Let Priests Be Priests!

DIOCESAN NEWSPAPERS call attention to seminary closings. Sociologists predict a critical shortage of priests by the turn of the century. Is the remedy the ordination of lay deacons, the commissioning of additional Euchanstic ministers? Why the scarcity of vocations? Are fewer capable of the life of self-sacrifice normally associated with the priesthood? Collectively, have we done something to the notion of the “priesthood” to reduce its attractiveness? In the past a young man who declared for the priesthood could look forward to years of rigorous study, to a life of service and of sacrifice in which he would be obliged to forego many of the normal pleasures of life, forfeiting as a part of a team a large measure of self-direction. And yet, until the recent past, the prospect did not dissuade. The numbers came. The life was demanding but the attendant rewards were great: to hold in the fingers of one’s hand the Alpha and the Omega of the universe, to have as a result of the words one utters bread transformed into the body and blood of Christ, to bind and loose in the name of heaven itself, to proclaim, however feebly, the word of God. As mediator between God and man, the role played by the priest was unique, his powers awesome; he shared the veneration due the sacred itself.

But then something happened. Alter the sixties, in the act of proclaiming “the priesthood of all believers,” a number of distinctions were blurred. The common apostolic vocation of Christians which the metaphor sought to exalt came to be taken as a denial of the special character of the priesthood. In a former time, Luther and Calvin had reduced the priesthood to a ministry as the sacraments themselves were reinterpreted and reduced. The Roman Catholic priesthood remained a distinctive institution.

Now, confusions abound. When religion is conceived primarily as a code of values, and emphasis is placed on the performance of good works, a priesthood may not even he required. On the other hand, if religion is conceived as the acknowledgment and the payment of a debt to God, then worship and the things pertaining to worship are regarded as fundamental. One conception need not preclude the other but, historically, the moral conception of religion has sometimes been emphasized at the expense of worship.

When the moral religion comes to mean a practical idealism directed toward human welfare and social good, marked by vague sentiment, resolute good will, and a generous interest in setting the world aright, it tends to denigrate the things which pertain to the temple, to ritual, and to asceticism and contemplation. Catholic spiritual writers traditionally have warned about the dangers of the acme life and the need to balance it with a life of contemplation and prayer.

The Roman Catholic conception of the priesthood is grounded in the natural order. Noble conceptions of the priesthood antedate Christianity. By attending to these, especially Hebraic and Roman sources, we may reach some useful insights into a profession which in our own time seems to be in considerable dissaray. Such conceptions may provide a standard against which developments in Protestant and Catholic circles may be measured.

Viewed as a natural institution, the priesthood has an identifiable structure, an inner logic, and its own integrity. Though priesthoods vary from culture to culture, there are at least two key functions, one of which is associated with the priesthood everywhere and at all times, and the other only for the most part.

The one indispensable function which is universally associated with the priesthood is the offering of sacrifice. The priest is a master of ceremonial art. He is the offerer of gifts and sacrifices, presiding over the reenactments of creative, redemptive events. He does not function in his own right. He is a representative of the commumtv in its relations with the gods. The Roman notion of “pontiff” or “bridge builder” expresses this clearly. The priest stands as an intermediary between God and man, bridging the gap between heaven and earth, a mediator between the sacred and the profane. He bestows divine blessings on the peopleand offers up their prayers to God, and in some manner renders satisfaction to God for their sins.

The second function commonly associated with the priesthood, although not found universally, is the teaching function. A certain kind of teaching is universal, namely, that associated with with offering of sacrifice. As a matter of rite, the priest is expected to pass on the ritual associated with his calling and to instruct suppliants how to approach the act of veneration. But there is a more fundamental kind of teaching commonly associated with the priesthood, namely, the perpetuation of the sacred traditions, beliefs, and practices of the people.

At certain periods of the Hebraic tradition and in the classical Greek tradition the priesthood is restricted to ritual functions. The priest is a professional, one who knows exactly how to perform the rites of worship according to prescribed rubrics; he is not associated with either a teaching or a prophetic role. Religious faith is transmitted through the family, from parent to child.

In the Stoic tradition we find a much loftier notion of the priesthood; only a sage is truly equipped for the high calling of priest. In Philo’s account, the priest is the symbol of all that is highest in the domain of reason. In Roman society all priests were originally patricians. The Lex Ogulnia, published in 300 B.C., gave the plebians access to the collegium pontificum el augurium. Moral virtue is presupposed. Members once admitted to the office kept their priestly character tor life. Pliny speaks of “an unperishable priesthood.”

These strictures are rooted in nature. Add ro them the long traditions of Catholic practice, and the recent confussion seems very sad, indeed.

If the Church is not to be a weathervane, it will have to have within its ranks men of learning and culture who know their own traditions and who can defend them against challenges. The Roman Catholic priesthood is based upon a natural institution, and should now be revivified.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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