When the bishops at the Second Vatican Council were presented with a second draft of the Constitution on the Church that referred to “the priesthood of all believers,” one cardinal spoke up to say the document should clarify that this priesthood is not priesthood “in the true and proper sense.”
There’s no question that it was considered dicey for the Catholic Church to endorse such an idea. After all, it was Martin Luther who spoke most emphatically about the priesthood of all believers.
In fact, Henri de Lubac, one of the leading Catholic theologians of the 20th century, countered the cardinal’s objection 10 years before the council.
In his Meditation sur l’Eglise (Splendor of the Church) [I much prefer that more humble French title], de Lubac said this priesthood “is not a priesthood-on-the-cheap, a priesthood of inferior rank or a priesthood of the faithful merely; it is the priesthood of the whole Church” (p. 135).
God’s relationship with his chosen people Israel in the Old Testament was mediated by priests, prophets and kings. That mediation was always imperfect, an imperfection overcome by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was the true priest who made the perfect offering. Jesus not only preached the fullness of the prophetic Word of God, he embodied it. And Jesus came to launch God’s kingdom in the new People of God who live not by the Law but by the Spirit.
Not everyone can be Elijah, but all the baptized are called to be prophets.
The fathers of Vatican II did not accept the cardinal’s recommendation. They did make clear that a fundamental distinction exists between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood. But the common priesthood of the baptized is fundamental. The ordained priesthood exists to serve and build up that common priesthood.
The final version of the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG), spoke of the common priesthood this way: “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood. . . . Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a sacrifice, living, holy and pleasing to God” (LG 10).
The priesthood of the baptized, who offer spiritual sacrifices to God, stands in contrast with the priests of Israel who offered material sacrifices, such as lambs and bulls.
The baptized exercise their priesthood by participating in the offering of the Eucharist. As well, that priesthood is exercised when they receive the sacraments, pray, offer thanksgiving, perform acts of charity, engage in self-abnegation and offer the witness of a holy life.
These are all priestly acts, acts that share in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, the faithful share in Christ’s prophetic office insofar as they think and act in harmony with the teaching of the Catholic Church. Prophecy is a witness to truth, God’s truth.
The Church does not manufacture truth, but rather discerns and judges what is true with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The faithful are responsible for witnessing to the truth through lives of faith, praise and love.
Being a prophet is not easy. In reflecting on the Old Testament prophets, moral theologian Germain Grisez wrote, “The prophet’s task is a demanding one. It is given him whether he wants it or not; he has no discretion about the content of his message; he must not only speak God’s message but live it out. His audience is more or less resistant; often he is killed or otherwise persecuted.”
The Catholic couple who foregoes the use of contraception may risk ridicule. The person who devotes numerous volunteers hours to serving the poor may have to abandon his or her personal interests. The person who leaves a political party because its policies are in conflict with Church teaching may lose close friends. But all these people have acted as prophets.
Finally, the People of God work to establish “a kingdom whose nature is not earthly but heavenly” (LG 13). In exercising this royal office, they do nothing that would dehumanize people or diminish their cultures. Indeed, the Church “purifies, strengthens and elevates” people’s customs and cultures insofar as they are good.
God’s kingdom is a universal kingdom. So it is the goal of his people to seek “the return of all humanity and all its goods under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit” (LG 13).
The role of the People of God is to be an instrument of God’s plan of salvation, a plan that aims to share God’s divine life with all of humanity. This is not a task reserved for the ordained. It is the rightful mission of the holy People of God working in unity, each person exercising their offices as priests, prophets and kings.