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Bishop and Presbyter as Representatives of the Church and Christ by Edward J. Kilmartin from 'Women Priests'

Bishop and Presbyter as Representatives of the Church and Christ

by Edward J. Kilmartin

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 295-302.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Edward J. Kilmartin, SJ, was at the time Professor of Liturgical Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was Executive Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Dialogue with Orthodox and Other Eastern Churches. He has contributed regularly to such journals as Theological Studies and is the author of The Eucharist in the Primitive Church.

The Declaration affirms this principle: “In actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself . . . is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation . . . his role must be taken by a male.(1) Why? Because sacramental signs ”must be perceptible" to the senses. They must “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” Hence if the minister is not male the natural resemblance is lacking. The minister would not be “image of Christ.”(2)

What are the ministerial functions which have these characteristics? The text refers to actions which the priest performs as “image and symbol of Christ himself who calls, forgives and accomplishes the sacrifice of the Covenant.”(3) Nevertheless only the role of the priest in the Eucharist is developed: The priest “alone has the power to perform” the sacrifice of Christ. In this activity the celebrant is said to act “not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.”(4)

How is the function of the priest as representing the Church related to the role of representing Christ? It is stated that the priest, in his official acts, represents the Church: he “acts in persona Ecclesiae, that is to say, in the name of the whole Church and in order to represent her.”(5) Furthermore this role is situated in a relationship of dependence on the priest’s ability to represent Christ: “It is true that the priest represents the Church . . . But . . . because he first represents Christ himself who is the Head . . . of the Church.”(6) The Commentary on the Declaration explains this ordering by reasoning that otherwise the priest would be a delegate of the community; the Church would be source of official authority: “When the priest presides over the assembly, it is not the assembly that has chosen or delegated him for his role . . . It is Christ who calls it together . . . and the priest presides ‘in the power of Christ the Head.’(7)

The Declaration thus explicitly names one ritual act in which the priest directly represents Christ: the proclamation of the account of institution during the eucharistic prayer. It states that in other rites which call for the character of ordination the priest is “image and symbol of Christ.” These are described from the viewpoint of Christ's activity in calling, forgiving and offering sacrifice. Moreover the Declaration assumes that if the priest first represents the Church in the sphere of sacramental activity for which ordination qualifies, it must be concluded that the Church, not Christ, is the source of this ministry.

Elsewhere in this volume the question of the signification of the account of institution in the eucharistic prayer is discussed. However some observations on the position taken by the Declaration will be made since they are integral to the argument of this essay. This will be done within the scope of a more general consideration of the role of the priest as representing the Church and Christ in the sacramental activity for which ordination qualifies a baptized member of the Church.

The Declaration's assertion that the priest first represents Christ and then the Church in activity for which the character of ordination qualifies based on a consideration of the ultimate source of the priest's activity: Christ the Head of the Church. On the other hand the affirmation that the priest directly represents Christ when he pronounces the “words of consecration” is founded on an interpretation of the signification of the account of institution in the sacramental rite itself. Still the text does not treat the implications of these two points of view. In fact by insisting on the priest's being “image and symbol” in other sacramental activities, it gives the impression that in all sacramental rites the celebrant directly represents Christ the Head in the symbolic action itself. The seeming lack of awareness of two different processes which are involved in the analysis of sacramental rites is surprising. It is our purpose to speculate on why the two processes are confused. However, as a result an important consideration is passed over which, to say the least, renders the reasoning of the Declaration neutral on the question of ordination of women.

The two different processes involved in the analysis of sacramental rites, alluded to in the text, are traditionally used in scholastic theology. The first begins with what is more accessible and progresses toward what is ultimate signified; the second analyzes the actual process in which what is ultimately signified directs the whole process of symbolization.

Since sacramental rites have various levels of signification a simple affirmation that a sacrament signifies something, or “first signifies” something, is not sufficient. One must pay attention to the level of significance at which statement may be true.(8) Thus beginning with what is most accessible in the case of Baptism it will be seen that the profession of faith, water bath, and unction of confirmation symbolize, respectively, an engagement, purification and consecration. Taken together they constitute the rite of initiation. This rite signifies, first of all, something social and interpersonal, perceptible at the level of human experience: incorporation into the community of believers in Christ. That which is thus symbolized, in its turn, functions to symbolize a spiritual reality: integration into the Body of Christ by the gift of the Spirt. Thus what is denoted by the sensible rite also connotes a spiritual reality.

The foregoing analysis proceeds from what is immediately accessible and moves to what is ultimately signified within the sacramental rite. But, of course, the actual process of symbolization is reversed: What is ultimately signified directs the whole process. So from the latter point of view one might say that Baptism primarily signifies the gift of the Spirit of regeneration. But from the former point of view it would be correct to say that Baptism first signifies incorporation into the community of believers.

It is also possible to refer to levels of signification which lie above and below the internal structure of a sacramental rite. St. Thomas says that sacraments signify the cause (passion of Christ), the form (grace) and the goal (eternal life) of our sanctification.(9) But both the cause and goal lie above sacramental symbolism. On the other hand the ancient symbolism attached to the many grains of wheat forming one loaf and so signifying the unity of the Church falls below the sacramental level. For if the element of bread directly signified the unity of the Church in the sacramental rite it would have to be considered the cause of this effect - at least from the viewpoint of scholastic theology which understands that sacraments cause by signifying.

These general considerations bring us to the question: On what level of signification which is sacramental can the priest be said to signify Christ “in the exercise of his ministry” and to signify the Church in its activity?

Beginning with what is most accessible it must be said that priests in their liturgical activity directly represent the faith of the Church of which they are leaders. Moreover, participating in the collegial office of the whole Church, priests directly represent the unity of concrete liturgical communities through their communion with one another, and so the common faith of the Church. Thus in their persons and activities they serve in a special way to connote the source of the unity of the whole Church: Christ and the Holy Spirit.

From this standpoint it is necessary to say that the priest first represents (denotes) the Church in its sacramental activity and secondly represents (connotes) Christ the Head of the Church. But this analysis also affirms that from the perspective of what is ultimately signified the priest first represents (connotes) Christ the Head of the Church and secondly represents (denotes) the Church united in faith and love.

The leadership function of the priest in the Church is carried out in various ways to which correspond various modes of the presence of Christ: governing, teaching and liturgical leadership. All these activities are carried out by priests expressing the faith of the Church as members of the collegial body of the pastoral office. As ministers and representatives of the whole Church their activity connotes the pneumatic grounds of the unity of the Church. Hence they act in a special way in persona Christi. But they do this since they represent the one Church united in faith and love. So functioning they act in the name of but not merely on the basis of the commission of the local Church. Consequently their commission and authority, as the Commentary states, are not derived merely from the local Church.

This structure holds also for the Eucharist. Presiding over the community priests represent the whole church and so connote Christ's activity. They act in the name of the whole Church and so serve as transparency for the grounds of unity and activity of the whole Church: Christ and the Holy spirit.

Since priests, in their official activity, connote the Headship of Christ it is not immediately clear why maleness is required in this ministry in order to preserve the proper symbolic correspondence. Could not a female equally fulfill the symbolic function of connoting the Headship of Christ over the Church in those activities for which the character of ordination is required? An affirmative answer to this question may seem inevitable because women do connote the Headship of Christ in administering Baptism, and they do this by first representing (denoting) the faith of the Church. However according to traditional Catholic theology an exception to the general structure of levels of signification of sacramental rites is claimed for the Eucharist: The priest, denotes Christ when pronouncing the account of institution.

A priori such an exception cannot be ruled out because sacramental rites relate to one another analogously, not univocally. Thus, for example, in the unique case of the sacrament of Matrimony the couple are the ministers. What, then, is the theological value of this theology of the “moment of consecration”? Does the priest's activity in this case bypass the first level of signification and so immediately denote Christ's activity?

Since the thirteenth century the account of institution is said to be spoken in persona Christi in the Latin Church. The usage is influenced by the Latin patristic writers who employ this phrase in order to attribute words of Scripture to another than the one concretely speaking. They also use it to ground ecclesiastical pardon on Christ. In continuity with this patristic usage theologians of the thirteenth century qualify the account of institution by this phrase to stress its consecratory function in the Eucharist.(10) St. Thomas brings out the implications of this theology of consecration by stressing that the celebrant thus fulfills a ministerial function as instrument of the act of christ himself.(11)

For St.Thomas in persona Christi gives stature to the account of institution and indicates that the priest has a ministerial role in the act of christ. moreover St.Thomas understands that in the act of pronouncing the words of institution the priest denotes the action of Christ. He distinguishes this act from other ministerial sacerdotal activity in persona Christi.(12) For speaking of the difference between the form of the sacrament of the Eucharist and those of other sacraments, he states that the other forms are spoken ex persona Christi ipsius loquentis.(13) This activity of the priest is distinguished from his activity in reciting the rest of the canon of the Mass which he sees as a rite of the Church and so not necessary for the realization of the sacrament.(14) In reciting the rest of the canon the priest acts in persona Ecclesiae. This term is used by St. Thomas to describe the role of the priest presiding over the liturgical prayer of the Church and so acting as organ of the profession of faith of the whole Church.(15)

The teaching that the priest denotes Christ's activity in the Mass at the “moment of consecration” is common in scholastic theology. In its methodological approach to reflection on the Lord's Supper it emphasizes the activity of Christ through the ordained minister. At the same time it totally neglects the structure of the eucharistic prayers of the East and West as well as the epicletic character of these prayers. The defects of this method have been pointed out frequently by modern Catholic scholars.(16)

In the structure of the eucharistic prayer itself the account of institution functions to relate the sacred meal to the event “Jesus Christ” as part of the prayer which includes thanksgiving, liturgical prayer of offering of bread and wine and the epiclesis. The whole prayer is a sacramental word: a word of faith of the Church and form of the ritual action. As a whole, therefore, it denotes the action of the Church which, in turn, connotes the activity of Christ. This is stressed in the epiclesis: the invocation of the Spirit (explicit or implicit) made by the community through the priest with a view to the accomplishment of the mystery signified in the eucharistic celebration.

Another important influence on the development of the concept of the priest denoting Christ in the eucharistic celebration can be traced to the conceptual separation and isolation of the power of orders from the power of jurisdiction. Scholastic theology conceived the power of orders as existing and operating without immediate relation to its ecclesiological grounding. Within this mindset the priest is understood to exercise a power of consecration which is independent of the ecclesiastical context even to the extent of being actualizable outside the liturgy. Only recently in the twentieth century has the possibility of a priest consecrating bread and wine outside the context of the liturgy been generally rejected.

The development of this theology coincides with the concept of the priest functioning as index(17) of Christ in the Eucharist in complete isolation from his index function as confessing believer and representative of pastoral office of the apostolic Church.(18)

Within the eucharistic rite there are certain indexes which connote a real relation to the event “Jesus Christ.” Through the account of institution and the sharing of bread and wine the sacred meal of the history of religions assumes a real relation to the Last Supper and the redemptive work of Christ. Furthermore the community of believers itself is the indispensable index: united in the name of Christ with the priest in apostolic succession and so constituting the Church which celebrates the Eucharist.

Within this context the priest is an index: This ministry is linked through the bishop to that of the apostles so that the Eucharist appears as apostolic. Priests provide a historical referent for the celebration as members of the apostolic college of liturgical leaders. Ordination to the pastoral office directly signifies the designation of a person to serve the community in apostolic ministry: Something which can be lived is denoted. It does not directly represent but connotes a relationship to Christ the Head of the Church. The latter relationship could be dramatized independently of the first level of signification, but it would not be a sacramental rite which belongs to the order of praxis. Consequently priests function on the level of denotation as representatives of the faith of the Church and on the level of connotation as representatives of Christ the Head of the Church.

Liturgical actions do not belong to the order of pure praxis, i.e., they are not destined simply to produce something. Nor do they simply depict a spiritual reality. Rather the praxis connotes a spiritual reality. In our case incorporation into the college of liturgical leaders connotes a sharing in the ministry of Christ the Head of the Church. Corresponding to this the priest in his activity does not dramatize Christ's activity in the Church. Rather through his ecclesial activity, representing the faith of the Church, he connotes Christ's activity.

If one does not pay attention to the various levels of signification of sacramental rites when interpreting the dynamics of liturgical actions, there is a danger that the Christian liturgy will be presented as a sacred drama. This danger is apparent in theological explanations of the Eucharist which describe the priest as directly representing Christ in an activity to which the community then relates itself. A curious statement of the Commentary on the Declaration could be interpreted to favor this view of the Mass as a sacred drama. Alluding to the classical usage of persona, which means an actor's mask and so by way of metonymy stands for a role, it states that this original meaning describes the activity of the priest in the Mass: “The priest takes the part of Christ, lending him his voice and gestures.”(19)

In this presentation it is difficult to avoid the impression that liturgical actions are really sacred dramas with the goal of merely communicating something to the audience. The conceptual separation of the central action of the Mass from the participation of the faithful leads logically to the conclusion that the laity are an audience invited to identify with the drama vicariously in a way analogous to “live theatre.”

This presentation might possibly find a home in a typically Reformation theology which sees the Eucharist merely from the viewpoint of Christ's gift of himself to the believer, but it is not consistent with a Catholic theology which teaches that the Eucharist is a sacramental co-accomplishment of the sacrifice of the cross in and by the Church. Christian liturgy differs from sacred drama not merely because of the mystery content but also because the presence of Christ and his saving work take place through the rites which are a form of expression of the faith of the Church. The dynamics of liturgical actions must be presented in such a way that they are clearly seen as social actions in which there is no complete disjunction between the representation of the mystery of salvation and the lives of those involved in the action as “actors,” both minister and faithful. This can only be done, from the perspective of the role of apostolic office in the liturgy, by affirming that this office represents Christ by representing the faith of the Church of which Christ is the sharing source along with the Spirit.(20)

Summary and Conclusion

1. The Declaration's explanation of the role of the priest with respect to the Church and Christ is based on Thomistic theology. Logically it leads to the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

2. In this essay an attempt has been made to show that, beginning with the theology of sacramental signification and taking into account the christological and pneumatological-ecclesiological dimensions of pastoral office, the representative functions of the priest are consistent with the ordination of women.

3. The eucharistic theology used by the Declaration to support its position represents a partial tradition which is recognized by most Catholic liturgical scholars as at variance with the authentic whole liturgical tradition of the East and West of the first millenium.

4. The Declaration shows why it is premature, at the level of the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, to make a decision regarding the ordination of women.

Before any decision based on theological grounds can be taken on the question of ordination of women, a new evaluation by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church of the christological and pneumatological-ecclesiological dimensions of the pastoral office is required. It is also imperative that a serious investigation be undertaken in the area of the theology of sacramental signification and the dynamics of the eucharistic celebration.


1. Declaration, par. 30.

2. Ibid., par. 27.

3. Ibid., par. 33.

4. Ibid., gars. 26-27.

5. Ibid., par. 32.

6. Ibid.

7. Commentary, par. 44.

8. M. Amaladoss, “Sémiologie et sacrement,” La Maison Dieu, Vol. 97, No. 114 (1973), p. 31.

9. Summa Theologiae, III, q. 60, a. 3, c.

10. B.-D. Marliangeas, “ ‘In Persona Christi,’ ‘In Persona Ecclesiae’: Note sur les origines et le developpement de (usage de ces expressions dans la théologie latine,” La Liturgie après Vatican II, Y. Congar et al. (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1967), pp. 283-286.

11. Summa, III, q. 83, a.l, ad 3.

12. Ibid., q. 22, a.4, c.

13. Ibid., q. 78, a.l, c.

14. Ibid., q. 78, a.l, ad 4.

15. Ibid., q. 64, a.8, ad 2.

16. For example: H.-J. Schulz, “Die Grundstruktur des kirchlichen Amtes im Spiegel der Eucharistiefeier und der Ordinationsliturgie des römischen und des byzantinischen Ritus," Catholica, Vol. 29, No. 4 (October, 1975), pp. 325-340 (especially, pp. 331-334).

17. An index indicates something not present but with which it is linked causally or by association. Christian rites must have indexes which relate them to the historical event “Jesus Christ.” Because of their connotative structure indexes are sometimes confused with symbols. But symbols as such do not signify a historical referent: The relation between the thing signified and the signifying is one of reason. The relation between the index and the thing indicated is real.

18. This view results in an overdrawn identification between Christ and the priest in which basic sacramental categories such as icon (image), anti-type and type are misunderstood.

Traditional scholastic theology shows an inclination either to completely divorce or completely confuse symbol or image with the reality signified. This is reflected in its explanation of the attitude Christians should adopt toward images of Christ. The VII Ecumenical Council, II Nicaea, explained that icons should not be adored but venerated since they elevate the faithful to the one represented and lead to imitation (H. Denzinger & A. Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum: Definitionum et Declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 32 ed., Barcelona: Herder, 1963, p. 201, no. 601). St. Thomas, however, approves the adoration of images of Christ not ‘insofar as a thing’ but “insofar as image” (Summa, III, q. 25, a.3, c.).

19. Commentary, par. 41.

20. E. J. Kilmartin, “Apostolic Office: Sacrament of Christ,” Theological Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2 (June, 1975), pp. 257ff.

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