Pope Francis recently raised eyebrows in his comments affirming the constant teaching of the Church that it is not possible to ordain women to the priesthood. According to reports,
As he has done in the past, the pope responded that the question was settled in 1994 by St. John Paul II, who taught that because Jesus chose only men as his apostles, the ordination of women in the Catholic Church is not possible. He was asked, “Really? Never?” And he responded, “If one carefully reads the declaration of St. John Paul, it goes in that direction, yes.”
Of course, many people read this as yet another instance of the Church’s retrograde attitude toward women. I read it in terms of the Church’s commitment to an empowered laity.
Did you know that one could easily argue that the Church already asserts that every baptized, confirmed and communed Catholic has as much (if not more) spiritual authority as the average Protestant minister? Every. Single. One. Men AND women. I am, of course, referring to the doctrine known as the Common Priesthood of the Laity. Here is the catechism….
1546 Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.”20 The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are “consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood.”21
Of course, the ministerial priesthood (i.e., ordained Catholic priests) is absolutely at the heart of of the Church because only a priest can consecrate the Eucharist and administer the sacraments. But both the ministerial and the common priesthood of the laity represent two critically important dimensions of the One Priesthood of Christ. What distinguishes them is that the ministerial priesthood depends upon apostolic succession–a specific and additional gift handed down from Christ, through the original Apostles, to the Church’s ministers today–while the common priesthood depends solely upon the gifts of baptism, confirmation, and communion. Some non-Catholic denominations also have a legitimate claim to apostolic succession but not most.
The Three Powers of the Common Priesthood.
The common priesthood isn’t a “lesser priesthood.” Understood properly, it is a tremendously powerful ministry. First, while the ministerial priesthood may consecrate the Eucharist, the common priesthood of the laity is charged with consecrating the world to Christ. Second, it means that the laity are called to the same heights of sanctity and holiness that the ordained and religious are called to. Finally, it means that every lay Catholic–including every Catholic lay woman–is commanded and empowered to offer their lives as a sacrifice for the good of the Church (the “priestly mission”), proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all they do (the “prophetic mission”) and to serve the world in ways that remind others of the dignity that Christ has communicated to every human person (the “royal mission”). How is this any less significant a role in the Church than the role any Protestant minister plays in his or her church community or the world?
Most Protestant ministers are simply baptized Christians (and often not confirmed and certainly not communed in the sense Catholics understand communion as an encounter with the Real Presence of Christ) who through study and prayer devote themselves to serving the Kingdom of God. When people say, “Why don’t Catholics allow women to be ministers like Protestants do?” This is basically what they are referring to. People mistakenly assume an equivalence between Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, but this analogy is false.
A False Analogy
Protestant ministers are, from a Catholic perspective, simply lay Christians on fire for Christ and dedicated to serving the Body of Christ. That’s a tremendous thing, but it just happens to be what every single Catholic lay person is called to be–man and woman. PLUS Catholics receive the graces of the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and communion) while the vast majority of Protestant ministers do not. In this sense, one could argue that the average Catholic layperson has been gifted an even larger share in the priesthood of Christ because Catholics, unlike Protestant (including Protestant ministers) do not deny themselves the gifts of Confirmation (through which we participate in the Life of the Spirit) and Communion (through which we participate intimately in the life of Christ).
I understand that there will be some who view this post as hopelessly triumphalistic. I want to be clear. I am not looking down my nose at Protestants or Protestant ministers. Many–even most–of these men and women are truly inspirational people and profound witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am simply stating a fact that most people overlook. Catholics already do have an office that exhibits the spiritual grace and authority that every Protestant minister has if not more so (because of the sacraments Catholics receive), and that office is called “The Common Priesthood.” That is, the lay vocation.
Changing the Conversation
To my way of thinking, Pope Francis’ comments affirming the male, ministerial priesthood, represents a powerful opportunity for Catholics to change the conversation and focus on the real, shocking truth, power, and dignity of the common priesthood.
Q: “Why don’t Catholics allow women priests?”
A: “We do! In fact, every Catholic lay person who has been baptized, confirmed and communed has at least the same spiritual authority and call as any Protestant minister if not more so.”
That would be a shocking response. Just imagine the headlines if Pope Francis, or your local bishop, or you answered this way. It would raise eyebrows for sure. It would finally present a new and exciting discussion and offer the world something they never heard about. It would give the Church a chance to lead the conversation, as it should be doing, instead of always seeming to follow awkwardly behind whatever conversation the world is having.
This is, incidentally the very conversation St John Paul the Great tried to start in 1988 when he wrote On the Vocation and Mission of the Laity. If you think what I’ve written is shocking or surprising in any way, go read that amazing piece of writing. It will blow your mind.
The Catholic laity has a powerful and legitimate claim to Christ’s priesthood that easily matches and ever surpasses the claim the average Protestant minister has. And that isn’t a slam against Protestants, that’s a call to the Catholic laity to wake up and become what they are; prophet, royal, priestly witnesses to the gospel who are dedicated to consecrating the world to Christ in everything they do.