More on the Priesthood

Last time, in this space, I wrote a little piece on Garry Wills' latest swipe at the Catholic faith, in which he tries to argue that the entire concept of a priesthood rooted in Jesus Christ as the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek is fraudulent and that the whole notion of a priesthood was cooked up and foisted on the Church by the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews.  One reader--a well-meaning one, I think--attempted a response to my article which struck me as a sort of summary of a great deal of bad information that, alas, many well-meaning Catholics have articulated to me over the years.  Let me re-emphasize that: the reader did not strike me as a "dissenter" and wrote with nary a drop of malice in his blood.  I think his intent was irenic and good.  It's just that almost every factual assertion he made was erroneous and even the best intentioned person is going to have problems when his GPS gives him the wrong facts and sends him on to the freeway via the exit ramp.

Since I have so often run into good-hearted, well-meaning--and badly catechized--Catholics who, through no fault of their own have gotten a bad steer from whoever it was that was in charge of teaching them their faith, I thought I would reply to my reader here in a spirit of conversation so that other Catholics who may have gotten the same sort of bad information might also profit from the actual facts of the Church's teaching.

My reader's comments are indented.

Your understanding of Melchizedek is one I have heard both from Catholic Church theologians and teachers and even from a United Church of Church of Christ minister. It was part of the former Latin Mass: “You are a priest on the order of Melchizedek.”


It's still part of the ordination rite. Because Hebrews is still part of our Bible and Jesus is still a priest in the order of Melchizedek and all ordained priests still participate in his priesthood.

However, as much as even we Roman Catholics believe in the passing down of the hierarchical priesthood of popes, cardinals, bishops and priests, we Catholics also believe that we are all priests in larger sense of the word.


A) Cardinals are not, strictly speaking, part of the hierarchical priesthood. And the pope is just a particular bishop, with a unique office descending from Peter. The basic hierarchy--established by Christ and the apostles and not by the medieval Church--is apostle, bishop, priest, deacon with the latter three descending from the first. The office of cardinal is a bureaucratic fix invented by the medieval Church so that Popes could be elected in a way that kept the papacy from simply being a political football among a few rich Italian families. The Church could, if it liked, abolish the office of cardinal tomorrow and replace it with some new mechanism for electing popes. It could also, if it chose, make laypeople and even lay women cardinals if it liked. It could not, however, make women bishops, priests or deacons and it could not abolish these offices either.  That's because the cardinalate is a human creation like bank president, parish council, or prime minister (all offices women can hold) but the ordained office is a divinely created one and Jesus did not ordain women.

If a child or adult who is unbaptized is in danger of death and that adult seeks Christian baptism from us, we Roman Catholics can baptize that person in that state of emergency using ordinary tap water. This is not much spoken of.


Actually, it’s spoken of frequently, such as, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1256 The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon.57 In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize58 , by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.59

Note that anyone, including a non-Catholic and even a non-Christian, can baptize in a pinch. All they have to do is pour water over the skin sufficient to flow and recite the Trinitarian formula with the will to do what the Church does. In short, our ability to baptize is not rooted in “the priesthood of all believers” because even non-believers can baptize. It is rooted in “the universal saving will of God and the necessity of baptism for salvation.”

If the person survives the emergency, they can reapply their wishes to be formally baptized by a priest or bishop.


No. They cannot. If the baptism is documented to have occurred they cannot be “re-baptized”. Baptism, wherein you are born again, is a one-time event just as natural birth is a one-time event. “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” says the Creed. If there is some question about the validity of the baptism, such as doubt about whether the Trinitarian formula was used (“I baptize you in the Name of Jesus”, for instance, would invalidate the sacrament) or some doubt about the matter (“I couldn’t find any water so I used my bottle of Sprite”), then a priest may later conditionally baptize, saying “If you have not been baptized, then I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

But if the person died during that emergency, that baptism was valid according to what I was taught in Catholic parochial, Catholic high school and Catholic university.


Yes.  Assuming the conditions mentioned above were met.

So while the priesthood and bishops are important, even we Roman Catholics do believe in the priesthood of all believers in a general sense.


True. All the baptized are baptized “prophet, priest, and king” and participate in these offices of Christ by their baptism. But your argument from the ability of anybody to baptize does not demonstrate that, since an unbaptized atheist can, in a pinch, baptize somebody. Unbaptized atheists do not participate in the “priesthood of all believers” for the very good reason that they do not believe in God or in priests. But they can still intend to do what the Church does and therefore can still baptize.  Somebody might ask, "Why would an atheist baptize anybody?"  The heart has reasons reason knows nothing of.  I can imagine, for instance, a bus crash in which a dying man asks for baptism from his atheist fiance, who honors his last request because she loves him, even though she does not believe.  Such things are possible.

Protestants have believed that the bishops and priests corrupted the Church, and no amount of arguments will change their minds.


Speaking as a convert from Protestantism, I beg to differ.

But I must point out that, 400 years after Martin Luther has died, the Roman Catholic Church has admitted that one point Luther sought to correct—that salvation comes from faith alone and not from faith and good works—has recently been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II.


Not so. The Church has always taught that we are justified by faith and cannot earn the justifying grace of God by our good works. Here is the Council of Trent’s very first decree on Justification, formulated specifically to answer the rise of Protestantism:

Canon 1. If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.

In plain English, that means there is nothing you can do to earn the grace of God. It’s not a reward for your hard work. It’s more Lutheran than Luther. And it is both biblical and Catholic teaching.

But even Protestants admit that anyone who has faith must express that faith through good works.


Which is, of course, both biblical and Catholic teaching. The difference between Catholics and the Reformed Tradition is that Catholic tradition recognizes that initial justification is not the end of the story. Once we have received grace we have to cooperate with it. If we “sow to the Spirit” as Paul puts it we “reap of the Spirit” (i.e. grow in grace and holiness). If we “sow to the flesh” we “reap of the flesh” (i.e. suffer spiritual decay and ultimately death of the soul in mortal sin). Cooperating with grace mean “obedience”. We must do what Christ commands, not merely pretend we believe while ignoring him. “Faith without works is dead” as James tells us. But the works spring from grace. They do not earn grace.  Grace moves us and is always prior.

In the year 1000 AD, the Catholic Church created the College of Cardinals and ordered that all priests remain unmarried and celibate as a reflection of the Apostle John who was unmarried.


Actually no. For the full history of the office of Cardinal, go here. The discipline of celibacy actually has nothing to do with the College of Cardinals per se (except insofar as cardinals are priests and priests were already celibate, by and large, in the Latin rite by the time the College as invented. The discipline of celibacy is rooted, not in the celibacy of John (we don’t know his marital status), but in the celibacy of Jesus, who in Matthew 19:12 commends those who are “eunuchs for the kingdom of God” (i.e celibate).

It is also rooted in Paul’s commendation of celibacy:

I would that all men were even as myself; but every one hath his proper gift from God .... But I say to the unmarried and to the widows, it is good for them if they so continue, even as I. And further on: But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of this world how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit, not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord without impediment. (1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 32-35)

In the Latin rite, this tradition caught on more and more and ws eventually made a discipline.

The majority of the 12 Apostles were married, it should be recalled.



The Church created these reforms to remove the priesthood and bishops from the power of the Emperor in Austria, who interfered in the naming of popes several times.


Not true. You can read an accurate summary of the actual history of the discipline here.

Mr. Will reminds us that, while the Catholic Church’s format is admirable, it is not an absolute that cannot be changed. The Church’s reforms in 1000 AD did remove it somewhat from power politics, but it was far from perfect.


First, it’s Wills—Garry Wills, not George Will. Second, Mr. Wills is not reminding us that the Catholic Church’s format is admirable. He is claiming that the entire concept of the priesthood is a lie and that the the Eucharist is a “fake” (as he put it when interviewed recently by Stephen Colbert). He is not, in the slightest, addressing the manmade creation that is the college of cardinals, nor is he addressing the malleable ecclesial discipline of celibacy. He is addressing the very idea of there being priests at all and calling the entire office of the sacerdotal priesthood a lie, the book of Hebrews a propaganda job, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist a fraud. That has to be clearly understood.  It is one thing to dicker about malleable human traditions like cardinals and how celibacy should be done.  It is a whole 'nother thing to take a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ himself and label it a fraud.  Wills does the latter, not the former.  And he relies on the bad catechesis inflicted on his well-meaning and confused audience to get away with it.  He is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  And he relies on a great Protestant myth that has now percolated its way into far too much catechesis at the parish level.

The great Protestant myth is that Jesus came to liberate us from a sacerdotal priesthood by making us all priests.  It relies, as all great blunders do, on a partial truth: there really is such a thing as the common priesthood of all believers.  But then it takes that partial truth and uses it to destroy other vital truths.  

In particular, it urges two errors: rejection of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the notion that we passed from having only a priestly class be priests (in the Old Testament) to having everybody be priests in the New Testament.

Actually, however, that passage from Peter about us being a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” is a quote—from the Old Testament. The whole nation of Israel was called a royal priesthood, just as the whole Church is. But Israel still had a sacerdotal priesthood and so do we because the New Testament sees the Church built on the same model as Israel. All the baptized are priests, but some of the baptized are sacerdotal priests responsible to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, just as the Levites were priests responsible for the Tabernacle and temple sacrifices.

But wasn’t Jesus the High Priest and his death on Calvary the Sacrifice? Correct. And he shares that priesthood with his apostles and they with the bishops down through history just as the High Priest shared his priesthood with other Levitical priests.

Why? Because just as the celebration of the Passover sacrifice mediated and renewed the covenant of Sinai to Israel down through the ages, so the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice that comes from the Passover makes present and accessible the sacrificial blood of the covenant shed on Golgotha. A new covenant requires a new sacrifice and a new sacrifice requires a new priesthood. The Eucharist doesn’t complete or add to the sacrifice of Jesus. As Jesus said, “It is finished.” Rather, the Eucharistic sacrifice makes that sacrifice present to us now. Jesus, the High Priest, works through the sacerdotal priesthood to mediate the benefits of his sacrifice on Golgotha to us by the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

I will let Fr. Robert Barron have the last word here: