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“Ministries with an Amazonian Face”: An Eclipse of the Catholic Priesthood and the Hierarchical Character of the Church (1)

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The Working Document of the coming special Synod on the Amazon[1]  has set a time bomb. It states that “the Church is to be incarnated in Amazonian cultures that have a high sense of community, equality and solidarity, so clericalism is not accepted in its various forms of manifestation.” It adds that the Amazonian tribes preserve “a rich tradition of social organization where authority is rotating and with a deep sense of service.” And it invites the Synod Fathers to “reconsider the idea that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all spheres (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and permanently to the sacrament of order” (no. 127).

Mons. Fritz LöbingerWith a technical jargon, this paragraph takes up the proposal of Bishop Fritz Löbinger to invent a second-class, temporary priesthood by ordering married men who have only the power to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments but not the power to teach or govern – a proposal that Pope Francis judged “interesting” in an in-flight press conference.[2]

In the presentation of the synodal document the Christian journalist Carina Caricato, an anchor of TV2000 (the television network of the Italian Church) commented that said paragraph “is the most advanced expression that can be found on the Instrumentum laboris” and asked Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri whether “this idea of disconnecting the exercise of jurisdiction from sacred orders is limited only to the Amazon question” or whether it represents “the prelude to something different.” Somewhat hesitatingly, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops replied that “this discourse on the authority of government is still to be studied” because, “in fact, it is not only a disciplinary problem, but one of a doctrinal character,” since the three powers received in the priestly ordination (teaching, governing and sanctifying) are inseparable.[3]

The media highlighted almost exclusively the dispensation from celibacy implicit in the proposal to ordain mature married men (viri probati) as priests. But in fact, the dilution of the priesthood being sought goes much further: It is a new type of priesthood associated with the rotating leadership of indigenous communities, which would overshadow the clerical and hierarchical character of the Church, based precisely on the sacrament of Orders.

This work to undermine the ministerial priesthood dates from way back and has been carried out by progressively inflating the universal priesthood of the faithful and the semantic manipulation of the concept of “ministry,” by first opening it to “lay ministries” and now to “indigenous ministries.”  To help readers understand this substantive debate, in this article we intend to give a summary of the traditional Catholic teaching on the priesthood and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the next article we will follow step by step the inadvertent ecclesiological transshipment that has led to the eclipse of the priesthood and the hierarchy that the organizers of the Amazon Synod intend to implement.

*    *     *

Our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed the human race through a threefold ministry: priestly, doctrinal, and pastoral.

Priestly ministry, because the priest’s proper task is to be the mediator between divinity and men, and his essential function is sacrifice.[4] The priesthood of Christ began with the hypostatic union, culminated in the sacrifice on the Cross, which reconciled fallen humanity with God, and will continue eternally with the beatific vision.

Doctrinal or prophetic ministry, because Jesus Christ dissipated the religious ignorance that results from sin and revealed the deepest mysteries of God. He is the greatest Prophet promised in the Old Testament and the absolute Doctor of humanity: “For one is your master: Christ” (Mt 23:10).

Pastoral ministry, because He showed men, led astray by sin, the right way to reach their supernatural end, inculcating obedience to the Commandments of God and giving the new commandment of love. His pastoral power of king, legislator and judge covers the entire universe: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Mt 28:18).

Christ established Peter and as Prince of the Apostles
Christ established Peter and as Prince of the Apostles

On founding His Church as a society at the same time supernatural and visible in order to prolong His redemptive work[5] in time, Jesus Christ endowed it, in the person of the Apostles,[6] with a Hierarchy to which he transmitted His threefold priestly, prophetic, and pastoral ministry, with its respective powers. At the top of that hierarchy, Christ established Peter and his successors as prince of the Apostles and visible leader of the whole Church, directly and personally conferring on him not only a primacy of honor but the primacy of jurisdiction (that is, the complete and sovereign possession of legislative, judiciary, and coercive power).[7] This threefold ministry was transmitted directly to the Apostles, who in turn transmitted it to their successors.

This triple priestly, magisterial and pastoral ministry is conferred on the clergy by the laying on of hands and prayer of the bishop, which are the matter and form of the sacrament of Sacred Order. It imprints on its holder an indelible character that configures him to Christ, Supreme and Eternal Priest, and confers on him a permanent spiritual power. According to St. Thomas, the sacrament of Orders has the specificity of residing mainly in the transmission of a spiritualis potestas; that is, its essence is realized in its first effect, which is to imprint the priestly character, rather than in the grace of personal sanctification of the one receiving it (as happens in all other sacraments).[8]

However, this threefold spiritual power to shepherd the flock is one and inescapable because of its relationship with the unique mission of Christ, its origin in a single sacrament, and the uniqueness of its end: the salvation of men. For the good of souls, this does not prevent the possibility for the Ordinary, upon granting the canonical mission, to regulate the exercise, by those ordained, of some of the three functions or munera of the sacred power (regendi, docendi et sanctificandi).

This spiritual power is concentrated around the Eucharist and establishes the three degrees of the hierarchy of order: deacons assist the celebrant of the Mass and distribute Holy Communion; priests receive the power to consecrate and absolve sins; bishops, who possess the plenitude of the power of orders, also receive the power to ordain new clergy, including other bishops. It is through the transmission of that fullness of the sacrament of Orders through the centuries that the current bishops are united to the Apostles by way of succession. Without this sacramental transmission, the Church would cease to be “apostolic,” as the Creed proclaims.

Two aspects are traditionally distinguished within the hierarchy of the Church, that of Orders and that of Jurisdiction. It is based on the fact that Jesus Christ, Head of the Church, acts through His ministers both by the inner influence of grace (hierarchy of orders) and by the external government of the faithful (hierarchy of jurisdiction). If the former exercises its power over the real Body of Christ in the Eucharist, the latter exercises its power over the mystical Body of Christ, His Church.

By divine right, only the pope holds the proper and ordinary jurisdiction over the universal Church (to a supreme degree) and the bishops over their respective dioceses. All other degrees of the hierarchy of jurisdiction are ecclesiastically established and their holders enjoy only a delegated jurisdiction.

Canon 108 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law expressed all of the above clearly and succinctly: “1. Those who have been assigned to the Divine ministry by the first tonsure, are called clerics. 2. They are not all of the same degree, there is a sacred hierarchy by which one is subordinate to the other. 3. This hierarchy, which is of Divine institution by reason of the sacred orders, consists of bishops, priests and ministers; by reason of jurisdiction it consists of the supreme pontificate and the subordinate episcopate. By institution of the Church, other degrees have been added.” 

What is the role of the laity in that hierarchical structure: just being passively sheep of the flock? Did Saint Peter not tell all the faithful, “you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people,” so “be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9 & 5)?

Definitely. But immediately afterwards, the prince of the apostles distinguishes the universal priesthood of the faithful from the clerical priesthood of the clergy by saying that the former must offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God,” that is, personal good works rather than material victims on an altar. In addition, he makes clear that there is a hierarchy in the said consecrated nation: the supreme head is Christ, pastor and supreme guardian (1 Pt 2:25; 5,4) who no longer being present in a visible manner, exercises His authority through human representatives to whom the simple faithful owe obedience: “To the priests that are among you, I beseech …. feed the flock of God which is among you, taking care of it, not by constraint, but willingly, according to God … In like manner, ye young men, be subject to the elders” (1 Pt 5: 1-5).

Therefore, the universal priesthood of the faithful is a priesthood only in a broad and analogical sense. If by Baptism all the faithful (including clerics) have the ability to render spiritual worship to God by offering themselves and the world’s material and spiritual realities, those who receive the priesthood through the sacrament of Orders go up to the altar and offer the Eucharistic sacrifice because they are “ministers,” that is, servants[9] and representatives of Jesus Christ.

The laity have their own and peculiar function: to inform all earthly realities with the Christian spirit: “The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God,” says the Second Vatican Council.[10]

In this way, as the well-known Spanish canonist Pedro Lombardía explains, “clerics, religious and laity have in common their belonging to the People of God, their participation in the condition of faithful; on the other hand, they differ in the content of their specific ecclesial missions”:[11]

    • ·         the clergy, “through the sacrament of Orders, are destined to rule and serve others by guiding, teaching and sanctifying,” and therefore, “temporal things take second place for them;”

      ·         men and women religious “are called to depart from the world to remind, with their testimony, those who build the earthly city … that the present life only makes sense if we know how to foresee the future life through it;”

      ·         and the laity, in addition to their vocation to give a divine dimension to human activity, must give a personal testimony of Christian life and undertake the fight against the enemies of the faith, which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is proper to those who receive the sacrament of confirmation: to publicly confess their faith in Christ. In addition, the laity contribute to the formation of customs – which sometimes has legal force – and even more, to the conservation and development of the sensus fidei. In matters of the apostolate, they may not only assist the clergy in their mission (as catechists or animators of public associations of the faithful, etc.), but also enjoy the faculty to undertake works of evangelization in a private capacity and under the vigilance of the Hierarchy.

The well-known Milanese professor Vincenzo Del Giudice sums up the difference between clergy and laity in the following way:

“In Her [the Church] there are hierarchical superiors and subjects, there is an active and passive element [in regard to the administration and reception of the sacraments], persons who govern (ecclesia dominans) and persons who obey (ecclesia obediens), persons who teach (ecclesia docens) and others who learn (ecclesia discens). In short, there is an ‘elected’ class (clerus) that has the task of teaching and spiritually governing the faithful and administering the sacraments, and on the other hand, the class of the faithful, considered interchangeably (i.e., both the laity and the people who belong to the clergy, that is, all those who form the ‘people of God’) who are taught, governed and led to holiness through the above-explained activity (c. 107 and 948) (Lumen Gentium, n° 2829).”[12]

Pius XIITherefore, as Pius XII teaches, “it must be maintained uncompromisingly that those who exercise sacred power in this Body are its chief members. It is through them, by commission of the Divine Redeemer Himself, that Christ’s apostolate as Teacher, King and Priest is to endure.”[13]

It was to highlight that ontological difference between the “common priesthood” of the faithful and the “ministerial priesthood” of the clergy – a difference that does not eliminate the fundamental equality between them derived from Baptism – that the Church always reserved the word “ministry” just for the “sacred ministry,”  that is, that “function of divine institution through which one cooperates with the priesthood of Christ in the mediation between the world and God” [14] and for whose exercise public activities are carried out in the name and with the authority of the Church, and which require the sacrament of Sacred Orders (for example, the 1917 Code of Canon Law employs the terms “ministry” and “minister” exclusively in relation to the sacraments or to the sacred functions of the liturgy). It is because of the same concern to preserve the difference between clergy and laity that ecclesiastical offices[15]  were traditionally reserved to the clergy, the sole subjects able to have authority of jurisdiction as Baptism does not grant, of its own right, any authority to command in the Church.”[16]

As in all civilizations of antiquity and in medieval Christianity (until the secularization of the State during the French Revolution), because of their role as intermediaries with God, clerics were the first class also in the temporal sphere and enjoyed a privileged status.[17]  Even after the secularization of public institutions, in the protocol of private social life the clergy continued being treated with the same marks of veneration as in previous centuries.[18]

The first revolutionary explosion against the Catholic priesthood and ecclesiastical and politico-social privileges enjoyed by the clergy occurred during the Protestant Pseudo-Reformation in the name of the triple slogan “sola fides, sola Scriptura, sola gratia.” In fact, the Protestant doctrine postulates that faith suffices for the fruits of the Redemption to be applied directly to the believer without the intermediation of the Church or its ministers, who also lose all magisterial power thanks to the free interpretation of the Scriptures. Hence the radical elimination of the distinction between clergy and laity.[19]

The refutation of the Protestant heresy was the main object of the Council of Trent, which, with regard to the specific theme of the priesthood and the hierarchy, fulminated the following propositions as heresies:

“If anyone says that in the New Testament there is no visible and external priesthood or that no power is given to consecrate and offer the true Body and Blood of the Lord and to forgive sins, but only the duty and mere ministry of preaching the Gospel and that those who do not preach it are absolutely not priests, let him be anathema.”[20]

“If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there is no hierarchy instituted by divine ordination, consisting of bishops, priests and ministers, let him be anathema.”[21]

 

Synod of Pistoia
Synod of Pistoia

Despite the Council of Trent, the egalitarian tendencies of Protestantism continued to infiltrate Catholic circles. In a late-Jansenist version, the Protestant denial of the ministerial priesthood resurfaced at the Synod of Pistoia, convened by the bishop of Prato (Italy) in September 1786. The synodal decree on grace and predestination (3rd session, art. §1) held that the power bound to the priestly ministry was not given by Jesus Christ directly to the Apostles but to the Church, to be transmitted to the pastors. Almost contemporaneously and based on the same tendencies, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy promulgated by the National Assembly during the French Revolution adopted a democratic structure for its schismatic church, in which priests and bishops were elected by the community (as is now apparently happening in China, after the secret pact between the Vatican and Beijing).

Pope Pius VI condemned the thesis of Pistoia in the bull Auctorem Fidei as follows: “The proposition that states that God has given the Church the power to be communicated to the pastors who are her ministers, for the salvation of souls; understood in the sense that the power of ministry and ecclesiastical regime derives from the community of the faithful, is heretical.”[22]

At the end of the nineteenth century, modernism – which resulted from the infiltration of rationalist ideas of liberal Protestantism into Catholicism – supported the same heresy, professing that the hierarchy of the Church was not established by Jesus Christ but gradually emerged to meet the liturgical and administrative needs of the early Christian communities. This phrase of Alfred Loisy is well known: “Jesus announced the Kingdom and it was the Church that emerged.”[23]

St. Pius XWhen the French secular Republic sought to attribute the worship and administration of ecclesiastical property to simple associations of the faithful, St. Pius X rejected that attack on the hierarchical constitution of the Church with a fiery encyclical, Vehementer Nos:

“The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors (I Ephes. iv. II sqq.) – a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging (Matt. xxviii. 18-20; xvi. 18, 19; xviii. 17; Tit. ii. 15; 11. Cor. x. 6; xiii. 10. & c.) It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”[24]

How different this is from rotating “indigenous ministries” with a second-class priesthood that Bishop Fritz Löbinger and the organizers of the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the pan-Amazon region want to implement!

In the next articles we will see how we went from one model of Church to another.

  1. [1] http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/pt/documentos/instrumentum-laboris-do-sinodo-amazonico.html
  2. [2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/es/speeches/2019/january/documents/papa-francesco_20190127_panama-volo-ritorno.html
  3. [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUT5SWqcEpU Ver del minuto 1 :05 :20 al 1 :10 :07.
  4. [4] “Sacrifice and priesthood are so united by the ordination of God that both have existed in every law (Council of Trent, Denz.-Hün. 1764 [957]).
  5. [5] “The eternal Pastor and guardian of our souls (1 Pt 2:25), to render perennial the salvific work of redemption, decreed to build the Holy Church in which, as in a house of the living God, all the faithful were united by the bond of one faith and charity” (Vatican Council I, Denz.-Hün. 3050 [1821]).
  6. [6] “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (Jn 20:21).
  7. [7] “If anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the Lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole Church militant; or that it was a primacy of honor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our lord Jesus Christ himself: let him be anathema (Council Vatican I, Denz.-Hün. 3055 [1823]).
  8. [8] Suppl. q. 34, a. 2 & q. 35, a. 1.
  9. [9] In its Latin origin, the vocable “minister” means “servant,” as in Mt 20:28: “Filius hominis non venit ministrari sed ministrare et dare animam suam redemptionem pro multis” (“the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life for the liberation of all”).
  10. [10] Constitution Lumen Gentium, n° 31.
  11. [11] “Los laicos en el derecho de la Iglesia,” Ius Canonicum, vol. 6, n° 12 (1966), p. 343. The Code of Canon Law in force distinguishes them as follows: “Canon 207. §1. By divine institution, there are among the Christian faithful in the Church sacred ministers who in law are also called clerics; the other members of the Christian faithful are called lay persons. §2. There are members of the Christian faithful from both these groups who, through the profession of the evangelical counsels by means of vows or other sacred bonds recognized and sanctioned by the Church, are consecrated to God in their own special way and contribute to the salvific mission of the Church; although their state does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, it nevertheless belongs to its life and holiness.”
  12. [12] Nozioni di Diritto Canonico, 12th edition, prepared with the collaboration of Prof. G. Catalano, Milan 1970, p. 89.
  13. [13] Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, n° 8 (http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi.html).
  14. [14]  J.A. Fuentes, “Ministerio sagrado”, in Diccionario General de Derecho Canónico, t. V, p. 385.
  15. [15] Office is any position established in a stable manner that must be exercised by divine or ecclesiastical disposition for a spiritual purpose. The notions of office and ministry – although both translate into the Latin word munus – are not equivalent: every office is a ministry but not every ministry is an office (cf. J.I. Arrieta, “Oficio Eclesiástico,” in Diccionario General de Derecho Canónico, t. V, p. 689).
  16. [16] Canon 129 of the present Code of Canon Law says, “§ 1. Those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction. § 2. Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law.”
  17. [17] “In those times, the clergy was the first social class not only because of its sacred character, but also because it provided the country with the very foundation of civilization. Indeed, a country without morals is worth nothing; and the clergy are precisely those who have the natural and supernatural resources to instill true morals in a country. This is their specific mission, and since it is the most important and fundamental, it is only natural that the class in charge of this mission be considered the first class of society.” (https://www.pliniocorreadeoliveira.info/DIS%20-%2019921111_CleroNobrezaPovoGoverno.htm).
  18. [18] See, for example, this suggestion in a best seller of the Belle Époque, the manual titled Usages du monde: règles du savoir-vivre dans la société moderne, by Baroness Staffe, a pseudonym of Blanche Soyer. In the chapter on how to organize banquets, she writes: “Among Catholics, if a priest were among the guests, even if a simple vicar, he would be entitled to the first place at the table, that is to say, he would sit to the right of the lady of the house. Moreover, since among Catholics a priest has priority even over women, the lady of the house would walk first by his side (without escorting him by his arm) to enter and to leave the dining room. We do not invite a priest when we cannot treat him with this deference because we must do the honors to another guest.”
  19. [19] “According to the Protestant view, in the early Christian Church there was no essential distinction between laity and clergy, no hierarchical differentiation of orders (bishop, priest, deacon), no recognition of pope and bishops as possessors of the highest power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church or over its several territorial divisions. On the contrary, the Church had at first a democratic constitution, in virtue of which the local churches selected their own heads and ministers and imparted to these their inherent spiritual authority, just as in the modern republic the “sovereign people” confers administrative authority upon its elected president and officials. The deeper foundation for this transmission of power should be sought in the primitive Christian idea of the universal priesthood, which excludes the recognition of a special priesthood. Christ is the sole high priest of the New Testament, just as His bloody death on the Cross is the sole sacrifice of Christianity. If all Christians without exception are priests by virtue of their baptism, an official priesthood obtained by special ordination is just as inadmissible as the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass” (Catholic Encyclopaedia, v. Priesthood, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12409a.htm).
  20. [20] Denz./Hün. 1771 [961].
  21. [21] Idem 1776 [966]. On the usage of the word “ministers,” see note 9.
  22. [22] Denz./Hün. 2602 [1502].
  23. [23] “Since Christianity became a religion, and by becoming a religion, became a cult, it needed ministers. Numerous meetings cannot be held regularly and frequently without chiefs, presidents, supervisors and junior officers who ensure their proper order. In each community, the college of elderly, more or less inspired by the synagogues, was what the apostolic college had primarily been in the community of Jerusalem. The attribution of the presidency to the elders was self-evident and it was natural for one of them to occupy the first place in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The assumption of a rotation of officials, of a presidency exercised alternately by each elder, put forward by some critics, is not corroborated by any testimony and lacks plausibility. Alongside the chiefs, the elders, presbyters (priests) or episcopes (bishops) there were lower ministers, the deacons. Towards the end of the first century, when the extraordinary ministry of the apostles and itinerant preachers and the enthusiasm that aroused the prophets fell, as fall they had, the charge of teaching and directing the community passed entirely to the chiefs, residents, we can say to the administrators, who probably exercised some of them from the beginning. They alone decided on the admission of neophytes and, save in exceptional cases, they alone conferred baptism; as it became necessary to organize a discipline of penance for baptized Christians, they determined its conditions. The hierarchy of order, with three degrees, was constituted when the first of the elders really detached himself from the presbyteral group and kept the title of bishop for himself” (L’Évangile et l’Église, p. 191-192).
  24. [24] https://mercaba.org/PIO%20X/vehementer_nos.htm.
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