The True Definition of the Priesthood of the Laity
© Copyright 1990; revised 2022, T. Stanfill Benns ( All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)
There are many negative connotations attached to the title of this subsection. But for all the negativity surrounding this term, it is firmly based in Scripture and expounded upon sublimely by Pope Pius XII. First, we shall examine the occurrence of this phrase in the Old and New Testament: Old Testament – “And you shall be to me a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5, 6.)
“You shall be called priests of the Lord; to you it shall be said: Ye ministers of our God.” (Isaias, as quoted by Leeming.)
New Testament – “…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God has purchased.” (I Peter 2:9.)
“He has …made us a royal race of priests, to serve God, his Father.” (Apoc. 1:5-6.) “…they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” (Apoc. 20:6.)
St. Augustine comments on the above as follows: “Now this is not meant only of those whom the Church specifically calls bishops and priests, but as we are all called Christians because of our mystical Chrism, our unction, so are we all priests in being the members of one priest.” (I St. Peter 2:9, City of God, Book 20, Chapter 10.)
What do the Fathers say concerning this royal priesthood of the laity?
St. Justin – “We, who … believe as one man in God… have put off … our sins … and are set on fire by the world of his calling and are the true high priestly race of God. God therefore testifies that all who, through His name, offer the sacrifices which Jesus the Christ commanded … are acceptable to Him.”
St. Hilary – “Let not nobility of birth make anyone disdainful of others; let them remember that it was said of those who are born anew in Christ: ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.’”
St. Leo the Great (Pope) – “…for by baptism, according to the teaching of St. Peter, the royal dignity of the priesthood is common to you all. The anointing of the Holy Spirit has consecrated all of you as priests … Even if the mysterious grace of Him who holds it, descends with greater abundance upon members who hold high peace, it flows with no sparing generosity upon those of lesser degree.”
St. Jerome – In summarizing the arguments of St. Jerome with the Luciferan, Helladius, we must observe that Jerome denied the necessity of reconsecration/ordination when receiving a bishop back from heresy on the following grounds: “…If a laymen confesses that he has erred, how can he remain a layman in the Church? Let him put aside his lay priesthood … his baptism … and I will grant [him] … repentance. For it is written: ‘He has made us a kingdom and priests to God, his Father’ ”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem – (The author who presents these opinions of the Fathers, notes that St. Cyril identifies the anointing in solemn baptism as that specific initiation into the royal nation and priesthood of Christ.) “…This Chrism had its symbol in the Old Testament. For when Moses… anointed Aaron, [he] …was called Christ or anointed, from…’Chrism’… . To them these things happened in figure, but to you. in truth; because you were truly anointed by the Holy Ghost.”
St. Augustine – “… For now we are all anointed, something that was done formerly only for kings and priests … when St. Peter proclaimed … the Christian people… ‘a royal priesthood; he meant that both names belong to the people to whom the anointing belongs.”
St. Maximus of Turin – “In the Old Law, this anointing conferred a temporal royalty, a temporal priesthood. But this anointing conferred upon you, has given you the dignity of a priesthood which does not pass away once it has been received …you have received through…Chrism, the kingship of the glory to come, and the priesthood.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus – (Summing up the teachings of the fathers on Baptism) “By the gift of Christ we understand… baptism, because sin is taken away in the water; anointing, because it confers something sacred and royal, priesthood and kingship. ”
Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, writes: “By reason of their baptism, Christians are in the Mystical Body and become by a common title members of Christ, the Priest; by the ‘character’ which is graven upon their souls, they are appointed to the worship of God therefore, according to their condition, they share in the priesthood of Christ Himself.” (The above quotes from the fathers and Pius XII were taken from Principles of Sacramental Theology, Bernard Leeming, S.J.; Chapter 7, Sect. II, principle V.)
Reverend Leeming further observes that confirmation perfects this seal of Baptism and quotes from St. Thomas as follows: “In Baptism [man] receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation. whereas in confirmation, he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the faith. This is evident from the example of the Apostles who, before they received the fullness of the Holy Ghost, were ‘in the upper room… persevering in prayer; whereas, afterward they feared not to confess their faith in public, even in the face of enemies of the Christian faith.” (Summa III; Q-72, A-5.) Leeming comments: “Christ’s priesthood consists, not exclusively in offering the sacrifice of mankind to God, but includes also the bringing of the truth of God to mankind.” (p. 237.)
To clarify the role of the laity as ‘priests and kings’ further we offer the distinction made by the Catechism of the Council of Trent between an internal and an external priesthood. “ Sacred Scripture describes a twofold priesthood, one internal and the other external… . Regarding the internal priesthood, all the faithful are said to be priests, once they have been washed in the saving waters of baptism … The just… have been made living members of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ; for enlightened by faith which is inflamed by charity, they offer up spiritual sacrifices to God on the altar of their hearts… . The external priesthood … does not pertain to the faithful at large, but only to certain men … devoted to a particular sacred ministry … everyone knows the many and various precepts given by the Lord to Moses and Aaron regarding the external priesthood.” McHugh and Callan, p. 330-331.)
The Catechism then goes on to warn the faithful against confusing the two forms of priesthood and usurping priestly functions. Pius XII makes this distinction clear in Mediator Dei: “The fact, however, that the faithful participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice does not mean that they also have the power of a priest. It is very necessary that you make this clear to your flocks.” (DZ 2300.) Already, Pius XII envisioned those errors which were to become reality in the Novus Ordo, for he specifically condemns the notion that “…the priest acts only in virtue of an office delegated to him by the community,” and also the idea that “…it is more proper that priests should ‘concelebrate’ with people present, rather than offer the sacrifice privately with no people present.” (Also DZ 2300.)
In his The Role of the Laity in the Church, Msgr. Gerard Philips writes: “…the laity before God enjoys a royal and priestly privilege. In the past, some have sadly misinterpreted this truth, and more than one heretic has used it to restrict or suppress the hierarchical priesthood. Whenever this happens, the Church shifts her emphasis to the contested point, and the doctrine of the universal vocation is relegated to the background. And so, error causes unfortunate results in both directions.” (p. 58.) Certainly we have been witnesses of this phenomena. Once the “lay ministers” and “concelebrants” of the Novus Ordo appeared on the scene, Traditionalists entrenched themselves so firmly on the opposite wide of this question, that all possibility of active and licit lay involvement in the Church was excluded. Now, we must bring this doctrine once again to the fore, but taking care at the same time to guard against any abuses.
While we cannot participate in the Holy Sacrifice at this time we can be a part of Christ’s earthly sacrifice by offering ourselves as a living holocaust in the absence of the Mass. As Pope Pius XII teaches, “[the faithful] unite their prayers of praise, petition, expiation, and thanksgiving to the prayers and intention of the priest, and the High Priest Himself… It is by reason of this participation that the offering made by the people is a part of liturgical worship.” (Mediator Dei.)
Today, the Catholic Church lies at death’s door, Her sacraments violated, a usurper occupying the Holy See and Her priesthood and episcopacy extinguished. False shepherds now lead souls along the paths to perdition, who were once destined to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. In the past, there were always to be found hierarchy and laity to champion the Church’s rights. Today, the successors of the Apostles have fled for fear of the Jews, and all that remains is the laity. There is a saying that runs: “Work as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God.” God expects us to do our part. Faith without works is dead. The Church lies in ruins; the Mystical Body of Christ lies unconscious and bleeding in the gutter where the enemy has left Him to die again. Can we be penalized for wishing to bathe and restore this bruised and battered body by obeying God, doing penance and praying at home?
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
The voice of the people is the voice of God. Since the earliest centuries, this has been said of the laity, even up to the reign of Pius XII himself. In the cause of canonization, in the definition of dogma, and even in the day to day administration of the Church, the popes have always taken into consideration the desires and opinions of the faithful. The theologians Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo observe that. “The faithful, in so far as they are the recipients of this teaching (of their bishops and the Pope) …and assimilate the doctrines without error, enjoy a sort of reflex infallibility called by theologians, passive infallibility.” (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 83.) This lay infallibility has been commended by the popes themselves. In his book, The Catholic Church in Action, Michael Williams tells us:
“Pius IX, in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus (1854), promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, said that the masses of the faithful had contributed greatly to keeping this dogma alive through the centuries. The same fact was stated by Pius XII in his encyclical, Munifittissimus Deus (1954), proclaiming the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, when he stressed the “unique agreement between the Catholic bishops and the faithful concerning this article of faith.” (p. 311. Notice that Pius XII mentioned only bishops, not priests, because priests only teach by virtue of delegated jurisdiction.) This is not to say that both in the past, as well as in the present era, the laity has not gravely overstepped the bounds set for them by the Church to prevent their interference in ecclesiastical affairs. It seems that in the early days of the Church, however, Christians possessed loyalty, obedience, and charity in a much higher degree, and this prevented them from taking advantage of some of the special privileges granted them by the Pope and bishops.
Undoubtedly this was true, partly, because of the people to bishop ratio; Church elders could keep closer watch on the activities of the faithful. But it should more readily be credited to the fact that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost was exhibited in a greater degree in early Christians; (a) because of their chronological proximity to the coming of Christ, and (b) because Our Lord knew they would need this assistance if they were to prepare the ground from which His Church would bloom in profusion, having been richly fertilized by the bloody sacrifices of the early martyrs. After the persecutions abated, abuses began to creep in, and many of the customs and privileges common to the early laity, either fell into desuetude or were abrogated, owing to their abuse by certain individuals. (Leave it to a few bad apples to ruin the whole barrel!)
We observed earlier that in danger of death, where no priest could be obtained and the penitent must be absolved from a censure, medieval canonists believed laymen could absolve from such censures. St. Thomas also taught that when no priest was available, one could confess to a prudent layman (although we advise caution in this area.) But gradually, the understanding of the layman in this light was lost as Christendom edged closer and closer to the disorders and persecutions which ensued following the Protestant Reformation. Finally, lay involvement had to be downplayed, simply because laymen had crossed over to Cranmer and Luther for the express purpose of greater freedom to “understand” and “participate” in the liturgy of these sects. For that reason, the juridic status of the layman was not much discussed until some 300 years later.
Originally, Catholic Action began as a sort of national reaction of Catholics in Italy to the disintegrating political situation, which prevailed there in the 19th century. Pius IX endorsed this mobilization of the laity there to fight the antiChristian forces. This movement progressed in fits and starts until a general sorting out of negative elements occurred in the early part of this century. Following this occurrence, Pope Leo XIII issued a cry for unity, when he stated in 1902: “The action of Catholics, of whatever sort, will proceed with a larger effectiveness if all their associations … have one and the same directing and moving force at their head.” This head he referred to was the Opera dei Congressi, at that time the association directing the action of the laity. It was later to fail during the pontificate of his successor. Pius X took further measures to organize Catholic Action and remove from it any taint of political affiliation and partisanship and reorganized its various members into five separate groups.
This lasted for nine years, until the next Pope, Benedict XV, once again reorganized the various groups under the name Unione Popolare. The amazing growth of Catholic Action during the years of the first World War made it necessary for Pius XI to, once again, entirely restructure the movement. This he did in his encyclical, Ubi Arcano Dei. Although directed to the Italian Catholics, the norms of this encyclical were used to establish Catholic Action groups throughout the world. In laying down these guidelines, the Pope was careful to establish the fact that Catholic Action must be carried out under the supervision of the bishop and with the assistance and guidance of parish priests.
Pius XII continued to promote Catholic Action and, in his encyclical, Mediator Dei, he defined the meaning of lay priesthood and commended those active in this movement for their effective propagation of the faith. Thus did the role of the layman come full circle in the Church. But was this wonderful maturity realized by the faithful to wither prematurely on the vine with the abuses of the usurper popes? Were the laity intended to stand idle in the vineyards during the worst crises of the Church’s sojourn on earth simply because there were no priests, no bishops to guide them in this work? All we have read to this point would be rendered void if we could be led to believe such a thing. Yet, the forces of evil would like nothing better than to be able to convince us that this is indeed the case.
In the preface to Rt. Reverend Wm. C. McGrath’s little work, Fatima Or World Suicide, Reverend James M. Gilles writes: “It seems to be the will of the Lord that movements of reform should commence with the poor, the simple, the unsophisticated …the reconstruction of our shattered civilization is to come, if at all, not from the maneuvering of diplomats, still less from a series of world wars, and what are sardonically called ‘victories,’ but from some great religious movement starting with the people.” (p. viii.)
The laity must now assume the duties of the hierarchy
In The Catholic Dictionary, Addis and Arnold offer us a surprising observation concerning the meaning of the term “hierarchy.” After observing that the hierarchy ordinarily means the organization of ranks and orders in the Christian Church, they write: “In a wide and loose sense, when the whole Catholic Church is considered as existing in the midst of heretics, schismatics, and the heathen, even the laity may be considered as forming a portion of the hierarchy. With this agrees the expression of St. Peter calling the general body of Christians in the countries to which he is sending his epistle ‘a kingly priesthood” and a “holy nation.’” (p. 409.) (This identical quote can also be found in the volume A Cabinet of Catholic Information, p. 131, under Catholic Church History.)
Pope Pius XII agrees with Addis and Arnold’s definition, for he writes: “The initiative of the lay apostolate is perfectly justified even without a prior explicit ‘mission’ from the hierarchy… Personal initiative plays a great part in protecting the faith and Catholic life, especially in countries where contacts with the hierarchy are difficult or practically impossible. In such circumstances, the Christians upon whom this task falls, must, with God’s grace, assume all their responsibilities… Even so, nothing can be undertaken against the explicit and implicit will of the Church, or contrary in any way to the rules of faith or morals, or ecclesiastical discipline.” (From the address: The Mission of the Catholic Woman, Sept. 29, 1957; entered into the AAS and therefore binding on Catholics.) Pius XII could not have made his intentions on this subject any clearer than he does in the words above.
In his encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei, Pius XI wrote: “Catholic Action is the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Reverend Joseph Cavanaugh writes concerning this pronouncement of Pius XI: “…a large part of the astounding growth of the primitive Church was due to the magistrates, soldiers, working men, housewives, and students who made the truth known in every walk of life. Because the world has almost fallen back into paganism, recent popes have urged all Catholics to take part in Catholic Action.” (Evidence For Our Faith, p. 323.) Cavanaugh continues: “As the popes have outlined it, the work of members of Catholic Action is to Christianize their environments… this is a tremendous task for the Catholic laity. But it is no greater than the first Christians undertook. In the past, too many Catholics in America had the mentality of a persecuted minority. They felt that they were deserving of praise if they merely kept the faith.
Obviously, this is the least one can possibly do and still hope to be saved.” Catholics must “…appreciate the value of their faith and … share it with others. Above all, the world needs Catholic Action leaders who are willing to work out their salvation by working for the salvation of the world… All Christians… are obliged to be apostles Pius XI wrote: ‘All have the obligation of assisting in the restoration of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, because all are the favored subjects of this merciful King… .’ To dispense oneself from doing at least something is a sin of omission, which in certain circumstances, could be serious.’” (Evidence For Our Faith, pp. 322, 324, 326.) In his A Study of the Juridic Status of Laymen in the Writing of the Medieval Canonists, Reverend Ronald Cox informs us on page 27: “The most important instance of a broadening of the concept of clericus in the Code of Canon Law is found in Canon 614, which extends to religious, even novices and lay religious, the four privileges of clerics mentioned in Canon 119-123.”
Basically, these privilege amount to; (a) protection against irreverence and personal injury, under pain of sacrilege, (b) protection against civil law suits and ecclesiastical suits without permission of the ordinary, (c) exemption from military service and all civil offices and duties not compatible with the clerical state, (d) provision for the cleric outside of any obligations to creditors.) “When the word clericus is used in these canons then, it can be said to have in law, a wider meaning than that found in Canon 108, No. 1; and this narrows the extension of laicus in a similar context.” How many of us today would become lay religious if the opportunity presented itself once again? Are those of us who fight to reestablish the rights of Christ’s Church not lay religious at least by desire?
In his address The Lay Apostolate, Pius XII lists three main responsibilities of those engaged in Catholic Action: “The first of these is the formation of lay apostles to compensate for the shortage of priests engaged in pastoral work. In certain countries where Communism is in power, it is reported that religious life has been able to continue underground, thanks to the work of lay apostles, even after the arrests of the priests.” The laity in these countries operated out of necessity without the assistance of bishops or priests! Yet, we have failed to organize ourselves under anything even vaguely resembling the formation of groups as described by Pius XII. How different we are from those in previous times! Cardinal John Henry Newman offers evidence that during the Arian heresy, the faithful were in much the same straits as we find ourselves today. Writing in the periodical The Rambler, Newman points out, about the time of the Arian heresy: “ In those days the divine tradition, entrusted to the infallible Church, was propagated and maintained more by the faithful than by the episcopate ” To support this claim, he cites the following examples:
- St. Gregory of Nazianzus – (around 360): “Surely the shepherds have acted like fools … with a few exceptions ”
- St. Hilary – (in 361): “The ears of the people are holier than the hearts of its priests.”
- St. Gregory – (about 382): “1 would rather avoid any conference of bishops because I have never seen a Synod resulting in a satisfactory end and which would have remedied an existing evil instead of making it worse.”
- St. Basil – (372): “Those laymen who profess the true faith avoid the places of Church services as schools of Godlessness and, in their loneliness, they raise their hands to the Father in heaven, in sighs and tears Nowadays, there is only one offense to be severely punished; it is the exact observance of the tradition of our fathers.”
- Describing the Synod of Milan, Newman writes: “…Eusebius of Vercellae presented the Nicaean Creed to all fathers and said he would be prepared to follow all their requests as soon as they signed this profession of faith. At once, Bishop Dionysius of Milan took the sheet of paper and started to give his consent in writing. But Valens (the Arian) tore the paper and pen out of his hand and screamed, ‘Such a procedure is impossible!’ …The matter was brought to the people and the affliction was great ” (Taken from: “The Arianism,” by Eugene Golla and Gladys Resch, Francinta Messenger, May, 1983.)
And finally, we end with this quote from Pope Pius XII that seems to sum up all that has been said above:
“The faithful, and more precisely the laity are stationed in the front ranks of the life of the church and through them the church is the living principle of human society. Consequently they must have an ever clear consciousness not only of belonging to the Church but of being the Church; that is of being the community of the faithful on earth under the guidance of their common leader the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church and therefore even from the beginning the faithful with the consent of their bishops have united in associations directed to the most diverse types of human activity and the Holy See has never ceased to approve and praise them.” And we have the pope’s assurance above that this mission continues indefinitely, even in the absence of the hierarchy.