Garry Wills getting it wrong in Hell’s Bible

Hell’s Bible published something by the execrable Garry Wills, who hates the Church and the Pope.

His opinions are what you would expect from an angry Irish ex-Catholic.  Blah blah blah.  But, in case you bother to read him, don’t let him have a pass on bad history.  For example, he wrote:

In 1859, John Henry Newman published an article that led to his denunciation in Rome as “the most dangerous man in England.” It was called “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and it showed that in history the laity had been more true to the Gospel than the hierarchy. That was an unacceptable position to Rome. It still is.

No, Garry.  Newman’s point was restricted to the Arian heresy. You would have us think this lay faithful v. bishops thing was across the board.  Moreover, Newman was wrong.

Wills gots Newman wrong, and Newman got 4th and 5th century Church history wrong.

So, Wills is either ignorant or he is fibbing.  Which is it?  This might be a both/and rather than either/or choice.  After his book about Pius XII I think we can apply the Mary McCarthy dictum to him: Every word he writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.

Read the NYT piece, if you have a few minutes to waste.  If this is the level of thought that pervades his new hate-on-Catholics book, we have nothing to worry about.

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  1. dmwallace says:

    Just curious: What did Newman get wrong about the Arian crisis?

  2. PA mom says:

    This sounds like more understanding of the Church as “politics”, us vs them, for one to be more holy makes the other less holy.
    Laity being holy helps the clergy be holy and vice versa.

    Please help me.
    I will be proposing to a Vocations committee that the annual Mass we “get” be an EF Mass (cantata).
    I have no idea when the last one was at our parish. My expectation is that the parish priests do not know how to celebrate the EF, but there is a parish local which does, so I assume I am asking for the assistance of an outside priest. Our priests can serve as the deacons? Our seminarians are in theology, but NOT deacons yet, so they are altar servers? The older altar boys of the parish can also participate, how many total altar servers?
    Thank you for this info. I will emphasize the Pope’s request for more frequent usage of this, the value this will provide to the seminarians and altar boys, and the sense that our abundant blessing that we have received in our seminarians be returned with an abundant effort of thanksgiving.
    Hopefully those are the main points, right?

  3. William Tighe says:

    “Just curious: What did Newman get wrong about the Arian crisis?”

    He claimed that most, if not all, of the bishops accepted Arian, or semi-Arian, creeds during the last decade of the Emperor Constantius’s principate (Constantius died in 361), while the generality of the laity remained faithful to Nicaea. This is an exaggeration on both counts: even if most of the bishops compromised (even Pope Liberius, under corecion, accepted a creed that was at best ambiguous, omitting the word homoousios, and at worst more easily susceotible of an Arian reading than an orthodox one), some, mostly in the West, but also a few in the East, remained faithful; and in some areas (notably, in Constantinople itself) the great bulk of the laity accepted a succession of Arian bishops from 339 to 379. Even when Theodosius I proclaimed Nicene Christianity as “official orthodoxy” in 379, and installed St. Gregory of Nazianzus as archbishop, the Nicenes were a distinct minority there, and well into the Fifth Century there were Arian “counter bishops” in constantinople, who had a substantial, if minority, following.

  4. Patrick-K says:

    I skimmed Newman’s article and it is, to put it mildly, more balanced and nuanced than Wills … for example he writes:

    “I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens.”

    “Solely in the Ecclesia docens” — hear that, Gary?

  5. fvhale says:

    Remember that Wills was born in 1934, and he will be 79 if he lives through May of this year. He is of the old, dissenting generation that is passing away. Getting in a few digs while he still can, and, of course, the media (remember the recent discussion of the media here?) gives him a free pass as one of their favored sons.

    So he starts with an evil distortion of the dogma of infallibility from Vatican I (Pope Pius IX, 1870), cleverly phrased as “From that point on, even when he was not making technically infallible statements, the pope was thought to be dealing in eternal truths.” Who thinks in such a foolish way? Only people who want to distort and dissent from the proper understanding of the dogma.

    Then he moves on to the classic starting point of modern dissent: Humanae Vitae of 1968, no doubt the key event in Wills life (like so many of that generation). It is all about sex; unlimited, irresponsible, no-fault sex. The great horror that he presents is: “…those who followed ‘church teaching’ were obliged to have many children unless they abstained from sex.” What a joke. Nobody is “obliged to have many children,” and he writes as if abstinence is the worst thing in the world (because many of this generation think that sexual activity is what life is all about). The spiritual virtue of continence (see St. Augustine) is lost on this generation, as well as ideas of purity of heart and thought.

    From there he goes on to a clear contradiction of the Second Vatican Council with the dream of his team: “Wistful Catholics hope that on this and other matters of disagreement between the church as People of God and the ruling powers in the church.” For example, Lumen Gentium n. 8: “…the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.” There is no “disagreement between the church as People of God and the ruling powers in the church.” Rather, there are people who dissent, and organize their dissent into social bodies hostile to the Church.

    And what are these “matters of disagreement” for Wills? Sex. Specifically “the teaching on contraception…the contraception nonsense.” He does touch on “shortage of priests” (although all the seminaries I know are bursting at the seams with faithful young men), but that is still a cover for sexual issues: “…their damaged reputation and morale [sex abuse scandal], can be remedied by adding married priests, or women priests, or gay priests.”

    In regard to Newman, the article cited by Wills even states in the introduction: “Newman may have miscontrued the situation in which the pope had asked for input about the 1856 definition on the Immaculate Conception.” Did Wills read the article he cited? If he did, he would realize that most of the episcopal unhappiness with the periodical The Rambler and Newman’s efforts with it were Irish and English bishops, i.e., the local bishops, not the Pope. The article cited by Wills continues in the introduction: “The bishops were not happy, and Newman was asked to resign [as editor], which he did. But in his last edition he published, unsigned, the piece On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (July 1859). Everyone knew it was by Newman and the attacks on him were so severe that he ceased to write for five years until prompted by Charles Kingsley to write Apologia Pro Vita Sua.”

    I think that Newman may have been trying to express something of the idea of the “sensu fidei,” which was expressed in Lumen Gentium nn. 12, 35. But notice that the laity exercise this prophetic office under the guidance of the magisterium, and in the daily and family life (not telling the Pope what to do!):
    “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God.”
    “Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfills His prophetic office until the complete manifestation of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei) and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.”

    Newman published his paper, unsigned, in July 1859. I believe it was motivated by tensions among the bishops of England and Ireland, the same tensions that propelled him to take on the task of editor of The Rambler. Irish Archbishop Paul Cullen, English Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, and Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo, Prefect of the Congregation Propaganda Fide, all had various stressful interactions with Newman and his new ideas.

    But Newman always worked within the Church, not outside and against it as if there were some “People of God” in conflict with the hierarchy. He was in England, and had come to the Catholic Church from the Church of England (who were “People of God” in conflict with the Roman hierarchy). If he was really a champion of the ideas of Wills (and such folk), he would never have been created a Cardinal in 1879, 20 years after this unsigned article (which he never mentioned again; it was reprinted by John Coulson in 1961; available at Amazon for about $13.)

    I think Newman would want to have nothing to do with Mr. Wills’ ideas.

    And about the Pope, I have known so many people of that generation that feel that every pope since “good Pope John XXIII” has been awful. They like none of them. I am not sure they like any before John XXIII, either (for sure not Pius XII). Let’s face it. They just do not like the Popes, the Magisterium, or the Church as it is. They want to reinvent it in their own image.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    According to his Wikipedia profile, Gary Wills is not an ex-Catholic, and he prays the Rosary every day. He wrote a book about this devotion, which I am not planning to read, given his high error rate and general bad attitude towards the Church.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    To give you a good idea of how misleading Gary Wills can be:

    “Misimpressions About Augustine”, by Oswald Sobrino.

  8. robtbrown says:


    Wills was with the Jesuits for only a few years, never making it to theology. His knowledge of philosophy is limited to Modern, he has no clue about Ancient or Medieval philosophy (cf perennial philosophy). I don’t claim to have read much by him, but he seems not to have the slightest idea of what theology is all about–so adjusting doctrine to suit the Zeitgest seems ok to him.

  9. MrTipsNZ says:

    Just a small note on the faulty logic of Mr Wills. If:

    A = holding fast to the Gospels
    X = not holding fast to the Gospels
    C = A is “good” and by definition laity
    Y = X is “bad” and by definition hierarchy

    In an ideal “WillsWorld”, then everyone is the product known as AC

    Why then are most dissenters, including him, actually AY? That is, if the old school laity kept the “bad hierarchy” on the straight and narrow, why has he abandoned what his lay forebears believed?

    Makes you want to ask “What’ you talking ’bout Wills?”

  10. MrTipsNZ says:

    Just a small note on the faulty logic of Mr Wills. If:

    A = holding fast to the Gospels
    X = not holding fast to the Gospels
    C = A is “good” and by definition laity
    Y = X is “bad” and by definition hierarchy

    In an ideal “WillsWorld”, then everyone is the product known as AC

    Why then are most dissenters, including him, actually XC? That is, if the old school laity kept the “bad hierarchy” on the straight and narrow, why has he abandoned what his lay forebears believed?

    Makes you want to ask “What’ you talking ’bout Wills?”

    sorry: edited for typo re XC

  11. Gail F says:

    I saw him on the clip from the Stephen Colbert show that’s making the rounds. Sounds like his new book is the same old “brave” Gary Wills finding the “bravery” to declare what pretty much every Protestant thinks. He doesn’t even have the intellectual honesty to leave the Church and write a book called “Why I’m not a Catholic Anymore” — I suppose because no one would care. I find the fact that that enough people care what he says now to keep getting him book contracts surprising. I can only assume it’s because people don’t pay much attention, so every one of these books can be read as a separate “brave protest” by people who don’t care enough about any of it to know that he’s written a bunch of them before.

  12. robtbrown says:

    In so far as Spring Training has begun, Garry Wills the theologian is every bit as competent Maury Wills the manager.

  13. Scott W. says:

    Remember that Wills was born in 1934, and he will be 79 if he lives through May of this year. He is of the old, dissenting generation that is passing away. Getting in a few digs while he still can, and, of course, the media (remember the recent discussion of the media here?) gives him a free pass as one of their favored sons.

    True, and notice that he and others like the formidable Hans Kung are not being replaced. Of course there are later generation dissidents, but no where near the same caliber. It is a worldview circling the drain.

  14. jflare says:

    I recall reading another book by Mr. Wills around 1999. I’ve long since forgot the title and much of the content, but I recall having to summarily dismiss his premises and conclusions summarily within a few years. It simply made no sense.
    Sadly, this also caused to me to need to question the quality of reading materials I could find while serving in the military, especially overseas; I found his book at the Misawa AB BX. ..And we wonder why military personnel struggle with the faith.

  15. Born in Georgia, Fr. Z, so he’s not Irish he’s one of your own. We have enough heretics, dissenters and apostates in Ireland to keep cause us no end of trouble without the US exporting them! :-)

  16. NancyP says:

    Unfortunately for me, I heard part of Diane Rehm’s recent interview with Wills on NPR. To me, his big beef with the priesthood isn’t sex, it is power. He repeatedly stated that all the power was with the ordained ministry in the Church and that this situation is wrong. He wants laypeople (presumably himself) to choose their priests, although he disavowed belief in transubstantiation and in the authority of the bishops.

    Ms. Rehm also had Msgr. Charles Pope on the show. Although Msgr. Pope was mild-mannered and polite, Wills kept interrupting him angrily in order to disagree with him. I finally turned my radio off, and spent the rest of the morning wondering why Wills isn’t honest enough with himself to officially leave the Church he left in his heart long ago.

    (Except, of course, I know why. Angry Catholics sell books. Former Catholics don’t.)

  17. Mike says:

    Several years ago, Wills was on the Diane Rhiem show on Public Radio. I called in, and got to ask him a question. I think he was selling his “Papal Sin” screed. Anyway, I complimented his book on Lincoln and Macbeth–both written years ago–and then asked, why was he pretending that the Scandals of ’02 etc. were the result of Church teaching when he KNOWS these men were NOT following Church teaching at all? He actually stuttered for about 20 seconds, and then droned on about how he was for freedom of speech.

    I must admit, I enjoyed throwing him on the ropes, even for a littl bit! ;)

  18. Shamrock says:

    Newman had much more to say about the role of laity in the Church than this one small treatise and one needs to look, unlike Wills, at the larger body of work written re the laity by Newman:
    ( taken from the Catholic Education website): he wrote:
    “What I disiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is…I want a laity,
    not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter
    into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they
    can defend it. I want an intelligent, well instructed laity…I wish you to enlarge your knowledge,
    to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things
    as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism and where lies the main inconsistences and absurdities of the Protestant theory…always cherishing a vivid sense of God above and keeping in mind that you have souls to be judged and saved. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and mean as well as to feel and mean it; to expose the fictions and fallacies of your opponents and to explain the charges brought against the Church not for the satisfaction of bigots but to men of sense, of whatever cast of opinion”.( taken from D.J.O”Connell, S.J., The Present Position of Catholics in England).
    My husband, age 79, was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church today. He is now equipped
    by the Holy Spirit to fulfill, during his remaining years, the role of a member of the Church’s laity
    as Cardinal Newman saw it, not as Gary Wills defines it from his tenuous position outside the walls of the church where he has excommunicated himself. It seemed to me, as I read these words
    above by Cardinal Newman, they are the same words we have been hearing from Pope Benedict XVIth during his pontificate.

  19. CPT TOM says:

    I’m sorry I have to admit I had to look him up…I didn’t know who he was. Its like this for many of the disident theologists. I’m almost 50 and I stop paying attention to these kind of folks when I was in college because they just sounded loony. Being a late boomer (1963) I just want these people to go away. They and their bretheren ruined my childhood in the Church and cheated me and those younger than me out of their patrimony. Its taken me more than 10 years to make up for the things I didn’t learn or know about the faith, and I’m still working on it. They and the older part of my generation did a pretty good job of stinking up the joint. I just want them to sit down and shut up. Sorry for being uncharitable but the more I learn about what has been lost, and being part of the effort locally to restore it, I have a bit of resentment built up. Well, guess it’s off to Confession….

  20. Shamrock says:

    I would also like to add that Mr Wills consistently and willfully gets it wrong as in his recent
    appearance on the Steven Colbert program where he denies transubstantiation and says
    it is a “fakery” intentionally done by priests ( WHY PRIESTS? is his latest blasphemy in
    print) and even inveigles the aide of St Augustine by misquoting ( I should say blatently
    distorting) him on the subject. Gary Wills calls himself Catholic? On what basis does he
    make that claim? Surely not on what it teaches or professes. One wonders if he attends
    Mass regularly and receives the Eucharist? Gary Wills distorts, dissents the Truth …and
    then claims Catholicity for himself by distorting its history and denying its teachings. HUH?

  21. VexillaRegis says:

    CPT TOM: Exactly!

  22. Imrahil says:

    Was Bl. John Henry wrong?

    I doubt it is so sure he was.

    Besides, the article of Garry Wills is… interesting. Of course, it is from an anti-Catholic mood. But still… interesting.

    Pope Pius IX lunged toward a compensatory moral monarchy.

    This is not true of this saintly man; but it is a common theme of history (perhaps wrongly, but then I’ve never heard it corrected) that this was a background thought among the infallibilist faction of 1871, who (we hear) wanted a vastly more extended infallibility that did emerge in the dogma. We are bound to take what came out as of faith; but this is not true about what the finally victorious party (or the other, for that matter) put in.

    From that point on, even when he was not making technically infallible statements, the pope was thought to be dealing in eternal truths.

    Thing is, it happens that Garry Wills is right in that, at least (to all that can be perceived by one born fairly recently), this describes how many Catholics did indeed treat papal statements. See what they did and do about the Papal statement that religious freedom is madness. See what they did and do about any sentence of the (among other things) Papal statements uttered at the Second Vatican Council.

    His note on Pope Ven. Paul VI is deflammatory; and unjust too, given that Pope Paul VI had already signed Dignitatis humanae fully knowing how previous Popes sounded on the matter… Nevertheless, he has the point that the “natural law” side has been, well, under-explained. We hear often enough that contraception is immoral; but, as I often think, nothing helps so much for obedience than a good explanation of the command in question. We all hear also (and agree) that non-contraception is the higher good. But the only way to get people go for the higher good is telling them (and meaning it) that it is voluntary. The only way to get people follow a rule is telling them (and meaning it) it is obligatory.

    This argument is present in Humanae vitae, but it has been heavily under-popularized. I might put it into the blunt form that “sex with contraception is just not the real sex”, and I think that most people actually would agree.

    Go and appeal to the laity! Go! It is said: The sheep hear My voice and know Me. But give us the real laity. Do not give us the aristocracy of the Catholic politicians and Catholic lay professors. Go to the third estate; go to the little grandmother of 75 years in the fifth pew who prays her rosary. And take the effort to really inquire for what she means, not what she repeats after her betters, who need not be such, in parrot-fashion, or what she says in inadequate words (being unable to learnedly express what she means), but what she really means.

    Go and appeal to the laity! Go and if you find any progress (today even, I guess, the real progress) you will find it among the clergy. The laity is incorrigibly reactionary. (I use this word in sympathy.)

    Go and appeal to the laity! But never ever ever use the word “laity” as a scapegoat for the personal wishes of your like.

    In our day, most Catholics in America have reached the same conclusion that Paul VI’s commission did.
    No, they have not. However the cardinals in question were of good faith… they, the “Catholics in America”, have not. They did not reach any conclusion. They just followed that strange fellow much more immoral than any average person, that fellow who is called Everyone Else, into jumping into the Danube. They never even questioned the idea that non-contracepting is something the fanatics do without any reason. I do not even critize them, for it would be quite unnecessary to not do what the fanatics refrain from without any reason. May God sort that out, I’m happy that I have not to do it. The only thing I say is that they are mistaken. But they are not mistaken because they reached a conclusion. They are mistaken because they did not conclude.

    And, of course, on the last paragraph,
    Jesus, we are reminded, said to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” But Peter was addressed as a faithful disciple, not as a priest or a pope.
    No. Peter was adressed as a pope.
    There were no priests in Peter’s time, and no popes.
    Yes there were.
    Paul never called himself or any of his co-workers priests.
    Yes they did. Not sacerdos, which came later. But presbyter, and episcopos, and (of course, for the special role) apostle.
    He did not offer sacrifice.
    Yes he did. See 1 Cor 11 or where that is.
    The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is […]
    Whatever it is, priests and popes actually never have claimed to be sole conduits of grace.
    Seems that that was enough at the bottom of the article that he saw fit to just tell us nonsense without even deflammatory quality.

  23. Traductora says:

    I haven’t read Wills’ book so I really can’t comment on his exact words, but is he truly wrong about the laity? How many laypeople do you think would have gone for the “Spirit of Vatican II” had it not been imposed on us by the clergy (and imposed on the lower clergy by the bishops)?

    Nobody I know, except a few flakes and professorial dissidents who hung out at the Paraclete Bookstore and Corpus Christi Parish in NYC and were rooting for contraception.

    I lived through Vatican II, and I can tell you that the laity were profoundly shocked and scandalized by it, or at any rate, the version of it we received. If it had been left up to the laity, the Spirit of Vatican II would have been died aborning. It was timid bishops, nutty nuns and morally dubious priests who inflicted this on us.

  24. Angie Mcs says:

    Time has not been kind to Mr. Wills’ writing skills or his competency for developing ideas. About twenty years ago I heard him speak at a local bookstore about a book he had just written on the Gettysburg Address, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. In order to attend, one had to purchase the book, which I did, since I was very interested in the subject matter and had heard so much about Mr. Wills. I was not impressed by his presentation, however, and after reading the book, was even more disappointed, as Wills tried to convince his readers that he could see inside Lincoln’s mind as he constructed his Address. Quite an undertaking, yet Lincoln did not come to life to me through Wills’ words. Years later, as i was beginning to seriously explore the Catholic faith, I read another Wills book on this subject, ” Why I am a Catholic”. Again, I was left with a sense of emptiness, as he offered nothing except his negative memories. Instead of giving the reader some insight as to WHY Wills is Catholic. He merely discusses his experiences and never answers the Why of the title. I was left with a complete lack of insight into the faith through his eyes. This seems to be a pattern, as Wills promises to discuss a subject but ultimately leaves us empty as he dances around his subjects. Yet with his deep voice and strong looks, he is called on again and again to speak on talk shows, since his hosts know that he will invariably play into their hands and cause some kind of kerfluffle, all the while supporting their agenda in his arrogant tone and use of language. Garry Wills is a product of his own making, the perfect “talking head” who definitely still gets a “free pass from the media as one of their favorite sons”, as FVHALE so aptly puts it. What a shame that he will still be called upon for his viewpoints. I have long ago blown the dust off his titles on my shelf and donated them to resale shops.

  25. Dennis Martin says:

    A friendly amendment to Imrahil. There was priesthood from the beginning but there were no “priests” as we understand them, at the outset. At the beginning there were apostles/bishops and very soon thereafter, deacons (Book of Acts). There were presbyters (elders) but they did not function as priests do today. Even traditional Catholics need to keep this in mind–they tend to assume that priests as we know them now go all the way back. Priesthood does, but not priests as we know them. Wills is tilting at the windmill of priests when in fact his quarrel is with episcopacy, but he doesn’t realize it.

    Jesus simply is priesthood and he delegates his priesthood to his chosen 12. For a century or two, with the help of deacons and a counsel of old men (elders, presbyters) bishops handled governance, teaching, sanctifying in the Church. That’s what we see in Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome.

    At some point, presumably as the number of house churches in a given city grew to be numerous and the bishop could no longer make the rounds to all of them, the bishops handed off, delegated, to the old men/elders/presbyters some sacramental roles, esp. the Eucharist. They retained preaching (i.e., teaching) for themselves exclusively until the central Middle Ages. Governing was only delegated to priests as juridical parishes developed (don’t know the details on that). Preaching only got delegated in the later Middle Ages.

    But the point of it all is that a priest has his faculties, delegated, authorized roles, from a bishop.

    Wills and modern scholars (and Protestants) look at the historical record and see only elders, bishops, deacons for a century or two (the late 2nd and early 3rd century is perhaps the least well-documented century of Church history) and conclude that “priesthood” was a later, false, human accretion. (Some of them argue that elders are the primary office and bishops emerged as sort of elected “head-elders” or “presiding elders”–you can do that if you reject episcopacy as authorized by Christ but see it as a humanly-invented power office over time.)

    But priesthood was there all the time, “hiding” under episcopacy. We see it all in hindsight, priests loom large on the local level, for good reasons–they are needed as is the parish system. But we falsely conclude that it was always that way. Instead, for a century or two, bishops were direct, present, hands-on pastors for all the Christians in a given city. Early on they realized they needed help in that work and created deacons but they managed to carry on all the teaching and governing roles for a good bit longer.

    As always in the Church, developments are not created out of thin air but respond to changing needs and circumstances.

    There’s a good review of Will’s priest book in Commonweal. John Baldovin rips him to shreds for thinking that the idea of priesthood comes from the very late (and thus suspicious) Epistle to Hebrews. Instead, Baldovin right notes, if you want to find the origins of the priesthood, you’ll find it in Matthew 16 and all the passages where Jesus calls the 12 and entrusts his very self to them. That includes Eucharist but also governing and teaching.

    Wills (like 16thc Protestants) wants to reserve priesthood to Christ, so that (in his eyes) weird book Hebrews is okay if applied solely to Christ Priest and Mediator. Since Church history has no hint of priests as we know them until much later, he can then assert that any kind of human priesthood derogates from Christ’s priesthood. (Typical Prot argument.)

    But he forgets that Jesus delegated his priesthood and teaching to his 12. Prots were consistent in rejecting all human priesthood and episcopacy in the name of Christ-alone Mediator and Priest. But Wills can’t see that he can’t have episcopacy (which presumably in some diluted fashion he retains in his cobbled-together-Catholicism) without the elders-become-priests development going along for the ride.

  26. Dennis Martin says:

    Correction: insofar as hearing confessions and giving absolution is governing, then that got delegated to elders-presbyters-priests in the late ancient and early Middle Ages. And as the parish system developed, the other aspects of governing were only ever partially delegated and not to all priests but only to those entrusted with pastorates.

    The point is that the full practice of priesthood as authorized by Christ was always present in the Twelve and their bishop-successors. Sacramental elements got handed off earlier than governing (other than absolution, which of course is very important) and teaching elements, because needs required it.

    But the practice of Christ’s priesthood was, for two or three centuries or so carried out entirely by bishops (what they handed off to deacons, notice, was the least priestly/governing/teaching/sanctifying part of their work as the Twelve: assistance to the poor, administering the community chest etc.

    The very important, ubiquitous roles of priests as we know them today, did not exist at the time of Peter. But Holy Orders in the person of the bishops did exist in the time of Peter.

    We must be careful not to read back into the very first centuries things that are so utterly familiar to us because they’ve been around for 15 or 18 centuries.

  27. William Tighe says:

    FWIW here’s my review of one of Wills’ earlier screeds:

  28. Bea says:

    From his first statements he was way off

    It’s a Theocracy. Period.
    And if he can’t live with that, let him take it up with His Creator.

  29. Gail F says:

    Angie Mcs: Interesting that in his book on Lincoln he purports to get inside Lincoln’s head. Isn’t he the one who wrote “What Paul Really Meant”? That is one of my all-time favorite book titles. “Forget what Paul Said, I and I Alone Know What He Meant!!!!!!”

  30. Magistra Bona says:

    Gosh! Poor Newman! Used to justify Catholic-bashing again. Newman is often invoked to justify all kinds of drivel, and usually be people who haven’t read him deeply. A moment of Newman is never accurate. Always take a wide swath. Loads of Newman. Tons and tons. Don’t just read the famous pamphlets, read the letters. Understand that Newman returned to the Catholic Church because he wanted to STOP being in dissent. Also remember that the Church has and will always contain jealous, suspicious, and petty men and women who will be outraged by gifted and charismatic people like Newman for their own, not the Church’s, reasons. The Church is smarter than the petty. Gary Wills is a creation of much of the pre-Conciliar Church–choking on tradition divorced from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. But not all of the pre-Conciliar Church was hide-bound and dessicated. That is why the true import of the Council and the work it laid before both the clergy and the laity, can commence in our time–rather re-commence: The Evangelization of the Entire World. The real Church is the Body of Christ, living and breathing, alive and moving, for every generation if every generation has the will, wit, and desire to know Christ. After witnessing Gary Wills on the Colbert Report, I can only conclude he is no longer Catholic and very likely no longer Christian. There are few Protestants who would touch him with a barge pole. That’s because many Protestants still believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are scooping up sould while we dither. So, let’s stop listening to or reading Gary Wills or Wills-wanna-be’s and get out there and reclaim some of that spiritual market share!! We’ve got the best product. Now let’s move it!!!

  31. jflare says:

    I didn’t live through Vatican II or the immediate aftermath,but I still saw quite a little change, even in the pomp, ceremony, and decoration of the Novus Ordo, between ages 10 and 18.
    I definitely noticed when our local bishop decided that girls would be allowed to serve at Mass. I believe that announcement came during my 7th or 8th grade year. I didn’t honestly have the slightest idea what TO think, but I recall I had already mostly dropped out of serving for Mass.
    Point is, most of the changes that I’m acquainted with came about not because clergy imposed them necessarily, but because laity threw a fit when clergy didn’t do as they (laity) wished. They still do.

    I’ve long thought it quite telling: Mom grew up Methodist and rarely comments much at all on Church practice. Dad grew up Catholic, even attended seminary until just shy of diaconate, and he’s usually not keen to bring back much of anything traditional. To hear him sometimes, Vatican II was a MAJOR blessing and we’re beginning to regress a bit.

    I think both sides probably have some guilt and blessing.

  32. robtbrown says:

    Dennis Martin says:
    A friendly amendment to Imrahil. There was priesthood from the beginning but there were no “priests” as we understand them, at the outset. At the beginning there were apostles/bishops and very soon thereafter, deacons (Book of Acts). There were presbyters (elders) but they did not function as priests do today.

    Disagree. The Letter of James says that anyone sick should be anointed by elders (presbyters). In the Old Testament, however, anointing was always a function of priests, never of elders.

  33. robtbrown says:

    Dennis Martin says,

    Jesus simply is priesthood and he delegates his priesthood to his chosen 12

    I understand what you’re getting at, but IMHO the word “delegates” lacks an ontological ring.

  34. Dennis Martin says:

    RobtBrown: certainly a valid point. However Ignatius says “no Eucharist apart from the bishop or he to whom he delegates.” So it would seem that the sacramental roles still are exercised by the bishop with at most ad hoc delegation. Ignatius always includes elders with deacons and bishops but there’s no hint of a regular exercise of sacramental (or governing) ministry by the elders.

    My claim was that there were no priests functioning as they do today, no parish system, not that no presbyterate or priestly office existed. It existed but in the person of the bishop. ,The presbyterate existed but it seems to have functioned largely as a council of elders surrounding the bishop, not as wide-ranging sacramental or teaching ministers assisting the bishop.

    In other words, one thing has remained constant: the bishop is the pastor of the local Church, the Church in any given place/city. Today, large swathes of the bishop’s sanctifying and teaching ministry and some of his governing ministry is delegated to presbyters in a regularized and stable way. It has to be because of the size of the pastoral task. That was not true at the outset.

    My point was not the Protestant and Willsean claim that the whole idea of priestly mediation was a later invention. It was to caution us against reading priests’ roles as we know them for the past millennium back into the first millennium and especially the first two centuries.

    Keeping that perspective in mind does no harm to the Catholic belief in priesthood or the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper (or when Jesus commissioned them to bind and loose sins). It’s that larger belief that Protestants across the board (despite their disputes over Real Presence etc.) rejected and Wills rejects. One can affirm that belief in Christ-authorized Holy Orders without reading today’s priest-scape back into the first century.

    Was anointing the first of the sacramental ministries to be delegated? Perhaps. You’ve cited one of the few tiny rays of light that history sheds on the role of the elders. It’s all apostles/bishops all the time in the early centuries, with the exception of deacons and bits and pieces like the one you cite. What you cite does not change my basic point at all. And to use it as a proof-text to drag the presbyterate of the 2nd millennium back into the first is not really helpful, in the long run.

    A side-benefit of reminding ourselves that the role of presbyters in the first two centuries was different (on the surface but not at its foundation) from priests today is that it underscores how, even today, priests are incardinated to a bishop and function only by delegated authority. Because the priest and especially the parish pastor is the day-in-out interface for most laity, a reminder of how it all started out is helpful to avoid rendering the bishop as some kind of far-away super-pastor in the downtown chancery.

  35. Dennis Martin says:

    RobtBrown bis:
    “I understand what you’re getting at, but IMHO the word “delegates” lacks an ontological ring.”

    Well, sorry, but that “delegation” today has come to lack ontological force may be true but a great loss. If you went back to premodern society, the King was present, ontologically, in the person of a legatus or ambassador or delegate.

    And, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Christ, in authorizing his Twelve to govern, sanctify, teach His Church, His Body, delegate authority to them? Isn’t that what all authorization entails, delegation? Perhaps we need to recover the ontological sense of delegation, not reject the word because it’s not ontological enough. What word can we use for Christ’s authorization to the Apostles if we can’t use “delegate”?

  36. Dennis Martin says:

    Or, perhaps, to be clearer, I have not challenged an ontological link between the bishop and his presbyters and even his deacons in the early centuries. It’s good you raise this point because it permits clarification. The language Ignatius of Antioch uses for all three of the orders is ontological–the linkage between bishop and the elders and deacons is close, deep, rich for Ignatius, as a bishop passing in chains through local churches and greeting their bishops but never without also greeting their elders and deacons.

    The ontology was always there. What had not yet taken place was the delegation of specific parts of the bishop’s ministry.

    But that’s exactly what’s so hard for people to grasp today: a priest is ordained, received an ontological transformation that can never be removed. But that by itself does not authorize him to carry out the ministries which, today have become universally and routinely the ministries that a priest exercises.

    Delegation did, in premodern society, carry the investing of the person doing the delegating in the person delegated. But no, the ontological character of priesthood was not transmitted for the first time when bishops authorized elders to celebrate the Eucharist. So ontology of priesthood is not involved in that sort of delegation of authority any more than we would say that a bishop granting faculties to a priest transmits at that point the ontology of priesthood.

    So, if that’s what you mean by “not enough ontology” in “delegation,” well, no, there’s no ontological delegation in granting faculties and in the early church, the ontological character of the elders was there presumably from the start but the delegation of faculties to celebrate Eucharist or hear confessions or pastor parishes was not there.

    We just don’t know much about how the presbyters functioned in the first few centuries. We do have the passage from James that you cite and the passages from Ignatius and Clement and some other stuff from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But it’s not a very sharply focused picture.

    This is not my field of specialty and countless far superior books have been written on this topic, with better refined terminology.

    My point remains: things changed as bishops could no longer make the rounds to do everything in their city/diocese, esp. in the huge rural dioceses north of the alps. Acknowledging this change in the functions of priests/elders vis-a-vis bishops does not endanger theology of priestly ordination or priesthood. Traditional Catholics need not feel threatened by this history and it might actually help them better understand incardination and the bond between bishop and priests and the role of parishes within dioceses today.

    And in Garry Wills’s case, not realizing this led him, apparently, according to Baldovin, to misunderstand key elements of the history of priesthood and to attack priesthood itself as lacking visibility and authorization in the very early decades when his real target needed to be the bishops during those centuries.

  37. Shamrock says:

    All here commenting on the priestly role in early church should read Scott Hahn’s wonderful
    treatise on the subject. He shows how even Adam had a priestly duty and all father’s were
    originally given priesthood …until the worship of the Golden Calf. After that the priesthood was
    reserved only for the Tribe of Levi…the Levitical priesthood which forshadows the later priesthood of the NT. I think all this is covered in A Father Who Keeps His Promises. The earliest days of
    Christianity’s liturgy was carried out within the temples or synagogues as in private homes where
    there only was the eucharistic meal, the sacrificial meal, carried out. There had to be someone with authority of Jesus present, be it a Bishop (don’t think that name applied) elder or presbyter.
    The word priest refers always to sacrificial offering just as the celebrant at Eucharist today and as
    the sacraments evolved into what we have today, and the numbers of Christians grew, a more
    defined hierarchy appears with specific duties but always from the laying on of hands. Another good solid author who writes about these early days is Mike Aquillina in The Mass of the Early

  38. Dennis Martin says:

    I have never at any point denied the presence and centrality of priesthood in the earliest Church. My point is simply that it centered in the Apostolic Twelve and in their successor bishops and that the “elders” or “presbyters” we glimpse at relatively few points in the record are shadowy, being overshadowed by bishops, until well into the fifth century. And it might help us today if we took seriously the centrality of the episcopal office when we seek to understand the ministry of priests and the function of parishes.

    Priesthood of Christ in His bishops was of course in some sense shared by elders and even deacons from New Testament times onward. How that priesthood was exercised by the three types of Holy Orders has, however changed, especially for presbyters. All exercise of Christ’s priesthood emanates from his authorized Twelve. And that’s still true today.

  39. Angie Mcs says:

    Gail F, yes, I do find it interesting how Wills takes it upon himself to be the proper conduit to understanding the works of other writers. Even the titles, as you pointed out, reflects this. And although many writers do this and do it well, in Wills’ case it reflects an arrogance which leads his readers down HIS path alone, not a way which causes them to think and grow about the subject. MAGISTRATE BONA said it simply but it works for me: ” let’s stop listening to or reading Gary Wills…”

  40. robtbrown says:

    Dennis Martin,

    I never accused you of saying that the priesthood didn’t exist from the time of Christ. What I said above was simply that the Letter of James contains evidence that priestly function was found very early in presbyteroi.

    There’s no doubt that regal juridical authority would be found in a legatus, but that has nothing to do with ontology. What would be the ontological change? IMHO, “delegate” sounds juridical, as, for example, a bishop delegates authority to a laicus on a Marriage Tribunal.

    With sacerdotal or episcopal ordination, however, there is ontological change, the ordinatus is given participation in sacred functions (munera)–and this is not merely juridical.

    This is made clear in the nota praevia explicativa of Lumen Gentium. What is not clear is why the nota praevia comes at the end of LG instead of at the beginning.

  41. robtbrown says:

    Dennis Martin says,

    Delegation did, in premodern society, carry the investing of the person doing the delegating in the person delegated. But no, the ontological character of priesthood was not transmitted for the first time when bishops authorized elders to celebrate the Eucharist. So ontology of priesthood is not involved in that sort of delegation of authority any more than we would say that a bishop granting faculties to a priest transmits at that point the ontology of priesthood.

    I’m sure what you are saying. Are you saying that there were presbyteroi who celebrated the Eucharist without any ontological change? If so, where is the Sacramental Power.

    A distinctoion always has to be made between potestas ordinis and potestas iurisdictionis

  42. oakdiocesegirl says:

    I only know Wills from his 2 recent interviews [eg Colbert Report]. I find it annoying that he keeps saying St. Augustine didn’t believe in trans or consubstantiation. Why would he say that, repeatedly? He supposedly studied enough to write books about Augustine.

  43. Shamrock says:

    oakdiocesegirl….Mr Wills is not in the *business* of proclaiming truth but rather has a quest to sell books and make lots of $$$ defaming the Church in the process. Thus he goes on shows
    like Colbert and inflames the audience by making outrageous statements. The more outrageous the statement the more they eat him up and the more books he sells to both the unsuspecting and the bigoted who feel affirmed by his flummery. It’s the same old story. He has sold his “heritage
    for a mess of pottage! Pray for him and pray that God will continue to protect his Church from
    such charlatans.

  44. robtbrown says:

    oakdiocesegirl says:
    I only know Wills from his 2 recent interviews [eg Colbert Report]. I find it annoying that he keeps saying St. Augustine didn’t believe in trans or consubstantiation. Why would he say that, repeatedly? He supposedly studied enough to write books about Augustine.

    Unlike St Thomas, St Augustine wrote no definitive treatise on the Eucharist. Wills refers to one text, which can be interpreted as not believing in transubstantiation, but there are other texts he blissfully ignores that definitely indicate that Wills is wrong.

  45. Shamrock says:

    For all those who insist along with Gary Wills that St Augustine had no definitive treatise on the Eucharist, I refer you to the following:
    There are other instances where St Augustine clearly indicated his thoughts on the Eucharist and
    these can be found along with other statements from the Early Church Fathers on the subject of
    the EUCHARIST at the following:

    Gary Wills distorts and dissents in his writings and goes on tv shows like Colbert and makes
    inflammatory false statements for one reason only…to sell books. Like Judas, silver is more
    attractive to him than Truth! Read the early Fathers for yourself and speak out whenever and
    wherever you can the Truth. The above website is a good place to start…NOW!

  46. Shamrock says:

    To all who clicked on the link I gave, for some reason it does not work, so I would suggest that
    if you google the link yourself it does come up correctly….it is worth the added extra effort.

  47. JacobWall says:

    But Wills is a conservative … don’t you all know that back in the 60’s he was the ‘token conservative’ for the NCS (Fishwrap)? It’s all so wonderful; Wills proves that the NCS really was (and therefore still is) politically balanced and theologically orthodox. If you only we would stop being so silly to think that Catholics before 1960 (or Jesus, the Bible, etc.) count for anything, we would finally see that Wills is devout, conservative and orthodox, and that the NCS is insightful in its clarity. After all, since the Church didn’t exist before 1960, that means Wills essentially represents the whole of God’s revelation in his life and works.

  48. JacobWall says:

    (Just having some fun …)

  49. Charles E Flynn says:

    Garry Wills’ sour screed against the priesthood, by Anne Hendershott, for the Catholic World Report.

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