What the Reformation Got Right, Part 3

Last week, on the anniversary of the Reformation, I challenged myself to think of what the Reformation got right, was eventually acknowledged by the Catholic Church, and is taken for granted by many Catholics today. As is the case with many of the articles I set out to write, what was originally supposed to be a short post has become an ongoing series. I’ve covered Communion under both kinds, indulgences and lay people reading and studying the Bible. Today, I focus on the priesthood of all believers.


The Priority of the Priesthood of All Believers


Do Catholics believe in the priesthood of all believers? If you were to confine your research to the teachings of the Council of Trent, you might come away with the impression that we do not:

“If anyone affirms, that all Christians indiscriminately are priests of the New Testament, or that they are mutually endowed with an equal spiritual power, he does nothing but confound the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is an army set in array…” (Council of Trent, Doctrines and Canons, Chapter 4)

The Context for this rather one-sided statement, of course, was the challenge of the Protestant Reformation. At that point, Luther and most of the reformers had come around to denying the distinct spiritual mark of the ministerial priesthood, conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

For Luther, this rejection originated in an even more fundamental concern: he came to detest the radical distinction between the priesthood and the laity, or the spiritual and secular, that was prevalent in late medieval Catholicism. This growing stratification of the Church in the Middle Ages manifested itself in many ways, some of which have already been covered in this series: special prayers in the liturgy said and heard only by the priests, the screening of the sanctuaries from profane eyes, infrequent communion, reservation of the cup for priests, etc.

For Luther, many Christians had lost sight of the fundamental calling of all baptized Christians to share the Gospel.

“There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests,princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate….But they do not all have the same work to do.” (Martin Luther, To the Nobility of the Christian Nation)

We all share in the Kingdom building activity of Christ, but with different roles.

Along similar lines, John Calvin was to develop the idea (from the early Church Fathers) of the threefold offices of Christ: priest, prophet, and King. In fulfilling these offices, Jesus Christ was seen as the the culmination of Israel’s history and destiny. All believers now shared in these offices by virtue of their baptism into Christ.

The priesthood of all believers has solid Scriptural foundations. Before there was a Levitical priesthood, the people of Israel were called to be a nation of priests:

Moses went up to the mountain of God. Then the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying: This is what you will say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples, though all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites. (Exodus 19:6)

The New Testament writers saw the Church as the new kingdom of priests:

But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were “no people” but now you are God’s people;you “had not received mercy”but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

While universal priesthood is Scriptural and could be found in the church fathers, it was not a part of the regular vocabulary in the Church at the outset of the Reformation. It became even less so after. The impression grew that the universal priesthood was a Protestant belief.

The Baltimore Catechism, the primary tool for religious instruction of youth for over a hundred years in the Catholic Church in America, contains nothing about the universal mission of all the baptized:

“What are the effects of the character imprinted on the soul by Baptism?

The effects of the character imprinted on the soul by Baptism are that we become members of the Church, subject to its laws, and capable of receiving other sacraments.” (Baltimore Catechism, Question #317)

Catholics certainly did live their priestly baptismal calling, even if most would not have articulated it that way. Various prayer traditions and devotions emphasize the importance of offering our prayers, and acts of love to God in union with Christ on a daily basis. The Sacred Heart Offering, dating back to the 17th century, reads:

My God, I offer You all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings in union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for the intentions for which He pleads and offers Himself in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in thanksgiving for Your favors, in reparation for my sins, and in humble supplication for my temporal and eternal welfare, for the needs of our holy Mother the Church, for the conversion of sinners, and for the relief of the poor souls in purgatory.

As with many other topics, Vatican II represented a turning back to sources that predated the controversies and polemics of the Reformation. The priesthood of all believers was affirmed as a fundamental identity of the Christian:

“The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those works which are those of the Christian man, they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (Lumen Gentium, 10)

On the other hand, the council re-affirmed the distinction between the roles of baptized believers within the body. There was ministerial priesthood with its own unique spiritual calling. It was secondary to the baptismal calling, but still essential to the life and mission of the Church:

“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.” (Lumen Gentium, 10)

The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders.

That calling does not come to the worthy. It does not in and of itself make the recipient more holy than others. It does not create two classes of Christians. Rather, like the parable of the talents, additional gifts confer additional responsibilities to serve.

How does being a part of the universal priesthood mean in day to day experience? The author of Hebrews singles out worship and acts of love.

Through him [then] let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind. (Hebrews 13:15)

This means knowing and living the beatitudes and the corporal works of mercy, each according to his or her unique situation in life. Our priestly role is manifested in a very tangible way at the celebration of the Eucharist, when we unite our work with the bread and wine brought to the altar. The Holy Spirit, through the ministry of those chosen from among us, transforms that offering into the true and acceptable offering, Jesus Christ.