The Gospel According to Garry

For more than a decade, Garry Wills has been devoting much of his energy to Catholic matters.  In Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000), he explained that the papacy was never intended by Jesus and that most popes have had a malign influence on the Church and the world.  In 2002 he followed with Why I Am a Catholic.  In this work he continued his critique of virtually all popes and many Church teachings, but noted that he believed in the Apostles Creed so he should be considered a Catholic in good standing.  In 2006 he tried his hand at biblical criticism with What Jesus Meant.  In reviewing this short primer, the Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson wryly noted that “Jesus gives voice to views remarkably similar to those espoused by the author.” And now Wills has favored us with still another theological study: Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, which the publisher promises is his “most provocative book yet.”

Wills begins this work by noting that he spent five years at a Jesuit seminary where he encountered priests who were “some of the most benign influences” in his life.  That may be the case, but he has no use for virtually any of the other priests that he describes in the book.  One priest that Wills knew regularly used his clergy sticker to park illegally.  Another liked to invite himself over to the Wills’ home on Saturday nights so that he could eat dinner and watch his favorite TV shows.  A third priest had the temerity to tell Wills and his wife-to-be that they had to attend a Cana Conference before he would marry them.

why-priests-book coverWhile Wills recounts a number of other unhappy encounters with priests, most of his book is focused on more fundamental questions.  He stresses that Jesus, who was a “radical Jewish prophet,” had no intention of establishing a priesthood.  After all, the Jewish priests were his rivals who plotted to have him crucified. What Jesus envisioned was an egalitarian community of believers without any priests or bishops, for that matter.  Wills admits that there are references to “bishops” in the New Testament, but he thinks “overseers” is a better translation.  In the first century AD (or CE as Wills styles it), the overseers’ role was a “diplomatic one, making for good relations between communities.”   So overseers/bishops were meant to be facilitators with no authority of any kind over the Church.

Just as Jesus was not interested in having a clergy or any form of hierarchy, He was similarly unconcerned with sacraments.  Wills contends that the sacramental system was later instituted by clerical officials to give themselves a controlling influence over each stage of a believer’s life. He goes through the sacraments one by one and tries to show that all of them—except baptism—have no biblical basis.  To support his arguments, he is forced to make some petty distinctions.  For example, we learn that the sacrament of the sick is unscriptural because priests use olive oil but Jesus did not use oil when He ministered to the sick.

Of all the sacraments, Wills is most interested in the Eucharist, which he claims should be understood as a meal and not associated in any way with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  Furthermore, Holy Communion should be seen as a symbol of Christ and not as the actual Body and Blood of Jesus.  In Wills’ rendering, the doctrine of transubstantiation gradually became dominant in the Middle Ages, through the efforts of St. Thomas Aquinas and some of his contemporaries.  This claim that Catholic belief in the Real Presence is a medieval accretion is particularly odd.  Wills seems unaware of the many Early Church fathers who affirmed this doctrine.  For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d 117 AD) referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for evermore.”  St. John Chrysostom (d 407 AD) was even more explicit: “It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself.”

Wills seems more aware of the difficulties that he faces in trying to disassociate the priesthood from the Early Church.  One of the New Testament epistles, the Letter to the Hebrews, has several references to Jesus as “our high priest” and repeatedly speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial death.  Consequently, Wills goes over the letter in painstaking detail.  He discusses its authorship, its intended audience, its wording and its key themes and he even includes his own translation of the letter in an appendix.  While admitting that the letter is elegantly written, he is troubled by its substance.  He speaks of the “flimsiness of its arguments,” and laments the author’s “capricious” and “eccentric” views. In the end, it is not clear where Wills is left. It seems that he wants to strike it from the New Testament canon, but he does not say so expressly.

Wills concludes by noting that he does not “believe in popes and priests and sacraments.”    He then raises the question which by this point must have crossed the minds of all of his readers: “Why do I hang around where there are popes and priests telling me what to believe?” He offers a couple of curious explanations.  He considers himself an ecumenist, so therefore he does not want to cut himself off from any other Christians, including Catholics: “It will hardly advance the desirable union of all believers if I begin by excluding those closest to me.” He also falls back on some of the points he made in Why I Am a Catholic, noting that he accepts the Apostles Creed and is devoted to the Virgin Mary and to the Rosary.  However, the faith statement that he affirms at the end of this book is much vaguer than the one he professed at the end of Why I Am a Catholic.  This time all he is willing to say is:  “There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers.”  One wonders what Wills’ Jesuit seminary professors would make of this statement.

John F. Quinn


John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew's Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Reading this I feel like I am back at Manhattan College in the days between 1966-1970 – the heyday of the most penetrating question of that time: “But Is it relevant?” Wills is a Church dissenter who, like many of his kind (e.g. Nuns on the Bus), never outgrew his adolescence. In short, Wills is irrelevant – even though he’s written a few books. Grow up, Mr. Wills.

    • tom

      Completely off topic are the Jaspers of Manhattan, with the late Jack Marren, leading the team to an upset of North Carolina @ 1970…..but what the heck’s a Jas..per?

  • FernieV

    Probably he still calls himself a Catholic (although he is not remotely close to being one, as his beliefs will not even qualify him as a Protestant) because he may find it easier to sell his books being a “controversial Catholic”. But he should be honest enough to see “Hey, I don’t believe what these folks believe, so I quit”. That option looks more serious to me than to hang around and confuse people.

    • fredx2

      According to George Weigel, these people don’t leave because they know as soon as they do, they become irrelevant to the media (which is basically the only thing keeping them going) Weigel notes in “God’s choice” that there was a dissenting theologian. He quit the church, and the media never talked to him again. He became completely irrelevant. After all, so what if Protestant disagrees with a Catholic? But when a Catholic disagrees with the Pope, etc. it becomes news worthy. So they stay, as their last gasp of relevance.

      • cestusdei


  • Rick

    The faith statement at the end of the article is starting to ring of Islam.

  • Jem

    I will be glad when the day comes when I, like Garry Wills, have gained full insight into the mind of God. Maybe in doing so I can become a God myself.

    If these words sound familiar, they should. They first came from the mouth of a serpent in Genesis.

  • I came to the same conclusion that the faith statement sounded a lot like Islam.

  • respectlife

    Well, this guy wants his cake and he wants to eat it too.. Confusion is rooted in Satan. Maybe his motivation is to sell books. Jesus set up his Church and its clearly described in the Bible. In other words if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

  • poetcomic1 .

    So the whole history of Christianity is basically (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit yet) a..horrible ‘mistake’. Strange, indeed!

    • Ford Oxaal

      Yes, thank goodness for Wills. In all of history, Wills is the singular figure — the only one with the brains, fortitude, and courage to pull back the curtain and reveal the **twenty centuries long conspiracy**. I mean, if it weren’t for Wills exposing the most ancient and long-lived conspiracy ever known, one might even be tempted to convert. Just the single fact that a bunch of guys in robes were able to pull off the longest running prank in history makes one pause at mankind’s incredible stupidity, and by contrast, Wills’ towering genius. LOOK AT THE EXTENT OF THIS MASSIVE HOAX:

  • tedseeber

    Yet another hippie thinks he is smarter than 2000 years of Tradition. I for one will be glad when the baby boomers are in purgatory for such sins.

    • Facile1

      This is an unfair statement. Most of the baby boomers were small children or in their early teens during Vatican II. We were basically at the mercy of the progressive clergy and religious who used VII as the excuse to chuck the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Finding the way back continues to be painful for many of us. Purgatory would be unfair.

      • I agree. I was born at the tail end of the baby boomer years growing up and going to Catholic schools in the late 60’s and 70’s. I finally woke up in my late 30’s and I am so grateful to God. Now, if I can let Him do His work in me, maybe I can do my Purgatory on earth.

      • asydwy

        Purgatory unfair?? We should all be so graced as to have that second
        chance of Purgatory to get *cleaned up* before an eternal Heaven with
        Him. There is no excuse for not knowing the faith, given the amount
        of material available, and the grace to seek it, regardless of when one
        is born. No pity parties please for the baby boomers! Hanging on to
        one’s ignorance is no excuse for a lack in faith.

        • Facile1

          asydwy wrote:
          “No pity parties please for the baby boomers! Hanging on to
          one’s ignorance is no excuse for a lack in faith.”

          Kindly reread my comment again.

          I would welcome purgatory if I were hanging on to my ignorance and discovered THAT on my death bed. But I am very much alive and playing catch-up. I do not appreciate the misdirection on the part of the American nuns who were supposed to educate me in the FAITH. Purgatory IS my plan B and I am grateful to God that He provides it. But I will not presume on His mercy and will do my best to go straight to heaven.

          So, who are YOU and who is tedseeber to presume to condemn ALL of the baby boomers to purgatory?

          • tedseeber

            GenXers, born to Baby Boomer parents. BTW, Baby boomers were born to GI Generation parents- which would put their birth between 1944 and 1964. Gen X is 1964 to 1984. Gen Y is 1984 to 2000, Millenials are those born after 2000.

            It was Baby Boomers who created the Sexual Revolution- and Baby boomers who put individual fiscal liberty above the common good.

            And it was baby boomer priests and nuns who misinterpreted Vatican II.

            • Facile1

              Having a graduate degree in Mathematics and having worked as an actuary for two of the Big Three accounting firms, I know your analysis is badly flawed. However, one cannot write a rebuttal in 300 words or less in an anonymous blog site that will make sense to an intellectually dishonest man. Therefore, I must trust that there are many other readers (Gen X, Gen Y, etc.) who are at least as educated as me who will look for a solution that is based on the TRUTH and not a falsehood.

              But let me give you a big clue. It’s called “pay-as-you-go” and it did not begin with the Baby Boomers. Maybe it might make you feel better that I paid for some GenXers Social Security Benefits; but not for my parents. My parents were Philippine citizens, who refused to immigrate to the US. They did not qualify to receive Social Security Benefits. They also paid for my undergraduate and graduate degrees from a US private college “cash-on-the-barrel-head”, the same private college my father was sent to. I don’t have children, but I paid NYS school taxes. Maybe I paid for your grandparents SS Benefits? Maybe I even paid for your public education?

              None of your comments so far merit a reply. So, this will be my last reply to you.

              Whatever the sins of your baby boomer parents were, they cannot have done anything so heinous as to deserve the pitiless human being they have for a son. Rest assured that should I see your parents (from the gates of Heaven), I will do all I can to drag them in from Purgatory. I would do the same for you too. HOWEVER, bear in mind that making it at least to Purgatory will require REPENTANCE.

              Have a good day.

              • tedseeber

                So you don’t think the Sexual revolution was sinful enough to require purgatory? Or, on the other side of the equation, the great transfer of wealth to a minority class of “investors” who do no work?

                I don’t know how Social Security comes into it, nor pay as you go. I’m talking about abuses of the system, not the system itself, which was invented by the GI generation and earlier, not by the boomers who attempted to tear down the human family on the left (the hippies I was talking about) and the living wage on the right.

                If you think GenX and GenY have no cause to complain about such moral relativism, then you haven’t been paying attention as 1/3rd of us, 55 million of us, have given our lives for the combination of the sexual revolution and greed in the genocide of abortion.

                • Facile1

                  I feel so sorry for your rage and pain; I had to reply (in spite of my earlier promise to ignore you).


                  We are no longer part of the picture (remember “pay as you go” — we’ve paid and we’re gone). We can no longer be part of the solution or the future.

                  Kill us all, if you wish. Commit the genocide of euthanasia. See if it solves your problem!

                  Rage is as much a sin as lust. But all SIN is IDOLATRY and idolatry begins with self-righteousness (and — may I add — an incorrigible stupidity because how can one win against GOD?)

                  Do not waste the remainder of God’s gift of life to you in hating people who made mistakes when they were children (just like you are a child today). What a waste of a lifetime! A lifetime that can be better spent going forth and multiplying (and hopefully overturning the GenX-GenY demographic bust thereby).

                  LOVE GOD FIRST (and discover to your dismay that God doesn’t have grandchildren.)

                  NOW, I will ignore you.

                  • tedseeber

                    Baby boomers are in their 60s. They can still be a part of the solution. But it will take heroic virtue to do so. The main way it will take heroic virtue- is in actually telling the stories of the sins of the past and letting us know why they are sins.

                    As opposed to hippies like Garry Wills- who are trying extremely hard to double down on the sin and spread it to a new generation.

                    • Facile1

                      You were told the sin is “self-righteousness”.

                      Why do you need to hear it from Garry Wills or from any heroic “baby boomer” for that matter?

                      Jesus’ WORD (‘heroic’ life, death, and ressurrection) not enough for you?

                      STOP wasting your time or emotion on this (or on me).

                      You have better things to do.

                    • tedseeber

                      The sin isn’t “self-righteousness”. The sins are Lust and Avarice. The baby boomers lied, to support their own lust and avarice, and tried to teach lust (free love) and avarice (usury) to a new generation. That is what Gary Willis and all like him are really about- spreading the libertine slavery that they call freedom, and in the process, have destroyed the very institutions that create freedom- the family and the free market have become subject to the license to sin, and are being destroyed by it.

                      We need a lot more righteousness to combat that.

                    • Facile1

                      Do not deceive yourself.
                      “Righteousness” and “self-righteousness” are the same sin — the sin of the Pharisees.
                      LOVE GOD FIRST or you are doomed to commit the same mistakes as the “baby-boomers” you despise so much.

                    • tedseeber

                      Jesus was a Pharisee according to Josephus and according to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

                      My faith and love for God has not been damaged. My faith and love for mankind, however, is almost gone and is the worst struggle I have with sin.

                      I don’t find much loveable in my fellow man- save the Imago Dei. It is for *that* reason that I work against lust and greed- for God alone.

                    • Facile1

                      I would not know if Jesus was a “Pharisee”.

                      Your lack of faith and love for the children of God (which baby boomers are) puts to the lie whatever faith and love for God you claim to have.

                      But I’m exactly where you are because I feel exactly the same way you do (about you). So rest assured, you’re in my prayers.

    • Joe DeCarlo

      I, and many other baby boomers, follow all the church teachings. Don’t include us.

      • tedseeber

        True enough. Not all baby boomers followed moral relativism into usury and lust. But enough did so that 55 million of us have been killed for those sins.

    • Ford Oxaal

      The baby boomers are the most materially gifted generation the world has ever seen, and the most morally bankrupt, actually, physically killing off large swathes of their own progeny. But as a baby boomer, I hope to escape the fires of Hell with prayer and penance while still here on Earth.

      • tedseeber

        Which is why I said Purgatory. By the teaching of Pope John Paul the Great, all souls in the Church Suffering will make it to the Church Triumphant. If you get to purgatory, you will have already been successful at avoiding the fires of hell.

  • anabel

    Or perhaps it was his Jesuit professors who taught him to think this way?

  • John O’Neill

    Having suffered through the sixties at a so called Catholic College I have become sick and tired of the Gary Wills of the world. These smug disbelievers try to pretend that their take on Christianity is the only true Church. They ruined the American Catholic Church; i.e. at the beginning of the sixties over 85% of Catholics attended mass on Sunday, by the end of the sixties that numbered was halved and today it is closer to 15%. So Gary and his fellow dissenters did their work well and still are trying to establish their own little American Liberal Church where all those souls will flock into. Wills is a relic of a distasteful age that has destroyed whatever was once good in our Church. In Ireland they used to have a saying for people like Wills; “he took the soup” ; this referred to the starving Irish Catholics who were offered a bowl of soup at a protestant soup kitchen on the condition that they renounce their Catholic faith; Wills et al including the entire Kennedy family seem to have taken the whole pot of soup.

    • tom

      “Soupers”. Many died, instead, with grass stains on their mouths for our dying Faith. They remain a testament. At least we outlived the Church of Ireland!

  • Christopher Ekstrom

    To refer to this man as a fool does a disservice to Fools! But attention really should be paid in the instance of Gary Wills. Could a proper & official clarification of the many errors this egoist affirms be expected? Perhaps by his Bishop, if his omniscience allows being bound by a mere Parrish. Really this sort of sustained attack by a court intellectual of the self-dubbed intelligentsia must not go unanswered.

    • tom

      Our bishops seem to mostly hide in the shadows of orthodoxy, afraid. Let’s give Teddy Kennedy a nice High Requiem Mass though! Thank a lot, O’Malley.

      • In O’Malley’s defense, Ted Kennedy’s soul requires all the prayer he can get.

  • tamsin

    “It will hardly advance the desirable union of all believers if I begin by excluding those closest to me.”

    For a guy who is perfectly comfortable going through his faith with a fine-tooth comb looking for things to exclude, this is a strange proposal.

  • How much would anyone bet that Wills will ask for a priest to administer the Last Rights on his deathbed?

    • John200

      Last Rites — or is that a play on words?

      Mr. Wills just might get his rights, whether or not a priest comes along and interferes with Wills’ private version of the Catholic faith.

  • jaymis

    Perfect example of “Better to keep one’s mouth shout and let people think you are a fool, rather than open it and confirm their opinion”. GW defines irrelevant. Like who cares? Who listens? He is a professional hack “CINO” who has made a living off bashing the Church. His name is misspelled. Should by “Gary W. Ills”

  • Leprechaun

    I skimmed this book at Chapters … vile … not based on anything except it own uninformed opinion … too bad the article did not condemn it more

  • cestusdei

    What is flimsy are Will’s arguments. If he doesn’t believe in Catholicism and yet remains in the Church then he is a hypocrite and dishonest. He is already cut off from us by his own actions. He excludes himself. His belief in the creed is not the same as ours and the rosary contradicts what he claims he believes. He is not a Catholic anymore. Jesus is Lord and if he denies that then he is no longer one of us.

    • John O’Neill

      There is also hypocrisy in those many colleges and universities that carry the name catholic on their letterhead but continue to attack the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. Wills is a product of these false teachers and indeed he is a product of their disillusioned theology of est omnia de me ipso; (it is all about me). I too wish these apostates would find the guts to simply declare that they are not followers of the Roman Catholic Church and its magisterium; there are thousands of American founded churches that would welcome them with open arms.

  • larry

    why even waste ink on a self-important tool such as this, espousing the tiresome protestant dismissal of pope, priests and most of our sacraments. a catholic? not even close

    • Crisiseditor

      The job of Crisis is to inform and enlighten. Your job is to take what you learn and evangelize the culture. There are a lot of people who think like Wills. Simply dismissing them as ignorant won’t change any minds.

      • Adam__Baum

        Do you think he, or his audiences are capable of being evangelized by mere men and women? I see him as somebody that inspired the verse about shaking the dust from your feet.

        • Crisiseditor

          Adam: I have no idea whether Wills himself is redeemable or not. I do know that the Church is full of people who once believed as Protestants do. And let’s face it, Wills is a Protestant despite his disingenuous claims to the contrary. We don’t know who is open to the Truth or not. Our job is to make the case and then let the Holy Ghost do its work.

          • John200

            If Wills was baptized in to the Catholic faith, then he is Catholic and nothing will change that. That mark on the soul is permanent.

            But I do see your point; his own words suggest that he is not a very good Catholic. Still, he remains a member of the faith.

            • Crisiseditor

              John: Wills is Catholic in the same sense that Martin Luther remained Catholic. Yes, in a supernatural sense, they both may remain members by right of their baptism. But I would not want to claim that they are BELIEVING Catholics. It does matter what you believe. Baptism places you on the road to salvation, but free will can allow you to drive into a ditch. The good news is that those who wander off the path can be pulled back.

            • Joe DeCarlo

              John, not true. as I posted above, if you reject one doctrine of the church, you are a heretic.
              Ergo, Wills is not a Catholic.

            • Adam__Baum

              I was always taught faith was a gift, which could be rejected. He seems to be rejecting his faith publicly, and boisterously.

          • Adam__Baum

            So if the Holy Ghost is to do his work, what would you have us poor sinners do in His service?

            • Crisiseditor

              Adam: I said “our job is to make the case and then let the Holy Ghost do its work.” I did not say we should do nothing and I did not say the Holy Ghost should do everything. If the apostles left everything to the Holy Ghost and just sat on their butts, the Church would look very different today. Regarding baptism, the Catechism says: “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark
              (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even
              if sin prevents baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation.” (CCC 1272). While baptism is permanent, a baptized Catholic can freely become a heretic by denying the faith. Thus, as I said, Wills is really a Protestant.

        • tom

          My guess is that he goes swimming to see if he can walk on water…yet.

      • Joe DeCarlo

        The point is that Wills is not a Catholic. You have to adhere to the teachings in order to be a Catholic. One person told me that a Catholic who is pro-choice can be a devout Catholic. Sorry, no they can’t. According to the Catechism, any person who denies a teaching of the church is a heretic. You can’t pick and choose what you want to believe.

        • tom

          Let’s remember that Henry Vlll thought he died a “Catholic” after all his serial murders. Amazing arrogance. Then, there’s Teddy Kennedy, a co-conspirator in the deaths of 55,000,000 babies and counting. His evil lives on…… beyond the grave. Cardinal O’Malley loved the guy!

          • Ford Oxaal

            Teddy did an immense amount of damage. But in his defense, his childhood was abominable — growing up as he did in a glorified crime family. I don’t think he went to same school two years in a row.

            • Adam__Baum

              Mitigating, but not exculpative.

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  • Adam__Baum

    There’s no doubt why he pursues this course. It provides him with a living but more likely, it’s an easy sale to a certain crowd that enjoys the veneer of intellectual credibility for their nasty prejudices.

  • Wills’s ideal church already exists – it is called Calvinism. Why doesn’t he simply join it?

    • tom


  • patricia m.

    Jesus is a prophet? Only that? So he does not believe in the Holy Trinity…

  • Wills is a Unitarian and a Leftist ideologue (redundant?). Bill Buckley did much good, but launching the career of this omadaun is something that must be sorted out in Purgatory.

  • What I can’t understand is that once having read Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, or even just the Introduction to it, why would any self-respecting Catholic, especially an obviously well informed, educated and intelligent one, want to bother reading anything else by this guy who obviously suffers from delusions of adequacy?

  • tom

    If there’s a just God, he’ll condemn Garry Wills and Hans Kung to lunch with each other forever. Their gravest theological conundrum will be who picks up the lunch tab. That squirming will be just enough just punishment.

  • Bemkapeace

    Very well said, @David Barret. He’ll be professing Islam in a moment – perhaps his next “well-researched book”. Nonsense!

  • streiff

    it seems to me that “There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers.” is much closer to Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, than anything found in Christianity.

  • Paul

    If Wills is honestly seeking the truth then he will eventually rediscover the Catholic faith.

  • whatsup54321

    Anyone can write a few books.

  • Frank Lozera

    These Garry-Wills-bashing comments remind me of what Jonah Goldhagen wrote about the Church’s attempts to silence critics of its historical anti-semitism:

    “Such political attacks simultaneously seek to prevent a sober scholarly appraisal of the Church’s and its clergy’s deeds and misdeeds by impugning the moral or psychological character of the unwanted messenger and thereby creating a discussion not about the real issue, the veracity of the message, but about a diversionary and fictive issue, the moral or mental fitness of its bearer.”

  • Flavius

    Garry Wills. I know that name from somewhere. 1962 Mets. Played next to Marv Throneberry. Second base. That was Maury Wills. No, Maury Wills was a Dodger. Oh well. Garry Wills? Wills? 62 Mets, right?
    The predicament is that when the Church didn’t need a Council, it called a Council and now when it needs a Council it can’t call a Council because of the damage caused by the Council it didn’t need. Too much flotsam and jetsam still in the water.
    Wills? How many games did he play in?