Priestly Identity and the Danger of Democratism

Prof. Michael Hull, New York - April 28, 2004

The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century phenomenon of reducing philosophical and, concomitantly, theological discourse to political discourse—a reduction summarily exposed and refuted long ago —continues to menace right thinking even in the twenty-first century. An off-shoot of such ill-reasoned conviction is the contemporary trend of radical egalitarianism, which purports that principles of political theory, in this case democratic, are applicable, not only in the political sphere, but in every sphere, including the Church. This is, of course, alien to Catholic ecclesiology, which evidences an essential difference between her priests and laity.

At no point is this essential difference more obvious than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where, as Lumen gentium says, "The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people." To seek to inject principles of modern political philosophy, including democratic ones, into the perfect society of the Church, inaugurated by Christ the King and guided by the Holy Spirit, is contary to God’s will. Especially problematic are the inclinations, first, to confuse the identities of priest and layman in the Church and, second, to ignore the danger of democratism to the proper relationship between and among priests and laymen.

The Priest’s Identity

Priestly identity is founded on configuration to Christ the Lord, who is at once priest, prophet, and king of the universe. The priest is intimately and uniquely fashioned to Christ by his ordination. Ordination confers "a specific ontological bond which unites the priest to Christ, High Priest and Good Shepherd." Indeed, by his ordination to the priesthood, a man becomes an alter Christus. As "another Christ," it is the priest’s right and duty to sanctify (munus sanctificandi), to teach (munus docendi), and to govern (munus regendi) in persona Christi capitis, for it is by ordination that a priest is configured to Christ so as "to act in the person of Christ the head." Priestly identity is forged by the triple munera, and they are inseparable within the priest and the exercise of his priesthood. It is the priest who, sharing in Christ’s priesthood, offers the Mass, extends pardon and peace to sinners in Penance, and anoints in Extreme Unction; it is the priest who, sharing in Christ’s prophetic mission, speaks in the name of Christ and the Church in preaching; and it is the priest who, sharing in Christ’s kingship, exercises governance in the Church, so that only a priest may shepherd souls as parish priest (pastor) or bishop.

The crisis of priestly identity in recent times was noted at the Synod of Bishops in 1990 and occasioned John Paul II’s 1992 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day), which followed closely upon the 1987 Synod of Bishops and John Paul II’s 1988 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the Modern World). Loss of priestly identity has blurred the difference between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful to the extent that many no longer see the essential difference between the two or, if they see a difference, erroneously assume that the difference is only one of degree. Lumen gentium is clear in noting the age-old relationship between priests and laity: "Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ." When this distinction is abandoned or misunderstood, disorientation ensues: the clergy become laicized and the laity become clericalized. We need to follow the lead of the 1990 Synod and Pastores dabo vobis in strengthening our understanding of the essential difference between the priestly and lay vocations.

That difference, as we have noted, is founded on the ontological change proper to the (ministerial) priesthood, which is an added grace to that of baptism. St. Peter (1 Pet 2:5, 9) and St. John of Patmos (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) assure us that God’s promise to Israel—"You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" —is fulfilled in Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Likewise, the Epistle to the Hebrews assures us that God’s differentiation between priests and people in Israel—"Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests" —is fulfilled in Christ through the sacrament of ordination. The Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are replete with references to Jesus’ selection of St. Peter and the Twelve, their exclusive and irreplaceable function in the Church, and their mission to make disciples of all nations. This is beautifully illustrated by St. Peter himself: "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock."

Loss of the distinction between shepherd and flock lends itself equally to one of two theoretical fallacies: everyone is a shepherd or everyone is a sheep. But, in the practical order, such a reductio ad absurdum to radical equivalence leads only to one fallacy: no one knows his place. Were men to lose faith in the authority and structure proper to the perfect society that is the Church, they would seek to substitute something for that authority and structure. Unfortunately, today there are those who have become confused about the nature of the Church, specifically the nature of the priestly and lay states. Too often they look to secular society, particularly to political philosophies for some method to discern their place. Not unlike those in Plato’s cave, who mistook shadows for realities, they seek to replace the city of God with a city of man. Regrettably, when men are thus benighted they tend to grasp at whatever is au courant or merely expedient. In our own day, dominated by radical egalitarianism and the notion that all power is vested in an electorate, it is no surprise that "democratism," which we define here as "the theory, system, or principles of democracy," rises out of the ashes. Both trendy and conveniently allied with modernity’s misguided attempt to replace religion with rationalism, any plea on behalf of democratism should immediately raise two red flags for the faithful.

First, democracy itself is a theory of political philosophy that is not a good per se. The Church acknowledges the benefits of democracy over other forms of secular government but does not endorse any political theory. When push comes to shove, Catholics are free to agree or disagree with Winston Churchill who remarked, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The widespread adoption of democratic forms of government in the last two hundred years has brought about many social goods, such as the protection of some fundamental human rights, but it has also brought many social evils, such as the denial of the most fundamental human right—the right to life—in abortion and euthanasia. Second, the Church is a perfect society, not a political society. Secular states are by their nature in need of an ever-refined system of government that follows the natural law and protects the common good. Conversely, the government of the Church, the hierarchy, is willed by God, instituted by Christ the King, and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church has no need to look any farther than herself, particularly to her Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, for a peerless system of organization that is already her own. Democracy and its derivatives and correlatives have no more place in the Church than any other secular political constructs.

The Danger of Democratism

As we noted earlier, democracy is a viable form of secular government, though by no means the only viable form of government. In vogue today, with great support from many modern and postmodern philosophies, democracy is lauded as the great system of liberation from a presumed past of oppression. In this general form of thinking, democratism ought to be implemented in any form of human association because all power and authority is vested in men. Pluralism, oft-hailed as another avatar of freedom and so very chic, seems to be the other side of the democratic coin in present-day parlance, wherein political reflection seems more and more concentrated on opinion rather than reason, on polls rather than natural law, and individuals rather than communities. This development in the worldwide family of nations is disturbing enough in itself, but it is perilous if it sweeps into the Church. For it is the Church’s belief, given in the words of our Lord to Pontius Pilate (John 19:11) and of St. Paul to the Romans (Rom 13:1), that all authority, including political authority, comes from God. Authority does not emanate from men; therefore, any philosophy—political, religious, or otherwise—that would have authority coming from a community rather than from God is fallacious.

Within the Church herself, democratism’s chief danger is to ignore or annul the essential difference between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful. As the Congregation for the Clergy’s Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests states so well: "The mentality which confuses the duties of the priests with those of the lay faithful cannot be permitted in the Church. It is sometimes manifested in some ecclesial organizations of participation. In like manner, it does not distinguish the proper authority of the bishop from that of the priests as collaborators of the bishops, or denies the Petrine primacy of the college of bishops."

"One way to avoid falling into this ‘democratistic’ mentality is to shun the so-called ‘clericalization’ of the laity, which tends to diminish the ministerial priesthood of the priest." Another is to shun the laicization of the clergy. Both priests and laymen have very definite vocations in the Church and the world, but these vocations are not mutually inclusive. As regards the most basic unit of the Church (other than the nuclear family), the parish priest (pastor) is responsible for the sanctification, teaching, and governance of his parish, that portion of the mystici corporis Christi entrusted to his care. However, the danger of democratism may arise at the parish level when parish or finance councils, or any other parish organizations, eschew their proper role. With Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (nos. 73–76), the Church was most fastidious in emphasizing the laity’s role in the world as the baptized of Christ. So too, the Council accented the laity’s importance in assisting the priests and bishops in their sacred ministry in Christus Dominus (no. 27). The outcome was somewhat disappointing vis-à-vis the distinction between priest and layman and their proper roles in the Church and society. Not only John Paul II’s Christifideles laici and Pastores dabo vobis, but also the 1997 multi-dicastorial Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests and the 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal note on The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, have been aimed at sharpening our focus on the differences and distinctions between priest and layman. Even a cursory reading of these documents demonstrates that democratism played no small part in the inappropriate interchanging and muddling of the priestly and lay states.

Democratism can also wound the relationship of priests to their bishops or even bishops to the pope. Christus Dominus (nos. 25–35) and Presbyterorum ordinis (nos. 7–9) express very clearly the relationship between priests and bishops and the nuances of their vocations; they explain how priests and bishops collaborate in the care of God’s people. Despite the fact that "all priests share with the bishops the one identical priesthood and ministry of Christ," their relationship is hierarchical. If that relationship is misunderstood, so as to think that the bishop is more the president of a body than the father of a family, calamity is sure to follow. "It should be remembered that the presbyterate and the council of priests are not an expression of the right of association of the clergy, and even less can be understood according to views of a syndalistic nature which claim interest of parties foreign to the ecclesial community." Likewise, unnuanced ecclesiological understandings of the college of bishops could lead to the heresy that the Bishop of Rome is merely a primus inter pares and not a constitutive element of the college. As the nota praevia of Lumen gentium makes clear, "there is no college of bishops without its head … The idea of college necessarily and at all times involves a head and in the college the head preserves intact his function as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal Church." Again, only an unsuitable inculcation of democratism leads to a perception of the Church as a society gone amuck and in need of liberation and freedom of expression. Quite the opposite is true: the Church is well-ordered and hierarchical, a perfect society, and the model for all human societies.

Within the Church, there is a universal call to holiness, while at the same time there are stark and divinely-willed distinctions among her members. These distinctions recognize some forms of radical egalitarianism, for example, God’s love for each one of his children. Yet, within the Church, there is no room for socio-political theories that downplay the particular and peculiar vocations of either priest or layman and all that is incumbent therewith. Ignorance or annulment of univocal vocations leads only to havoc. The repercussions are legion and include a disdain for individual vocations, a disrespect for the sacrament of ordination and the priesthood, a parliamentary ecclesiology, and a dearth of vocations to the priesthood. As we advance into this third millennium of Christianity, we need to maintain the Church’s ancient distinction between the priestly and lay states. Priestly identity is far more important for the salvation of the world and far more enduring than any political construct, including democracy. Indeed, our concentration should not be focused on looking for or looking to what is momentarily in vogue but on the perennial truths of God’s revelation and right reason that have guided the Church through two millennia. We, the Church’ members, priests and laity, need to respect and promote our related but different vocations in God the Father, "who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus."