The priesthood of all believers

The priesthood of all believers August 11, 2015


Originally published at Ithilien in 2005.

One of the central slogans that’s come to be identified with the Reformation is the “priesthood of all believers.” For a long time I found this phrase very off-putting, because I associated it with the radical denial of any hierarchy or sacramentality in the Church. In my experience, Protestants used the slogan to turn the Church into a religious counterpart to modern liberal democracy. And I was (and am) convinced that that’s simply a sell-out to modern culture.

Furthermore, as I became more acquainted with modern Catholic theology, I realized that Catholics do not deny the priesthood of all believers. They see the relationship between the universal and ministerial priesthoods as a both/and rather than an either/or. This has been more clearly affirmed by Vatican II and post-Vatican-II theology, and while Catholics are still debating the exact direction this reaffirmation nees to take, it’s clear that some form of the priesthood of all believers is orthodox Catholic teaching.

The two contemporary issues that have forced me to give traditional Protestant arguments more of a hearing are the sex abuse scandal and women’s ordination. Women’s ordination deserves a post of its own, and I’ll address it later. For now I’ll just leave you with this teaser: I think that the priesthood of all believers is the central issue in the women’s ordination debate (as it takes shape in Catholic and high-church circles).

I don’t want to get involved in the horribly complex and sensitive arguments surrounding the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Of course other churches have scandals of their own, and indeed all large care-giving institutions have some pretty horrible instances of abuse, and have a tendency to try to protect the good name of the institution even at the expense of those they are allegedly trying to serve.

But at the risk of being accused of anti-Catholic bias, I can’t help but think that a culture of clericalism played a large role in giving the Catholic scandal its shape and scope. I see no way around the conclusion that most bishops saw priests as belonging to the “family” in a way that the victimized young people did not. The long history of church-state battles over jurisdiction in cases of clerical wrong-doing, going back to the Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century at least, shaped the episcopal response in ways that have proved disastrous for all concerned.

The Gregorian Reforms have a lot to be said in their defense. The early medieval Church was tied up in the structures of priest-873855_640civil society in ways that severely hindered its ability to proclaim the Word of God and speak authoritatively to social evils. But the measures taken by the reformers widened the gap between clergy and laity and created a set of parallel ecclesiastical power structures that became prey to the same corruptions and temptations as the secular hierarchy (and some of their own).

The Protestant Reformation undid much of the work of the Gregorian Reforms and placed the Church squarely under the authority of the state–at least in Anglicanism and Lutheranism. In some ways this resulted in the worst of all possible situations, with the Established Church benefiting from the coercive force of the state but not having the power to act independently. The “priesthood of all believers” too often translated into the domination of the Church by those who ruled the world of the laity.

Nonetheless, the positive message of the Reformation in this regard was that all baptized Christians are fully members of the Church, and whatever relationship to civil society is possessed by baptized laity is also the lot of the clergy. I think the Anabaptists had some important insights into what that relationship should be, and that the rest of us should pay attention to what they have to say. But the principle as I’ve stated it is common to Anabaptists and “magisterial” Protestants.

Too often we have not lived by this principle. You hear even Protestants talk about being “just laity.” And at the same time, I agree that the priesthood of all believers is often translated into a religious equivalent of secular democracy.

The priesthood of all believers does not necessarily mean that the Church should model its polity on secular democracies–though some degree of democracy is desirable, I think, and I certainly cannot see that a top-down structure is uniquely holy either. Nor does it mean that all baptized Christians should be able to perform all sacramental functions (though I think it does mean that in cases of emergency any baptized Christian can do anything any other baptized Christian can do).

Ordination is a sacred rite within the Church (I have no problems calling it a sacrament) which sets aside certain men (and, in the traditions in which I participate, women) to carry out certain special functions of the Body. I bow when the priest passes me in procession, because the priest is the bearer of a particular sacred function of the whole Body.

The priesthood of all believers, as I understand it, means this: that ordained clergy are particular organs within the Body, but are not in any sense more fully members of the Body than laity. I recognize that Catholics would be unlikely to disagree with this, but the structure and daily operation of the Catholic hierarchy gives the lie to such a claim, except in the most spiritualized way. The abuse scandals were simply the most glaring example of a clericalism that pervades the Catholic Church.

While the current Pope is in my opinion a very holy man and is unquestionably a brilliant theologian (perhaps the finest theologian now living), he has a rather spiritualized conception of the Church which paradoxically leaves the over-centralized bureaucracy of the Catholic Church in a position above criticism. Unquestionably he is right that a merely structural reform is useless.

But I am driven to the conclusion that many of the traditional Protestant criticisms of Catholic clericalism are borne out by the facts. This is not simply an external, political critique. The Protestant claim is that a vital spiritual principle is compromised when the Church proceeds as if only the clergy count. Insofar as Catholic structures have been built on this attitude–and I think it’s clear that they have–they must be reformed, precisely as a part of the genuine spiritual renewal for which the Pope calls so eloquently. To oppose structural reform to inner renewal as if they had nothing to do with each other is to fall into a spiritualism incompatible with orthodox Christianity.

All organs of the Body of Christ are mutually accountable to each other. This does not have to be embodied in institutions analogous to those of modern liberal democracy, but it does need to have some institutional embodiment, or it will become a piece of pious rhetoric.

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