Historian Garry Wills' latest book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (Viking), came out with impeccable timing, on February 12—a day after Pope Benedict announced his resignation. Once a Jesuit seminarian, the prolific scholar now argues that "the priestly monopoly on grace is a distortion," with little historical or scriptural basis.

Why take on the priesthood, and why now?

I've been studying St. Augustine all my life, but more intensely recently. His view of the Eucharist made me change my attitude toward the Mass, because he denied that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. The body of Jesus, he said, is the body of believers.

That view of the church--that the priest is simply the servant of the body of Christ, not anything above or apart from it--has grown on me as I've studied the history of the church. The culmination of my scholarship for the past few decades is in this book.

As a historian, what do you make of Pope Benedict's resignation?

It's not all that big a deal historically. There also have been a lot of popes who were deposed or had rickety credentials.

The whole apostolic succession is nonsense. It's supposed to come from Peter as a bishop. He was never a bishop, priest, or pope; those positions didn't exist. But it's true there has been a papolotry [pope worship] since the 19th century. Even when the pope doesn't explicitly invoke infallibility, the idea is that he teaches eternal truths. So Paul VI could not go back on Pius XI’ teaching that contraceptives are sinful, for instance.

From the 19th century on, history has been read backwards: If the church does it now, it's always done it. There were always popes, priests, and transubstantiation. To [accept] that is just historical nonsense.

What do you personally hope for from the next pope?

I don't hope for anything from the pope. I don't pay attention to him. He's not the church. People ask, "If you don't like the pope, why don't you leave the church?" That would be like saying the pope is the church. The church is the body of Christ.

How do you respond to your critics who say you're not Catholic and your ideas are heretical?

It doesn't intimidate me. Some of the best thinkers have been condemned as heretics down through history.

What should ordinary Catholics do with your arguments?

I would have them do what they're doing. John Henry Newman said that at various times the laity has been more true to the doctrinal message of the church than the hierarchy. Church Father Prosper of Aquitaine said, "Lex orandi, lex credenti." The way that you pray is the way that you believe.

Our actions show we don't pay attention to the teaching on contraception. We don't show the reverence for the host that we did when I was young. Nobody believes that only a priest can forgive your sins or marry you.

People say [to me], "You're no better than a Protestant." Well, they're dead right. Saying I'm better than a Protestant is saying that their church doesn't have Jesus and mine does. That's an insult to the whole Gospel message. I recognize them as brothers and sisters of Christ right where I am.