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The Priesthood of all the Faithful

All the faithful share in Christ's priesthood.

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among people (cf. Heb 5,1-5), "made a kingdom and priests to God his Father" (Rev 1,6; cf. 5,9-10). The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 10.

The implications of this for women are enormous:

  1. Christ did not institute a cultic priesthood, that is one based on the sacrality (=presumed holiness) of times, places, cultic objects, priestly descent.
  2. Christ instituted a priesthood in whose basic dignity all the baptised share.

Therefore, the implication of this is that both men and women can also share in Christ's ministerial priesthood. We may rightly call this the implied intention of Christ.

Christ did not institute a cultic priesthood based on socalled 'sacred' realities.

Jesus was not a social reformer, though his religious principles would have enormous social implications. He did not directly initiate a social revolution. The same cannot be said about his involvement in religion. Though he did not immediately attack the social structures of his time, he was intolerant regarding antiquated and inadequate religious structures. In this field his action could hardly have been more ruthless. The religious leadership he established was not a cultic priesthood, as understood in Egyptian religion, the Mesopotamian religions, Hellenism or even in the temple worship at Jerusalem.

To demonstrate the typical features of cultic priesthood, I will adduce examples from the Old Testament temple worship. However, this should not be interpreted - as has sometimes been done incorrectly - as implying hostility by Jesus against his own people or his own religion. He was transcending cultic worship and his Jewishness helped him to do so. Read: Priesthood and Jesus' Jewish Inspiration.

To understand the full implications of Jesus' attitude in this matter, we should recall that cultic priesthood rested on a philosophy that distinguished between the sacred and the profane. Some everyday realities, such as houses, cattle, eating and sleeping, doing business, and so on, were ordinary or 'profane.' God was not really directly present in these realities. Other realities of our world however were considered to have been penetrated with God's presence and to have become 'sacred' on that account. This is the origin of 'sacred' times (the sabbath and feastdays), 'sacred' places (mainly the Temple), 'sacred' objects (e.g. vessels used for worship) and 'sacred' persons (priests) consecrated to God. The Old Testament priest was separated from other men on the same basis as the sabbath was considered holier than the Monday, or the Temple was a more sacred place than the Pool of Bethzatha. The priest was the embodiment of a divine presence in a profane world.

Instead of substituting new holy realities for the old ones, Christ went further. He radically abrogated the distinction itself between the sacred and the profane. This may seem startling to some christians who unconsciously continue to think along cultic lines. They may imagine New Testament worship to be an updated version of the Old Testament temple worship. They think our churches have taken the place of the Temple at Jerusalem, that our Sunday replaces the sabbath, that our sacred vessels continue the Temple furniture and that the New Testament priest is a polished version of the Old Testament one. The cause of this misunderstanding is partly due to developments within the Church in the course of her history, partly in deference towards the human necessity of having quasi-sacred realities like churches as part of an established religion. But basically the clinging to 'sacred' realities is a regression and contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.

Take the example of sacred place. The Jews were allowed to sacrifice only in the Temple (Dt 12, 1-14) and, even within the Temple, place became holier the nearer one approached its centre. The inner chamber of the sanctuary, called 'Holy of Holies,' could be entered only by the high priest and then only once a year (Heb 9, 7). Christ no longer acknowledges such holy places. He sanctified all place. In his kingdom, worship can be given not only in Jerusalem or on a holy mountain, but anywhere so long as it is done 'in spirit and in truth' (Jn 4, 20-24). In fact, his own body was the new temple that could substitute for the old in any part of the world (Jn 2, 21). When Christ celebrated the Eucharist for the first time at the Last Supper, he did so in the upper room of an ordinary house (Mk 14, 12-16). To crown it all, the place he chose for bringing his unique sacrifice for the whole world was not the Temple court but an ugly hill of execution (Heb 13, 12). When Christ died, the distinction between sacred and profane places was wiped out once and for all. The Gospels record that the curtain of the Temple, which screened off the 'Holy of Holies', 'was torn in two, from top to bottom' (Mk 15,37). The early Church realised this. They had no temples, churches or chapels. They celebrated common prayer and the Eucharist wherever they gathered as a community. The same has basically remained true of the Church today. Though the custom of setting aside places for prayer is praiseworthy in itself, it crept in again from the fourth century as a re-introduction of the old religious system.

The same holds good for sacred days. For the Jews, the sabbath was a day consecrated to God on which man was not allowed to work for his own profit. Jesus frequently clashed with the Pharisees because he refused to suspend his apostolate on the sabbath. Conflicts arose when his disciples plucked ears of corn (Mt 12, 1-8), when Jesus cured a man with a withered hand in the synagogue (Mk 3, 6), when he healed a man who had dropsy (Lk 14, 1-6), and when he gave sight to the blind man at Siloam (Jn 9, 1-16). Jesus' most revolutionary statement in the discussion was: 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath' (Mk 2, 27). In other words, the sabbath does not derive its value from itself, from being 'sacred' time of some kind or other, but from serving a human need.

Whereas cultic priests had to offer frequently at specified sacral times, Christ sanctified the totality of time by his all-sufficient sacrifice (Heb 9, 25-28). With Jesus' death the sabbath and all these sacral times had become meaningless (Gal 4, 8-11). From now on, any day and any hour of the day could be the appropriate time for prayer and celebration. The christian practice of celebrating the Eucharist on 'the first day of the week' because Christ rose on that day (Jn 20, 1) led to the practice of the weekly Eucharist on Sundays. However, the Sunday was not a new 'sabbath' for them. It is again by an unfortunate return to cultic thinking that christians of later centuries, and particularly in Protestant churches, reverted to a Sunday observance patterned on a sabbatic model.

Having seen Christ's attitude towards sacred time and place, we will not be surprised to see his same attitude towards sacred priesthood. He abolished the priesthood as a sacral institution. He himself did not belong to the priesthood of Aaron. As representative of all human beings, he abolished that priestly dignity which was linked to bodily descent. He established a new priesthood built on 'the power of indestructible life' (Heb 7, 16).

The cultic notions of the priesthood were so alien to Christ that we never find him applying the term priest to himself or his followers. In fact, it is only in the letter to the Hebrews that the 'priesthood' of Christ is discussed in explicit terms and compared with the priesthood of the Old Testament temple worship (see especially Heb 5, 1-4; 7, 26-28). Christ entrusted a special task to his apostles and their successors, but he would not have agreed to this ministry being understood as setting apart a new sacred group as had been the case for cultic priests in Old Testament times. The later developments in the Church which favoured such a separation (with 'sacred' vestments, clerical dignities and status prerogatives) would certainly have alarmed and saddened him.

Christ instituted a priesthood in whose basic dignity all the baptised share.

Christ exercised his priesthood by offering himself on Calvary and by preaching. To continue these two ministries, every disciple has to carry his/her cross (Mt 16, 24); each of his followers has to bear witness to him even unto persecution and death (Mt 10, 16-22). All christians therefore participate in the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Pet 2, 5-9). All can be called 'priests to his God and Father' (Rev 1, 6), 'priests of God and of Christ' (Rev 20, 6). All together they constitute 'a kingdom and priesthood to our God' (Rev 5, 10).

This common priesthood is given through the sacrament of baptism. We should note that this baptism is exactly the same for every single person. There is absolutely no difference in the baptism conferred on women. St Paul affirms that the baptism of Christ transcends and obliterates whatever social differences exist among humankind. 'It is through faith that all of you are God's children in union with Christ Jesus. For all who are baptised into the union of Christ have taken upon themselves the qualities of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women... You are all one in union with Christ Jesus' (Gal 3, 26-28).

The ordination to the sacramental priesthood is an extension of the basic sacrificial and prophetic sharing that has already been given in baptism. Although the ministerial priesthood adds a new function to the powers received in baptism, and is thus substantially more than baptism, it is at the same time intrinsically related to it.

'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 the other; each in its own way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.'

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 10.

When the Council says that the sharing in Christ's priesthood through the sacrament of Holy Orders is essentially different, it means that baptism by itself does not confer the commission to teach, rule and offer sacrifice in the name of Christ. It does not mean to say that for Holy Orders a different set of discriminating values would hold good.

Whatever may be required for ordination to the ministry, it cannot be a 'sacred' reality that would make one person intrinsically superior to another. Vatican II is explicit on this.

'There is a common dignity of members deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as children, a common vocation to perfection, one salvation, one hope and undivided charity. In Christ and in the Church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex... Although by Christ's will some are established as teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, there remains, nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and the activity that is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ.'

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 32.

But if sex cannot be a limiting factor as a 'sacred' reality or as a remnant of pre-baptismal inequality, how can it play a role on the level of the sacramental sign?


Scripture does not allow us to infer that the difference of sex plays a part in Christ's priesthood. Christ replaced a priesthood based on sacrality by a priesthood based on grace. It would be illogical to imply that discriminations wiped out by baptism should be revived in the sacramental priesthood. If every Christian radiates Christ through his or her life, there seems to be no reason why every Christian could not be commissioned to represent him at the Eucharist.

The sacramental sign of the priesthood is the human personality of the ordained priest, whether man or woman. Sacred Scripture itself does not explicitly teach that women can be ordained. But it does seem a logical inference from the nature of Christ's priesthood, that women could and should partake in the sacramental priesthood.

From "Did Christ Rule out Women Priests?" by John Wijngaards, McCrimmon's, Great Wakering 1986, pgs. 64-68.

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John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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