Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


§ 1. Introductory.

The doctrine of Holy Orders, their divine origin, their authority and functions, cannot here be discussed. But some few propositions, familiar to Churchmen, but wholly rejected or unknown by the great majority of religious people among us, must here be assumed. For he who believes the truth revealed from God in this matter -- sc., the Divine authority of the Christian priesthood -- necessarily finds a law binding upon himself, whether he be priest or layman, and he must answer before God for his obedience to it. Whereas, on the other hand, he who knows no such truth, knows no law in this matter; while the Protestant scoffer at "sacerdotalism" is only consistent in scoffing at the law, which, perhaps, if he be a priest, he has sworn before God that he will diligently observe and keep.

The existence of Holy Orders as a Divine institution in the Catholic Church is based upon the existence of sacraments, and especially of the Holy Eucharist as sacrament and as sacrifice. Preaching the Gospel, the prophetical office, is superadded; but, important as it is, it is not of the essence of Holy Orders. Any Christian man may be licensed, if the Church see fit, to carry the Gospel to the world. The fountain of this authority, indeed, is the apostolic office, for apostles and their successors were bidden to carry the Gospel to all the world, assured that their Lord would be with them in doing so until the consummation of all earthly history. God has set prophets in His Church after apostles. Not all are apostles; not all are prophets (1 Cor. xii. 28).

But holy Orders are ordained for the external ministration of sacraments. The Lord said, "Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (S. Matt. xviii. 20); "This do in remembrance of Me" (S. Luke xxii. 19) "Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosesoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them, etc." (S. John xx. 22). All visible authority is summed up in the apostles, by them to be divided and distributed to various orders and offices in the Church, under the guidance of the holy Spirit. The apostles were "deacons" of the Church (and so are their successors), but they gave this function of the one ministry to chosen men (Acts vi. 6). The apostles were priests (and their successors may be vested as priests and do the priest's peculiar work of consecrating the Holy Eucharist), but the Church needed resident priests wherever the faithful were found and required their ministration. Therefore the apostles gave this function to others (1 Tim. v. 22 Tit. i. 5). But they reserved to themselves and those whom, like S. Matthias or Barnabas or Timothy, they associated with themselves in the full authority of their office, the general power to dispense sacred things, and to rule the Church. The Church of Christ, as an organized, visible body, was found wherever their authority was found. Where there was no such authority there could be no organized and visible Church.

Difference in orders, then, depends upon the different degrees of participation in the fulness of the apostolic commission. The body of Christ has many members, "and all the members have not the same office" (Rom. xii. 6; 1 Cor xii. 5. See Art. xxiii.). But each and all are servants of their brethren; they minister, not "in their own name, but in Christ's, by His commission and authority," received directly from those to whom He has previously given it.

"It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the apostles' time there have been these orders of ministers in Christ's Church -- bishops, priests, and deacons." And so, since the law of faith is the law of prayer, we pray in the Collect at the Ordering of Priests, "Almighty God, giver of all good things, who by Thy Holy Spirit hast appointed divers orders of ministers in Thy Church, etc." He who does not believe this, has no right to profane the service of God by presenting himself to receive such a holy office.

A devout Christian is not a priest because he is a good man. In the inward and spiritual order, indeed, he is one of the "holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." He has a "holy priesthood" (1 S. Pet. ii. 5); but in the outward order he is not an apostle, he is neither king nor priest in the visible Church. For all are not apostles having authority to rule and it is not grace which is conferred by the visible priest, but the sacraments of grace, while God only can bestow the inward part. A good man can teach by word and example; he may be licensed to read Holy Scripture in public, to use public prayers with the faithful; even, if law permit, to exercise the prophetic office which he receives from the successors of the apostles; but the existence of sacraments, as has been said, implies men consecrated for this instrumental service without which necessary grace cannot in general be had.

§ 2. Holy Orders a sacrament.

There is (1) "an outward and visible sign" -- sc., the laying on of hands -- (2) "of an inward and spiritual grace" (3) "ordained by Christ Himself as a means whereby we receive the same and a pledge to assure us thereof." But Holy Orders have not "like nature of sacraments with Baptism and Holy Eucharist." And this will be evident enough when we consider the matter and the form, and compare them with the two sacraments "generally necessary to salvation."

In the latter case there is an indispensable material thing required without which there can be no sacrament. Not so in the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The matter. If, then, in a general way, we define Holy Orders as a "sacrament of the Church in which is given spiritual authority, and grace is conferred for due performance of ecclesiastical offices," we shall keep ourselves within the sure boundaries of our faith; but if we undertake to find dogmatically the essential "matter" and form of words, we may involve ourselves in needless difficulties. It is enough for Anglican Churchmen to know, and for Anglican theology to affirm, that the laying on of hands is an apostolic sign attached to this conferring of authority by those who have authority.

The state of the case is not very different with respect to the oral sign, the form of words in this sacrament. In Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist there is a form of words unvarying from the beginning and throughout the Catholic Church. But if we seek for any such form in Ordination we may fail to find it. The intent is plain enough in all varying forms. It is the transmission of authority from him who possesses it with power to confer it. "Take thou authority to execute the office of a deacon in the Church of God committed unto thee, in the Name, etc." Alternative forms, accordingly, in the Ordering of Priests, however originated, will create no difficulty, nor tend to invalidate the sacrament. "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God;" or "Take thou authority to execute the office of a priest in the Church of God now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands " -- these are equivalent forms, and if they are not vain and idle ceremony, which God forbid, they are equally God's means for conferring the inward and spiritual grace of the sacrament.

The grace. This is, (1) a consecration whereby the servant of Christ becomes a dispenser of sacramental grace to others. That can be truly said to him which was said to S. Timothy "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery;" or, more definitely still, "Stir up the gift of God which is in thee through the laying on of (apostolic) hands" (1 Tim. iv. 14; 2 Tim. i. 6).

(2) In the ordination to the priesthood (Qu.: ordination to the diaconate?) is imprinted an indelible "character" on the soul. Even the degraded priest remains forever a priest who has consecrated and touched the Lord's sacramental Body. Holy Orders, therefore, can under no possible circumstances be reiterated.

§ 3. The law.

The special and positive laws enacted in local canons are binding on conscience, because the Church has authority from God in making them. But examination of them does not belong to our subject. And, on the other hand, the solemn, tender warnings of the Church which are uttered by the ordaining bishop before he gives the heavenly grace are such as the priest cannot too often make his earnest study. But nothing can be added to them. Our present task is the considering those necessary deductions from the doctrine of Holy Orders, which have formed a part of the law of the Church Catholic, and are therefore part of the moral law which guides our conscience.

(1) Holy Baptism is the door to all the sacramental rites of the Church; therefore Holy Orders presuppose baptism, and the supposed conferring of them is null in the ease of an unbaptized man. He is incapable of receiving that character which holy Orders stamp on the soul prepared for its reception. He cannot absolve penitents, nor consecrate a valid Eucharist. If the error be discovered, he should he baptized, and then receive valid orders. If he were advanced to the episcopate, he could not confer valid orders, but the gracious gifts of the great high Priest are not conditioned, on His part, by the imperfections and errors of His ministers; neither is it to be believed that He will permit such error as this to lie hidden.

It will also be noticed that the Catholic Church has provided against the perpetuation of this error, or any other such error, by requiring that three bishops unite in the lawful consecration to the episcopate.

Confirmation, though eminently proper, is not essential to the receiving of Holy Orders. It is not essential, because the baptized man is capable of this special grace; it is eminently proper, because the minister of Christ peculiarly needs what Confirmation confers.

(2) He who receives Holy Orders in a state of mortal sin is validly ordained, and his official acts confer a grace which he does not himself possess. He condemns himself in receiving ordination; he condemns himself whenever he officiates in such a state of sin; holy things for holy persons is the law of the Church, the law of God. But there is no need of perplexed conscience on his part, as if he must sin in officiating, and sin in not officiating; for he can repent of his sin, or he can resign his office. (See Art. xxvi.)

It has also been noted above (page 561), that as long as the Church tolerates a bad man, a heretic in heart, a wilful sinner in any matter, Christian men may receive the sacraments at his hands, although they should, if it be possible, avoid him.

Neither should be overlooked the grave sin of presenting to Holy Orders, or of conferring them on, those who are ignorant of the faith, on those who are heretical concerning it, on those who have not been tried and proved, on men of worldly life and conversation. To "lay hands hastily" on such persons is to be " partaker of other men's sins" (1 Tim. v. 22). No one can dispense with the unchanging law of God in this or any other matter.

(3) The priest's office centres in the Holy Eucharist; but this implies also all that is requisite in preparation for that august sacrament. And this means preparing men by the Word of God, by baptism, by sacramental penitence, by the visitation of the sick and unction of them, if authorized and desired, and the like, all for the consummated union of the believer with the Son of God in Holy Communion.

But since the higher office in the Church always includes the lower, he is commanded to read public prayers, which the licensed reader may also do; he may serve at the altar as deacon, etc. In like manner, the bishop himself may act as priest or as deacon, because he includes these offices in his higher function. He may be parish priest, and be required as such to do, personally or by his deputies, all that is required of a parish priest.

(4) What has been said of the sacramental character of priest's orders would seem to apply to deacon's orders also, mutatis mutandis. His primary duty is to serve in the Holy Eucharist, and he is so instructed by the bishop at his ordination. In that nearest approach of heaven and earth, he delivers the everlasting Gospel to the people of God. The Epistle, although it also is the Word of God, is not ranked by the Church as being on the same exalted level. A "sub-deacon" (lay reader?) may be authorized to read that; but the deacon receives special authority with respect to the Gospel which the Church delivers to the faithful through him. But since the higher office includes the lower, the deacon may do those ministries which belong to others, and these accordingly are specially assigned to him by the bishop at his ordination. He becomes licensed lay reader, or he continues the function; he is catechist; he does what any Christian man may do when no priest can be had, e.g., baptizing infants, etc.

(5) The bishop has received the power of conferring all the authority which he himself possesses, or a part of the same, on other men. But, besides this, having received jurisdiction in his diocese, he only can give jurisdiction to the priest for a part of that diocese. This law of the Catholic Church is explicitly laid down in the "Letter of Institution" as given in the Prayer Book: "We do by these presents give and grant unto you . . . our license and authority to perform the office of a priest in the parish of E -- . And also do hereby institute you into said parish, possessed of full power to perform every act of sacerdotal function among the people of the same, you continuing in communion with us, and complying with the rubrics and canons of the Church, and with such lawful directions as you shall at any time receive from us, etc."

But, in like manner, the bishop himself must have jurisdiction for a lawful exercise of the functions of his office. He is not a bishop over the whole Catholic Church, but over the flock committed to his care by lawful authority. Therefore he cannot lawfully ordain those who are not subject to him, unless he have received commission to act for one who has jurisdiction in the case in question.

But since the character conferred is indelible, while he may be acting unlawfully, he may be heretical, schismatic, or he may be deposed, still his official acts are valid; they cannot be repeated where the act, once validly done, is lifelong in its consequences.

The case is parallel with others mentioned before, and further proof, if any were needed, would be found in the fact that the deposed bishop, if restored to the exercise of his office, cannot be consecrated anew. But those who receive the sacraments from this deposed bishop have no claim to the grace which belongs to those ordinances, because they sin in communing in any way with one who is cut off from the one Body of Christ.

Such a bishop, then, may validly ordain, and his ordinations cannot be repeated; but he can give no mission for a lawful performance of sacerdotal or any other ministerial functions.

(6) The exclusion of women from Holy Orders, while they may be licensed to exercise other and appropriate ministries in the Church, seems to rest on the unvarying law of the Church from the beginning.

(7) Finally, for all in Holy Orders there is that personal purity and holiness of life which the bishop's charge so solemnly presents. A few details of outward law may here be given. And, first, since men are set aside for God's service, they are, beside the great sacrifice of the altar, to be continually offering sacrifice of praise and intercession. The Anglican Church explicitly orders this in her preface to the Common Prayer: "All priests and deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause." This is not the place to try to define what constitutes an "urgent cause," and in practice the determination must be left to the individual conscience; but it is certainly to be observed that the obligation does not rest on duty to a parish, but is the personal obligation of the individual, because he has been ordained for this. If "he be at home and not otherwise reasonably hindered," he is to say his office in church in order that others may unite with him, if they will. But the obligation is more general, and personal in character.

The American Church retains the daily offices and omits the law. But the very lowest ground on which the conscientious minister can take his stand surely is, that the public or private recitation of the daily offices, if not obligatory on the American priest and deacon, is at least for him a matter of grave counsel on the part of the Church. He is sworn to be "diligent in prayers, and in reading the Holy Scripture," and the Church has given a daily order in which to fulfil his vow. It ought to be needless to add that this implies a devout attention, avoiding as far as possible even venial distractions.

The priest further promises what the deacon does not -- sc., to "lay aside the study of the world and the flesh," which must be understood to mean the renouncing all secular occupations so far as they may not prove to be of absolute necessity for the sustenance of life.

Lawful amusements, also, may not be lawful for him, if they frequently give others occasion to sin, and in his case afford scandal to the weak. The practical application of this principle will vary too widely in different parts of the Church to render it possible to base precise laws upon it. What would give the most serious scandal in one section, and also permanently injure pastoral influence, will in another section be the very opposite of this, though equally lawful in both. Much might be said of the law of special holiness which binds the priests of a holy God. Israel's priests received it for us. "They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of the Lord . . . the bread of their God, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy" (Lev. xxi. 6). How much rather, then, those who consecrate and offer, not the shadow, but the very image and sacrament of the everlasting sacrifice in heavenly places!

<< ======= >>