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Lost in Translation? Rebuilding a Comprehensive Christian Theology of Priesthood

“Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.” In these lines, drawn from his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, On the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis – at the risk of stating the obvious – recalls a fundamental insight into the nature of the ordained priesthood. Rebuilding the church in the present crisis will require a serious effort to retrieve and integrate it more fully into a balanced theology of the priesthood – that of the ordained and that of the baptized faithful.

Francis has frequently insisted that the roots of the present crisis in the church lie in the culture of clericalism. The features of this culture, ingrained in the habits of many clergy and lay people alike, include a pretense of superiority by priests that is often met by an excessive attitude of deference or passive acquiescence on the part of the laity. In a world of “father knows best,” priests often infantilize, fail to listen or to respect laypersons, excluding them systematically from processes of decision-making. Perhaps the most pernicious feature, the most difficult to root out, is the way in which it conveys a false and distorted sense of holiness, supported by an ostensibly traditional theology of priesthood. More than a generation of men have been schooled in Catholic seminary training into thinking that they belong to a sacred caste, defined by an “ontological” difference – a different kind of being – as if floating in some rarified world of grace unattainable to the remaining community of the baptized.

This portrait of the ordained priesthood is rooted in a highly selective reading of Vatican II’s teaching and ignores at least a millennium of tradition. It is most often grounded in a line in the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms: “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, though they differ in essence and not only in degree, are nevertheless interrelated [ …] the ministerial priest, through the sacred power he enjoys, forms and governs the priestly people; in the person of Christ he brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers this to God in the name of the whole people” (LG 10). These lines appear in the chapter of the Constitution devoted to the vocation of the entire people of God, all of whom participate in the priestly, prophetic and royal offices of Christ through baptism, a participation that grounds their “common dignity” and equality (LG 32). Where conciliar teaching underlines the interdependence of the priesthood of the laity and that of the ordained, and points to their participation in Christ, more recent interpretations of this text insist on their fundamental difference and on the ordained minister’s role as “another Christ” (alter Christus), having lost sight of his call to serve the priestly people, all of whom also share in the one priesthood of Christ, in whose image they have been conformed through baptism (Rom 6:1-14; 8:29-30;  2 Cor 3:18; 1 Jn 3:2; Col 3:10).

When we step back and consider the whole of the council’s teaching, we find, if not a fully developed or systematic theology of the ordained priesthood, elements of a more biblical and traditional understanding of ministry. In the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, we discover that the prayer of the church is “the enacting of the priestly role of Jesus Christ” (LG 7). It is primarily the action of Christ, our one high priest. Citing Augustine, the Constitution insists that it is Christ who baptizes, who speaks to us through the word, who offers himself in the bread and wine with and through the praise of the gathered people. Augustine was deeply aware that no minister of the church is referred to as “priest” in the New Testament. This term was reserved for Christ, our great “high priest,” in the Letter to the Hebrews, who through his total gift of self offered once and for all the perfect sacrifice to God (Heb 9:11-28). Our prayer adds nothing to his gift but draws us into the pattern of his self-giving love. The term “priest” is then applied to the whole people of God who form “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). The prayer of the church is thus understood as the action of the “whole Christ,” head and members of his ecclesial body. The progression of the council’s theology begins from the one priesthood of Christ, and proceeds to consider the vocation of the priestly people. Only then does it consider how the priesthood of the ordained serves the unfolding of the call of the whole people, to which they still belong. The catechism sums it up by saying, “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC 1547).

The council fathers opted to follow the pattern of the scriptures and the early Christian tradition in the language of the council documents by reserving the term “priest” (sacerdos) most often for the actions of Christ and of the whole people of God, while the ordained minister is referred to as “presbyter” (presbyteros), the elder or minister. This distinction, and hence the priority and agency of the priestly people of God, has been lost in translation. Thus, the “Decree on the Life and Ministry of Presbyters,” a reflection on the order of presbyters, is most frequently translated as a decree “on the Life and Ministry of Priests.” This may appear on the surface as a small point, a minor distinction. I would suggest that much more has been lost in translation that we might have realized. Restoring a sound theology of both the common priesthood of the baptized – with all the agency that it implies, and the priesthood of the ordained, will require the corrective a more careful and comprehensive study of these elements of the biblical and early Christian traditions.


Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

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