Vatican II did a poor job on Holy Orders. Topping it off, we Catholics are coming off heady days of a priest surplus, and returning to the lower proportions of clergy in earlier times. Was the period of 1920-70 just a blip? Or are the current and pre-1920 vocation levels the exception to the rule? Depending on which ideological camp you’re in, you’ll choose either answer. Perhaps the true answer is neither. The real standard is to weigh vocations against whom God is actually calling. Are Catholics doing as good a job as they were fifty years ago? It is tempting to say yes, but would that just be wishful thinking?
Webster’s defines priest as 1. an early Christian elder or presbyter. 2. a cleric below a bishop in a hierarchical church. 3. any cleric as distinguished from laity. 4. a minister of any religion. 5. a person whose function is to make sacrificial offerings and perform religious rites. 6. a person whose duties, attitudes, etc. are like a priest’s.
The Catholic understanding of its priests would be 2 and 3, acknowledging the historicity of 1. Practically, Catholics priests are 5 (more on that below). Definition number 4 rankles a few St Blog’s clerics, the ones who suggest that Protestants (especially women) wearing roman collars should not do so. 6? Don’t go there.
As I mentioned to Susan in another post, Jesus abrogated the traditional office of priest as the ancients understood it. The Jewish priesthood has faded into history with the final destruction of the Temple. Pagan priesthood, though still very much with us, was also to be superceded by the Christian understanding of its elders.
The roughest outline of Catholic priesthood follows:
- Pre-Christian: We are not worthy; the priest does all the talking.
- Apostolic era Christians being Jewish and pagan understandings of the priest as the intercessor before God. Jesus is now the high priest for Christians, interceding with the Father on our behalf. But Jesus also urges direct prayer to God.
- In the post-persecution era, Christianity is molded by new forces: an increasingly ignorant laity and the internal forces of ideology. Climax: the medieval understanding of hierarchy which essentially restored the pre-Christian state: superstitions, authoritarianism, etc..
- Trent solidified the medieval understanding, cleaning up the abuses while maintaining Catholic identity.
- Vatican II attempted to open a few windows.
- The JP2 era sees a resurgent curia and the windows are slammed shut.
Over the next several weeks, I’d like to examine highlights from the Vatican II documents Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops), Optatam totius (Decree on the Training of Priests), and Presbyterorum ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests). These decrees were all issued in the last year of the council, and though they are lukewarm efforts at reform, they will still offer some substantial grist for the discussion.