In the New Testament bishops and priests are, according to Catholic teaching, the sole bearers of the priesthood, the former enjoying the fullness of the priesthood (summus sacerdos s. primi ordinis), while the presbyters are simple priests (simplex sacerdos s. secundi ordinis). The deacon, on the other hand, is a mere attendant of the priest, with no priestly powers. Omitting all special treatment of the bishop and the deacon, we here confine our attention primarily to the presbyterate, since the term “priest” without qualification is now taken to signify the presbyter.
A. The Divine Institution of the Priesthood
According to the Protestant view, there was in the primitive Christian Church no essential distinction between laity and clergy, no hierarchical differentiation of the orders (bishop, priest, deacon), no recognition of pope and bishops as the possessors of the highest power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church or over its several territorial divisions. On the contrary, the Church had at first a democratic constitution, in virtue of which the local churches selected their own heads and ministers, and imparted to these their inherent spiritual authority, just as in the modern republic the “sovereign people” confers upon its elected president and his officials administrative authority. The deeper foundation for this transmission of power is to be sought in the primitive Christian idea of the universal priesthood, which excludes the recognition of a special priesthood. Christ is the sole high-priest of the New Testament, just as His bloody death on the Cross is the sole sacrifice of Christianity. If all Christians without exception are priests in virtue of their baptism, an official priesthood obtained by special ordination is just as inadmissible as the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass. Not the material sacrifice of the Eucharist, consisting in the offering of (real) gifts, but only the purely spiritual sacrifice of prayer harmonizes with the spirit of Christianity. One is indeed forced to admit that the gradual corruption of Christianity began very early (end of first century), since it cannot be denied that Clement of Rome (Ep. ad Cor., xliv, 4), the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache, xiv), and Tertullian (De bapt., xvii; “De præsc. hær.”, xli; “De exhort. cast.”, vii) recognize an official priesthood with the objective Sacrifice of the Mass. The corruption quickly spread throughout the whole East and West, and persisted unchecked during the Middle Ages, until the Reformation finally succeeded in restoring to Christianity its original purity. Then “the idea of the universal priesthood was revived; it appeared as the necessary consequence of the very nature of Christianity. . . . Since the whole idea of sacrifice was discarded, all danger of reversion to the beliefs once derived from it was removed” (“Realency cl. für prot. Theol.”, XVI, Leipzig, 1905, p. 50).
To these views we may answer briefly as follows. Catholic theologians do not deny that the double “hierarchy of order and jurisdiction” gradually developed from the germ already existing in the primitive Church, just as the primacy of the pope of Rome and especially the distinction of simple priests from the bishops was recognized with increasing clearness as time advanced (see HIERARCHY). But the question whether there was at the beginning a special priesthood in the Church is altogether distinct. If it is true that “the reception of the idea of sacrifice led to the idea of the ecclesiastical priesthood” (loc. cit., p. 48), and that priesthood and sacrifice are reciprocal terms, then the proof of the Divine origin of the Catholic priesthood must be regarded as established, once it is shown that the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass is coeval with the beginnings and the essence of Christianity. In proof of this we may appeal even to the Old Testament. When the Prophet Isaias foresees the entrance of pagans into the Messianic Kingdom, he makes the calling of priests from the heathen (i.e. the non-Jews) a special characteristic of the new Church (Is., lxvi, 21): “And I will take of them to be priests and Levites, saith the Lord”. Now this non-Jewish (Christian) priesthood in the future Messianic Church presupposes a permanent sacrifice, namely that “clean oblation”, which from the rising of the sun even to the going down is to be offered to the Lord of hosts among the Gentiles (Mal., i, 11). The sacrifice of bread and wine offered by Melchisedech (cf. Gen., xiv, 18 sqq.), the prototype of Christ (cf. Ps. cix, 4; Heb., v, 5 sq.; vii, 1 sqq.), also refers prophetically, not only to the Last Supper, but also to its everlasting repetition in commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross (see MASS). Rightly, therefore, does the Council of Trent emphasize the intimate connection between the Sacrifice of the Mass and the priesthood (Sess. XXIII, cap. i, in Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, 10th ed., 957): “Sacrifice and priesthood are by Divine ordinance so inseparable that they are found together under all laws. Since therefore in the New Testament the Catholic Church has received from the Lord’s institution the holy visible sacrifice of the Eucharist it must also be admitted that in the Church there is a new, visible and external priesthood into which the older priesthood has been changed.” Surely this logic admits of no reply. It is, then, all the more extraordinary that Harnack should seek the origin of the hierarchical constitution of the Church, not in Palestine, but in pagan Rome. Of the Catholic Church he writes: “She continues ever to govern the peoples; her popes lord it like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. To Romulus and Remus succeeded Peter and Paul; to the proconsuls the archbishops and bishops. To the legions correspond the hosts of priests and monks; to the imperial bodyguard the Jesuits. Even to the finest details, even to her judicial organization, nay even to her very vestments, the continued influence of the ancient empire and of its institutions may be traced” (“Das Wesen d. Christentums”, Leipzig, 1902, p. 157). With the best of good will, we can recognize in this description only a sample of the writer’s ingenuity, for an historical investigation of the cited institutions would undoubtedly lead to sources, beginnings, and motives entirely different from the analogous conditions of the Empire of Rome.
But the Sacrifice of the Mass indicates only one side of the priesthood; the other side is revealed in the power of forgiving sin, for the exercise of which the priesthood is just as necessary as it is for the power of consecrating and sacrificing. Like the general power to bind and to loose (cf. Matt., xvi, 19; xviii, 18), the power of remitting and retaining sins was solemnly bestowed on the Church by Christ (cf. John, xx, 21 sqq.). Accordingly, the Catholic priesthood has the indisputable right to trace its origin in this respect also to the Divine Founder of the Church. Both sides of the priesthood were brought into prominence by the Council of Trent (loc. cit., n. 961): “If any one shall say that in the New Testament there is no visible and external priesthood nor any power of consecrating and offering the Body and Blood of the Lord, as well as of remitting and retaining sins, but merely the office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel, let him be anathema.” Far from being an “unjustifiable usurpation of Divine powers”, the priesthood forms so indispensable a foundation of Christianity that its removal would entail the destruction of the whole edifice. A Christianity without a priesthood cannot be the Church of Christ. This conviction is strengthened by consideration of the psychological impossibility of the Protestant assumption that from the end of the first century onward, Christendom tolerated without struggle or protest the unprecedented usurpation of the priests, who without credentials or testimony suddenly arrogated Divine powers with respect to the Eucharist, and, on the strength of a fictitious appeal to Christ, laid on baptized sinners the grievous burden of public penance as an indispensable condition of the forgiveness of sin.
As for the “universal priesthood”, on which Protestantism relies in its denial of the special priesthood, it may be said that Catholics also believe in a universal priesthood; this, however, by no means excludes a special priesthood but rather presupposes its existence, since the two are related as the general and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, the figurative and the real. The ordinary Christian cannot be a priest in the strict sense, for he can offer, not a real sacrifice, but only the figurative sacrifice of prayer. For this reason the historical dogmatic development did not and could not follow the course it would have followed if in the primitive Church two opposing trains of thought (i.e. the universal versus the special priesthood) had contended for supremacy until one was vanquished. The history of dogma attests, on the contrary, that both ideas advanced harmoniously through the centuries, and have never disappeared from the Catholic mind. As a matter of fact the profound and beautiful idea of the universal priesthood may be traced from Justin Martyr (Dial. cum Tryph., cxvi), Irenæus, (Adv. hær., IV, viii, 3), and Origen (“De orat.”, xxviii, 9; “In Levit.”, hom. ix, 1), to Augustine (De civit. Dei, XX, x) and Leo the Great (Sermo, iv, 1), and thence to St. Thomas (Summa, III, Q. lxxxii, a. 1) and the Roman Catechism. And yet all these writers recognized, along with the Sacrifice of the Mass, the special priesthood in the Church. The origin of the universal priesthood extends back, as is known, to St. Peter, who declares the faithful, in their character of Christians, “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices”, and “a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood” (I Peter, ii, 5, 9). But the very text shows that the Apostle meant only a figurative priesthood, since the “spiritual sacrifices” signify prayer and the term “royal” (regale, basileion) could have had but a metaphorical sense for the Christians. The Gnostics, Montanists, and Catharists, who, in their attacks on the special priesthood, had misapplied the metaphor, were just as illogical as the Reformers, since the two ideas, real and figurative priesthood, are quite compatible. It is clear from the foregoing that the Catholic clergy alone are entitled to the designation “priest”, since they alone have a true and real sacrifice to offer, the Holy Mass. Consequently, Anglicans who reject the Sacrifice of the Mass are inconsistent, when they refer to their clergy as “priests”. The preachers in Germany quite logically disclaim the title with a certain indignation. 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.