The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of believers is based on several passages of the New Testament. I will attempt to deal directly with those, but my goal is not to convince you that Catholics disagree with this in principle–rather, Catholics embody the priesthood of believers better than any other Christian group.
The first proof of the priesthood of believers is the tearing of the veil at the death of Christ. This is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels:
And Jesus, again having screamed with a great sound, sent forth the breath. And behold! the veil of the temple was split from on high until below into two and the earth was shaken1 and the stones were split.– Matthew 27:50-51 (my translation)
And Jesus, having sent forth a great sound, breathed out. And the veil of the temple was split into two from on high until below.– Mark 15:37-38 (my translation)
And it was already about the sixth hour and darkness came about upon the whole earth until the ninth hour, with the sun having been eclipsed, and the veil of the temple was split in the middle. And having sounded with a great sound, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I set aside my breath.” And having said this, he breathed out.2– Luke 23:44-46 (my translation)
The second proof, and the most obvious, is from the first epistle of St. Peter:
And you [are] a select race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people unto preservation, in order that you may proclaim the goodnesses of the [one] having called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;– I Peter 2:9 (my translation)
The remainder of the doctrine comes from the Book of Hebrews, which I will not quote (most of the latter half of the book deals with this question, in part), but consider especially Hebrews 10:19-25; 13:15-19. There is also, wrapped up in this doctrine, the issue of conflating the priesthood of the Catholic Church with the Levitical priesthood, which is obsolete (see Hebrews 7:11-25; 8:1-7; 9:11-15; 12:18-24).
Let me start by saying this: There is absolutely no mediator in our salvation but Christ, and we are permitted direct access to the very presence of God, without the hindrance of the temple veil. Catholics have a tendency to use the term “mediator” regarding one or more of the saints; if this confuses you, look forward to my post on the intercession of the saints at a later date. For now, understand that it does not conflict with this point. Christ is our sole mediator, and it is by Christ alone that we are cleansed of our sins. No Catholic doctrine opposes these truths from the letter to the Hebrews.
How, then, has it become so confused? Why do Catholics have priests? Well, the short answer is that, whether or not we have unfettered access to him, God is still holy; it still behooves us to have as our pastors men who are held to a higher standard, who are devoted to serving him. The apostolic priesthood of the Catholic Church is less about mediation than it is about serving the purpose to which the apostles were called (see especially Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20; John 20:21-23; 21:15-17), in which they take on the mantle of Christ as his servants, to forgive sins, cast out demons, and bring the people to repentance.
That is to say, the priests of the Catholic Church are the vicars of Christ, meaning that they operate bodily in his stead, since he is with the Father in heaven. They only have authority because he grants it; they can only act as priests because he wills it.
But if they are the priests, how are we all priests? What of the verse from the first letter of Peter? Well, let me address two points there: First, that verse is primarily delineating the necessity of evangelization by all the faithful. We are all teachers and preachers of Christ, and it is our duty to share in the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:18-20). Second, the priesthood of believers, and the access we have been granted since the tearing of the veil, is most wonderfully fulfilled through the Eucharist.
I will deal with all of the ins and outs of the Eucharist in a later post (and there are a great many things to discuss), but here’s the short-short version: Where Protestants have Communion (eating bread and drinking wine/grape juice in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice),3 Catholics have the Eucharist (partaking of the very Body and Blood of Christ). The Eucharist is not a new sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:24-10:18), but the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross made present. Catholics believe that it is not merely bread and wine, reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice, but Christ’s very own Body and Blood, the Real Presence.
So to partake of the Eucharist is to encounter God more personally, more closely, more fully than any Levitical priest ever could, even the high priest. It is truly the priesthood of the believer which allows this unfettered access to God’s own flesh. Christ offered himself as sacrifice (see Hebrews 7:27; 9:14; 10:10; 13:12), and as with such holy sacrifices, the priest consumes the flesh of the sacrifice (see Leviticus 6:26; Deuteronomy 18:1; cf. Genesis 14:18; John 6:47-58). So we, in partaking of the one sacrifice of Christ through the Eucharist, are priests ourselves, entering into the holy of holies.
In this way, Catholics absolutely believe in the priesthood of believers and, I think, fulfill it more perfectly than any Protestant denomination can.
If you are greatly troubled by all this talk of the Eucharist, and you find it difficult to accept, don’t worry; you’re in good company. As I said, I will work to address what are probably many concerns about these doctrines in upcoming posts; if you stick with me, we’ll get there.
But we have a few more topics we need to cover first. Up next is the necessity of the visible Church, that is, why can’t “the Church” just be the “mystical body of Christ through the Holy Spirit”? Why must it be this thing in the world, encumbered by so much bureaucracy and weighed down by the wickedness of the men that fill it? Let’s find out!
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1 There is a great play on words here; ἐσείσθη, meaning “it was shaken,” sounds very similar to ἐσχίσθη, meaning “it was split.” Not only the veil, but the whole world, was torn asunder in this moment.
2 In all three of these verses, there is a play on words with πνεῦμα. The word literally means “breath” or “wind,” but over time, came to mean “spirit.” So in each place, as Christ dies, he sends out his breath, or breathes his last (physical death), but also sends out his spirit, or gives his spirit to the Father (both a poetical term for death and a literal passage of the spirit of Christ out of his Body–cf. I Peter 3:19-20 and Ephesians 4:9).
3 It should be noted that not all Protestants treat Communion this way. Lutherans have communion in “sacramental union,” meaning that Christ is bodily present in the elements, but the elements themselves do not change and the body is not present in a “local” (three-dimensional) sense. For Calvinists/Reformed Christians, “sacramental union” means that Christ is spiritually present in the elements, but again, the elements do not change. The Lutheran stance is mostly the same as consubstantiation, which some Anglicans (and others) hold, but consubstantiation is “differentiated” in that Christ’s body is manifested in three dimensions, but again, does not replace the original elements. If you’re confused by that, don’t worry; it’s kind of confusing. Zwingli’s symbolic “in remembrance” interpretation is most common among evangelical Christians, such as Baptists and non-denominational Christians.