The nature of the priesthood of the laity has caused a lot of confusion in the post-Second Vatican Council Church, and so it is important to clarify both the beauty…
The nature of the priesthood of the laity has caused a lot of confusion in the post-Second Vatican Council Church, and so it is important to clarify both the beauty of this doctrine and the difference between this priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.
The priesthood of the laity is based on the fact that all those baptized receive not only sanctifying grace, but also a character, or indelible mark, in their souls by which they are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet and king. Vatican II reminded Catholics that all the faithful are truly priests through baptism, but their priesthood differs from the ministerial priesthood in its essence “and not only in degree” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 10). Yet, “the one is ordered to the other” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1547).
A True State of Life
The ministerial priesthood, though it involves the power to define doctrine on the episcopal level, to govern the earthly Church and to consecrate the Eucharist, is only a means to the end of the holiness and consecration of all the faithful. The clergy are the means ordered to the end, which is the faithful.
Vatican II was very clear that the laity constitute a true state of life in the Church as their consecration is more general than priests and religious and oriented to the secular world. However, this recognition of a lay state is to be understood as referring to that state in a broad sense of the term. As the council fathers wrote, “The state of the laity is used in place of condition and mission (terms which occur a little further on) so that the honor of constituting a state is recognized for the laity at least in the broad sense” (“Doctrinal Commission on Lumen Gentium”).
Lumen Gentium’s definition of the laity looks at the lay faithful primarily as distinct from the rest of the Church, but the late Dominican priest and theologian Jordan Aumann, in his book “On the Front Lines” (Alba House, 1990), developed a more positive definition of the laity, one which seeks not just to set the laity off in relief from those with a special consecrated role in the Church, but also to identify their consecration.
To summarize his points: the laity, like all other members of Christ’s faithful, are baptized persons (sacramental aspect) who are thereby incorporated into Christ (Christian aspect) and made members of the Church (ecclesiological aspect) with the right and duty to participate actively in the mission of the Church (missionary aspect).
In addition to all that, the laity, by reason of their secular characteristic, are committed to the renewal and sanctification of the temporal order.
To Sanctify the World
The laity have a place in the Church which is characterized as “mission.” They are distinguished from both the clergy and religious because their true consecration in the Church is of a secular nature. The “world” here is taken not only to mean the world as a kingdom ruled by sin, but also, in a more positive sense, everyday life. The laity are called and gifted to sanctify the world from within.
Meanwhile, the sacred ministry of the sacraments and the separation from secular occupations and interests are part of the nature and mission of the clergy and religious. As the laity are to sanctify the world from within, it would be equally a mistake for clergy to become what Father Aumann called “hyphenated priests” occupied mostly in secular pursuits, or for laypeople to be clericalized so they take over all functions in the liturgy and the parish except actual consecration of the Eucharist.
Though the Church has encouraged the laity to enter formally into the ritual of the Mass by acting as lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, laypeople exercise their proper and characteristic dignity in transforming the secular world of the family and the professions, where they find their proper place. The laity live in the world and work in it; they sanctify the world against the evils which are present in it. In this they imitate Christ who had to act among ordinary people in an ordinary life in order to save us. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “It was in keeping with the end of the Incarnation that Christ should not lead a solitary life, but should associate with men. Now it is most fitting that he who associates with others should conform to their manner of living.”
The laity are not, therefore, some stand-alone vocation in the Church. They are truly called to sanctity, along with priests and religious, albeit in different ways. They truly serve with the bishops and priests as brothers (see Lumen Gentium, No. 10).
This mission includes the threefold nature of the mission of Christ: priest, prophet and king. The teachings of Vatican II clarify this by holding it should not involve too rigid an application of this threefold mission, lest a tripartite theology be applied. Rather, the use of these terms means, more generally, worship (priest), witness (prophet) and service (king).
The priestly aspect of the laity is seen not in offering the sacrifice of the Mass by changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Laity are not in themselves ministers of the altar. Instead, it is seen in all the actions of their everyday life when viewed from God’s point of view. These actions are most fittingly offered with the victim in the sacrifice of the Mass. And so, Lumen Gentium teaches, “worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (Catechism, No. 901). The consecration of the world through the actions of the laity is not due to the actions themselves, but rather to the attitude of the one who does them. This attitude is looking at the world from God’s point of view, under the aspect of eternity. At Mass, the laity truly offer what they are with the priest and receive the gift of Christ to transform their way of thinking and action to be that of Christ.
The prophetic aspect of the mission of the laity by which they witness to the truth includes their witness to the last things. Until the end of time, God fulfills the prophetic aspect of Christ’s mission not only in the formal teaching of the hierarchy, but also in the witness of the laity who teach the Faith. Central to this prophetic ministry is the instruction in the Faith which parents should give their children. This adds to the priestly role of the laity in marriage.
The Church has reiterated a long-standing teaching that marriage is itself holy because the ministers are the baptized couple, made holy by baptism. In the exchange of vows, baptized couples are the means of holiness for each other, so they truly are the ministers. The priest and the Church must be present as witnesses because it would be unfitting for Christians to exchange vows of love in any other context than that of Christ and the Church. The union of the couple is not merely religious, but supernaturally holy, because of the character of baptism present in the parties. Marriage is thus the prime exercise of the priesthood of the faithful, which was common to all the baptized.
The priestly character of marriage not only affects the unity of the spouses, but also relates directly to the procreative dimension. The purpose of procreation is not just realized in the existence of children, but also demands nurture and education. Since the body and the soul are the result of the marriage act, and the soul is created for union with God, St. Thomas does not hesitate to repeat with Aristotle that “there is something divine in human seed.”
This divine character of human seed can only be finally completed in the Vision of God, when man sees God face-to-face. Parents are the primary ministers who prepare their children for this mystery. Education does not end at Harvard or Yale, but in heaven. The child must be schooled for the cultus Dei, the worship of God. This schooling is an education in the virtues. This makes the home a domestic Church. St. John Paul II, in his famed apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, explains, “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for that reason can and should be called a domestic church” (Catechism, No. 2204).
The kingly role is expressed in Christian service, especially in the virtue of justice. One must realize that the power to rule is expressed first in ruling oneself and one’s own inclinations to sin with the help of God’s grace. St. Hilary wrote: “There are kings in whom sin does not reign, who rule their own body…. These are kings and their king is God.” This is accomplished through the self-surrender to God brought about by the rule of the virtues and the gifts. The laity are called to bring forth the kingdom of Christ, first through the interior self-rule by which they can be a leaven in the secular professions. From this interior integrity they can seek to establish justice and mercy in secular life.
In a very real sense, then, the laity are priests, but by an essential difference in the participation in the character of baptism from ministerial priests. The consecration of the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins together with leadership in the parish and true teaching are all meant to nourish the priesthood of the laity.
Father Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, O.P. is an author, retreat master and preacher.
“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us,” according to St. Augustine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1847). This quotation from…
“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us,” according to St. Augustine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1847).
This quotation from Augustine has been used by the Catholic Church to express the fact that salvation demands consent because God never forces himself on someone against his will. This fact relates to the whole problem of justification, which is an effect of sanctifying grace in the soul of the Christian. Another way of putting this is that by grace God works in us.
Catholics are often accused of teaching justification by human works. This is a Pelagian position. Pelagius maintained that grace only allowed a person to do more easily what he could do by his own power. He reduced original sin to bad example. Martin Luther reacted against what he thought the position of the Church was on this subject by making reference to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. St. Paul maintains, in a famous text used by Luther, “Man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28, RSV). Protestants generally maintain that when the word “concupiscence” is used in Scripture, it is what is usually termed actual sin. In other words, what for Catholics is a tendency to sin is the act of sin, which is inescapable. As a result, justified man is still totally depraved as far as his works are concerned and God only considered him just or righteous. In the margin next to the text from Romans 3 he refers to, Luther added “sola,” or “faith alone.” From the context evident in Romans 3, it is clear that Paul is speaking of things such as circumcision, and not good works, which do not cause grace but result from grace received. So faith must be completed by charity to be truly a virtue.
Light can be shed on this problem if one first defines what is meant by justification or righteousness. First, it has nothing to do with the virtue of justice. Justification refers rather to what Aristotle called “metaphorical justice.” It is not about human works, but about the human soul and the interior order in its powers. The virtue of justice is in the will and has to do with a disposition to give rights to others. Justification refers to a rightness of order within the person himself. It is not a disposition, but an ordering of the intellect, the will and the emotions within themselves, because they are ordered toward the true ultimate end of man. In this inner ordering or righteousness, the emotions are subject to the intellect and will, and the intellect and will are subject to God. Adam was created in this state before the sin. For everyone after the sin, justification involves a change not just from being without justice but from being in a state contrary to righteousness. Man, after sin, suffers from concupiscence, which means that he has lost inner ordering, and hence all his powers go their own way. He experiences darkness in the intellect, rebelliousness in the will and does not really enjoy being virtuous in the emotions.
Justification is a movement from the state of sinfulness involving forgiveness of sins to a state of being in grace. Justification thus includes two conditions in the time after the original sin: (1) the forgiveness of sins and (2) the divine indwelling of the Trinity, without which there could be no forgiveness of sins. This is what conversion means.
“The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man’” (Catechism, No. 1989).
Justification cannot just be an overlooking of sin on the part of the offended party, as Luther tended to suggest. It must truly involve the presence of habitual or sanctifying grace in the soul. Sin is an offense against God, and sin can only truly be forgiven when the mind of the offended party has been reconciled with the offender, or when we are at peace with God. God can only be at peace with us because of our natural capacity for Him when His love creates a new form in us, which is union with His own divine nature. This peace with God is sanctifying grace. Forgiveness of sins must be the presence of the divine form of God’s own life in us. “[God] gave himself to us though his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized” (Catechism, No. 1988).
In a person who has attained the age of reason, there must be a movement of free choice to experience justification and the presence of grace. John 6:45 says, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” Learning entails an act of free choice, because in order to learn one must consent to what the teacher is explaining. The movement of free choice would not be necessary for someone who did not have the possibility of freely choosing, such as infants and the insane. They can be justified by baptism. Their catechesis and consent occur after they have reached the age of reason and are to a justification already experienced.
Justification is a movement of free choice, which is twofold: the renunciation of sin and the movement of faith to God. There are four aspects of this movement of free choice: (1) the infusion of grace from God the mover; (2) the movement of free choice to God from the one moved; (3) the movement of free choice rejecting sin, which is also moved by God; and (4) the forgiveness of sins itself, which is the termination of the movement of justification. This can be seen in the questions asked at baptism:
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
A Moral Change
Since God is an infinite agent who brings about justification, He does not depend on a long preparation. As in all natural changes, there is a gradual change from one condition to another. This can be the case with justification.
The apostles had three years of instruction from Christ; St. Augustine had about 30. But God does not have to bring about such a change over time. He can bring it about in an instant as is witnessed in the most famous conversion in the history of the Church, the conversion of St. Paul. This is a moral change and God is not limited by the lack of malleability of the matter, in this case the free choice of the soul. He can dispose it to choose for Him in an instant.
From the point of view of the manner of working, the greatest work of God is creation, because God brings something into existence from nothing. But creation is completed in the categories of time. Justification consists in God raising a created soul to the categories and experience of eternity. Justification finishes in the nature of God himself. For this reason, one justified soul from the point of view of the work itself is greater than the whole created universe put together. “The good of grace in one is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
No One Merits Justification
Justification is miraculous if one looks at it from the point of view of human power to bring it about. The Pelagians taught that man could merit justification by his own power. All grace did was allow man to do what he could have done by his own power but in an easier way. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no active power in man by which he can attain grace. Every work, which can be done by God alone, is miraculous in this sense.
Sometimes the manner in which justification is carried out is beyond the customary order and, in that sense, is miraculous. An analogy would be when a sick man recovers his health instantaneously completely beyond the skill of art or nature. St. Paul’s justification was like this, but not the other apostles.
But for something to be completely miraculous there can be no passive potential in the nature of the thing for the particular action. For example, there is no power in asses to prophesy, or in the wind and the sea to be calmed by the word of a man, or a body to rise from the dead by the work of a man. Yet, Balaam’s ass prophesied and Jesus calmed the wind and sea by His word and raised the dead. This is not the case with grace. There is a natural capacity in man for God and therefore for grace because of the presence of the intellect. “The soul is naturally capable of grace,” taught Thomas Aquinas.
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” said St. Augustine.
The one thing which must be crystal clear is that no one merits justification by works. Man can prepare himself to receive the justification of grace by allowing God to move his free will, but this is not a human motion in origin. It is only a human motion in effect. The primary cause is God.
St. Thomas Aquinas and Justification
Justification taken passively implies a movement towards justice, as heating implies a movement towards heat. But since justice, by its nature, implies a certain rectitude of order, it may be taken in two ways: first, inasmuch as it implies a right order in man’s act, and thus justice is placed amongst the virtues — either as particular justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in relation to his fellowman — or as legal justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in their relation to the common good of society.…
Secondly, justice is so-called inasmuch as it implies a certain rectitude of order in the interior disposition of a man, in so far as what is highest in man is subject to God, and the inferior powers of the soul are subject to the superior, i.e. to the reason; and this disposition the Philosopher calls “justice metaphorically speaking” (“Ethic.” v, 11). Now this justice may be in man in two ways: first, by simple generation, which is from privation to form; and thus justification may belong even to such as are not in sin, when they receive this justice from God, as Adam is said to have received original justice. Secondly, this justice may be brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other, and thus justification implies a transmutation from the state of injustice to the aforesaid state of justice. And it is thus we are now speaking of the justification of the ungodly, according to the Apostle (Rom 4:5): “But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly,” etc. And because movement is named after its term “whereto” rather than from its term “whence,” the transmutation whereby anyone is changed by the remission of sins from the state of ungodliness to the state of justice, borrows its name from its term “whereto,” and is called “justification of the ungodly.”
— Summa Theologiae, Question 113 (“Of the Effects of Grace”)
Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of…
Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, / did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / coming in human likeness; / and found human in appearance, / he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
This Scripture passage from St. Paul summarizes the humility of Jesus Christ and his self-emptying, also called kenosis in Greek.
The question of Christ’s self-emptying is very urgent today as there are many who question the traditional doctrine taught by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) concerning the nature of Christ. This applies even to professional teachers of theology, who sometimes teach that Jesus is just a good man who is engraced in the same way any other human being is and therefore is an adopted, not a natural, son of God. There are two basic clarifications which must guide any truly Catholic understanding of Christ. The first concerns what the union of God and man is in Christ. The second concerns how the first doctrine is reflected in certain actions of Christ — for instance, His cry, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (see Mt 27:46).
God and Man
When God became man in the Christ, this was a true self-emptying in humility. But what was exactly given up? Did Jesus cease to be God? What did He assume? Where does the union of God and man take place?
The attempt to explain this belief puzzled the early Christians. They used terms taken from Greek philosophy to attempt to explain the mystery in which they believed. Not that they could exhaust this mystery. That is not possible as it is a part of the ineffable wisdom of God. But since this mystery is received in a human mind, the early Christians used philosophy as a tool to help clarify what they actually believed in. The principle terms they used were: person, nature and relation.
In Greek philosophy a nature is a principle of a kind of activity which sets one being off from another. The way a dog acts differs from a tree. This demonstrates that a dog has certain powers different than a tree and so is a different being, possessing a different nature. The individual who possesses a nature which is shared by all the individuals of its species is called a hypostasis. An individual who possesses a rational nature (a hypostasis with a rational nature) is a person.
Once the divinity of the Word was determined, the question arose as to how the Word was present in Jesus of Nazareth. Many attempted to explain this by saying that God and man were united in nature in Christ. This did not do justice to what Christians believed or the Christ to whom they prayed. If the union took place in nature, Jesus would have to be really God and only seem to be man, really man or seem to be God, or be a strange monstrous mixture of the two. The heresy which teaches that the union takes place in the natures is Monophysitism, which derives from the Greek words mono(one) and phusis (nature). This would mean that Christ would, in some sense, be just a good man somehow identified with God, or only seem to be man.
Instead, the Council of Chalcedon taught that the union takes place in the person. The divine person of the Word who shares the divine nature with the other two persons, at a certain point in time, took unto himself a new way of acting, a human nature, but not a human person. God was not changed by this action, but the world was. What had been called to union with God in nature by a quality of being called sanctifying grace became a new and unheard of relation, and the world was united to God in the person of the Word. The union in person is thus called “the hypostatic union,” which is a grace unique to Christ. Christ does not assume a human person, but only a human nature, a perfect and complete one nonetheless. He has a human soul, intellect, will, passions and body.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church recounts for us the definition from Chalcedon: “We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis” (No. 467).
This means that the emptying of Christ in being consisted in His will to join human nature to His actions as a divine person, to act through it and to only hide the glory of His divine nature so that He might suffer the passion: “What he was, he remained; what he was not, he assumed” (Catechism, No. 469).
The one divine person, Jesus, thus acts in two natures. In Scripture, He even demonstrates this because He speaks in both natures as one person often in the same verse. “Now glorify me [human nature], Father, with you, with the glory that I [divine nature] had with you before the world began” (Jn 17:5). This new relation between God and the world is a sheer grace, and it is also a miracle.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians continues the passage about the nature of the self-emptying: “God greatly exalted him” (2:9). Does this mean Christ was not exalted in being before the Passion? Often, things are said to occur in Scripture when they come to our knowledge. Before the Passion, Christ rarely demonstrated His divinity. But after the Passion, in the Resurrection and the Ascension, His divinity becomes clearly demonstrated to the apostles. They come to know it.
What Did He Give Up?
One of the difficulties with this position is how one can dogmatically explain the cry of Christ from the cross: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Many theologians today hold that Jesus was forsaken because He had no idea He would rise from the dead, that He threw himself into a kind of existential darkness characterized by faith and just accepted the meaninglessness of life. So, His experience of death would be the same as ours.
This is impossible. In what sense can Christ be forsaken on the cross? He cannot cease being the Word of God within the Trinity. This is His personhood. He cannot cease being the Word made flesh. This union is permanent once embraced. He cannot sin as this would war against His mission, which is to atone for our sins by His perfect obedience on the cross.
The traditional teaching of the Church is that Christ enjoys the beatific vision from the moment of His conception in the womb of His mother in His human intellect. This is not formally defined de fide, but has always been considered proxima fide, meaning that to deny it entails so many problems for other doctrines that it must be affirmed. If Christ were not to have this and therefore have faith on the cross, this would mean that He would have to merit it for himself as man and, in principle, could sin. In fact, faith is never attributed to Christ in His earthly life, and the ability to sin would again compromise His mission.
The only way Christ can be abandoned by His Father on the cross, then, is by external protection. Many times Christ’s enemies sought to put Him to death, beginning with Herod, when Christ was a baby, and God protected Him. The dogmatic difficulty here is resolved if one considers that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the opening verse of Psalm 22 (RSVCE). If one reads the whole psalm, it is very far from a cry of despair and existential angst. The psalmist does suffer intensely, but the psalm ends with a hymn of thanksgiving to God and confidence that God will vindicate his sufferings. This will, of course, happen in the resurrection of the dead. Moreover, Thomas Aquinas thought that no one could freely give himself to the kind of suffering Christ embraced on the cross unless he knew about the resurrection of the dead.
The self-emptying of Jesus then is only a self-emptying in being in the sense that God should choose to take to himself a human way of acting and suffering. Psychologically this emptying does not involve sin. It is not even done in faith.
Rather, in this suffering Christ experiences the greatest pain possible. This is the case physically because His body was more sensitive than a normal body as it was perfectly fashioned by the Holy Spirit. He therefore suffers more in the bruises, the scourging, the nails and the hunger and thirst.
He also suffers mentally because he personally experiences all the human sins which will be committed and have been committed in the history of the human race. He knows these through the beatific vision He has on the cross. He does not allow this vision, or His glory as God, to enter into His lower self precisely so He can suffer the Passion. He feels abandoned by God, but knows internally He is not. This is a cause of acute pain both physically and mentally. But the internal union of the hypostatic union is preserved.
So, in Jesus, we see how much God loves us. We should therefore be caught up in love of the God we cannot see (see Roman Missal, Christmas Preface).
Father Brian Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.