The word priest is derived from the Greek presbyteros (the elder, as distinguished from neoteros, the younger), and is, in the hieratical sense, equivalent to the Latin sacerdos, the Greek iereus, and the Hebrew kahane. By the term is meant a (male) person called to the immediate service of the Deity and authorized to hold public worship, especially to offer sacrifice. In many instances the priest is the religious mediator between God (gods) and man and the appointed teacher of religious truths, especially when these include esoteric doctrines. To apply the word priest to the magicians, prophets, and medicine-men of the religions of primitive peoples is a misuse of the term. The essential correlative of priesthood is sacrifice, consequently, mere leaders in the public prayers or guardians of shrines have no claim to the title priest.
Our subject may be conveniently treated under four heads: I. The Pagan Priesthood; II. The Jewish Priesthood; III. The Christian Priesthood; IV. The Blessings arising from the Catholic Priesthood.
The Pagan Priesthood
Historically the oldest of pagan religions, the most fully developed, and the most deeply marked by vicissitude is that of India. Four divisions, distinct in history and nature, are recognizable: Vedism, Brahminism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Even in the ancient Vedic hymns a special priesthood is distinguishable, for although originally the father of the family was also the offerer of sacrifice, he usually sought the co-operation of a Brahmin. From the essential functions of praying and singing during the sacrifice arose in Vedism the three classes of sacrificing (adhvariu), singing (udgâtar), and praying priests (hotar).
The four categories of soldier, priest, artisan or farmer, and slave developed formally in later Brahminism into the four rigidly distinguished castes (Dahlmann), the Brahmins meanwhile forging ahead of the soldiers to the position of chief importance. The Brahmins alone understood the intricate and difficult sacrificial ceremonial; thanks to their great knowledge and sacrifices, they exercised an irresistible influence over the gods; a pantheistic explanation of the god Brahma invested them with a divine character.
A.The Brahmin was thus a sacred and inviolable person, and to murder him the greatest sin. Brahminism has wrongly been compared with medieval Christianity (cf. Teichmüller, “Religionsphilosophie”, Leipzig, 1886, p. 528). In the Middle Ages there was indeed a privileged priesthood, but not a hereditary priestly caste; then as now the lowest classes could attain to the highest ecclesiastical offices. Still less justified, in view of the pantheistic character of the Brahminic religion, are all attempts to trace a genetic connection between the Catholic and Indian priesthoods, since the monotheistic spirit of Catholicism and the characteristic organization of its clergy are irreconcilable with a pantheistic conception of the Deity and the unsocial temper of a caste system.
The same remarks apply with even greater force to Buddhism which, through the reform introduced by King Asoka (239-23 B.C.), forced Brahminism into the background. As this reform inaugurated the reign of Agnosticism, Illusionism, and a one-sided morality, the Brahminic priesthood, with the decay of the ancient sacrificial services, lost its raison d’être. If there be no eternal substance, no Ego, no immortal soul, no life beyond, the idea of a God, of a Redeemer, of a priesthood forthwith disappears.
The Buddhist redemption is merely an ascetical self-redemption wrought by sinking into the abyss of nothingness (Nirvana). The bonzes are not priests in the strict sense; nor has Buddhist monasticism anything beyond the name in common with Christian monasticism. Modern zealots for Buddhism declare with increasing boldness since Schopenhauer, that what they chiefly desire is a religion without dogma and without an alien redeemer, a service without a priesthood. It will therefore perhaps appear more extraordinary that Buddhism, in consequence of the efforts of the reformer Thong-Kaba, has developed in Tibet a formal hierarchy and hierocracy in Lamaism (Lama=Brahma).
The monasticism and the religious services of Lamaism also present so striking a similarity with Catholic institutions that non-Catholic investigators have unhesitatingly spoken of a “Buddhist Catholicism” in Tibet. Pope and dalai-lama, Rome and the city of Lhasa are counterparts; Lamaism has its monasteries, bells, processions, litanies, relics, images of saints, holy water, rosary-beads, bishop’s mitre, crosier, vestments, copes, baptism, confession, mass, sacrifice for the dead.
Nevertheless, since it is the interior spirit that gives a religion its characteristic stamp, we can recognize in these externals, not a true copy of Catholicism, but only a wretched caricature. And, since this religious compound undoubtedly came into existence only in the fourteenth century, it is evident that the remarkable parallelism is the result of Catholic influence on Lamaism, not vice versa. We can only suppose that the founder Thong-Kaba was educated by a Catholic missionary of modern Hinduism, Schanz draws a gloomy picture: “In addition to Vishnu and Siva, spirits and demons are worshipped and feared. The River Ganges is held in special veneration.
The temples are often built near lakes because to all who bathe there Brahma promises forgiveness of sin. Beasts (cows), especially snakes, trees, and lifeless objects, serve as fetishes. Their offerings consist of flowers, oil, incense, and food. To Siva and his spouse bloody sacrifices are also offered. Nor are idolatry and prostitution wanting” (“Apologie d. Christentums”, Freiburg, 1905, II, 84 sq.).
- In the kindred but ethically superior religion of the Iranians (Parseeism, Zoroastrianism, Mazdeism), which unfortunately never overcame the theological dualism between the good god (Ormuzd=Athura-Mazda) and the wicked anti-god (Ahriman=Angrô-Mainyu), there existed from the beginning a special priestly caste, which in the Avesta was divided into six classes. The general name for priest was âthravan (man of fire), and the chief duty of the priesthood was the fire-service, fire being the special symbol of Ormuzd, the god of light. After the destruction of the Persian monarchy only two categories of priests remained: the officiating (zoatar, jôtî) and the ministering (rathwi). Both were later succeeded by the Median magicians (magus), called in modern Parseeism mobed (from mogh-pati, magic-father).
In addition to the maintenance of the sacred fire, the duties of the priests were the offering of sacrifices (flesh, bread, flowers, fruit), the performance of purifications, prayers, and hymns, and instructing in the holy law. Sacrificial animals were placed on a bundle of twigs in the open air, lest the pure earth should be defiled with blood. The human sacrifices, customary from time immemorial, were abolished by Zoroaster (Zarathustra). In ancient times the fire-altars were placed in the open air, and preferably on the mountains, but the modern Parsees have special fire-temples.
The haoma, as the oldest sacrifice, calls for mention; manufactured out of the narcotic juice of a certain plant and used as a drink-offering, it was identified with the Deity Himself and given to the faithful as a means of procuring immortality. This Iranian haoma is doubtlessly identical with the Indian soma, the intoxicating juice of which (asclepias acida or sacrostemma acidum) was supposed to restore to man the immortality lost in Paradise (see EUCHARIST). When, during the reign of the Sassanides, Mithras the sun-god according to the later Avesta, high-priest and mediator between god and man had gradually supplanted the creative god Ormuzd, Persian Mithra-worship held the field almost unopposed; and under the Roman Empire it exerted an irresistible influence on the West (see MASS).
- To turn to classical antiquity, Greece never possessed an exclusive priestly caste, although from the Dorian-Ionian period the public priesthood was regarded as the privilege of the nobility. In Homer the kings also offer sacrifices to the gods. Public worship was in general undertaken by the State, and the priests were state officials, assigned as a rule to the service of special temples. The importance of the priesthood grew with the extension of the mysteries, which were embodied especially in the Orphic and Eleusinian cults. Sacrifices were always accompanied with prayers, for which as the expression of their religious sentiments the Greeks showed a special preference.
But among no people in the world were religion, sacrifice, and the priesthood to such an extent the business of the State as among the ancient Romans. At the dawn of their history, their legendary kings (e.g., Numa) are themselves the sacrificial priests. Under the Republic, the priestly office was open only to the patricians until the Lex Ogulina (about 300 B.C.) admitted also the plebeians. As the special object of Roman sacrifice was to avert misfortune and win the favour of the gods, divination played in it from the earliest times an important role. Hence the importance of the various classes of priests, who interpreted the will of the gods from the flight of birds or the entrails of the beasts of sacrifice (augures, haruspices). There were many other categories: pontifices, flamines, fetiales, luperci, etc. During imperial times the emperor was the high priest (pontifex maximus).
- According to Tacitus, the religion of the ancient Germans was a simple worship of the gods, without images; their services took place, not in temples, but in sacred groves. The priests, if one may call them such, were highly respected, and possessed judicial powers, as the Old High German word for priest, êwarte (guardians of justice), shows. But a far greater influence among the people was exercised by the Celtic priests or druids (Old Irish, drui, magician). Their real home was Ireland and Britain, whence they were transplanted to Gaul in the third century before Christ. Here they appear as a priestly caste, exempt from taxes and military service; they constitute with the nobility the ruling class, and by their activity as teachers, judges, and physicians become the representatives of a higher religious, moral, and intellectual culture.
The druids taught the existence of Divine providence, the immortality of the soul, and transmigration. They appear to have had images of the gods and to have offered human sacrifices — the latter practice may have come down from a much earlier period. Their religious services were usually held on heights and in oak-groves. After the conquest of Gaul, the druids declined in popular esteem.
- The oldest religion of the Chinese is Sinism, which may be characterized as “the most perfect, spiritualistic, and moral Monotheism known to antiquity outside of Judea” (Schanz). It possessed no distinct priesthood, the sacrifices (animals, fruits, and incense) being offered by state officials in the name of the ruler. In this respect no alteration was made by the reformer Confucius (sixth century B.C.), although he debased the concept of religion and made the almost deified emperor “the Son of Heaven” and the organ of the cosmic intellect. In direct contrast to this priestless system Laotse (b. 604 B.C.), the founder of Taoism (tao, reason), introduced both monasticism and a regular priesthood with a high-priest at its head. From the first century before Christ, these two religions found a strong rival in Buddhism, although Confucianism remains even today the official religion of China.
The original national religion of the Japanese was Shintoism, a strange compound of nature-, ancestor-, and hero-worship. It is a religion without dogmas, without a moral code, without sacred writings. The Mikado is a son of the Deity, and as such also high-priest; his palace is the temple — it was only in much later times that the Temple of Ise was built. About A.D. 280 Confucianism made its way into Japan from China and tried to coalesce with the kindred Shintoism.
The greatest blow to Shintoism, however, was struck by Buddhism, which entered Japan in A.D. 552, and, by an extraordinary process of amalgamation, united with the old national religion to form a third. This fusion is known as Rio-bu-Shinto. In the Revolution of 1868, this composite religion was set aside, and pure Shintoism declared the religion of the State. In 1877 the law establishing this situation was repealed, and in 1889 general religious freedom was granted. The various orders of rank among priests had been abolished in 1879.
- With the ancient religion of the Egyptians the idea of the priesthood was inseparably bound up for many thousand years. Though the ruler for the time being was nominally the only priest, there had developed even in the ancient kingdom (from about 3400 B.C.) a special priestly caste, which in the middle kingdom (from about 2000 B.C.), and still more in the late kingdom (from about 1090 B.C.), became the ruling class. The great attempt at reform by King Amenhotep IV (died 1374 B.C.), who tried to banish all gods except the sun-god from the Egyptian religion and to make sun-worship the religion of the State, was thwarted by the opposition of the priests.
The whole twenty-first dynasty was a family of priest-kings. Although Moses, learned as he was in the wisdom of the Egyptians, may have been indebted to an Egyptian model for one or two external features in his organization of Divine worship, he was, thanks to the Divine inspiration, entirely original in the establishment of the Jewish priesthood, which is based on the unique idea of Yahweh’s covenant with the Chosen People (cf. “Realencyklopädie für protest. Theologies”, XVI, Leipzig, 1905, 33). Still less warranted is the attempt of some writers on the comparative history of religions to trace the origin of the Catholic priesthood to the Egyptian priestly castes. For at the very time when this borrowing might have taken place, Egyptian idolatry had degenerated into such loathsome animal-worship, that not only the Christians, but the pagans themselves turned away from it in disgust (cf. Aristides, “Apol.”, xii; Clement of Alexandria, “Cohortatio”, ii).
- In the religion of the Semites, we meet first the Babylonian-Assyrian priests, who, under the name “Chaldeans”, practiced the interpretation of dreams and the reading of the stars and conducted special schools for priests, besides performing their functions in connection with the sacrifices. Hence their division into various classes: sacrificers (nisakku), seers (bârû), exorcist (asipu) etc. Glorious temples with idols of human and hybrid form arose in Assyria, and (apart from the obligatory cult of the stars) served for astrological and astronomical purposes. Among the Syrians the cruel, voluptuous cult of Moloch and Astarte found its special home, Astarte especially (Babylonian, Ishtar) being known to the ancients simply as the “Syrian Goddess” (Dea Syria).
Likewise among the semitized Phoenicians, Ammonites, and Philistines these ominous deities found special veneration. Howling and dancing priests sought to appease the bloodthirsty Moloch by sacrifices of children and self-mutilation, as the analogous Galh strove to pacify the Phrygian goddess Cybele. The notorious priests of Baal of the Chanaanites were for the Jews as strong an incentive to idolatry as the cult of Astarte was a temptation to immorality. The south-Semitic religion of the ancient pagan Arabians was a plain religion of the desert without a distinct priesthood: modern Islam or Mohammedanism has a clergy (muezzin, announcer of the hours of prayer; imâm, leader of the prayers; khâtib, preacher), but no real priesthood. The west-Semitic branch of the Hebrews is treated in the next section.
The Jewish Priesthood
In the age of the Patriarchs the offering of sacrifices was the function of the father or head of the family (cf. Genesis 8:20; 12:7, etc.; Job 1:5). But, even before Moses, there were also regular priests, who were not fathers of family (cf. Exodus 19:22 sqq.). Hummelauer’s hypothesis “Das vormosaische Priestertum in Israel”, Freiburg, 1899) that this pre-Mosaic priesthood was established by God Himself and made hereditary in the family of Manasses, but was subsequently abolished in punishment of the worship of the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:26 sqq.), can hardly be scientifically established (cf. Rev. bibl. internat., 1899, pp. 470 sqq.). In the Mosaic priesthood we must distinguish: priests, Levites, and high-priest.
It was only after the Sinaitical legislation that the Israelitic priesthood became a special class in the community. From the tribe of Levi Jahweh chose the house of Aaron to discharge permanently and exclusively all the religious functions, Aaron
himself and later the first-born of his family was to stand at the head of this priesthood as high priest, while the other Levites were to act, not as priests, but as assistants and servants. The solemn consecration of the Aaronites to the priesthood took place at the same time as the anointing of Aaron as high-priest and with almost the same ceremonial (Exodus 29:1-37; 40:12 sqq.; Leviticus 8:1-36).
This single consecration included that of all the future descendants of the priests, so that the priesthood was fixed in the house of Aaron by mere descent and was thus hereditary. After the Babylonian Exile strict genealogical proof of priestly descent was even more rigidly demanded, and any failure to furnish the same meant exclusion from the priesthood (Ezra 2:61 sq.; Nehemiah 7:63 sq.). Certain bodily defects, of which the later Talmudists mention 142, were also a disqualification from the exercise of the priestly office (Leviticus 21:17 sqq.). Age limits (twenty and fifty years) were also appointed (2 Chronicles 31:17); the priests were forbidden to take to wife a harlot or a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7); during the active discharge of the priesthood, marital intercourse was forbidden. In addition to an unblemished earlier life, Levitical cleanness was also indispensable for the priesthood.
Whoever performed a priestly function in Levitical uncleanness was to be expelled like one who entered the sanctuary after partaking of wine or other intoxicating drinks (Leviticus 10:9; 22:3). To incur an uncleanness “at the death of his citizens”, except in the case of immediate kin, was rigidly forbidden (Leviticus 21:1 sqq.). In cases of mourning no outward signs of sorrow might be shown (e.g., by rending the garments). On entering into their office, the priests had first to take a bath of purification (Exodus 29:4; 40:12), be sprinkled with oil (Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 8:30) and put on the vestments.
The priestly vestments consisted of breeches, tunic, girdle, and mitre. The breeches (feminalia linea) covered from the reins to the thighs (Exodus 28:42). The tunic (tunica) was a kind of coat, woven in a special manner from one piece; it had narrow sleeves, extended from the throat to the ankles, and was brought together at the throat with bands (Exodus 28:4). The girdle (balteus) was three or four fingers in breadth and (according to rabbinic tradition) thirty-two ells long; it had to be embroidered after the same pattern and to be of the same colour as the curtain of the forecourt and the tabernacle of the covenant (Exodus 39:38). The official vestments were completed by the mitre (Exodus 39:26), a species of cap of fine linen.
As nothing is said of foot-covering, the priests must have performed the services barefooted as Jewish tradition indeed declares (cf. Exodus 3:5). These vestments were prescribed for use only during the services; at other times they were kept in an appointed place in charge of a special custodian. For detailed information concerning the priestly vestments, see Josephus, “Antiq.”, III, vii, 1 sqq.
The official duties of the priests related partly to their main occupations, and partly to subsidiary services. To the former category belonged all functions connected with the public worship, e.g., the offering of incense twice daily (Exodus 30:7), the weekly renewal of the loaves of proposition on the golden table (Leviticus 24:9), the cleaning and filling of the oil-lamps on the golden candlestick (lev., xxiv, 1). All these services were performed in the sanctuary.
There were in addition certain functions to be performed in the outer court the maintenance of the sacred fire on the altar for burnt sacrifices (Leviticus 6:9 sqq.), the daily offering of the morning and evening sacrifices, especially of the lambs (Exodus 29:38 sqq.). As subsidiary services the priests had to present the cursed water to wives suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:12 sqq.), sound the trumpets announcing the holy-days (Numbers 10:1 sqq.), declare the lepers clean or unclean (Leviticus 13-14; Deuteronomy 24:8; cf. Matthew 8:4), dispense from vows, appraise all objects vowed to the sanctuary (Leviticus 27), and finally offer sacrifice for those who broke the law of the Nazarites, i.e. a vow to avoid all intoxicating drinks and every uncleanness (especially from contact with a corpse) and to let one’s hair grow long (Numbers 6:1-21).
The priests furthermore were teachers and judges; not only were they to explain the law to the people (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 33:10) without remuneration (Micah 3:11) and to preserve carefully the Book of the Law, of which a copy was to be presented to the (future) king (Deuteronomy 17:18), but they had also to settle difficult lawsuits among the people (Deuteronomy 17:8; 19:17; 21:5). In view of the complex nature of the liturgical service, David later divided the priesthood into twenty-four classes or courses, of which each in turn, with its eldest member at its head, had to perform the service from one Sabbath to the next (2 Kings 11:9; cf. Luke 1:8). The order of the classes was determined by lot (1 Chronicles 24:7 sqq.).
The income of the priests was derived from the tithes and the firstlings of fruits and animals. To these were added as accidentals the remains of the food, and guilt-oblations, which were not entirely consumed by fire; also, the hides of the animals sacrificed and the natural products and money vowed to God (Leviticus 27; Numbers 8:14). With all these perquisites, the Jewish priests seem never to have been a wealthy class, owing partly to the increase in their numbers and partly to the large families which they reared. But their exalted office, their superior education, and their social position secured them great prestige among the people. In general, they fulfilled their high position worthily, even though they frequently merited the stern reproof of the Prophets (cf. Jeremiah 5:31; Ezekiel 22:26; Hosea 6:9; Micah 3:11; Malachi 1:7). With the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70 the entire sacrificial service and with it the Jewish priesthood ceased. The later rabbis never represent themselves as priests, but merely as teachers of the law.
Levites in the Narrow Sense
It has been said above that the real priesthood was hereditary in the house of Aaron alone, and that to the other descendants of Levi was assigned a subordinate position as servants and assistants of the priests. The latter are the Levites in the narrow sense. They were divided into the families of the Gersonites, Caathites, and Merarites (Exodus 6:16; Numbers 26:57), so named after Levi’s three sons, Gerson, Caath, and Merari (cf. Genesis 46:11; 1 Chronicles 6:1). As simple servants of the priests, the Levites might not enter the sanctuary, nor perform the real sacrificial act, especially the sprinkling of the blood (aspersio sanguinis). This was the privilege of the priests (Numbers 18:3, 19 sqq.; 18:6).
The Levites had however to assist the latter during the sacred services, prepare the different oblations and keep the sacred vessels in proper condition. Among their chief duties was the constant guarding of the tabernacle with the ark of the covenant; the Gersonites were encamped towards the west, the Caathites towards the south, the Merarites towards the north, while Moses and Aaron with their sons guarded the holy tabernacle towards the east (Numbers 3:23 sqq.). When the tabernacle had found a fixed home in Jerusalem, David created four classes of Levites: servants of the priests, officials and judges, porters, and finally musicians and singers (1 Chronicles 23:3 sqq.).
After the building of the Temple by Solomon the Levites naturally became its guardians (1 Chronicles 26:12 sqq.). When the Temple was rebuilt, Levites were established as guards in twenty-one places around (Talmud; Middoth, I, i). In common with the priests, the Levites were also bound to instruct the people in the Law (2 Chronicles 17:8; Nehemiah 8:7), and they even possessed at times certain judicial powers (2 Chronicles 19:11).
They were initiated into office by a rite of consecration: sprinkling with the water of purification, shaving of the hair, washing of the garments, offering of sacrifices, imposition of the hands of the eldest (Numbers 8:5 sqq.). As to the age of service, thirty years was fixed for the time of entrance and fifty for retirement from office (Numbers 4:3; 1 Chronicles 23:24; Ezra 3:8). No special vestments were prescribed for them in the Law; in the time of David and Solomon the bearers of the ark of the covenant and the singers wore garments of fine linen (1 Chronicles 15:27; 2 Chronicles 5:12). At the division of the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes, the tribe of Levi was left without territory, since the Lord Himself was to be their portion and inheritance (cf. Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 12:12; Joshua 13:14).
In compensation, Jahweh ceded to the Levites and priests the gifts of natural products made by the people, and other revenues. The Levites first received the tithes of fruits and beasts of the field (Leviticus 27:30 sqq.; Numbers 18:20 sq.), of which they had in turn to deliver the tenth part to the priests (Numbers 18:26 sqq.). In addition, they had a share in the sacrificial banquets (Deuteronomy 12:18) and were, like the priests, exempt from taxes and military service. The question of residence was settled by ordering the tribes endowed with landed property to cede to the Levites forty-eight Levite towns, scattered over the land, with their precincts (Numbers 35:1 sqq.); of these, thirteen were assigned to the priests.
After the division of the monarchy into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Juda, many Levites from the northern portion removed to the Kingdom of Juda, which remained true to the Law, and took up their abode in Jerusalem. After the Northern Kingdom had been chastised by the Assyrian deportation in 722 B.C., the Southern Kingdom was also overthrown by the Babylonians in 606 B.C., and numbers of the Jews, including many Levites, were hurried away into the “Babylonian exile”. Only a few Levites returned to their old home under Esdras in 450 (cf. Ezra 2:40 sqq.). With the destruction of the Herodian Temple in A.D. 70 the doom of the Levites was sealed.
The High Priest
At Jahweh’s command Moses consecrated his brother Aaron first high-priest, repeated the consecration on seven days, and on the eighth day solemnly introduced him into the tabernacle of the covenant. The consecration of Aaron consisted in washings, investment with costly vestments, anointing with holy oil, and the offerings of various sacrifices (Exodus 29). As a sign that Aaron was endowed with the fullness of the priesthood, Moses poured over his head the oil of anointing (Leviticus 8:12), while the other Aaronites, as simple priests, had only their hands anointed (Exodus 29:7, 29).
The high priest was for the Jews the highest embodiment of theocracy, the monarch of the whole priesthood, the special mediator between God and the People of the Covenant, and the spiritual head of the synagogue. He was the priest par excellence, the “great priest” (Greek, archiereus), the “prince among the priests”, and, because of the anointing of his head, the “anointed priest”. To this exalted office corresponded his special and costly vestments, worn in addition to those of the simple priests (Exodus 28).
A (probably sleeveless) purple-blue upper garment (tunica) fell to his knees, the lower seam being ornamented alternately with small golden bells and pomegranates of coloured thread. About the shoulders he also wore a garment called the ephod; this was made of costly material, and consisted of two portions about an ell long, which covered the back and breast, were held together above by two shoulderbands or epaulets, and terminated below with a magnificent girdle. Attached to the ephod in front was the shield (rationale), a square bag bearing on the outside the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones (Exodus 28:6) and containing within the celebrated Urim and Thummim as the means of obtaining Divine oracles and prophecies. The vestments of the high priest were completed by a precious turban (tiara), bearing on a golden frontal plate the inscription: “Sacred to Jahweh”.
The high priest had supreme supervision of the Ark of the Covenant (and of the Temple), of Divine service in general and of the whole personnel connected with public worship. He presided at the Sanhedrin. He alone could perform the liturgy on the Feast of Expiation, on which occasion he put on his costly vestments only after the sacrifices were completed. He alone might offer sacrifice for his own sins and those of the people (Leviticus 4:5), enter the holy of holies (sanctum sanctorum), and seek counsel of Jahweh on important occasions.
The office of high priest in the house of Aaron was at first hereditary in the line of his first-born son Eleazar, but in the period from Heli to Abiathar (1131 to 973 B.C.) it belonged, by right of primogeniture, to the line of Ithamar. Under the rule of the Seleucidæ (from about 175 B.C.) the office was sold for money to the highest bidder. At a later period, it became hereditary in the family of the Hasmon. With the destruction of the central sanctuary by the Romans, the high priesthood disappeared.
Against the foregoing account of the Mosaic priesthood, based on the Old Testament, the negative biblical critics of today make a determined stand. According to the hypothesis of Graf-Wellhausen, Moses (about 1250 B.C.) cannot be the author of the Pentateuch. He was not the Divinely appointed legislator, but simply the founder of Monolatry, for ethical Monotheism resulted from the efforts of much later Prophets. Deuteronomy D made its appearance in substance in 621 B.C., when the astute high-priest Helkias by a pious fraud palmed off on the god-fearing King Josias the recently composed “Book of the Laws” D as written by Moses (cf. 2 Kings 22:1 sqq.).
When Esdras returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile about 450 B.C., he brought back the “Book of the Ritual” or the priest’s codex P, i.e., the middle portions between Genesis and Deuteronomy, composed by himself and his school in Babylon, although it was only in 444 B.C. that he dared to make it public. A clever editor now introduced the portions relating to public worship into the old, pre-Exilic historical books, and the entirely new idea of an Aaronic priesthood and of the centralization of the cult was projected back to the time of Moses.
The story of the tabernacle of the covenant is thus a mere fiction, devised to represent the Temple at Jerusalem as established in fully developed form at the dawn of Israelitic history and to justify the unity of worship. Although this hypothesis does not contest the great antiquity of the Jewish priesthood, it maintains that the centralization of the cult, the essential difference between priests and Levites, the supreme authority of the priests of the Temple at Jerusalem as compared with the so-called hill-priests (cf. Ezekiel 44:4 sqq.), must be referred to post-Exilic times.
Without entering upon a detailed criticism of these assertions of Wellhausen and the critical school (see PENTATEUCH), we may here remark in general that the conservative school also admits or can admit that only the original portion of the Pentateuch is to be accepted as Mosaic, that in the same text many repetitions seem to have been brought together from different sources, and finally that additions, extensions, and adaptations to new conditions by an inspired author of a later period are by no means excluded.
It must also be admitted that, though one place of worship was appointed, sacrifices were offered even in early times by laymen and simple Levites away from the vicinity of the Ark of the Covenant, and that in restless and politically disturbed epochs the ordinance of Moses could not always be observed. In the gloomy periods marked by neglect of the Law, no attention was paid to the prohibition of hill-sacrifices, and the Prophets were often gratified to find that on the high places (bamoth) sacrifice was offered, not to pagan gods, but to Jahweh. However, the Pentateuch problem is one of the most difficult and intricate questions in Biblical criticism.
The Wellhausen hypothesis with its bold assumptions of pious deceits and artificial projections is open to as great, if not greater, difficulties and mysteries as the traditional view, even though some of its contributions to literary criticism may stand examination. It cannot be denied that the critical structure has suffered a severe shock since the discovery of the Tell-el-Amarna letters dating from the fifteenth century B.C., and since the deciphering of the Hammurabi Code. The assumption that the oldest religion of Israel must have been identical with that of the primitive Semites (Polydæmonism, Animism, Fetishism, Ancestor-worship) has been proved false, since long before 2000 B.C. a kind of Henotheism, i.e., Polytheism with a monarchical head was the ruling religion in Babylon. The beginnings of the religions of all peoples are purer and more spiritual than many historians of religions have hitherto been willing to admit. One thing is certain: the final word has not yet been spoken as to the value of the Wellhausen hypothesis.
The Christian Priesthood
In the New Testament bishops and priests are, according to Catholic teaching, the sole bearers of the priesthood, the former enjoying the fullness of the priesthood (summus sacerdos s. primi ordinis), while the presbyters are simple priests (simplex sacerdos s. secundi ordinis). The deacon, on the other hand, is a mere attendant of the priest, with no priestly powers. Omitting all special treatment of the bishop and the deacon, we here confine our attention primarily to the presbyterate, since the term “priest” without qualification is now taken to signify the presbyter.
The Divine Institution of the Priesthood
According to the Protestant view, there was in the primitive Christian Church no essential distinction between laity and clergy, no hierarchical differentiation of the orders (bishop, priest, deacon), no recognition of pope and bishops as the possessors of the highest power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church or over its several territorial divisions. On the contrary, the Church had at first a democratic constitution, in virtue of which the local churches selected their own heads and ministers, and imparted to these their inherent spiritual authority, just as in the modern republic the “sovereign people” confers upon its elected president and his officials administrative authority.
The deeper foundation for this transmission of power is to be sought in the primitive Christian idea of the universal priesthood, which excludes the recognition of a special priesthood. Christ is the sole high-priest of the New Testament, just as His bloody death on the Cross is the sole sacrifice of Christianity. If all Christians without exception are priests in virtue of their baptism, an official priesthood obtained by special ordination is just as inadmissible as the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass. Not the material sacrifice of the Eucharist, consisting in the offering of (real) gifts, but only the purely spiritual sacrifice of prayer harmonizes with the spirit of Christianity.
One is indeed forced to admit that the gradual corruption of Christianity began very early (end of first century), since it cannot be denied that Clement of Rome (Ep. ad Cor., xliv, 4), the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache, xiv), and Tertullian (On Baptism 17; “De præsc. hær.”, xli; “De exhort. cast.”, vii) recognize an official priesthood with the objective Sacrifice of the Mass. The corruption quickly spread throughout the whole East and West, and persisted unchecked during the Middle Ages, until the Reformation finally succeeded in restoring to Christianity its original purity. Then “the idea of the universal priesthood was revived; it appeared as the necessary consequence of the very nature of Christianity. . . . Since the whole idea of sacrifice was discarded, all danger of reversion to the beliefs once derived from it was removed” (“Realency cl. für prot. Theol.”, XVI, Leipzig, 1905, p. 50).
To these views we may answer briefly as follows. Catholic theologians do not deny that the double “hierarchy of order and jurisdiction” gradually developed from the germ already existing in the primitive Church, just as the primacy of the pope of Rome and especially the distinction of simple priests from the bishops was recognized with increasing clearness as time advanced (see HIERARCHY). But the question whether there was at the beginning a special priesthood in the Church is altogether distinct. If it is true that “the reception of the idea of sacrifice led to the idea of the ecclesiastical priesthood” (loc. cit., p. 48), and that priesthood and sacrifice are reciprocal terms, then the proof of the Divine origin of the Catholic priesthood must be regarded as established, once it is shown that the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass is coeval with the beginnings and the essence of Christianity.
In proof of this we may appeal even to the Old Testament. When the Prophet Isaias foresees the entrance of pagans into the Messianic Kingdom, he makes the calling of priests from the heathen (i.e. the non-Jews) a special characteristic of the new Church (Isaiah 66:21): “And I will take of them to be priests and Levites, saith the Lord”. Now this non-Jewish (Christian) priesthood in the future Messianic Church presupposes a permanent sacrifice, namely that “clean oblation”, which from the rising of the sun even to the going down is to be offered to the Lord of hosts among the Gentiles (Malachi 1:11). The sacrifice of bread and wine offered by Melchisedech (cf. Genesis 14:18 sqq.), the prototype of Christ (cf. Psalm 109:4; Hebrews 5:5 sq.; 7:1 sqq.), also refers prophetically, not only to the Last Supper, but also to its everlasting repetition in commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross (see MASS). Rightly, therefore, does the Council of Trent emphasize the intimate connection between the Sacrifice of the Mass and the priesthood (Sess. XXIII, cap. i, in Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, 10th ed., 957): “Sacrifice and priesthood are by Divine ordinance so inseparable that they are found together under all laws.
Since therefore in the New Testament the Catholic Church has received from the Lord’s institution the holy visible sacrifice of the Eucharist it must also be admitted that in the Church there is a new, visible and external priesthood into which the older priesthood has been changed.” Surely this logic admits of no reply. It is, then, more extraordinary that Harnack should seek the origin of the hierarchical constitution of the Church, not in Palestine, but in pagan Rome. Of the Catholic Church he writes: “She continues ever to govern the peoples; her popes lord it like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.
To Romulus and Remus succeeded Peter and Paul, to the proconsuls the archbishops and bishops. To the legions correspond the hosts of priests and monks, to the imperial bodyguard the Jesuits. Even to the finest details, even to her judicial organization, nay even to her very vestments, the continued influence of the ancient empire and of its institutions may be traced” (“Das Wesen d. Christentums”, Leipzig, 1902, p. 157). With the best of good will, we can recognize in this description only a sample of the writer’s ingenuity, for an historical investigation of the cited institutions would undoubtedly lead to sources, beginnings, and motives entirely different from the analogous conditions of the Empire of Rome.
But the Sacrifice of the Mass indicates only one side of the priesthood; the other side is revealed in the power of forgiving sin, for the exercise of which the priesthood is just as necessary as it is for the power of consecrating and sacrificing. Like the general power to bind and to loose (cf. Matthew 16:19; 18:18), the power of remitting and retaining sins was solemnly bestowed on the Church by Christ (cf. John 20:21 sqq.).
Accordingly, the Catholic priesthood has the indisputable right to trace its origin in this respect also to the Divine Founder of the Church. Both sides of the priesthood were brought into prominence by the Council of Trent (loc. cit., n. 961): “If anyone shall say that in the New Testament there is no visible and external priesthood nor any power of consecrating and offering the Body and Blood of the Lord, as well as of remitting and retaining sins, but merely the office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel, let him be anathema.” Far from being an “unjustifiable usurpation of Divine powers”, the priesthood forms so indispensable a foundation of Christianity that its removal would entail the destruction of the whole edifice.
A Christianity without a priesthood cannot be the Church of Christ. This conviction is strengthened by consideration of the psychological impossibility of the Protestant assumption that from the end of the first century onward, Christendom tolerated without struggle or protest the unprecedented usurpation of the priests, who without credentials or testimony suddenly arrogated Divine powers with respect to the Eucharist, and, on the strength of a fictitious appeal to Christ, laid on baptized sinners the grievous burden of public penance as an indispensable condition of the forgiveness of sin.
As for the “universal priesthood”, on which Protestantism relies in its denial of the special priesthood, it may be said that Catholics also believe in a universal priesthood; this, however, by no means excludes a special priesthood but rather presupposes its existence, since the two are related as the general and the, the abstract and the concrete, the figurative and the real. The ordinary Christian cannot be a priest in the strict sense, for he can offer, not a real sacrifice, but only the figurative sacrifice of prayer. For this reason, the historical dogmatic development did not and could not follow the course it would have followed if in the primitive Church two opposing trains of thought (i.e., the universal versus the special priesthood) had contended for supremacy until one was vanquished.
The history of dogma attests, on the contrary, that both ideas advanced harmoniously through the centuries, and have never disappeared from the Catholic mind. As a matter of fact, the profound and beautiful idea of the universal priesthood may be traced from Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 116), Irenæus, (Against Heresies IV.8.3), and Origen (“De orat.”, xxviii, 9; “In Levit.”, hom. ix, 1), to Augustine (City of God XX.10) and Leo the Great (Sermo, iv, 1), and thence to St. Thomas (Summa, III, Q. lxxxii, a. 1) and the Roman Catechism. And yet all these writers recognized, along with the Sacrifice of the Mass, the special priesthood in the Church. The origin of the universal priesthood extends back, as is known, to St. Peter, who declares the faithful, in their character of Christians, “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices”, and “a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
But the very text shows that the Apostle meant only a figurative priesthood, since the “spiritual sacrifices” signify prayer and the term “royal” (regale, basileion) could have had but a metaphorical sense for the Christians. The Gnostics, Montanists, and Catharists, who, in their attacks on the special priesthood, had misapplied the metaphor, were just as illogical as the Reformers, since the two ideas, real and figurative priesthood, are quite compatible. It is clear from the foregoing that the Catholic clergy alone are entitled to the designation “priest”, since they alone have a true and real sacrifice to offer, the Holy Mass. Consequently, Anglicans who reject the Sacrifice of the Mass are inconsistent, when they refer to their clergy as “priests”. The preachers in Germany quite logically disclaim the title with a certain indignation.
The Hierarchical Position of the Presbyterate
The relation of the priest to the bishop and deacon may be briefly explained by stating that he is, as it were, the middle term between the two, being hierarchically the subordinate of the bishop and the superior of the deacon (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXVI, can. vi). While the pre-eminence of the bishop over the priest consists mainly in his power of ordination, that of the priest over the deacon is based on his power of consecrating and absolving (cf. Council of Trent, loc. cit., cap. iv; can. i and vii). The independence of the diaconate appears earlier and more clearly in the oldest sources than that of the priesthood, chiefly because of the long-continued fluctuation in the meaning of the titles episcopus and presbyter, which until the middle of the second century were interchangeable and synonymous terms. Probably there was a reason in fact for this uncertainty, since the hierarchical distinction between bishop and priest seems to have been of gradual growth.
Epiphanius (Adv. hær., lxxv, 5) explained this condition of uncertainty by supposing that priests were appointed in some places where there was no bishop, while in other places where no candidates for priesthood were found, the people were satisfied with having a bishop, who, however, could not be without a deacon. Cardinal Franzelin (“De eccles. Christi”, 2nd ed., Rome, 1907, thes. xvi) gives good grounds for the opinion that in the Bible bishops are indeed named presbyter, but simple priests are never called episcopi. The problem is, however, far from being solved, since in the primitive Church there were not yet fixed names for the different orders; the latter must rather be determined from the context according to the characteristic functions discharged.
The appeal to the usage of the pagan Greeks, who had their episkopoi and presbyteroi, does not settle the question, as Ziebarth (“Das griechische Vereinswesen”, Leipzig, 1896) has shown in reply to Hatch and Harnack. Any attempt at a solution must consider the varying use in different countries (e.g., Palestine, Asia Minor). In some places the “presbyters” may have been real bishops, in other priests in the present meaning of the term, while elsewhere they may have been mere administrative officers or worthy elders chosen to represent the local church in its external relations (see HIERARCHY OF THE EARLY CHURCH).
Like the Apostolic writings, the “Didache”, Hermes, Clement of Rome, and Irenæus often use the terms “bishop” and “priest” indiscriminately. In fact, it is really a moot question whether the presbyterate gradually developed as an offshoot of the episcopate–which is things more likely and in view of the needs of the growing Church more readily understood–or whether, conversely, the episcopate had its origin in the elevation of the presbyterate to a higher rank (Lightfoot), which is more difficult to admit. On the other hand, even at the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch (Ep. ad Magnes., vi and passim) brings out with remarkable clearness the hierarchical distinction between the monarchical bishop, the priests, and the deacons.
He emphasizes this triad as essential to the constitution of the Church: “Without these [three] it cannot be called the Church” (Ad Trall., iii). But, according to the law of historic continuity, this distinction of the orders must have existed in substance and embryo during the first century; and, as a matter of fact, St. Paul (1 Timothy 5:17, 19) mentions “presbyters” who were subordinate to the real bishop Timothy. But in the Latin writers there is no ambiguity. Tertullian (On Baptism 17) calls the bishop the “summus sacerdos”, under whom are the “presbyteri et diaconi”; and Cyprian (Ep. lxi, 3) speaks of the “presbyteri cum episcopo sacerdotali honore conjuncti”, i.e., the priests united by sacerdotal dignity with the bishop (see BISHOP).
About 360, after the development of the orders had long been complete, Aërius of Pontus first ventured to obliterate the distinction between the priestly and episcopal orders and to place them on an equality with respect to their powers. For this he was ranked among the heretics by Epiphanius (Adv. hær., lxxv, 3). The testimony of St. Jerome (d. 420), whom the Scottish Presbyterians cite on behalf of the presbyteral constitution of the Church, raises some difficulties, as he appears to assert the full equality of priests and bishops. It is true that Jerome endeavoured to enhance the dignity of the priesthood at the expense of the episcopate and to refer the bishop’s superiority “rather to ecclesiastical custom than to Divine regulation” (In Tit., i, 5: “Episcopi noverint se magis consuetudine quam dispositionis dominicæ veritate presbyteris esse majores”).
He desired a more democratic constitution in which the priests hitherto undeservedly slighted would participate, and he urged the correction of the abuse, widespread since the third century, by which the archdeacons, as the “right hand” of the bishops, controlled the whole diocesan administration (Ep. cxliv ad Evangel.). It is at once evident that Jerome disputes not the hierarchical rank (potestas ordinis) of the bishops but their powers of government (potestas jurisdictionis) –and this not so much in principle, but only to insist that the deacons should be dislodged from the position they had usurped and the priests established in the official position befitting their higher rank. How far Jerome was from being a follower of Aërius and a forerunner of Presbyterianism appears from his important admission that the power of ordination is possessed by the bishops alone, and not by the priests (loc. cit. in P.L., XXII, 1193: “Quid enim facit–excepta ordinatione–episcopus quod presbyter non faciat?”). By this admission Jerome establishes his orthodoxy.
The Sacramentality of the Presbyterate
The Council of Trent decreed (Sess. XXIII, can. iii, in Denzinger, n. 963): “If anyone shall say that order or sacred ordination is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord. . .let him be anathema.” While the synod defined only the existence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, without deciding whether all the orders or only some fall within the definition, it is admitted that the priestly ordination possesses with even greater certainty than the episcopal and the diaconal ordination the dignity of a sacrament (cf. Benedict XIV, “De syn. dioces.”, VIII, ix, 2). The three essentials of a sacrament—outward sign, interior grace, and institution by Christ—are found in the priestly ordination.
As regards the outward sign, there has been a long-protracted controversy among theologians concerning the matter and form, not alone of the priestly ordination, but of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in general. Is the imposition of hands alone (Bonaventure, Morin, and most modern theologians), or the presentation of the instruments (Gregory of Valencia, the Thomists), or are both together (Bellarmine, De Lugo, Billot etc.) to be regarded as the essential matter of the sacrament? As to the priestly ordination, which alone concerns us here, the difference of views is explained by the fact that, in addition to three impositions of hands, the rite includes a presentation to the candidate of the chalice filled with wine, and of the paten with the host.
Concerning the latter Eugenius IV says expressly in his “Decretum pro Armenis” (1439; in Denzinger, n. 701): “The priesthood is conferred by the handing of the chalice containing wine and of the paten with bread.” However, in view of the fact that in the Bible (Acts 13:3; 14:22; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6), in all patristic literature, and in the whole East the imposition of hands alone is found, while even in the West the presentation of the sacred vessels does not extend back beyond the tenth century, we are forced to recognize theoretically that the latter ceremony is unessential, like the solemn anointing of the priest’s hands, which is evidently borrowed from the Old Testament and was introduced from the Gallican into the Roman Rite (cf. “Statuta ecclesiæ antiquæ” in P.L., LVI, 879 sqq.).
In defence of the anointing, the Council of Trent condemned those who declared it “despicable and pernicious” (Sess. XXXIII, can. v). As regards the sacramental form, it may be accepted as probable that the prayer accompanying the second extension of hands (cheirotonia) is the essential form, although it is not impossible that the words spoken by the bishop during the third imposition of hands (cheirothesia): “Receive the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall remit, they are remitted, etc.”, constitute a partial form.
The first imposition of hands by the bishop (and the priests) cannot be regarded as the form, since it is performed in silence, but it also may have an essential importance in so far as the second extension of hands is simply the moral continuation of the first touching of the head of the ordinandus (cf. Gregory IX, “Decret.”, I, tit. xvi, cap. III). The oldest formularies–e.g., the “Euchologium” of Serapion of Thmuis (cf. Funk, “Didascalia”, II, Tübingen, 1905, 189), the “Pseudo-Apostolic Constitutions” (Funk, loc. cit., I, 520), the lately discovered “Testament of the Lord” (ed. Rahmani, Mainz, 1899, p. 68), and the Canons of Hippolytus (ed. Achelis, Leipzig, 1891, p. 61) –contain only one imposition of hands with a short accompanying prayer.
In the eleventh century the Mozarabic Rite is still quite simple (cf. “Monum. liturg.”, V, Paris, 1904, pp. 54 sq.), while, on the contrary, the Armenian Rite of the Middle Ages shows great complexity (cf. Conybeare-Maclean, “Rituale Armenorum”, Oxford, 1905, pp. 231 sqq.). In the Greek-Byzantine Rite, the bishop, after making three signs of the cross, places his right hand on the head of the ordinandus, meanwhile reciting a prayer, and then, praying in secret, holds the same hand extended above the candidate, and invokes upon him the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (cf. Goar, “Euchol. Græc.”, Paris, 1647, pp. 292 sqq.). For other formularies of ordination see Denzinger, “Ritus Orientalium”, II (Würzburg, 1864); Manser in Buchberger, “Kirchliches Handlexikon”, s.v. Priesterweihe.
As a sacrament of the living, ordination presupposes the possession of sanctifying grace, and therefore confers, besides the right to the actual graces of the priestly office, an increase of sanctifying grace (cf. “Decret. pro Armenis” in Denzinger, n. 701). But in all cases, whether the candidate is in the state of sanctifying grace or not, the sacrament imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VII, can. ix, in Denzinger, n. 852), i.e., the priestly character, to which are permanently attached the powers of consecrating and absolving—the latter, however, with the reservation that for the valid administration of the Sacrament of Penance the power of jurisdiction is also required (see CHARACTER).
As the priestly character, like that imparted by baptism and confirmation, is indelible, ordination can never be repeated, and a return to the lay state is impossible (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXIII, can. iv, in Denzinger, n. 964). That priestly ordination was instituted by Christ is proved not alone by the Divine institution of the priesthood (see above, A), but also by the testimony of Holy Writ and Tradition, which unanimously testify that the Apostles transmitted their powers to their successors, who in turn transmitted them to the succeeding generation (cf. 1 Timothy 5:22). Since the charismatic gifts of the “apostles and prophets” mentioned in the “Didache” had nothing to do with the priesthood as such, these itinerant missionaries still needed the imposition of hands to empower them to discharge the specifically priestly functions (see CHARISMATA).
For the valid reception of the Sacrament of Orders, it is necessary that the minister be a bishop and the recipient a baptized person of the male sex. The first requisite is based on the episcopal prerogative of ordaining; the second on the conviction that baptism opens the door to all the other sacraments and that women are definitively barred from the service of the altar (cf. Epiphanius, “De hær.”, lxxix, 2). St. Paul is a resolute champion of an exclusively male priesthood (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34).
In this respect there is an essential difference between Christianity and Paganism, since the latter recognizes priestesses as well as priests–e.g., the hierodules of Ancient Greece, the vestal virgins of Rome, the bajaders of India, the wu of China, and the female bonzes of Japan. The early Church condemned as an absurdity the female priesthood of Montanism and of the Collyridiani, and it never regarded the Apostolic institute of deaconesses as a branch of Holy orders. For the licit reception of priestly ordination, canon law demands: freedom from every irregularity, completion of the twenty-fourth year, the reception of the earlier orders (including the diaconate), the observation of the regular interstices, and the possession of a title to ordination.
In addition to the requisites for the valid and lawful reception of the priesthood the question arises as to the personal worthiness of the candidate. According to earlier canon law this question was settled by three ballots (scrutinia); it is now decided by official examination and certification. One of the most important means of securing worthy candidates for the priesthood is careful inquiry regarding vocations. Intruders in the sanctuary always have been the occasion of the greatest injury to the Church, and of scandal to the people. For this reason, Pope Pius X, with even greater strictness than was shown in previous ecclesiastical regulations, insists upon the exclusion of all candidates who do not give the highest promise of a life conspicuous for firmness of faith and moral rectitude. In this connection the importance and necessity of colleges and ecclesiastical seminaries for the training of the clergy cannot be too strongly emphasized.
The Official Powers of the Priest
As said above, the official powers of the priest are intimately connected with the sacramental character, indelibly imprinted on his soul. Together with this character is conferred, not only the power of offering up the Sacrifice of the Mass and the (virtual) power of forgiving sins, but also authority to administer extreme unction and, as the regular minister, solemn baptism. Only in virtue of an extraordinary faculty received from the pope is a priest competent to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. While the conferring of the three sacramental orders of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate, pertains to the bishop alone, the pope may delegate a priest to administer the four minor orders, and even the subdiaconate.
According to the present canon law, however, the papal permission granted to abbots of monasteries is confined to the conferring of the tonsure and the four minor orders on their subjects (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXIII de Ref., cap. x). Concerning the privilege of conferring the diaconate, claimed to have been given to Cistercian abbots by Innocent VIII in 1489, see Gasparri, “De sacr. ordin.”, II (Paris, 1893), n. 798, and Pohle, “Dogmatik”, III (4th ed., Paderborn, 1910), pp. 587 sqq. To the priestly office also belongs the faculty of administering the ecclesiastical blessings and the sacramentals in general, in so far as these are not reserved to the pope or bishops. By preaching the Word of God the priest has his share in the teaching office of the Church, always, however, as subordinate to the bishop and only within the sphere of duty to which he is assigned as pastor, curate, etc.
Finally, the priest may participate in the pastoral duty in so far as the bishop entrusts him with a definite ecclesiastical office entailing a extensive jurisdiction, which is indispensable especially for the valid absolution of penitents from their sins. Certain external honorary privileges, e.g., those enjoyed by cardinal-priests, prelates, ecclesiastical councillors, etc., do not enhance the intrinsic dignity of the priesthood.
What the Catholic Priesthood has done for Civilization
Passing entirely over the supernatural blessings derived by mankind from the prayers of the priesthood, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, and the administration of the sacraments, we shall confine ourselves to the secular civilization, which, through the Catholic priesthood, has spread to all nations and brought into full bloom religion, morality, science, art, and industry. If religion in general is the mother of all culture, Christianity must be acknowledged as the source, measure, and nursery of all true civilization. The Church, the oldest and most successful teacher of mankind, has in each century done pioneer service in all departments of culture.
Through her organs, the priests and especially the members of the religious orders, she carried the light of Faith to all lands, banished the darkness of paganism, and with the Gospel brought the blessings of Christian morality and education. What would have become of the countries about the Mediterranean during the epoch of the migration of the nations (from 375) if the popes, bishops, and clergy had not tamed the German hordes, converted them from Arianism to Catholicism, and out of barbarism evolved order? What Ireland owes to St. Patrick, England owes to St. Augustine, who, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, brought not only the Gospel, but also a higher morality and culture. While the light of Christianity thus burned brightly in Ireland and Britain, part of Germany was still shrouded in the darkness of paganism.
Bands of missionaries from the Island of Saints now brought to the continent the message of salvation and established new centres of culture. Charlemagne’s great work of uniting all the German tribes into an empire was only the glorious fruit of the seed sown by St. Boniface of Certon (d. 755) on German soil and watered with the blood of martyrs. The Church of the Middle Ages, having now attained to power, continued through her priests to propagate the Gospel in pagan lands. It was missionaries who first brought to Europe news of the existence of China. In 1246 three Franciscans, commissioned by the pope, appeared in audience before the emperor of the Mongols; in 1306 the first Christian church was built in Peking. From the Volga to the Desert of Gobi, the Franciscans and Dominicans covered the land with their missionary stations.
In the sixteenth century the zeal of the older orders was rivalled by the Jesuits, among whom St. Francis Xavier must be accorded a place of honour; their achievements in the Reductions of Paraguay are as incontestable as their great services in the United States. As for the French colonies in America, the American historian Bancroft declares that no notable city was founded, no river explored, no cape circumnavigated, without a Jesuit showing the way. Even if Buckle’s one-sided statement were true, viz. that culture is not the result of religion, but vice versa, we could point to the work of Catholic missionaries, who are striving to lift the savages in pagan lands to a higher state of morality and civilization, and thence to transform them into decent Christians.
In the wake of religion follows her inseparable companion, morality; the combination of the two forms is the indispensable preliminary condition for the continuation and vitality of all higher civilization. The decadence of culture has always been heralded by a reign of unbelief and immorality, the fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution furnishing conspicuous examples. What the Church accomplished in the course of the centuries for the raising of the standard of morality, in the widest sense, by the inculcation of the Decalogue, that pillar of human society, by promulgating the commandment of love of God and one’s neighbour, by preaching purity in single, married, and family life, by waging war upon superstition and evil customs, by the practice of the three counsels of voluntary poverty, obedience, and perfect purity, by holding out the “imitation of Christ” as the ideal of Christian perfection, the records of twenty centuries plainly declare.
The history of the Church is at once the history of her charitable activity exercised through the priesthood. There have indeed been waves of degeneracy and immorality sweeping at times even to the papal throne, and resulting in the general corruption of the people, and in apostasy from the Church. The heroic struggle of Gregory VII (d. 1085) against the simony and incontinence of the clergy stands forth as a fact which restored to the stale-grown salt of the earth its earlier strength and flavour.
The most wretched and oppressed classes of humanity are the slaves, the poor, and the sick. Nothing is in such harsh contrast to the ideas of human personality and of Christian freedom as the slavery found in pagan lands. The efforts of the Church were at first directed towards depriving slavery of its most repulsive feature by emphasizing the equality and freedom of all children of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21 sqq.; Philemon 16 sqq.), then towards ameliorating as far as possible the condition of slaves, and finally towards effecting the abolition of this unworthy bondage.
The slowness of the movement for the abolition of slavery, which owed its final triumph over the African slave-traders to a crusade of Cardinal Lavigerie (d. 1892), is explained by the necessary consideration of the economic rights of the owners and the personal welfare of the slaves themselves, since a bold “proclamation of the rights of man” would simply have thrown millions of helpless slaves breadless into the streets. Emancipation carried with it the obligation of caring for the bodily needs of the freedmen, and, whenever the experiment was made, it was the clergy who undertook this burden.
Special congregations, such as the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians, devoted themselves exclusively to the liberation and ransom of prisoners and slaves in pagan, and especially in Mohammedan lands. It was Christian compassion for the weakly and languishing Indians which suggested to the Spanish monk, Las Casas, the unfortunate idea of importing the strong negroes from Africa to work in the American mines. That his idea would develop into the scandalous traffic in the black race, which the history of the three succeeding centuries reveals, the noble monk never suspected (see SLAVERY).
As to the relief of the poor and sick, a single priest, St. Vincent de Paul (d. 1660), achieved more in all the branches of this work than many cities and states combined. The services of the clergy in general in the exercise of charity cannot here be touched upon (see CHARITY AND CHARITIES). It may however be noted that the famous School of Salerno, the first and most renowned, and for many centuries the only medical faculty in Europe, was founded by the Benedictines, who here laboured partly as practitioners of medicine, and partly to furnish a supply of skilled physicians for all Europe. Of recent pioneers in the domain of charity and social work may be mentioned the Irish “Apostle of Temperance”, Father Theobald Matthew and the German “Father of Journeymen” (Gesellenvater), Kolping.
Intimately related with the morally good is the idea of the true and the beautiful, the object of science and art. At all times the Catholic clergy have shown themselves patrons of science and the arts, partly by their own achievements in these fields and partly by their encouragement and support of the work of others. That theology as a science should have found its home among the clergy was but to be expected. However, the whole range of education lay so exclusively in the hands of the priesthood during the Middle Ages, that the ecclesiastical distinction of clericus (cleric) and laicus (layman) developed into the social distinction of educated and ignorant.
But for the monks and clerics the ancient classical literature would have been lost. A medieval proverb ran: “A monastery without a library is a castle without an armory.” Hume, the philosopher and historian, says: “It is rare that the annals of so uncultivated a people as were the English as well as the other European nations, after the decline of Roman learning, have been transmitted to posterity so complete and with so little mixture of falsehood and fable. This advantage we owe entirely to the clergy of the Church of Rome, who, founding their authority on their superior knowledge, preserved the precious literature of antiquity from a total extinction” (Hume, “Hist. of England”, ch. xxiii, Richard III).
Among English historians Gildas the Wise, Venerable Bede, and Lingard form an illustrious triumvirate. The idea of scientific progress, first used by Vincent of Lérins with reference to theology and later transferred to the other sciences, is of purely Catholic origin. The modern maxim, “Education for all”, is a saying first uttered by Innocent III. Before the foundation of the first universities, which also owed their existence to the popes, renowned cathedral schools and other scientific institutions laboured for the extension of secular knowledge. The father of German public education is Rhabanus Maurus. Of old centres of civilization we may mention among those of the first rank Canterbury, the Island of Iona, Malmesbury, and York in Great Britain; Paris, Orléans, Corbie, Cluny, Chartres, Toul, and Bec in France; Fulda, Reichenau, St. Gall, and Corvey in Germany. The attendance at these universities conducted by clergymen during the Middle Ages awakens one’s astonishment: in 1340 the University of Oxford had no less than 30,000 students, and in 1538, when the German universities were almost deserted, about 20,000 students, according to Luther, flocked to Paris.
The elementary schools also, wherever they existed, were conducted by priests. Charlemagne had already issued the capitulary “Presbyteri per villas et vicos scholas habeant et cum summa charitate parvulos doceant”, i.e. The priests shall have schools in the towns and hamlets and shall teach the children with the utmost devotion. The art of printing was received by the whole Church, from the lowest clergy to the pope, as a “holy art”. Almost the whole book production of the fifteenth century aimed at satisfying the taste of the clergy for reading, which thus furthered the development of the book trade.
Erasmus complained: “The booksellers declare that before the outbreak of the Reform they disposed of 3000 volumes more quickly than they now sell 600” (see Döllinger, “Die Reformation, ihre innere Entwickelung u. ihre Wirkungen”, I, Ratisbon, 1851, p. 348. Early Humanism, strongly encouraged by Popes Nicholas V and Leo X, numbered among its enthusiastic supporters many Catholic clerics, such as Petrarch and Erasmus; the later Humanistic school, steeped in paganism, found among the Catholic priesthood, not encouragement, but to a great extent determined opposition. Spain’s greatest writers in the seventeenth century were priests: Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon, etc.
At Oxford in the thirteenth century, by their skill in the natural sciences the Franciscans acquired celebrity and the Bishop Grosseteste exercised great influence. The friar, Roger Bacon (d. 1249), was famous for his scientific knowledge, as were also Gerbert of Rheims, afterwards Pope Silvester II, Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully, and Vincent of Beauvais. Copernicus, canon of Thorn, is the founder of modern astronomy, in which even to the present day the Jesuits especially (e.g., Scheiner, Clavius, Secchi, Perry) have rendered important services. For the first geographical chart or map we are indebted to Fra Mauro of Venice (d. 1459).
The Spanish Jesuit, Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro (d. 1809), is the father of comparative philology; the Carmelite, Paolino di san Bartolomeo, was the author of the first Sanskrit grammar (Rome, 1790). The foundation of historical criticism was laid by Cardinal Baronius (d. 1607), the monks of St. Maur, and the Bollandists. A study of the history of art would reveal a proportionately great number of the apostles of the beautiful in art among the Catholic clergy of all centuries. From the paintings in the catacombs to Fra Angelico and thence to the Beuron school we meet numerous priest, less indeed as practicing artists than as Mæcenases of art. The clergy have done much to justify what the celebrated sculptor Canova wrote to Napoleon I: “Art is under infinite obligations to religion, but to none so much as the Catholic religion.”
The basis on which higher culture finds its secure foundation is material or economic culture, which, despite modern technics and machinery, rests ultimately on labour. Without the labourer’s energy, which consists in the power and the will to work, no culture whatever can prosper. But the Catholic priesthood more than any other professional body has praised in word and proved by deed the value and blessing of the labour required in agriculture, mining, and the handicrafts. The curse and disdain, which paganism poured on manual labour, were removed by Christianity. Even an Aristotle (Polit., III, iii) could anathematize manual labour as “philistine”, the humbler occupations as “unworthy of a free man”.
To whom are we primarily indebted in Europe for the clearing away of the primitive forests, for schemes of drainage and irrigation, for the cultivation of new fruits and crops, for the building of roads and bridges, if not to the Catholic monks? In Eastern Europe the Basilians, in Western the Benedictines, and later the Cistercians and Trappists, laboured to bring the land under cultivation, and rendered vast districts free from fever and habitable. Mining and foundries also owe their development, and to some extent their origin, to the keen economic sense of the monasteries.
To place the whole economic life of the nations on a scientific foundation, Catholic bishops and priests early laid the basis of the science of national economy–e.g., Duns Scotus (d. 1308), Nicholas Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux (d. 1382), St. Antoninus of Florence (d. 1459), and Gabriel Biel (d. 1495). The Church and clergy have therefore truly endeavoured to carry out in every sphere and in all centuries the programme which Leo XIII in his famous Encyclical “Immortale Dei” of 1 Nov., 1885, declared the ideal of the Catholic Church: “Imo inertiæ desidiæque inimica [Ecclesia] magnopere vult, ut hominum ingenia uberes ferant exercitatione et cultura fructus”. The “flight from the world”, with which they are so constantly reproached, or the “hostility to civilization”, which we hear so often echoed by the ignorant, have never prevented the Church or her clergy from fulfilling their calling as a civilizing agency of the first order, and thus refuting all slanders with the logic of facts.