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Priesthood in Christian Unity

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

One of the most heartening features of the ecumenical movement among Christians separated from Rome is their re-examination of the status of the priesthood in the full concept of the Church, and their sincere desire to restore something of that priestly heritage which they lost at the time of the Reformation.

Needless to say this has considerable bearing on the reaction that the current movement towards Christian unity should evoke from the Catholic clergy. One of the reasons for the Reformation in the sixteenth century was the conduct of the clergy who professed to be Christian but denied that profession by their lives. To reverse history, the opposite has to take place, and no amount of learned discussion or ecumenical symposia can substitute for this indispensable need. The priest must show forth to the world which is not, and that he would like to have, united with the See of Peter--the evidence of holiness and the proof of apostolic zeal which speak more eloquently than words that Christ's mission of sanctification was entrusted through the apostles to the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

It should be a source of inspiration to grow in the likeness of Christ to know that more than ever in the past four hundred years the eyes of the non-Catholic Christian world are looking with close scrutiny at the conduct of priests, either to confirm their suspicions or change their convictions. Protestants have a long memory, and their classic authors are being studied as never before. In the latest (1960) critical edition of Calvin's Institutes is a graphic description of the condition of the clergy that, in his own words, cried to heaven for reform. It is the only cogent argument Calvin gives to disprove the divine origins of the Catholic priesthood.

What if we proceed to their morals? Where will that “light of the world” be that Christ requires? Where will that “salt of the earth”? Where that holiness which is, so to speak, an abiding standard of life? Today there is no order of men more notorious in excess, effeminacy, voluptuousness, in short, in all sorts of lusts; in no order are there masters more adept or skillful in every deceit, fraud, treason and treachery; nowhere is there as great cunning or boldness to do harm.
There is scarcely a bishop, and not one in a hundred parish priests, who, if his conduct were to be judged according to the ancient canons, would not be subject to excommunication or at least deposition from office. I seem to be saying something unbelievable--so far has that former discipline fallen into disuse which enjoined a more exacting censure of clergy; but this is entirely so. Let those who serve under their banners and protection of the Roman See go now and boast among themselves of the priestly order. The order that they have, it is clear, is neither from Christ, nor from the Apostles, nor from the Fathers, nor from the ancient Church. [1]

If this was the stock in trade of the Reformers, who argued from moral decadence in the clergy to a revolution in the dogmas under clerical control, the modern situation seems to be inverting the process. Among the areas of return to pre-reformation status currently urged among leading Protestants in Europe and America is some form of sacred ministry that rises above the role of a mere functionary and offers the people an approximation of the priesthood. The old bias against sacerdotalism has by no means disappeared, and the degree of “compromise” with Catholic doctrine differs widely, but the trend is unmistakable as one aspect of the ecumenical movement that deserves much more attention that it has received. Indeed, unless this tendency is recognized by Catholics and encouraged by their word and example, a cardinal issue that divides Catholic and Protestant Christianity will not be resolved.

Concept Of Sacrifice

One of the liveliest questions discussed by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches is the sense in which Eucharistic worship may rightly be considered sacrificial. Theologians in the evangelical and reformed traditions are perfectly conscious that Luther and Calvin rejected this idea on the ground that the sacrifice of Calvary had been offered once for all and was not to be repeated. But Protestant studies of both the New Testament and the patristic evidence have led to a reopening of the question, and it is asked whether sacrificial language does not appear in a new light when the idea of re-presentation replaces that of repetition, and when communion and offering are seen as two sides of the same thing.

With rare exception among the Anglicans, post-Reformation orders of worship contain almost no trace of this conception of sacrifice. Now it is being asked whether this should be remedied, and the sacrificial character of Holy Communion receive its due emphasis.

Doubt is cast upon the interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews traditional in Calvinist Churches, according to which the sacrifice at the heavenly altar is held to imply the abolition of sacrificial practice on earth. The Epistle is interpreted as justifying the idea, traditional in orthodox liturgical worship, that in the Eucharist the crucified, risen and ascended Lord unites His worshippers with Himself in His eternal self-offering to the Father. [2]

Strong objections are raised against interpretation along these lines, notably among the Reformed Churches and among evangelical elements in the Church of England. They maintain that the only sense in which the word sacrifice can be rightly used of Eucharistic worship is to describe an offering of praise and thanksgiving in gratitude for the blessings received from the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. In no sense whatever, according to the conservatives, should we think of Christ offering Himself to the Father, and nothing in the words or actions of liturgical practice should even suggest the idea.

Although the objectors are numerous and their arguments have weight to support the traditional view, they are being answered from within their own ranks by dedicated Calvinists who call for a radical change. The protest of the Reformation, they explain, was directed against the abuses of the Church of that time above all against the concept of merit, “which was actually even promised for the sacrifice of the Mass,” against traffic in religious commodities and the low moral conduct of the clergy. “So it came to the abolition of the office of priest, however long the expression itself remained current. The offertory was cut out of the order of the Mass and altars were broken down,” but with the result that “the idea of the Altar proved to be ineradicable.” Priesthood and altar, then, were set aside. “But has attention really been given to what the Scripture has to say about both? The sacrifice of our Lord once for all on Calvary was emphasized. As at one time against the Gnostics, the historicity of this sacrifice has rightly been underlined. Yet a solitary historical fact can be so tied to its place in history that it sinks into the past with just that place and hour.” This was a mistake.

When the Church of old conceived the idea of the Mass as representing the sacrifice of Calvary she intended to express something true. She knew the meaning of the anamnesis (Christ's words of Institution). Zwingli, too, spoke of the representation of Christ's work of salvation fidei contemplatione, and therefore of the realization of the sacrifice of Christ. Unfortunately, since his time this experience has not been made fruitful. The Church does not simply remember the death of the Lord; she “represents” the sacrifice itself, letting herself into the suffering and death of Christ, into His obedience. In that way she proclaims His death “until He come.”
The same is true of the priesthood. What is the biblical priest? Neither preacher nor teacher, but he who offers the sacrifice, i.e., of God's love. He is there for the others, their servant for Christ's sake. He is intercessor, too, and God's instrument in the work of forgiveness and of redeeming love. [3]

If the language of this new approach to sacrifice and the priesthood is still Protestant, the attitude behind it is clearly pre-reformational. Nor is it limited to theological exposition, but has found expression also in a revised Calvinist ritual. The new liturgies of Lausanne and Geneva have given a liturgical form to the collection of gifts for the Church. For the first time an offertory is introduced and concluded by appropriate words pronounced by the officiating minister, and the Lausanne ritual specified that the alms should be placed on the Holy Table with a sacrificial prayer.

More significantly, one of the new Genevan formularies for the Lord's Supper brings back the pre-Reformation scheme of the Eucharistic canon, and supplements the words of consecration with a statement that was unknown in Calvinist liturgy until modern times.

We remember, then, O our God, the sufferings and the death of Thy Son. His Resurrection and His Ascension, and while awaiting His return, we praise Thee for having regarded the sacrifice which He offered on the Cross once for all, and accepted His perpetual intercession on our behalf in the heavens. Receive also the homage of our hearts which offer themselves to Thee and consecrate themselves to Thy service in a living and holy sacrifice. [4]

Reformed liturgists point out this is the first time in their history that “the great theological idea so familiar to Catholics finds entry, though as yet in embryonic form,” namely, the idea of a mystical relation between the liturgical act of the Lord's Supper and the eternal oblation which Christ the High Priest continually makes of His death to the heavenly Father.

Function Of The Sacraments

Comparable to the changing climate as regards the Eucharistic sacrifice is a new esteem for the sacramental system that Protestants on every dogmatic level are discovering.

Paul Tillich could hardly be accused of softness toward Catholicism or of compromising on what he considers the essence of Protestantism, namely the claim to stand in judgment on every human agency and institution in the name of God. Yet in his treatment of “nature and Sacrament” Tillich is sharply critical of his coreligionists for going too far in the laudable effort to strip the Catholic sacraments of their ex opere operato attributes. He regrets that “most of the sacramental features of the Catholic tradition have been radically questioned by Protestantism; indeed, they have been abandoned on Protestant soil.” The consequences have been disastrous.

The process of reduction has not stopped with this. In the course of its history Protestantism has become so indifferent to sacramental thinking that even the two remaining sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper) have lost their significance, with the result that only the word has retained a genuinely sacramental character.
In the revival of Reformation theology in our day, the word plays an immense role, whereas the sacraments play no role whatsoever. It is fairly evident that the Protestant sacraments are disappearing. To be sure, they can still have a long life simply because of the conservative character of all sacral forms. And then, too, renaissances of one sort or another are by no means beyond the range of possibility. But the one thing needful is that the whole Protestant attitude toward the sacraments be changed. [5]

To his mind, “the phenomenal growth of secularism in Protestant countries can be explained partly as a result of the weakening of the sacramental power within Protestantism.” And while he does not suggest a return to the “magical sacramentalism” of Rome, he urges the solution of a problem on which, he says, “the very destiny of Protestantism depends.” No living religion can survive, once it loses faith in the power of natural elements to symbolise and in some mysterious way communicate the divine energy.

Another American theologian, Robert McAfee Brown, confesses that the Reformers had a relatively negative attitude toward the sacraments, which needs to be balanced by one that is more positive. He sees in such positivism one of the hidden resources for a renewal of the true spirit of Protestantism.

A proper Protestant concern for the sacraments offers a further resource for a positive approach to culture. It can be argued that a high doctrine of culture will go hand in hand with a high doctrine of the sacraments, and that where the sacraments are belittled, the Christian appreciation of culture will likewise suffer. The Roman Catholic stress on the sacraments may well be one of the reasons why Roman Catholicism has usually had richer cultural concerns than Protestantism.
Without going the full length of accepting all that Catholics teach about sacramental activity, acknowledgement of deficiency on this crucial point “can prod us to examine ways in which a Protestant understanding of the sacraments can contribute to a Protestant appreciation of culture.” [6]

If this concession from a Presbyterian source seems mild, other denominations are more explicit in their newly found reverence for the sacraments and a new desire to implement their use among the faithful. Lutherans are going back to their Symbolical Books, sifting out of them every favorable reference to the sacraments, dropping or re-interpreting statements critical of sacramental efficacy and, in general, leaving the impression of searching for a substance that belongs to the Christian faith.

In 1952 a composite study was made of “What the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church Have to Say about Worship and the Sacraments.” It is a revealing document. Arguing that the number of sacraments varied with different theologians down to the end of the Middle Ages, Lutherans find that the Symbolical Books--Luther's Catechisms, Augsburg Confession, Formula of Concord, and the Smalcald Articles--commit themselves to no specific number. Two new sets of terms are introduced, “major-- minor,” and “essential--secondary,” to describe the difference between the traditional Catholic number of seven and the ordinary Protestant idea of only two sacraments.

As a result, all seven sacraments are somehow replaced within the ambit of Lutheran theology. Two sacraments are essential, Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, to which is added “the sacrament of Repentance” as a third “major” sacrament. Moreover the Symbolical Books are said to “expressly concede the designation of sacrament to Holy Ordination.” But then a curious admission that “the minister of the Sacrament of Order may, but need not be, except for the sake of love and peace in the Church, in bishop's orders. Episcopacy is not a universal, apostolic tradition.” [7]

The stand on Holy Orders reflects a growing tension in the Lutheran Churches between the Romanizing and Evangelical elements. The former argue to the need for a full-blown episcopacy, with power to ordain coming directly from the institution by Christ; the latter would have ministers remain what Protestant tradition has made them, delegates of the people who have no intrinsic sacerdotal power beyond the common possession of all baptized Christians.

Matrimony is likewise admitted, “with qualifications,” to belong among the sacraments. “Wherefore, if anyone wants to call it a sacrament, he ought still to differentiate it from the preceding ones.” While Confirmation and Holy Unction require a special apology, nevertheless they also “could be called sacraments…in an improper sense of the term,” as “rites received from the Fathers, which even the Church does not require as necessary for salvation.” [8]

True to Reformation principles, the sacraments are said not to confer grace ex opere operato, but in explaining what this means Lutherans defend the baptism of children before the age when they can furnish the ex opere operantis, on the score that “if God did not accept the Baptism of infants. He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them.” [9] Since He does, therefore Baptism must take effect even without a positive contribution on the part of the child baptized.

Illustrative of the increased sacramental awareness in Protestantism and its parallel desire for more than a functional ministry is the mounting literature on the subject of “sacramental healing,” as a counterpart to the sacrament of extreme unction. The Pentecostal groups on the basis of a very literal acceptance of Scripture have made healing an integral part of their church life. Many ministers in the Episcopalian Church have adopted anointing and prayer for the sick, and in the 1928 revision of the American Book of Common Prayer was introduced the optional ritual for “Unction of the Sick.” The rubric reads, “When any sick person shall in humble faith desire the ministry of healing through Anointing or Laying on of Hands, the Minister may use such portion of the foregoing office (for the sick) as he shall think fit, and the following.”

O Blessed Redeemer, relieve, we beseech Thee, by Thy indwelling power, the distress of this Thy servant. Release him from sin, and drive away all pain of soul and body, that being restored to soundness of health, he may offer Thee praise and thanksgiving, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
I anoint thee with oil (or I lay my hand upon thee). In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all thy pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored unto thee. [10]

However, not only Episcopalians but others, like the Presbyterians, advocate and occasionally practice “anointing of the sick.” The reasons for considering this a sacrament are drawn from the Bible.

A sacrament is an ordinance enjoined by our Lord Himself, in which a visible element is used as the sign and seal of the reception of a spiritual blessing. In the New Testament we find Jesus sending forth His disciples to anoint in Mark 6:13, as He sent them to baptize in Matthew 28:19, and we find the elders of the Church anointing with oil and praying for the sick in James 5:13-16. The visible element is the oil, which in Scripture is a sign of the Holy Spirit. This oil is communicated by the hands of the pastor, and the laying on of hands is a scriptural symbol of the communication of the power of the Holy Spirit.
In answer to a possible objection, “Healing is most assuredly a spiritual blessing for two reasons: first, it comes through the Holy Spirit; and second, it is ordinarily accompanied by a sense of forgiveness. In these two aspects, sacramental healing is similar to sacramental Baptism and the sacramental Lord's Supper.” [11]

Clergy And The Laity

Ingrained in Protestantism is the notion of a universal priesthood of all believers. The magna charta of this theory is Martin Luther's Appeal to the German Nobility, made in 1520, when he declared, “there has been a fiction by which the Pope, bishops, priests and monks are called the 'spiritual estate'; princes, lords, artisans, and peasants are the 'temporal estate.' This is an artful lie and hypocritical invention, but let no one be made afraid by it, and that for this reason: that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office.” [12]

But much has happened since that declaration. By returning to the Bible the Reformers found there that Christ is the only Head of the Church, ruling the whole Church by His Spirit. They thus eliminated all gradation of powers, rights, and authority, and were determined to have done with the system of a hierarchy and the identification of the Church with the priestly-sacramental clergy. The Church for them was a body of believers and forgiven sinners.

In reorganizing the Church, however, their main attention was to avoid and remove what they considered flagrant abuses and corruptions of the dominant system. So that many Protestants feel “the Reformer's thinking on the Church did not become fully Biblical, because quite understandably in the stress and heat of battle it was strongly determined by protest and polemics. Moreover, Luther's defiant words, that every baptized Christian had the power which the Pope, bishops and priests had, hid some pitfalls.” [13]

Along with its opposition to the radical distinction between the clergy and laity, the Reformation also laid heavy stress on correct “pure” teaching as the sustaining nourishment of the Church, which required a specially qualified group of bearers of this office. At the same time, at least two of the sacraments were retained, and their administration in practice, if not in theory, was reserved for ministers. There consequently arose within Protestantism “an inner ambiguity in the whole conception of the 'ministry,' because on the one hand it tended toward a re-establishment of a kind of clergy, whereas on the other hand the abolition of the distinction between 'clergy' and 'laity' was, at least in principle, maintained.” [14]

Ministers continued to be ordained as before, and the dividing line between the people and the clergy remained substantially unchanged. No doubt laymen acquired status in the Protestant Churches, which they never enjoyed under Rome, and the degree of lay control of church policy and doctrine became more or less, depending of how consistently the basic theory of a universal priesthood was applied. But the essential difference stayed, and no amount of theorizing to the contrary had altered the fact.

Two vastly different trends are now seen among Protestant theologians in reacting to the status quo. Some are indignant that after four hundred years the Churches still show the practical recognition of a secondary status of the “laity” in comparison with the ministry, the breeding of passivity in the laity as a whole, and stressing the importance of “office” and “ordination” among the clergy. This reaction is most prominent in the Free Church and Congregational traditions, where creedalism is least important and the local churches have ultimate authority.

Another and more dominant reaction has been to recognize the facts of history, admit that persistence of a clerical order answers to an inner religious need, and seek to restore the meaning of the ministry to something of its status before the Reformation. This trend is visible in practice by the amazing proportion of transfers from non-episcopal Churches (Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists) to Protestant Churches, which maintain a historic episcopate (Methodists and Episcopalians). Fully one-half the clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church has come to it from other denominations, whereas one seldom hears of the reverse. Observers see in this a clear sign of restlessness throughout the Protestant world for some adjustment to traditional, i.e., pre-Reformation, positions on a historic episcopate.

This is further reflected in the unprecedented rise among the non-episcopal traditions of what some have called “pseudo-bishops.” There has been extensive development in Presbyterianism of the extra-constitutional office of General Presbyter or Presbytery Executive. Field secretaries, synodical presidents, ministeriurn chairmen, and similar officials have gradually developed in Churches that until recently kept aloof from anything resembling a hierarchy. The current movement to unite with the Episcopalians elicited a widespread response among Presbyterians favoring merger, on the grounds that in this way the Churches of John Calvin would regain a hierarchical structure. “Contemporary and historical experience,” it is said, “would seem to indicate that some form of episcopal order is 'natural' to the Church,” and “in any visibly catholic Church, such is inevitable.” Assuming that Presbyterians want visible unity, “surely the most expressive and feasible way of setting forth the visible catholicity of the local congregation is for it to be closely related to a fairly local bishop.” The character of this desired hierarchy is further delineated.

Such an episcopacy would of necessity have to be historically related. It would have to be an elected office, though thoroughly stable, and one vested with considerable authority in congregations, and also between congregations. It should be an episcopacy free to draw upon the riches of episcopal practice or not, as in the United Church of South India. And such an episcopacy could form a national synod, together with houses of laity and parochial clergy, to supervise--again with some authority--any program or executive emphasis. But above all else, this would be episcopacy that would become the focus of the catholicity, the visible catholicity, which in the signs of the times seems to be an imperative for the Church in our own day and time. [15]

In the light of these and similar re-appraisals of the centuries-old theology of the Reformation on the universal priesthood of the laity, we are less surprised to find periodic signs of respect or of what Reinhold Niebuhr called “envy” of the Catholic strength in unity under a corporate hierarchy terminating in the papacy. A little-publicized commission of the Church of England made a lengthy report to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Fisher), in which it stated that

The easy way in which the Reformers simply wrote off the Papacy even as a possibility, illustrates the extent to which they ignored from the outset both the New Testament doctrine of the Universal Church as an inherent part of the Gospel, and the inheritance of the Divine-human society in the here-and-now of history. If such an institution as the Universal Church is to exist, as more than a sentiment and an ideal, then some such central institution would seem to be more than just a convenience. It is at least a pragmatic necessity. [16]

Equally challenging sentiments are heard among the Evangelicals in Europe and lately in America. “Evangelical Christendom,” the leaders of the German Sammlung state in their declaration of principles, “must learn that the Bishop, having at their head the possessor of the Petrine office, make decisions with the authority of the Holy Ghost, which are binding in conscience for the individual Christian.” [17]

For the first time since the Reformation a large and influential segment of Protestantism is examining one of its major premises, that by divine foundation the Church of Christ is not composed of two distinct categories, the clergy and laity, nor subject, under God, to a visible authority vested in the bishop under the successor of St. Peter. The examination going on is not sporadic but has been growing in significance since the turn of the century, when the present World Council of Churches was first conceived. Its implications for Christian unity are momentous, and one of the functions of the Second Vatican Council is to give this generous self-appraisal the encouragement and direction it deserves.


  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 5, 14.

  2. Ways of Worship (Report of Theological Commission of Faith and Order), London, 1951, p. 34.

  3. Ibid. (Artur Graf, Reformed Church of Switzerland), p. 239.

  4. Collection Eglise et Liturgie, no, 1.

  5. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, Chicago, 1959, pp. 111f.

  6. Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, New York, 1961, p. 193.

  7. Arthur C. Piepkorn, Worship and the Sacraments, St. Louis, 1952, p. 17.

  8. Ibid., p. 18.

  9. Ibid., p. 26.

  10. The Book of Common Prayer (According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America), New York, 1944, p. 320.

  11. William H. Anderson, "Sacramental Healing," Christianity Today (Jan. 30, 1961), p. 9.

  12. Documents of the Christian Church, New York, 1947, p. 274.

  13. Henrik Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, London, 1958, p. 72.

  14. Ibid., pp. 72f.

  15. Horace T. Allen. "One Visibly Catholic Church," Theology Today (October, 1961), pp. 322f.

  16. The Examiner (Bombay), December 16, 1961.

  17. Declaration of Principles of the League for Evangelical-Catholic Reunion (Weisental, Germany), VI.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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