A Bridge to Sanctity
“On the other [hand] had arisen an intense, fierce, increasing hatred against the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, the whole transcendental scheme; a hatred such that all who felt it were, in spite of a myriad differences, in common alliance. That hatred fed upon an original popular indignation against the corruption of the clergy, and especially against their financial claims. But the hatred was far older than any such late medieval trouble; it was as old as the presence of the Catholic Church in this world.”
-Hilaire Belloc, How the Reformation Happened
Controversy has always stirred around the existence of priests and the priesthood. Since long before the advent of Christ and the institution of Holy Orders, societies and cultures have established or acknowledged men who act as mediums between the ordinary individual and the ethereal powers of the universe. Such an establishment has allowed, with almost invariable consistency despite the differences between the many priestly institutions of various societies and cultures, for great abuse of the people. Typically, the priests have been a learned class, one far too-often deprived of virtue; a perfect recipe for abusive sophistry. As the lower classes gain education (enough to begin questioning) and the priestly classes lose it (when virtue declines, the pursuit of education follows), fraudulence is frequently uncovered and priests become a passive and mocked cluster of charlatans. Thus it is not uncommon for the priest to be considered just another man, only wearing the trappings of wisdom and power.
Despite this common progression, mistakenly presumed to be the truth that previous generations were simply too ignorant to notice, there is a profound and almost indescribable sanctity indivisible from the office of the priesthood. Essential to the concept of the priest, transcending all societal, cultural, and temporal bonds, is man’s recognition that he is not in control of the universe and something else must be. Since most men, though they may acknowledge their impotence in the greater scheme of existence, are not content with allowing their lives to be tossed about by an unknown force, finding some means to communicate with this higher power becomes a priority; oftentimes, it is the highest priority. It is another mistake to assume that priests are thus an invented class by which man intends to control nature. Though many individuals are no doubt motivated to religious fervor by the uncontrollable whims of material reality, that is not what motivates the true priest. On the contrary, it is not this world at all which intrigues a man into priestly activity, but another, the next; that mysterious world which man knows of but does not know. Priesthood does not begin in practice and evolve into theology; it begins with the primal inquisitive theological impetus and only later does it find practical institution.
Nonetheless, there has always been a ministerial responsibility on those who act as priests. Those who dedicate themselves to the discernment of the Divine ignore many aspects of this world in order to make clear, and in some sense, make present, aspects of that other world. All men have a desire to know the truth; and not merely to know it themselves, but to make present that knowledge to other men, so that it might be both shared and refined.
But there is something unmistakably unique about the Catholic priest. However much the clerical classes of other cultures or societies have been vaunted or despised, the Catholic priest has been accorded both praise and insult like no other; partially because he has – not as an individual, but as an office – transcended cultures, societies, eras and epochs unlike any other priestly character, and partially because there is something fundamentally different in the execution of his office. Namely, where priests of antiquity have had insights into the transcendent reality, such insights have been nothing more than what could be attained by natural reason (or were perhaps demonically inspired); contrariwise, the Catholic priest has actually crossed the boundary and, more than that, brought back not merely a piece of the inscrutable Divine, but the entirety. Of course, he is merely a man and therefore is merely an instrument who does this not of his own power; but though an instrument, he is the instrument of God. Undoubtedly, many are poor instruments indeed, who are despicably negligent in their self-maintenance. Yet even the shoddiest of tools works wonders while directly in the hands of the greatest of craftsmen. Where non-Catholic priests can always be reduced from their unique societal stature by the intellectual elevation of the laity, those of the Church can never be equaled or surpassed by any man; no advancement of knowledge or capacity for thought can supersede the sacred office of the validly ordained Catholic priest.
In his 1935 encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, Pope Pius XI gives a defense and explanation of the office of the Catholic priest. The entire document is well worth reading for anyone interested in bettering his understanding of the sacred priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. In paragraph 38, His Holiness quotes the Codex Iuris Canonici (though it is not cited, it is presumably the Codex from 1917) to say that “Clerics must lead a life, both interior and exterior, more holy than the laity, and be an example to them by excelling in virtue and good works.” It sounds an elitist thing to say, as though the priests are an elect, superior to the laity; which of course they are, though not of their own merit and thence in no way elitist. Many people sadly reject any necessitation of acknowledging an inherent vocational superiority; such seems contrary to the radical egalitarianism modernity has indoctrinated them to accept unquestioningly. Against this spirit did Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X write his Litany of Humility. Of particular note in his prayer is the last line, “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Should not such a prayer, written by a powerful cleric and a prince of the Church, speak even more strongly to the hearts of those who are not clergy? Priests, ordained to act in persona Christi, should indeed be exemplars among men; they should be, in the words of Pius XI, paragraph 10, “Ex hominibus assumptus, ‘taken from amongst men,’ yet pro hominibus constituitur in his quae sunt ad Deum, ‘ordained for men in the things that appertain to God’: his office is not for human things, and things that pass away, however lofty and valuable these may seem; but for things divine and enduring.”
A good society cannot endure if it does not acknowledge not only the distinctions between men, but also a hierarchy amongst them. It is a grave mistake to predicate fundamental equality of all men in this world; for while all have equal opportunity to enjoy the presence of the Divine, their earthly existences are evidently and indisputably disparate. Some men are faster than others, some are stronger, some are smarter; it should be no surprise that some are also holier, and it should certainly not be a surprise that the holiest men – or those who ought to be the holiest – are those whose “office is not for human things… but for things divine and enduring.”
Priests, unlike the laity, are endowed with incomparable sacramental grace upon the conferral of Holy Orders, a grace which enables them to act in a way ordinary men cannot. As bridges between this world and the next, they must cling to that grace; to be a bridge to God, to be His minister of the sacraments, is beyond the strength of men. Who has confidence in a neglected, rotting bridge? In paragraph 79 of Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, Pius XI states that “in no better way than by this work for an increase in the ranks of the secular and regular clergy, can the Catholic laity really participate in the high dignity of the ‘kingly priesthood’ which the Prince of the Apostles attributes to the whole body of the redeemed.” It is the duty of the laity to help build the bridges from the earthly side; to help maintain them, to help more be built. Unfortunately, since the era of Vatican II and its poisonous so-called “spirit,” the laity have been confused by a persistent misinterpretation of Scripture and tradition, in the theme of rupture espoused by theologians in the vein of Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. This misinterpretation nearly erases any clear distinction between priest and lay; this misinterpretation chooses to read the words of Pope Pius XII, “They [the laity] are the Church,” without reading the sentence preceding: “[they are] the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him.” The “Spirit of Vatican II” would have everyone be his own bridge.
Subordination and inferiority of the laity to the clergy in spiritual matters is right and proper. It is the primary task of the laity to introduce Catholicism to the world, to be evangelists in all that they do; it is the task of the clergy to act as that medium by which grace is infused into Catholicism. It is this sacred task that distinguishes the Catholic priest from every other in history; it is this sacred task that infuses the world of the flesh to hate the Catholic priest unlike any other. For mere men can only help one another be better men; a priest can help man to join God in His Divinity, both in the here and now and the eternal Vision.