Priesthood: Medieval Mythmaking

On the history of the Catholic priesthood, Wikipedia has:

The Priesthood is understood to have begun with the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist. While the threefold ministry is recorded in the New Testament, it is believed that in many assemblies this complete articulation did not take place until the second century. [7] Until then, most small communities were led by an episkopos (overseer or bishop) or a presbyteros (elder or priest), hence in Catholic theology they are referred to as presbyter-bishops in this period. As communities grew in size and needed more ministers, the bishops became the highest level of minister in the Church with priests assisting them in presiding at the Eucharist in the multiple communities in each city. The diaconate (deacon means ‘servant’) evolved as administrators of Church funds and programmes for the poor.

This reads to me like the conventional reading I was brought up on in Catholic schools, but I was frankly puzzled.  It does not seem to gel with my scattered readings in church history, nor with the reflections of tom McMahon, which I have been reading at Catholica (about which, more later). Puzzled, I turned to the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia.  Guess what I found?  The CE draws a clear distinction between what it calls the “Protestant view”, as established by historical research and a Catholic view, expounded and “substantiated” by  such gobbledygook that quite frankly, I failed to follow it.  Go ahead, have a look here, and see if you can make sense of it:

“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 bepriests 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 109:4Hebrews 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.” (Emphasis added).

Indeed. The “logic” admits of no reply, since there is no evidence presented.

Mark Jordan, in the “Silence of Sodom”, notes that it is pointless attempting to reason with the institutional Catholic Church, since their rhetorical style does not allow for rational argument, but simply depends on the constant repetition of their own claims, depending on this to bludgeon the opposition into submission from sheer fatigue.  This seems to me to be an excellent demonstration of Jordan’s thesis, and at the same time beautifully illustrates one of the key points made by Tom McMahon, a former Catholic priest, who like many others left the church to marry.

McMahon is also trained in psychology, an amateur historian, and a concerned observer over many years of the unfolding scandal of clerical sexual abuse.   stung by the Irish Ryan report, he has used this “year of the priest” to share his reflections on the Psychology of the Priest, as it has developed over history, with particular emphasis on the priestly sexual identity.  He makes clear that he makes no claim to professional historical expertise:  but at 80 years old, ordained in 1954 after 12 years in minor and major seminaries, he has a great deal of experience, fellowship with other priests and former priests, and extensive reading to draw on.  His discourse is often rambling, some of his observations startling: but his conclusions frequently have a ring of truth, and chime well with those I am finding elsewhere, and which I want to share with you, briefly today, and in more detail later.

Among these conclusions, the one that I was reminded of by the turgid “exposition” of clerical history in the Catholic Encyclopedia, is his belief that the institutional structure of the church today is stuck in the pattern of medieval  feudalism.  Now, it is typical of classical and medieval “science” that it was developed by philosophers, who developed ideas by formulating propositions and expanding them by reason and logic alone, without any attempt to test their conclusions by experiments in the real world to intrude.  Why let facts spoil a good theory?  It was not until the birth of the modern scientific method several centuries later , with its insistence on careful observation, measurement, and testing of theory against experiment , that scientific knowledge showed real growth, moving from abstract philosophy into the foundation of useful technology and engineering.

The “argument” of the church concerning clerical history clearly shows the same method as the medieval natural philosophers.  Replacing philosophy with theology, and science with clerical history, the entire preceding paragraph would still apply – except that the post Reformation application of historical evidence used by the Protestant historians, was never adopted by the institutional Catholic church.  If this interpretation is correct, then it clearly corroborates McMahon’s belief that the church is stuck in medieval mode – extending the application of the contention from just the power structures, to its construction of history – and hence of “Magisterium” .

This would also make sensible observations I have made here before – that in its standard arguments on homoerotic relationships, and to women in the priesthood, the Vatican regularly makes unsubstantiated claims about history that are disputed by specialist historians.


The Protestant view on clerical history in the early church, developed by historians and bolstered by historical evidence, is given by the Catholic Encyclopedia as:

According to the Protestant view, there was in the primitive Christian Church no essential distinction between laity and clergy, non-hierarchical differentiation of the orders (bishoppriestdeacon), no recognition of pope and bishops as the possessors of the highestpower 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 standard Catholic view, developed by theologians from their own propositions, I gave above. Which do you find more convincing?

According to the Protestant view, there was in the primitive Christian Church no essential distinction between laity and clergy, nohierarchical differentiation of the orders (bishoppriestdeacon), no recognition of pope and bishops as the possessors of the highestpower 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.

7 Responses to “Priesthood: Medieval Mythmaking”

  1. Phillip Clark Says:

    See, history even admits that the priesthood, as an institution, didn’t come into form until sometime after the second century! So, Jesus Christ didn’t institute it, He may have laid the foundations for it by innaugurating the Eucharist…

    • Phillip Clark Says:

      Woops, didn’t realize that there was more to the post =P glad that I checked out the whole thing though!

      I do think that the leaders of the Church are indeed stuck in a medieval way of thinking. Unfortunately, this means that their scientific methods of solving problems are perhaps stuck in the Dark Ages as well. Maybe this is why they still describe homosexuality as a disorder or why women can’t properly “mirror” the person of Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist.

      We just need a Pope John XXIV who can throw open the doors of the Church once more to the world and not be afraid to confront questions that don’t have immediate answers, but at the same time not simply resort to the archaic paradigms of the past.

      • queeringthechurch Says:

        Pope John XXIV would be great, but I suspect there is a lot that we can do even if we are not so lucky. Fundamentally, we need to transform the Church so that the importance and power of the papacy, and of the entire hierarchy, are dramatically reduced – and with it the mystique and exclusiveness of the priesthood itself. We live in an age where we have seen numerous societies have seen democratisation, not by having it granted by those in power, but by asserting their own power.

        With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can do the same in the Church.

  2. Jack McNulty Says:

    I suspect the actual truth lies between the poles presented here. Jesus’ life, death and rsurrection were pondered by the first communities of his followers and recognized as a sacrifice for sin. Since Jesus had commissioned his disciples to teach all nations and baptize because He had received all authority in heaven and on earth and shared it with them, these disciples would continue his mission. While the offices of bishop, priest and deacon may not be explicitly from Jesus person, the experience of the earliest churches found that the monarchical structure of overseer, elder and servant survived the Roman persecutions best and slowly disestablished the other practices in places like Corinth and even Rome. Clement who wrote a letter in the mid 90’s C.E> from Rome to Corinth to encourage a settlement of some leadership dispute there began the process of asserting the oversight of the Bishop of Rome. Clement is listed as the successor to Peter in Roman lists but not in his own writings. I believe it was basic trial and error that developed in the Church the hierarchical structure we know.
    The earlier practice of a body of elders managing things was patterned on the synagogue structure of Judaism. Churches which claimed foundation and perhaps the relics of the Apostles were accorded greater prestige and authority. It will be later in the second century when the one who presides at the Eucharist is identified with the leader of the college of elders. None of the Apostles is remembered as exercising this office. They were more likely roving missionaries who established a congregation and moved on. Paul’s letters reflect this idea. Did Peter or Paul preside at the Eucharist? They never say. They did have a plenipotentiary office that later was split into the offices we know dictated by historical experience. Ignatius perhaps wrote to office holders he knew along the way to his martyrdom but not to Rome though he accords Rome unique compliment as “presiding in charity”. Ignatius seems to fear the Roman believers would manage somehow to thwart his
    destiny of dying for the faith. The list of the Bishops of Rome eventually come from Ireanaeus who says he copied them from available records. This prerogative of Rome was exercised because this church had remained steadfast in profession of Faith while other communities had defected.
    Apostolicity was in the practice of this constant faithfulness.
    Only when the churches emerged from the eras of Roman persecution and established regular contact with each other did Councils and Synods examine their histories and read back into the past what their own experience reflected. Then the overseer, the presider at the Eucharist, and the ordainer of presbyters lined up in the single official we know as bishop. This bishop was accepted into the wider college of bishops by three representative bishops laying on of hands in some investiture ceremony.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Thanks, Jack. As always, I have much to learn from your comments. I make no claim to great scholarship here, but simply share what I am learning as I go along. My main pint is not so much the detail of the process as I see it, but just to illustrate how dramatically differently things were done then.

      I have a different understanding to you on two points, though. The books I have been reading both describe Clement’s letter as arguing for the authority of bishops in general as deserving respect and preservation – not specifically for the primacy of Rome (as you point out, he did not even describe himself as a bishop, although he is presented as such in Irenaeus’ listing of the popes’ apostolic succession.

      Ignatius of Antioch also did not identify any bishop for Rome a couple of decades later, when he did clearly identify by name bishops for the churches of Asia. This inclines me to accept the interpretation given by the historian Eamonn Duffy, who argues that the first twelve names listed by Irenaeus should be treated as a literary device, not as historical fact.

      • Jack McNulty Says:

        I think that the leadership dispute in Corinth had to do with the dismissal of a group of leaders and replacement by another group. whomever Clement represented he started the process by which the roman church corrected another. Eamonn may be right about what irenaeus is doing in his writing but however the roman church was constructed there was some sort of leadership in continuity process through the elders college, through a spokesperson for the group, or through individuals with widespread influence a la ignatius. these examples will be later used as evidence for the primacy as understood now. whether it was then is a different question. the tombs of Peter and Paul were never claimed by another church so their preeminence among the apostles gave Rome’s claim an added power.History is written by the victors.

      • Terence@queerchurch Says:

        Again, thanks. “History is written by the victors” makes the point precisely. The version of history as we ahve it, is how it came to be written. That does not mean that is precisely how it was.

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