The insistence on “active participation” by the faithful in the liturgical reform has revealed that the reformed Missal aims to replace the action of the priest and his sacerdotal character, with that of the people of God and the common priesthood of the faithful. This article asks questions about this notion and its significance.
Can one speak of a common priesthood of the faithful?
Modernists say that Holy Scripture, in the first chapter of St. Peter (I Pet. 2:5, 9-10) and in the book of the Apocalypse (Apoc. 5:9-10), speaks of a common priesthood of all the members of the Church, who are called priests. The Fathers of the Church speak in the same manner.
They add that Pius XII said in Mediator Dei, that, in the setting of the liturgy, the faithful offer the sacrifice of the Mass with the celebrant, and the sacrifice of the Mass is a sacrifice in the proper sense.
Further, considering that the priest is the one who participates in the priesthood of Christ, the baptized should be designated as priest, according to a true analogy.
This is why Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council in §10 explains that “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.”
It seems that, by these expressions, they safeguard the fact that these two priesthoods claim to be such in the proper sense and the fact that there is an essential difference between them, not only of degree.
The Importance of Rigorous Terminology
St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting St. Jerome, remarks: “words spoken amiss lead to heresy” (Summa III, 16, 8). The Angelic Doctor adds: “hence with us and heretics the very words ought not to be in common, lest we seem to countenance their error.”
We must always be very careful to make a distinction between the proper sense of words and a possible extension of meaning, through which the original expression no longer claims to be incorrect.
Thus the question is one of knowing if the term “priesthood” can be used in its proper sense to designate the part that the simple baptized faithful takes in divine worship? But also if it is suitable to use the term “priesthood” to designate this activity of the simple baptized faithful?
The Priesthood Has an Essential Relationship with Worship
The priesthood is about worship. But is it about liturgical or non-liturgical worship?
Liturgical worship is the public worship of God made by the Church, acting as an ordained society. The orders of the ecclesiastical society as instituted by God consist in liturgical worship exercised in the active manner by those who have received the character of the sacrament of holy orders to this effect.
The baptized faithful have received the character of the sacrament of baptism, which is a passive power, not an active one, through which they take part in this worship under the direction of the priests.
Priests and the faithful receive thus a participation in the priesthood of Christ, but in different ways, the first as ministers of Christ and the proper agents of the liturgy, and the second as member of Christ and of the Church as directed by the priests in the liturgical setting.
Non-liturgical worship is an act of the virtue of religion that all member of the Church possess by reason of the grace of their baptism. This virtue is the active principal of all the private acts of worship, which are called “sacrifice” in reference to the perfect act of worship which is the liturgical act.
Pius XII taught in Mediator Dei that, “by the ‘character’ which is imprinted on their souls, [baptized Christians] are appointed to give worship to God. Thus they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ.” (§88)
But at the same time, the encyclical Mediator Dei never uses the expression “priesthood” to describe this activity of the faithful and avoids designating the simple baptized as “priests.” This precaution on the level of vocabulary is easily explained, because of the Lutheran heresy.
The magisterium insists especially on controlling the part that the faithful can take in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and on presenting their activity as essentially distinct from that which properly belongs to the priest signed with the character of holy orders, and which, as such, is defined as the sacerdotal act.
Pius XII said subsequently that if one speaks of a certain “priesthood” of the faithful, this expression denotes only a simply honorific title and that there is an essential difference between the reality of this personal and secret (spiritual) priesthood and the true and proper priesthood.
A Dangerous Omission
This last clarification disappeared from the text of §10 of Lumen Gentium: the common priesthood there is presented as essentially different from the ministerial priesthood, but this difference is no longer designated as that which exists between a spiritual priesthood and a “true and proper” priesthood.
This omission runs counter to Pius XII’s teaching in the measure in which it authorizes defining the common priesthood of the faithful as a priesthood in the proper sense of the term. What Mediator Dei had elucidated and clarified, Lumen gentium rendered obscure and ambiguous.
In conforming to the teachings of Pius XII, we must conclude that the baptized faithful in no way can be designated as “priests” in the true and proper sense of the term and that we cannot truly and properly speak of a “priesthood of the faithful.”
At most, we can speak of a certain spiritual or mystical priesthood, inappropriately, as a purely honorific title.
This expression can designate the part taken by the baptized in the priesthood of Christ, in the form of liturgical worship, and which is essentially distinct from that taken by the actual priests, bearing the character of holy orders. It can also designate, in a metaphorical way, the activity of the virtue of religion in the form of non-liturgical worship.
The expressions of St. Peter are being understood in an inaccurate sense: as metaphors.
Pius XII, in a discourse in 1954, said that a priest in the proper sense is the one who offers sacrifice in the proper sense, the act of liturgical worship. This cannot be the case for the simple baptized faithful.
They say that they accomplish spiritual sacrifices in a metaphorical sense, in the sense where all of their good works in general are accomplished with an intention that corresponds to the four ends of a proper sacrifice (adoration, thanksgiving, expiation, and impetration).
As to the offering that they carry out during the Mass, even if its material object is sacrificial in the strict sense, it is essentially different from that which is carried out by the priest and which is defined formally as an actual priestly act.
“But the conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible liturgical rite; for this is the privilege only of the minister who has been divinely appointed to this office: rather it is based on the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with the prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father.” (Mediator Dei, 93)
It should be clarified that the character of the sacrament of baptism is a participation in the priesthood of Christ, to the extent that it is equivalent to a passive power, which enables its subject to receive the benefits of the priestly action, as a member of the Church.
The participation in the priesthood of Christ happens in various ways and this is why the characters of baptism and confirmation differ in essence from the character of holy orders (Summa III, 63,6).
Thus, when we speak of a certain “priesthood” with regard to the faithful, that must be understood in the same way as when we speak of the art of medicine with regard to the sick; we can say that the art of medicine is realized at the same time in the doctor who acts as derivative of an active principle (he heals) and in the patients who receive it, through a passive principle, proportionate to the active principle (they are healed).
Finally, there is an essential difference (and not only of degree) between the principle that defines the activity of the hierarchy of orders and the principle that defines the activity of the simple baptized faithful. But this difference is not the one that exists between two priesthoods in the proper and true sense of the term.
The simple baptized do not possess any true and authentic priesthood, in the proper sense of the term, not even a type of priesthood distinct from the ministerial priesthood, which has “an essential difference and not only of degree” with the latter. Pius XII says that the “priesthood” of which one can speak as proper to the baptized faithful equates simply to an honorable title.
We can thus speak of a “priesthood” or “priest” with regards to the simple faithful in two inappropriate ways: either by metaphor, or by an external comparison. But one cannot say “priest” through a true and proper resemblance.
The metaphor is founded on the exercise of the virtue of religion: the faithful is said to be “priest” in the sense where he exercises all his good works with the intention of adoring and thanking God, of repairing the offences committed against Him, and of meriting His blessings.
The external comparison is based on the character of baptism: we can speak of “priesthood” with regard to the faithful by name, insofar as the faithful are able to have the priest act upon them in the name of God, and to act before God in their name.
But this genre of comparison authorizes at best an affirmation under the adjective mode: the faithful cannot be called “people of priests”; one can only call them strictly speaking “priestly people.”
In the same way, the one who is healed by the medical arts can be called “doctor” by name, but that authorizes only as predicate an adjective – “patient doctored” – and not a substantive—“doctor patient.”