A Look At Roman Catholicism (4): The Roman Catholic Priesthood

Greg Litmer
Cincinnati, Ohio

When you decide to look at the Roman Catholic priesthood, you quickly realize the vast quantity of material to be covered. What we intend to cover in this lesson is what the priesthood is, how one becomes a priest, and what are the special effects or powers that come with the priesthood.

The term that is used to describe the rite of ordination into the priesthood is "Holy Orders." The Baltimore Catechism defines "Holy Orders" in the following manner: "Holy Orders is the sacrament through which men receive the power and grace to perform the sacred duties of bishops, priests, and other ministers of the Church. (a) The distinction between clergy and laity is of divine origin, for first, Christ chose the twelve apostles from among His disciples; and in a special way deputed and consecrated them for the exercise of spiritual ministrations; and second, the apostles, who could not mistake the will of Christ, administered the sacrament of Holy Orders by consecrating bishops and by ordaining priests and deacons."

Furthermore, the Catholics teach the doctrine of apostolic succession. In other words, the priest are direct spiritual descendants of the apostles, possessors of certain of the peculiar powers that the apostles had, and that they are the sole possessors of these powers. What we are talking about then is a group of men, successors to the apostles, separate and apart from the rest of the people, who have certain special spiritual powers. These powers, coupled with the position these men hold in the church, elevate them above the rest of their fellow men. That is a capsule view of what the priesthood is. Let us look now at how a man becomes a priest.

The Baltimore Catechism says the following about how a man becomes a priest. For a man to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders worthily, it is necessary "first, that he be in the state of grace and be of excellent character; second, that he have the prescribed age and learning; third, that he have the intention of devoting his life to the sacred ministry; fourth, that he be called to Holy Orders by his bishop. (b) Those who are called by God to be priests ordinarily receive no special revelation to this effect. God expects all to use the gifts of reason and of grace in determining their state of life. (c) Without a special dispensation no one may be ordained a priest until he is twenty-four years of age. Ordinarily the prescribed learning consists of four years of high school, four years of college, and four years of theology completed in a seminary. (d) The sacred ministry of the priesthood can be exercised either as a diocesan priest under a bishop. or as a member of a religious community under a religious superior. Priests of religious orders make the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Diocesan priests bind themselves to chastity for life and make a solemn promise of obedience to their bishop."

During the course of these years of study, the men preparing for the priesthood go through a number of stages of advancement. The two major ones prior to the priesthood are subdeacon and deacon. This is primarily what is involved as one makes his way toward ordination. With the lack of vocations that the Catholic Church has been experiencing lately, they have begun to waive some of the requirements. For instance, there is a seminary in Boston that I am aware of which is for what is called a late vocation. These are men who are a little bit older and have decided to become priests. In these cases, their learning consists of three years in the seminary. These too, however, must be recommended by the bishop in the diocese that they will be serving.

Having seen what the priesthood is and how one goes about becoming a priest, let us now look at the special effects or powers that come with the priesthood. The Baltimore Catechism says, "The effects of ordination to the priesthood are: first, an increase of sanctifying grace; second, sacramental grace, through which the priest has God's constant help in his sacred ministry; third, a character, lasting forever, which is a special sharing in the priesthood of Christ and which gives the priest special supernatural powers." It also states, "The chief supernatural powers of the priest are: to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to forgive the sins in the sacrament of Penance." These, then, are the special effects and supernatural powers that go with being a priest.

Our objective will be to examine these three points that we have seen and determine the validity of each. If the priesthood and clergy distinction is taught in the Bible, then we must accept it. If God has set forth in His Holy Word all of those different requirements for a man to become a special minister to Him, then we must accept them. If God did promise to give the special effect and supernatural powers to a select group of people, then we must accept that fact. However, if the Word of God does not teach these doctrines, then we must reject them immediately and follow only what the Bible says.

Let us begin by looking at the existence of the priesthood in the first place. Does this exclusive group of religious people have any right to exist according to God's Word? Does the Bible truly teach the clergy and laity distinction?

In I Peter 2:9, Peter is writing to Christians, specifically those scattered about Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. He is writing to all of those Christians, young and old, men and women. In that particular verse he says, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Peter refers to the entire goup of Christians as "a royal priesthood." Do you see a clergy distinction there?

In Rev. 1:6, John is writing to the seven churches which were in Asia. Once again these churches included young and old, men and women. In that verse he said, "And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever. Amen." In other words, all Christians are priests. Do you see a clergy distinction there?

The clergy distinction is an attempt to elevate certain men above their fellow man. It gives the man who is the priest a position of honor and reverence. Now, lest anyone would say that is not the priest's fault, but rather it is the fault of those who give him that honor, look at some of the Catholic doctrine concerning the attitude people are supposed to possess concerning priests. In the Baltimore Catechism, the following statement is made. "Catholics should show reverence and honor to the priest because he is the representative of Christ Himself and the dispensor of His mysteries. (a) In showing reverence and honor to the priest one shows reverence and honor to Christ Himself, for the priest in a very true sense is "another Christ." In this country it is the custom to honor priests by addressing them with the title `Father.' The custom of tipping the hat to the priest is praiseworthy. The proper way to address a bishop and an archbishop is `Your Excellency:' a cardinal, `Your Emminence:' the Pope is addressed as `Your Holiness."'

This practice of elevating one man over another is so entirely contrary to the teaching of the scriptures. Jesus taught in Matt. 20:25-28 the following lesson: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise dominion over them, and they that are great excercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Look at the audacity inherent in those titles: "Father," "Your Excellency," "Your Emminence," and "Your Holiness." Brethren, that is in direct conflict with the teaching of the scriptures. Jesus said, "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye* called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." This "honor and reverence" which the Catholics teach should be given to a certain group of men is not found in the scriptures. As a matter of fact, it is sinful because it is- in direct violation of Biblical principles.

What about the rite of apostolic succession? Let us let Peter tell us what was necessary to be an apostle. In Acts 1:21, 22, he tells us the qualifications for this office, if we may call it that. There he says, "Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection" Will any priest claim to have been a witness of the resurrected Christ? Will any priest claim to have accompanied the other apostles while Jesus was physically among them? Certainly not. Therefore, no priest could possibly fulfill the requirements for apostleship.

I think one other point will be helpful in our understanding of the fallacy of apostolic succession. The Catholics claim that there is an unbroken line of Popes from Peter unto the present, but they know this is not true. The following dispatch came from Vatican City in January 18, 1947. It says, "Vatican City, as the result of years of investigation into the 1,900 year line of succesion of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican's new directory has dropped six popes from its old list. It placed two others in doubt as possible anti-popes and lists as a true pope one who had not been included until now." In all, information on 74 different popes was changed. These changes included corrections in the dates of their reign as pope, as well as the assertion that one of them (Pope Dono 2, who was listed as pontiff for three months in the year 173) never really existed. The Catholics have invented this line of apostolic succession as far as the pope is concerned, and then have broken it. I wonder how many of the Catholic laity are aware of this?

What about the requirements for the. priesthood? We have already seen that the Bible teaches that we are all priests and that we are all to work to the best of our ability in the service of the Lord. That includes study and preparation (2 Tim. 2:15). But all of the rules and regulations such as age, being called by a bishop, and education simply are not found in the Bible. If they were, then certainly none of the early evangelists, with the possible exception of Paul, would have qualified purely on the basis of education alone. A lot more time spent studying the Bible instead of the years spent studying Catholic theology in some seminary would much better prepare a person to do the work of the Lord. These requirements are nothing more than Catholic dogma.

Let us look now at the supernatural powers given to a priest. The first was the ability to change wine into the blood of Christ and bread into His body. This is known as transubstantiation, and we talked about that in a previous lesson. In that lesson, we showed that that change does not take place and that Jesus never meant it to as He obviously used figurative language when He instituted His supper.

The next supernatural power is the ability to forgive sins. This practice of Roman Catholics is called "Auricular Confession." It is part of the sacrament of Penance and it is called "Auricular" because the sins are whispered privately into the ear of a priest in a little booth called a confessional. This is beginning to change somewhat and the strictness of the little confessional is beginning to be laxed, somewhat, but the power to forgive sins still rests with the priest.

The Catholics use a few scriptures to make their case. First is James 5:16, "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Catholics seem to think that this verse reads, "Confess your faults to the priests . . ." but it simply does not say that. The true import of that passage is that the sins to which James refers are to be mutually confessed by Christians one to another. There is no foundation in this passage for confession, privately, to a priest for forgiveness.

The next passage is Matt. 3:5, 6. There we read, "Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins." Confession to a priest is nowhere to be found there. The confession mentioned here was that of the Jews on the occasion of the preaching of John the Baptist. This confession was not made to John, but to God. The context would lead us to believe that this was a confession of sins in general, not in particular. It was the type of confession that the Old Testament frequently records the Jews making (Ezra 9:5-15; Dan. 9:3-20).

The passage that is most frequently used is John 20:22, 23. There we read, "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." The Catholic contention is that this passage gives ordained priests the power from God to forgive sins that are confessed to them. But this passage does not deal with confession of sins and a priest's power and perogative to forgive them or not. It deals solely with the power that Christ gave His apostles to forgive and retain sins. This power has nothing to with private confession to a priest. The apostles were commissioned to preach the gospel of our Lord. When people heard, believed, and obeyed the gospel, they had their sins forgiven; when they rejected the gospel, their sins were retained. Only in this sense did the apostles possess the authority to forgive sins or to retain them.

If the apostles had the power to forgive sins, then Peter's statement in Acts 8:22 would have been unnecessary. Peter said, "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee." Peter could have given him absolution himself if he had posessed the power that Catholic priests claim to possess.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 34, pp. 550-552
August 28, 1980