The priest is not an angel sent from heaven. He is a man, a member of the Church, a Christian. Remaining man and Christian, he begins to speak to you the word of God. This word is not his own. No, he comes to you because God has told him to proclaim God’s word. Perhaps he has not entirely understood it himself. Perhaps he adulterates it. Perhaps he falters and stammers. How else could he speak God’s Word, ordinary man that he is? But must not some one of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being; must not some one of us speak of sin, the judgement and mercy of God? (Karl Rahner)

Anyone familiar with Pope Francis is aware that a recurring theme of his papacy is his challenge of clericalism in its varied forms — i.e., seminarians purchasing cassocks, lace, and birettas, even well before the day of ordination, the pastor as “little monster,” the dictatorial and know-it-all posture, treating the parish as his own little kingdom, the sanctuary as stage, little sense of the priestly and consecrated role of the laity, the elite clerical boys club, etc. I often wonder whether the necessary conditions are there for some clergy in particular to understand just what it is he is talking about. Some do, but there are more than a few who have no clue.

It would be interesting indeed to study the rise of this particular phenomenon in the Latin West, to attempt to account for the factors that gave rise to it and that make it such a difficult disease to eradicate. But one idea that I do believe might very well be a factor in the institutionalization of clericalism is the notion that the priest is ontologically superior to the faithful.

I am going to argue that the notion of priest as ontologically superior to the rest of the faithful is a myth. The word “ontological” refers to that branch of philosophy that studies being not insofar as it is physical, or psychological, or logical, etc., but being insofar as it exists. The principles of this science are essence and existence. An animal, such as a dog or a horse, is ontologically superior to a rosebush or a watermelon. The reason is that animals have superior faculties that plants lack. A human being is ontologically superior to a brute animal; for the human person is capable of an activity that transcends sense perception, namely intellectual activity. Moreover, an angel is ontologically superior to a human being, and of course God is ontologically perfect (His nature is to exist).

Now, the argument for the ontological superiority of the priest is grounded in the principle that agere sequitur esse, that is, action follows upon being. Activity is the realization of a potentiality or power, and we only come to understand the nature of a thing through its activity, for a being acts according to its nature: plants grow and reproduce; animals enjoy the specific powers of external and internal sensation which plants lack; human beings possess all of these but they are able to think and choose freely. At ordination, a person is given the power to transubstantiate, that is, to change ordinary bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, an act that is outside the natural capacity of a human being as such. Hence, it is argued that the priest is ontologically different from — and superior to, since it is a superior action — those who are not priests.

But this is not quite right. For it is Christ who transubstantiates, for the priest is acting in persona Christi, and for the same reason it is Christ who forgives sins, just as it is Christ, not the charismatic healer, who heals: “Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.” He got up at once (Acts 9:34; cf. Ps 44:4-9). The priest remains ontologically a human being, of the same nature as every other human being. He is ordained to a specific end, marked for that end, but he is not ontologically different, much less superior. Acting in persona Christi does not render him ontologically superior to the faithful; for he depends entirely on Christ’s action. But an ontologically superior creature does not depend on any being in order to exercise his essentially superior faculty, like sense perception, imagination, or intelligence as in the case of man. As St. Thomas points out: .”..the nature of an instrument as such is to be moved by another, but not to move itself” (ST, III, q. 63, a. 5, ad 2.). The priest depends on Christ as an instrument depends on the agent in order to carry out what it was recruited to carry out. In section 1551 of the Catechism, we read:

This priesthood is ministerial. “That office … which the Lord committed to the pastors of his people, is in the strict sense of the term a service.” It is entirely related to Christ and to men. It depends entirely on Christ and on his unique priesthood; it has been instituted for the good of men and the communion of the Church. The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a “sacred power” which is none other than that of Christ.

The language around the discussion of priesthood is instrumental and functional, and higher or lower function does not necessarily amount to ontological difference. In other words, although ontological difference implies an essentially different function, it does not follow that an essentially different function implies ontological difference (all a is b, but it does not follow that all b is a). For example, a human being can carry a heavy load and walk a number of miles down a long and winding road that requires familiarity with the terrain and an ability to reason by inference. However, he can also recruit a donkey to carry that same load for him and walk the same number of miles in the same direction, under the necessary guidance of his intelligence. The donkey does not thereby become ontologically superior to his fellow donkeys — he’s still a jackass. One could say that its actions are ennobled, for they require a faculty the animal lacks, namely the ability to inference, but properly speaking, its acts on the whole are the acts of the human being that owns, recruits, governs, and employs the donkey as an instrument.

The charismatic healer does not know whether or how a miraculous healing has taken place, nor is she aware that she is the agent of such healing–because she isn’t the agent, but the instrument through whom Christ, the agent, heals. She simply believes that her prayer is being heard, but she cannot account for the healing. Similarly, the priest cannot in any way account for what we believe is happening on the altar (the changing of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood). He is not even aware that it has happened, because he is not the agent of the change; rather, he believes, like everyone else, that what he is distributing is in fact Christ’s body and blood. The artist knows precisely how to paint or sculpt; and she is aware of what is happening through her hands, for the work is unfolding through her own agency. But transubstantiation does not occur through the agency of the priest as such, but through the agency of Christ, just as my sins are forgiven not through the agency of the priest as such, but through Christ, whose visible instrument the priest is. The priest is no greater, ontologically speaking, than any other human being. That his unworthy hands are used by Christ is a sign of Christ’s humility, not the cleric’s supposed ontological superiority.

It is Christ who is ontologically superior, because Christ is both human and divine, in one hypostasis, that is, one Person, the Person of God the Son. Jesus is not a human person, although he has a human nature; he is not two persons, but One, the Person of the Son. The ministerial priest is an instrument, Christ’s instrument, who in very specific situations acts not in his own person, but in the person of Christ (in persona Christi). Christ is both priest and victim in the Mass; not the ministerial priest. In other words, it is Christ who offers himself (Priest), and it is Christ who is offered (Victim). What takes place in the Mass is happening by virtue of the agency of Christ and through the instrumentality of the ministerial priest (CCC 1548).

The sacramental character conferred in Baptism and Confirmation does not render the baptized or the confirmand ontologically superior to the unbaptized. The baptized are indeed changed, elevated, made children of God, because parent and child have the same nature, and a baptized child is filled with divine grace, which is a sharing in the divine nature. But, as Father Pieter Fransen writes: “grace sets our deepest humanity free, precisely because it restores our most authentic humanity to us and by this means humanizes us to an eminent degree” (Divine Grace and Man, 173). Later scholasticism began to give the sacramental character an ontological status, but no council has ever affirmed that theology. He writes:

“There is no common doctrine of the character in theology. The most restrictive definition makes it simply the impossibility of re-ordination, while the tendency to enhance it has produced a sort of complex metaphysical superstructure, due, as we think, to a very jejune theology of grace….The tendency in question has promoted a mythic theology of the priesthood which places it on a higher level of being than the rest of the faithful, a metaphysical clericalism which is responsible for barring the way to many reforms at the present time….The character is a “signum quoddam spiritale et indelebile; unde ea iterari non possunt” [a certain spiritual and indelible sign; hence they cannot be repeated] (DS 1609; cf. 1313; D 852, 695). But the scope of Trent’s definition is different from that of Florence, though the enunciation is the same. Trent was concerned above all with defending the reality of the ministry against certain reformers who wished to suppress the distinction between the community and the minister. But it would be an abuse of the text and a disregard of the intentions of the Council to take this definition as a dogmatic crystallization of scholastic speculation.” (Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi. S.v. Orders and Ordination, p. 1146-1147).

The word Aquinas employs within this discussion is “deputed” (deputamur), which means to appoint, to delegate, which includes the conferral of a degree of authority. It is by these sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination) that a person is delegated, and they are given the power to carry out what they have been delegated to carry out.

Aquinas writes:

The sacraments of the New Law produce a character, in so far as by them we are deputed to the worship of God according to the rite of the Christian religion. …Now the worship of God consists either in receiving Divine gifts, or in bestowing them on others. And for both these purposes some power is needed; for to bestow something on others, active power is necessary; and in order to receive, we need a passive power. Consequently, a character signifies a certain spiritual power ordained unto things pertaining to the Divine worship (ST, III, q. 63. A. 2.).

This character, whether conferred in Baptism, Confirmation, or Holy Orders, is instrumental. As Aquinas writes, “it must be observed that this spiritual power is instrumental of the virtue which is in the sacraments. For to have a sacramental character belongs to God’s ministers: and a minister is a kind of instrument” (ST, III, q. 63, a. 2). Those who are marked by the sacramental character (of Baptism, Confirmation, or Holy Orders) are marked as being ordained to some particular end, as “soldiers are marked with a character as being deputed to military service.” A soldier marked with a character as being deputed to military service is changed not ontologically, but accidentally. These characters are essentially participations in Christ’s Priesthood, and so the supernatural actions made possible by them arise not from the very being or nature of the baptized, confirmand, or ordained minister, but they flow from Christ Himself. Aquinas writes:

Each of the faithful is deputed to receive, or to bestow on others, things pertaining to the worship of God. And this, properly speaking, is the purpose of the sacramental character. Now the whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ’s priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to whose character the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ’s Priesthood, flowing from Christ Himself (ST, III, q. 63, a. 3).

Again, the principal agent of the instrumental power is not the official priest. If it were, he would indeed be ontologically different and thus superior: “But an instrumental power follows rather the condition of the principal agent: and consequently a character exists in the soul in an indelible manner, not from any perfection of its own, but from the perfection of Christ’s Priesthood, from which the character flows like an instrumental power” (ST, III, q. 63, a. 5, ad. 1).

Those who hold that the priest is ontologically superior are careful to stress that the state of priesthood does not justify clericalism. The obvious question, however, is why not? Clericalism is its logical outcome, if it were true that the rite of ordination renders him ontologically superior. The notion is fraught with dangers on all sides. There is no justification for putting in the minds of young men studying for the priesthood the notion that upon their ordination they will be rendered ontologically special, especially if we do not wish to see a return of the old clericalism. The result cannot be anything but an intolerable Phariseeism so contrary to the movement of the spiritual life, which is always a movement towards a deeper recognition that “I am no better than anyone else.” To be fair, it is argued that “better” and “ontological superiority” are distinct and that the one does not imply the other — i.e., Mary is “better,” that is, holier than the angels, who are ontologically superior. But let us grant this for the sake of argument; that would mean that although a scandalously sinful priest is ontologically superior to Mary, she is superior in her very moral identity (character), for she possesses superior holiness, superior humility and charity, and a superior place in heaven. What, then, does ontological superiority mean in the end? That he is used by Christ to make present the sacrifice of the cross? But it is far from clear how this implies a superiority that is ontological as such, especially if ontologically he is a human being, but less humanized by virtue of his sinful lifestyle (i.e., a double life, a sexual predator, etc.). If it does not indicate essential superiority, nor existential superiority, nor moral and spiritual superiority, then what does it mean? The sacramental character means that he underwent the rite of ordination, an unrepeatable rite, and has become an instrument “set apart” for a specific end. The sacramental character means, as Cardinal Louis Billot pointed out, “the right to the actual graces proper to the sacrament” (Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi. S.v. Orders and Ordination, p.1147)

The enduring nature of the sacramental character is interesting to consider. Aquinas writes:

Although external worship does not last after this life, yet its end remains. Consequently, after this life the character remains, both in the good as adding to their glory, and in the wicked as increasing their shame: just as the character of the military service remains in the soldiers after the victory, as the boast of the conquerors, and the disgrace of the conquered (ST, III, q. 63, a. 5, ad. 3).

It is hard to conceive how something that renders a person ontologically superior can in the end be a source of shame, for the devil is not ashamed of his ontological superiority; but it would be a source of shame in that he is not at all ontologically superior to anyone, but was freely chosen by God for a highly noble service, given the actual graces and charisms to fulfill that end, of which he fell short.

If Aquinas is correct, it would appear then that the sacramental character does not remain qua instrument; for it endures differently in the end than it does “on the way” to the end. On the way, it is an instrumental power dependent upon Christ the agent; afterwards, it endures as an identity, like the identity of a parent which can never be erased, or the identity of a soldier long after the war is over.

In no other case does a being, ontologically determinate (human) act in the Person of some other ontologically superior being (the Person of the Son), such that it is the latter who is acting (is the agent), not the former. Appealing to agere sequitur esse to argue for superiority leaves too much out of the discussion. In that light, I believe it is safe to conclude that there is simply no reason not to jettison this rather dubious — not to mention dangerous — idea of an alleged clerical superiority. The line that should always be at the forefront of the mind of the cleric is John the Baptist’s “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).

Image: “ICKSP Ordinations 4” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Phil Roussin PBR Photos

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