the way, deacons are now doing that same thing. And there are as many deacons as priests.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Do you think had the church opened itself to the ordination of women, to the ordination of openly gay men and women...
WILLS...and married priests...
REHM...and married priests...
REHM...do you believe that the church would be in a stronger position than it is today?
WILLSNot much because they would still have to be ordained by the power structure.
REHMAnd you want...
WILLSThey would still be...
REHM...you're arguing really not only against priests themselves, but even the papacy.
WILLSSure. Well, he's a priest, isn't he?
REHMOf course. He is indeed a priest. But, I mean, you would -- somehow if you had a wand to wave you would disassemble all of the Roman hierarchy.
WILLSBoy, would I. I would love to -- I wouldn't want to disassemble. It's a historic thing. But it's such -- the Vatican is such an insult to Jesus, to the gospel. You go there -- my wife wouldn’t go there after a couple of times when we went. It's a great fortress with a great palace, with great treasures, an idolatress, you are Peter everywhere and the family arms of various popes everywhere. It's a bastion of earthly power that flies in the face of everything Jesus said.
REHMSo therefore you would think that the body of Christ living alive in those of us who count ourselves among the faithful would be a stronger congregation without priests.
WILLSYes. Not -- without ordained priests who consecrate. The priests who are there are -- as I say, they're part of the community, especially if they stay around and serve the community in other ways. Good. I'm -- as I say, they're part of the body of Christ.
REHMI want to, at this point, welcome into the conversation Monsignor Charles Pope. He's pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church here in the archdiocese of Washington. Thank you so much, Monsignor, for making time for us on Ash Wednesday.
MONSIGNOR CHARLES POPEYeah, good to be here. Thank you.
REHMTell me your thoughts on what you've heard Gary Wills say.
POPEWell, maybe to begin even just with the title of the book, you know, to refer to the priesthood as a failed tradition is rather an odd thing to me. I mean, the Catholic Church has perjured for 2000 years. Empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen. You know, philosophies have come and gone. And through all of that, you know, the church hierarchically, you know, as he's describing it and in other ways has perjured all through this.
POPEAnd to call it a failed tradition, you know, with that kind of a background I think is a little bit, you know, bold. He may not like the tradition but I wouldn't call it a failed tradition in any sense. You know, maybe to compare it too, even to the Protestant experience, which he's really kind of describing, you know. In effect he's advocating the Protestant position on ministry and priesthood and so on.
POPEBut, you know, the Protestant experience has been less than stellar in the sense that there's been endless, you know, breaks and divisions in many different denominations all kind of -- with very significant doctrinal differences that emerge if there isn't some sort of central anchoring principle that we refer to as the papacy and the doctrine and the dogma of the faith. So anyway, all that -- I think that would be my initial reaction.
REHMAll right. And Monsignor Pope, we're going to take just a short break here. And when we come back I'd like you, if you can, to stay on the line with us...
REHM...so that we can develop a dialogue between you and Gary Wills about the priesthood, the body of Christ and so much that has become part of what we all believe and how we act. Stay with us.
REHMAnd here with me in the studio is Garry Wills. His new book is titled "Why Priests?" His subtitle "A Failed Tradition." And joining us now by phone Monsignor Charles Pope. He's pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Washington, who was talking before the break about what he sees as Garry Wills -- or his understanding of Garry Wills thesis. Monsignor Pope, I'd be interested in your experience as a priest and your ideas on the role of the priest in the Catholic church today.
POPEYeah, well, I want to say that I think Mr. Wills has presented a portrait of the priesthood that's perhaps a bit cynical and more focused I think on power. My experience as a priest is a good bit different than that. I think that he was saying himself, you know, even within the church there are moments of great change, and certainly the Second Vatican Council ushered in a lot of those. And I want to say that I answer to a lot of laypeople. I certainly answer to my finance counsel, my peers counsel. I have a group of just wonderful primarily women leaders in my staff. And I am no fool. I listen very carefully to them and they have a lot of wisdom to share.
POPEI think most of my brother priests have that experience. And our ministry today is very collaborative. We have to be. You know, there just aren't as many of us. And we certainly have become very able I think to navigate a good balance of good, strong lay leadership with also the role of the clergy are to provide of teaching and governing and sanctifying.
REHMAll right. I want to go to you now, Garry Wills, and talk about the scandal that has enveloped the Roman Catholic priesthood, the extent to which it has affected the minds, the hearts, the souls of those who call themselves Catholics as they see these children who have been sexually abused.
WILLSWell, sexual abuse is not limited to priests obviously.
WILLSIt happens in sports. It happens in scouting. It happens...
WILLS...alas it happens when fathers are incestuously abusive of their children. That's terrible. That's horrible. It's a tragedy. But then tragedy on top of tragedy was the cover-up. And that's because the priest who is a counselor, an organizer collaborating, all the things that the Monsignor just talked about, that's fine. But he didn't mention the one thing that I object to, the pretense that they can change the body and blood -- the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.
WILLSWhen you are ordained, your hands are tied. You're set apart. You're separate. You're holy. It was unthinkable to people, many people, that the hands that were consecrated to hold the body and blood of Jesus would hold the penis of a boy or the clitoris of a girl. That's the idea -- to keep the idea that the priests are sacred, the church at every level covered up these scandals.
REHMGoing back to?
WILLSThe 1970s, 1980s.
REHMAnd Cardinal Ratzinger?
WILLSOh, yeah. Well, that's the 1990s. Yes. But they tried to buy them off. They tried to face them down. They called the victims liars. They told their parents, you're going to destroy the church if you continue to press this. Every kind of intimidation and silence and cover-up was used, and was clearly approved all the way up to the top. There's no way it could've happened otherwise. And it's all to protect this idea that the priest is different from us.
WILLSYou know, the Monsignor quite rightly said, he does lots of nice things. And all those things he talked about a layperson can do too. But it's the idea that this priest is different from everyone else. You know, and by the way, the Monsignor's very nice and polite, but you notice how quickly he slipped into, well, Protestants are bad too. You know, in other words, we've lasted a long time, so we're really better than -- the idea of my religion is better than your religion is one that is very hard for Catholics to shake.
REHMMonsignor Pope, do you want to respond?
POPEYeah, well, as I say, I think that, you know, we do a make a truth claim of course in the church, and that is to say that, you know, obviously I'm a Catholic because I believe that the Catholic church teaches us correct and right. And that means that others are either less correct or are missing some key elements. Now, I'm just going to just say that's true. I don't think that I'm a better than you are thing. It's just an acceptance that I'm a Catholic for reasons that I believe the doctrine is complete and is intelligible to me.
POPENow, the other thing, you raise the issue about, well, why can only priests consecrate in it. Well, again, I have a lot of objections of course to your biblical analysis. I would have -- I don't have time to go through all of them. But, I mean, clearly, you know, Paul speaks of himself as a priest in Acts 15.
POPEIn Acts 15 and verse 14, he certainly does. And then he says he has a priestly ministry.
WILLSDoes Luke call him a (word?) ?
POPEI want to just say he has a priestly -- he says he has a priestly ministry. Now, beyond that, there's...
WILLSNo, no, that's not true.
POPE...there are clearly priests -- bishops, priests and deacons all mentioned all throughout Acts. Paul talked about Timothy and Titus, you know, appointing (unintelligible)
WILLSNo. There are presbyteroi, elders. There are no priests.
POPEBut, again, I'm coming from the Catholic position that we believe that...
WILLSWell, you've got to come from the Greek text.
POPEWell, I am. And I believe that our understanding of those texts are that the presbyteroi and the episcopoi and all those are the origins of our priestly office, including all of the apostles.
POPECould I please finish? I mean, we believe the origin of the priesthood as Catholics takes place in the call of the 12 apostles. He sent many disciples, and from them he chose 12 whom he names apostles. And 2 of these 12 he entrusted certain things that he gave only to the 12 to do. Including, as you have objected to, the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Also the absolution of the forgiveness of sins, of baptizing and going forth to teach and preach in his name.
POPENow, you may disagree with that, but that is the Catholic understanding of holy orders, that it comes from that, and we see that extended to other men throughout the acts of the apostles, through the laying on of hands, Paul and Barnabus have hands laid on them. Likewise they would go to every town and village and appoint priests and, you know, presbyteroi, as you want to emphasize. Yes, presbyteroi, which is the priestly office. And it is -- again, it's just a very consistent theme all throughout. And Paul does say in Acts 15 he has a priestly ministry.
REHMAll right. I want to give Garry Wills an opportunity to comment.
WILLSPriestly ministry is mentioned only in the letter of Peter, and that's of all the people, and in revelation. There is no priestly ministry in Luke. That's the Catholic distortion. It's not a real translation. And when the 12 were appointed, they were not given any particular sacramental role. He said, you would sit on the thrones of the 12 tribes. They were a symbol of the end time. There will be 12 of you as there are 12 tribes. And then the in gathering of the tribes, you will be the 12 who preside over the 12 tribes.
WILLSThere's nothing there about the Eucharist. There's nothing there about penance. When it is said, whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, it's said first to Peter, who is not a priest or a bishop, but also then said to the whole community in a different passage, in a different gospel. And that's the way the practice was through the fourth century. There was no private penitence.
POPEI would disagree with that. He was in the upper room when he appeared to the 12, or in this case (unintelligible)
REHMAll right. Monsignor Pope, if I might ask you about something that Garry Wills has raised, and that's the insularity of the priesthood. Is that not part of the issue that created the sex scandal?
POPEYeah, well, insularity, I guess, I can see that as kind of a human problem that can come into the priesthood like in any other walk of life. I mean, before I was priest I worked in the core of engineers and there was sometimes insularity that sets up there. But I do think that most of -- I certainly don't see myself as insular. I'm getting feedback from the laypeople all the time, so most of my brother priests. I could see an individual priest or someone becoming insular. But I see that more as a human problem rather than this particular only to the priesthood.
REHMHow well do you believe the Vatican has handled the issue of the sex scandal?
POPEWell, I'm less aware of, you know, all the worldwide dimensions of it at the Vatican level. But I think the American bishops, I think all of them are willing to admit that there was certainly some -- there was certainly a lot of problems with the way it was handled. I think we simply need to repent of that. I would also say though this is uneven. I think certain bishops, I believe Cardinal Hickey here in Washington was way ahead of the game. And he was very, very firm from, you know, way back. But other bishops were less so and I think that at some level, yeah, it was a huge problem.
REHMAll right. Garry Wills, how well do you believe the church has addressed the sex scandal?
WILLSAbominably. Abominably. There's a wonderful special that's now out on HBO that traces how all of those reports went to Cardinal Ratzinger when he was the head of the Doctrine -- Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. They had been going to all kinds of places and they were all concentrated there. And he is part of the cover-up. When the Maciel scandal came out of Mexico, he, they say at the urging of Paul II -- John Paul II, did nothing about that. So it's not a local problem. It's a universal church problem.
REHMOn another issue, how do you think that the church would be changed or affected, Garry Wills, if not to abolish the priesthood, but to welcome women into the priesthood?
WILLSWell, we're already doing that, as I say. We have women ministers at our church. They're not called priests. They're not even called ministers.
REHMBut suppose they were.
WILLSYeah, you know, the church is changing. It's much more self governing now because the ethos of the democratic age doesn't really accept monarchy very well. And so you'll see that in the fact that the church authorities continue to teach things that the laity just totally blissfully ignores, you know, without any problem. And that's what really infuriates some people.
WILLSOn contraception, for instance, the best survey was done in the 1990s with huge amount of money of all Catholics under 30. And they found interesting things like almost half said that papacy is not necessary to Catholicism. These are young Catholics. But when it came to contraception, so few would say they agreed with the papal teaching on that, that they fell within the margin of error. They were statistically nonexistent.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Garry Wills, if you would lay out for us briefly your vision of a church without priests.
WILLSWell, it would be one in which everybody's talents, those who want to study scripture can do that, those who want to preach can do that, those who want to go into healing ministries can do that as part of the church. Remember, Paul who never mentions the priesthood, mentions many ministries. He said, the spirit is giving you many gifts. And we should encourage that again. And that would be much truer to the teaching of Jesus.
REHMAnd would the buildings continue to stand?
WILLSThere you have the problem of -- you know, when Protestant groups divided in the 19th century in America, that was always a fight. Who gets the church?
WILLSI would think. Sure. There would have to be a long kind of divestiture of the properties. Up until now it's been all controlled from the top and controlled secretly. Jason Berry has a very good book on that, the way the church hides its funds, hides its -- and of course has been involved in scandals with banking in Italy.
WILLSSo in America the Voice of the Faithful was formed to say, we give the money. Why don't we get any say in how it's disposed of? That's come to the floor because, of course, a part of the cover-up was secret payments on the abuse cases. Originally they were secret. Now, in order for them to declare bankruptcy, they've had to make them on the record. But demanding accountability for the funds, including the buildings, is a step that I think is actually taking place.
REHMSo you would see the church going back to its origins with small groups meeting in the home.
WILLSWell, no, we're never going to do that. You know, the original communities that Paul addressed were in homes, entirely in homes. When it got too big for that, they went to Roman halls, which are called basilicas. And, of course, when they did that, they had to do things like not everybody bring your own food, as they had at the home, or have it served by the host or hostess, they had to bring symbolic food. So that was the beginning of a change to a non-charismatic -- there can never be a totally charismatic organization, because if you're waiting for the spirit to do everything, nobody orders the food for next year.
WILLSSo the first authority figures that are chosen, they're not ordained, they're chosen, are the diakonoi, the deacons like we call them. In Acts they were to supply the food. Somebody has to go get the food. And the deacons do that, diakonoi. They're the first ones who are put in charge of anything.
REHMAnd do you believe that the Roman Catholic tradition could continue in that way?
WILLSOh, absolutely. You know, we have survived many things. You know, Monsignor said we've had a long, long history. Well, it's been a long, long history of pretty grisly things; wars and slaughters and tortures and crusades. And we've survived all of that, so we can survive having more laypeople more active.
REHMGarry Wills, his new book is titled "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition." And I certainly want to thank Monsignor Charles Pope for joining us. He's pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church here in Washington. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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