his is the second in a multiple-part series of essays in which I intend to address Catholic objections to the ordination of women. This essay will be the first in the series to examine the definitive new Catholic objection to the ordination of women that first appeared in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Inter Insigniores. In summary, the objection runs as follows: Women cannot be ordained because, during the celebration of the Eucharist, the presiding priest represents Jesus Christ. During the eucharistic prayer, the priest recites Christ’s words (the “words of institution”) – “This is my body,” “This is my blood” – and thus makes Christ present by acting as a representative of, or “in the person of” Christ (in persona christi). Because Jesus Christ is a male, only a male priest can exercise this representative function. In this essay, I will summarize the rise of the objection and examine the relevant biblical and patristic background.
In previous essays concerning Protestant objections to ordination, I have focused on arguments based on hierarchical authority: Women cannot be ordained because of a permanent hierarchical oversight or “headship” of men over women. Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles: men always lead and women always follow; men always command, and women always obey.
Catholic objections are distinct from this Protestant hierarchical understanding based on authority in that Catholic objections focus not on authority per se, but on issues of sacramental and, in particular, eucharistic theology. Catholic objections rest on the following assumptions not usually shared by those whom I have referred to as “Protestants.” First, while the priesthood of Christ is unique, ordained clergy in some manner participate in Christ’s priesthood. The clergy are not simply members of the congregation who have been delegated to perform a function, but have a distinct ontological status bestowed on them through the laying on of hands in ordination. The clergy are not simply “elders” or representative members of the congregation, but are in some sense, “priests.” Second, while the primary duty of ordained clergy is to proclaim the Word and to celebrate the sacraments, the Eucharist has the distinct purpose of making the risen Christ sacramentally or “really” present in a way that he is not present in creation in general. The Eucharist is not simply a memorial or “nothing more” than a symbol (as in Zwinglianism), but in some sense, it really is or enables participation in the risen humanity of Christ. The consecrated elements of the Eucharist “are” or “become” or “enable participation” in the risen Christ’s body and blood. Third, the Eucharist is, in a qualified sense, a sacrifice. Protestant objections at the time of the Reformation to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice as a “repetition” of Christ’s sacrifice seem largely based on misunderstanding – one hopes not deliberate misrepresentation. No one seems ever to have believed that! The patristic and Catholic position is that Christ’s sacrifice took place once-and-for-all on the cross of Calvary, and cannot be repeated. Nonetheless, in the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is made effectively present or “re-presented.” Although Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is a past event, its effectiveness is not relegated to the past.
Although I am using the adjective “Catholic” to describe this position, I am not assuming that “Catholic” means exclusively Roman Catholic. Broadly speaking, Eastern Orthodox Christians, many Anglicans (particularly “Anglo-Catholics”), Lutherans, and some Reformed could embrace the above three points. The third point would be problematic for Lutherans (as well as low-church Anglicans and many Reformed) insofar as Luther rejected the “sacrifice of the mass,” but Lutheran affirmation of the “real presence” still makes the Lutheran position fall into the parameters of what I am calling “Catholic”).
It needs to be emphasized that this is a new argument against women’s ordination. The traditional argument (as noted in this previous essay in this series) was that women cannot be ordained because they are ontologically inferior. Women are less intelligent, more emotional, and more subject to temptation. Precisely because of this ontological defect, women cannot be ordained and they cannot exercise authority over men. (Traditionally, this restriction precluded not simply ordination to church office, but any position of female leadership or authority over men whatsoever – whether ecclesial or secular.) Neither Protestant complementarians nor Catholic sacramentalists any longer hold to this traditional position. Both now affirm the ontological equality of women – which is all to the good. Accordingly, there has necessarily been a need for new arguments. The new argument for Protestant complementarians has to do with distinct gender “roles.” Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles, and it is the role of women to be subordinate to men and never exercise authority over them. It is the role of men to exercise authority and leadership over women. (I have addressed this position at length in previous essays.)
Catholics no longer endorse any hierarchical opposition to women’s orders. To the contrary, the modern Roman Catholic church has fully embraced women’s equality – including the assumption that women are fully equal to men in exercising leadership and authority. Thus, Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem adapts what could be called an “egalitarian” interpretation of Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives in Ephesians 6. The “submission” that Paul enjoins to wives is a “mutual submission”: “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.” Sara Butler notes: “Because the contemporary magisterium has abandoned the view that women are unilaterally subject to men, it obviously does not supply this as the reason women cannot be priests.”
Accordingly, the Roman Catholic Church embraced a new argument against the ordination of women – rooted in sacramental theology. Only a male can be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ (act in persona christi) in the celebration of the Eucharist. That this position is indeed a new position is evident in that it first appears in Pope Paul VI’s Inter Insigniores (Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) in 1976. In the Declaration, the Pope states first “that the bishop or the priest in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: ‘the priest truly acts in the place of Christ’. . .” The Declaration associates this representative stance particularly with the celebration of the Eucharist and the “words of consecration”: “[T]he priest, who alone has the power to perform [the Eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.” Finally, the pope draws the evident conclusion. Only a male priest can represent Christ in this way because Christ is a male:
The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.
The same position reappears in Pope John Paul II’s Mulieries Dignitatem and Pastores Dabo Vobis. In Mulieries Dignitatem, John Paul II stated:
It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts “in persona Christi,” is performed by a man. This explanation confirms the teaching of the Declaration Inter Insigniores, published at the behest of Paul VI in response to the question concerning the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.
Pastores Dabo Vobis refers to the priest as a “sacramental representation of Jesus Christ.” Priests “share in the one priesthood of Christ,” and they perform their “sacramental actions” in persona Christi.
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, numerous Roman Catholic theologians challenged this new position. However, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), Pope John Paul II officially closed the discussion:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
On October 28, 1995, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its “Responsum Ad Propositum Dubium Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). It states: “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
This effectively silenced the issue of theological discussion for Roman Catholics. This does not mean that the argument of Inter Insigniores is a sound argument. It does mean that any Roman Catholic theologian who values his or her livelihood knows that publicly questioning the argument is a risky exercise. Since Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the public Roman Catholic discussion largely seems to have dried up. In the words of Sara Butler, “Catholics may no longer regard this as an open question or publicly advocate for a change in Church practice.”
After Inter Insigniores, non-Roman Catholics (such as Anglo-Catholics) who opposed the ordination of women embraced the new position. For example, in a 1978 essay, Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote against women’s ordination based on the argument that a priest must be male because the priest is an “icon” of the male Christ:
Such, then, is the Orthodox understanding of the ministerial priesthood. The priest is an icon of Christ; and since the incarnate Christ became not only man but a male – since, furthermore, in the order of nature the roles of male and female are not interchangeable – it is necessary that the priest should be male. Those Western Christians who do not in fact regard the priest as an icon of Christ are of course free to ordain women as ministers; they are not, however, creating women priests but dispensing with priesthood altogether.
A more recent Anglican document affirms:
[I]n order to represent the High Priesthood of Christ, . . . sacramental symbolism is required – namely, the ordained minister, who visibly carries in his human person the likeness of the Son. . . . There is a “natural resemblance” which must exist between the matter of the sacrament and the thing signified. It is because the priest has to be the sign and image of Christ that only men can be ordained to the priesthood. . . . While it is true that the priest represents the whole Church in the celebration of the Eucharist (acting in persona ecclesiae), he does so only because first he represents Christ himself, and acts in persona Christi; more specifically, in persona Christis capitis, in the person of Christ who is the head of the Church.
In order to address the new Catholic objection to the ordination of women, I will first summarize the biblical and historical background to the notion of priesthood and sacrifice.
Old Testament Priesthood
According to the Pentateuch, God established the worship of Israel at Sinai along with the giving of the law. The goal of the exodus from Egypt was to produce a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Moses received instructions concerning both the building of the tabernacle and the institution of the priesthood when he ascended Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24). The role of the priesthood was twofold – both to offer sacrifice and to teach the people concerning God’s requirements. One of the main tasks of the priesthood was to distinguish between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Lev. 10:10-11). The priest’s role can also be thought of as “mediatorial”: the priest represents God to the people (in teaching and oracular functions), and the people to God (in sacrifice and intercession).
One of the problems in assessing the notion of priesthood in the Old Testament has to do with the limited and isolated nature of its discussion in the Old Testament. Instructions concerning the requirements for Israel’s worship are limited primarily to Exodus 24 ff., the book of Leviticus, and Ezekiel 40 to 48. Despite what must have been its importance in Israel’s life, this material is discussed little elsewhere, with the exception of the Psalter. Even within the material that provides instructions for administering Israel’s cult, the biblical text provides no theory or explanation for the reasons behind sacrifice and atonement: “[T]he biblical weight falls on the function of sacrifice rather than on a theory of its meaning.”
While similar in many respects to the religious practices of the surrounding pagan nations, there are aspects of Israel’s temple worship that are unique. Israel’s priesthood is understood as functioning only within God’s covenant with Israel and God’s gracious relation to his people. God provided the sacrifice, and Israel’s worship was a response to God’s action, not as a means to procure God’s favor. Although Israel, like other nations, had festivals that corresponded to the repeated cycles of the agricultural year (Exodus 23; Lev. 23; Deut. 16), the “nature” symbolism of these cyclical festivals was incorporated into the events of Israel’s redemptive history: the passover (Ex. 12, Lev. 23), the feast of “booths” or “tabernacles” (Lev. 23), the day of atonement (Lev. 16). Israel’s worship is thus a “liturgical expression into the history of Israel and her worship of the once-and-for-all events of Exodus and Sinai.”
After the Exodus, the tabernacle and later the temple provided the exclusive focus for the understanding of “sacred space” in Israel’s worship. The temple was the location of the “holy of holies,” the place where the ark of the covenant was located, inside of which were the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exod 40:20; 1 Kings 8:9). The Holy of Holies was the location of God’s “glory” where “God’s name” dwells (Ex. 40:34-35), and a space that the High Priest entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). The Psalms are full of references to the special significance attached to the temple as the physical location of Israel’s worship, the presence of God on “Mount Zion” (Psalm 29). At the same time, the temple also became the special object of criticism by Israel’s prophets who insisted that the temple provided no absolute guarantee of God’s presence (Jer. 7). The book of Ezekiel describes not only the departure of God’s glory from the temple (Ez. 8:5 ff.), but also the restoration of a new temple (Ez. 40 ff.).
Finally, there is the role of the priest. The Israelite priesthood was hereditary, confined to descendents of Aaron. This restriction of the priesthood seems to have served two primary functions: (1) to provide historical continuity to the Mosaic period; (2) to maintain ritual purity. Priests were bound by laws of purity particularly in respect to marriage and to contact with the dead. They could not marry divorcees, prostitutes, or daughters of forbidden sexual unions. Priests were bound by the strict Old Testament dietary laws; they could not have physical blemishes; they could not participate in Old Testament rituals if they were in any way ritually unclean (Lev. 21-22). It is sometimes asked why the Old Testament restricts the priesthood exclusively to males. As I have argued elsewhere, the most logical explanation for this restriction has to do with Old Testament ritual purity. Because of ritual purity regulations concerning child-birth and bodily discharges, women would be ritually impure on a regular basis, and so would be unable to perform temple sacrifice.
Before leaving discussion of the Old Testament priesthood, it is important to mention two final selections of passages – because of their importance for the later New Testament understanding of Jesus’ own priesthood and sacrifice: Genesis 14:19-20, describing Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek and the “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah (41:8 ff.; 42:1 ff.; 49:1 ff.; 50:4 ff; 53:13 ff.). Melchizedek was a Canaanite priest of “God Most High”( El Elyon) who blessed Abraham. Melchizedek is mentioned again in Ps. 110:4, and, in Hebrews 5-7, is interpreted as a type of Christ. The “suffering servant” of Isaiah is described in language reminiscent of Israel’s cult. Christians would later interpret Isaiah 53, with its description of a servant who “was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” and who was made an “offering for guilt,” as a “passion” text whose typology was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Priesthood in the New Testament
The New Testament uses the word “priest” (ἱερεύς, hiereus) in the following contexts:
First, “priests” refers to Jewish priests who exercise Jewish religious functions. John the Baptist’s father Zechariah was a priest to whom the angel Gabriel appeared and announced John’s birth, while Zechariah was offering sacrifice (Luke 1:8-20). When Jesus healed a leper, he instructed him to go to a priest and make an offering (Luke 5:12-14). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of those who passes by the wounded traveler is a priest (Luke 10:29-37).
Priests are often found among Jesus’ enemies. They challenged Jesus’ authority (Luke 20:1-8). Judas betrayed Jesus to the “chief priests,” and when Jesus was arrested, the chief priests played a major role in his condemnation and execution (Mark 14:53-64, 15:10-11; Luke 22). The chief priests and scribes mocked Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:31-32). In Matthew’s gospel, the chief priests used Judas’ thirty pieces of silver to buy a field; they set a guard in front of the tomb of Jesus, and bribed the guards to spread the story that Jesus’ body had been stolen (Matt. 27:6-10, 62-65; 28:11-15). All four gospels portray the temple priesthood and the Jewish leaders as responsible (along with the Romans) for Jesus’ death.
Second, the New Testament portrays Jesus’ theological identity using the Old Testament symbolism of priest, sacrifice and temple.
The gospels portray Jesus as both priest and sacrifice. Jesus’ prophetic ministry of teaching and performing miracles has a “priestly” dimension. As noted above, instructing the people of God is a primary priestly function. In speaking of his upcoming death as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28), Jesus identified himself with the “suffering servant” whose death was a sacrifice for others.
All three synoptic gospels portray the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes as anticipating the Last Supper (Mark 6:30-44; Matt. 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17). (Note the verbal parallels: Jesus “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave.”) At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus used deliberately priestly language, identifying his death as a sacrifice in the “words of institution”: “This is my body . . . This is my blood [of the new covenant]” (Mark 14:22-24; Matt. 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20). Jesus’ language echoed imagery of Old Testament sacrifice, of the “suffering servant,” and of Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31-33).
John’s gospel portrays Jesus as both priest and temple. John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “lamb of God” (John 1:29). The gospel identifies Jesus’ crucifixion as the time when he will draw all people unto him (John 12:32), and the time of his glorification (John 13:31). There are clear eucharistic references in Jesus’ invitation in John’s gospel to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:51-58). John interprets the incarnation of the Word in Christ as a transference of God’s glory dwelling in the temple to now dwelling in Jesus (John 1:14). Jesus’ prediction of the destruction and rebuilding of the temple means that Jesus will replace the temple with his own body (John 2:18-22). Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman indicates that a time is coming when it will no longer be appropriate to worship either in Jerusalem or Mt. Garizim (the location of the Samaritan temple), but will now “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:19-26).
Nowhere in his letters does the apostle Paul refer to Jesus as a “priest.” He does, however, identify Jesus with the sacrificial paschal lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Paul says that God put Christ forward as an expiation/atonement (ἱλαστήριον, hilastērion) “through his blood” (Rom. 3:25). (The term hilastērion refers to the Old Testament “mercy seat” or lid that covered the ark in the Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. Paul is saying that Jesus’ death on the cross is a new “Day of Atonement.”) Significantly, Paul does not portray God as the recipient of the sacrifice, but as the one who offers sacrifice. Paul does not only portray Christ in sacrificial language, but also through the use of priestly metaphors. Paul writes that the risen Christ sits enthroned at the “right hand of God” and “intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34).
In his own description of the Last Supper, Paul speaks of Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms (1 Cor. 11:23-26). In Paul’s recounting of the “words of institution,” Jesus speaks of the bread as his “body, which is for you,” and of the cup as the “new covenant in my blood.” Paul describes the “cup of blessing, which we bless” as a “communion (κοινωνία, koinōnia) in the blood of Christ,” and the “bread that we break” as a “communion (koinōnia) in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-21).
Paul also uses temple and sacrificial language to refer to the church. Paul speaks of the church as the “body of Christ,” (1 Cor. 12:27), and of our physical bodies as “temples” of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20) because we were “bought with a price,” that is, the “price” of Christ’s death. Christians are called to present their bodies as a “living sacrifice,” which is their “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).
The most lengthy discussion of the priesthood of Christ takes place in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews speaks of Christ as both priest and sacrifice. As “high priest,” Jesus has made “expiation/atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Hebrews both compares and contrasts Christ’s sacrifice with that of the Old Testament priesthood. Unlike the Old Testament sacrifice of animals, Jesus died once for all (7:27); rather than sacrificing animals, Jesus offered himself (9:25-26). In contrast to the hereditary priesthood of the Old Testament, Jesus has an “eternal priesthood,” after the “order of Melchizedek” (5:6, 10; 6:20). Because Jesus did not sin, he did not need to offer sacrifice for himself, but only for sinners (2:17; 4:15; 10:11-12). Hebrews also portrays Christ’s priesthood using temple imagery. The Old Testament tabernacle was only a “shadow” of the true tabernacle, set up by God (8:2-5); the risen Christ has now entered this true tabernacle, where he continually intercedes on our behalf, in God’s presence (9:23-24). Christ’s sacrifice has provided a “new and living way” for those who have faith in Christ to “enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (10:19-22). As in Paul, Christian life is presented as “sacrificial.” The author of Hebrews writes: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” The readers are encouraged: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (13:10, 15).
Third, the New Testament also uses the word “priest” in reference to members of the church. In Rom. 15:15-16, Paul refers to his own ministry as “a minister (λειτουργός, leitourgos) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (ἱερουργοῦντα, hierourgounta) of the gospel of God, so that the offering (προσφορά, prosphōra) of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Peter speaks of Christ as a “living stone,” and of the church as “living stones,” “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5), and states a few verses later: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (2:9).
At the same time, although the passage in 1 Peter speaks in a general way of how all Christians are “priests” (a “priesthood of all believers”), the New Testament never uses the word “priest” to describe those who exercise offices of leadership in the church. In his letters, Paul addresses the “bishops/overseers” (ἐπισκόποι, episkopoi), and “deacons” (διακόνοι, diakonoi) (Phil. 1:1). The pastoral epistles speak of “bishops/overseers,” “presbyters/elders” (πρεσβυτέροι, presbyteroi), and “deacons” (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9). The Acts of the Apostles refers to “elders/presbyters” and “deacons” (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6; 16:4; 6:1-6). (A hoary debate concerns whether or not the offices of bishop and presbyter are distinct in the New Testament, or are simply different names for the same office.) Setting aside for office seems to have occurred through the “laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 4:14, 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6). Those who held these offices clearly exercised some sort of leadership, but the New Testament says nothing about what we would call their liturgical functions. The New Testament says nothing about the role of these leaders in baptizing, celebrating the Eucharist, or ordaining others in their succession.
In short, the New Testament emphasizes three aspects of a Christian theology of priesthood and sacrifice: (1) the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ; (2) Christians as a new temple; (3) the priesthood and sacrifice of all Christians. At the same time, the New Testament does not use the word “priest” to refer to church office, and refers to Christian priesthood and sacrifice, “not in acts of ritual and liturgical worship but in the practical, ethical sphere of the lived Christian life.”
Priesthood in the Early Church
An examination of the writings of the church fathers finds a continuation of the themes noted above: (1) the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ; (2) Christians as a new temple; (3) the priesthood and sacrifice of all Christians. At the same time, there is not much discussion of these issues. As O’Collins and Jones, note: “The first millennium of Christianity provides some but not much explicit teaching about the priesthood of Christ. The references to him as priest are scattered and yield little by way of systematic thought.” The primary reason for this seems to have been that, although the Letter to the Hebrews was acknowledged as canonical in the East from the second century, it was not universally accepted in the West until the fourth century.
The first post-New Testament document to deal with a controversy concerning the nature of ministry having to do with priesthood is 1 Clement. Clement refers to Christ three times as the “High Priest,” and refers to “approved officers” (δεδοκιμασμένοι, dedokimasmenoi) who “offered sacrifices with innocence and holiness.” What Clement meant by “sacrifice” is “unclear.” Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho speaks of the “sacrifices” which the church offers in “the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist”; however, the immediate context makes clear that the “sacrifices” to which he refers are “prayers” – “the spiritualized sacrifice of the practical living of Christian life.” Justin is clear that it is the “president” who offers “prayers and thanksgivings” at the Eucharist, but this tells us at the most that he had a “positive attitude toward the ministerial office.” Irenaeus of Lyons echoes Paul’s threefold division of the theology of priesthood and sacrifice: he writes of Christ as the “high Priest,” and of the “offering” of his humanity to the Father; Irenaeus refers to the Eucharist as a “pure sacrifice,” in which “the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation.” Yet, again, however, as in Justin, the “sacrifice” that is offered seems to be the “spiritualized one of prayers of praise and thanksgiving.”
The Alexandrian theologian Origen drew on the imagery of the Old Testament Book of Leviticus rather than on the New Testament book of Hebrews. Origen may well have been the first church father to refer to ordained Christian ministers as “priests.” He speaks of Christian priests as imitating their “Teacher” by granting people the forgiveness of sins. Origen states that these priests “have a part in the divine sacrifice through the Eternal Priest, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” At the same time, Origen seems to have understand all Christians to participate in Christ’s priesthood, so that ordained clergy differ only in function and not in nature from the priesthood that all receive through faith and baptism.
One of Cyprian of Carthage’s letters is an important early discussion of the nature of the Eucharist. In the letter, Cyprian views Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine as a foreshadowing of Christ’s own offering of his body and blood, which was ritually enacted at the Last Supper: “For who is more a priest of the most high God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered a sacrifice to God the Father, and offered that very same thing which Melchizedek had offered, that is, bread and wine, that is, His body and blood?” Cyprian refers to the Eucharist as a “sacrifice” – “for the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice which we offer” – and to ordained clergy as “priests” who “imitate” what Christ did:
For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of himself, certainly that priest (sacerdos) truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ himself to have offered.
Might this be the first known example of an in persona christi understanding of eucharistic theology – that during the eucharistic celebration the priest is acting as as a representative or icon of Christ? What does Cyprian mean when he suggests that the priest should “imitate” Christ? In the latter part of the letter, he asks: “For to declare the righteousness and the covenant of the Lord, and not to do the same that the Lord did, what else is it than to cast away His words and to despise the Lord’s instruction, to commit not earthly, but spiritual thefts and adulteries?” Cyprian concludes in a manner that indicates that the “imitation” referred to is that of spiritual and moral discipleship: “Wherefore, if we wish to walk in the light of Christ, let us not depart from His precepts and monitions, giving thanks that, while he instructs for the future what we ought to do, he pardons for the past wherein we in our simplicity have erred.” Of course, it is also possible that, by “imitation,” Cyprian simply means that the priest, in celebrating the Eucharist, patterns his actions on the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper: “[H]e [the priest] proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.” Whether Cyprian understood “imitation of Christ” to mean either Christian discipleship or basing the pattern of the Eucharist on the New Testament’s description of the Last Supper, there is nothing in the passage to indicate that Cyprian believed that the celebrant in his own person is acting as an icon of, in the place of, or in the “person of” Christ (in persona Christi).
Two last figures are important as contributing to the patristic understanding of priesthood and sacrifice. John Chrysostom delivered thirty-four homilies on the Letter to the Hebrews. In these homilies, Chrysostom says much about Christ’s high-priestly role, particularly his role as mediator. Chrysostom explicitly links Christ’s priestly sacrifice to the Eucharist, insisting at the same time, that the Eucharist is not “another sacrifice,” but the “same” as Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice. Chrysostom emphasizes the priestly sacrifice of all Christians, citing Rom. 12:1, stating that “each one is himself the Priest” of the offerings of “moderation, temperance, mercifulness, enduring ill-treatment, long-suffering, humbleness of mind.” What seems to be missing from the homilies is any discussion of the priestly nature of ordained ministry.
Finally, Augustine is important for something new he brings to the discussion – that it is the risen Jesus Christ who is the central actor in the sacraments. Augustine regularly uses sacerdos in reference to Christ, but rarely applies the term to bishops or presbyters. Against Donatism, Augustine is critical of the notion that “the ordained minister was the source rather than the merely visible mediator of holiness.” The efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the personal holiness of the priest because it is the risen Christ who performs the sacrament, acting through the visible signs of sacramental grace. Augustine was addressing the sacrament of baptism in his debate with the Donatists; it was only later that this principle could be applied to the Eucharist as well.
In summary, the church fathers largely repeat the three key themes of the New Testament writings concerning priesthood and sacrifice: (1) Jesus Christ is both high priest and sacrifice; (2) the authors recognize the sacrificial context of Jesus’ Last Supper, and there is, among some at least, the beginnings of a notion of “eucharistic sacrifice” – not that the Eucharist is a “repetition” of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, but that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice is “remembered” in such a way that it is “made present” or re-enacted. In the words of Chrysostom, “it is not another sacrifice . . . but the same.” (3) The authors speak of the priesthood of all Christians, which they interpret in spiritual and moral terms; this notion of sacrifice is “not a cultic but rather an ethical idea.” (4) the writers assume some kind of relationship between the priesthood of Christ, and the priesthood of ordained clergy. When the celebrant presides at the Eucharist, he is presiding over a “sacrificial” action. At the same time, in the earliest examples, the sacrificial action is not understood to be the liturgical rite itself, but the prayer of the celebrant and the community. In later writers like Cyprian and Chrysostom, the Eucharist is itself spoken of as a sacrifice in the sense of a re-presentation of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice. With this understanding of eucharistic sacrifice, Cyprian also uses the word “priest” (sacerdos) to refer to the celebrant of the Eucharist. At the same time, as made clear in Augustine, the primary celebrant of the sacraments is the risen Christ himself: “It is the one High Priest who now offers the Eucharist for Christians everywhere.”
What is missing from the writings of the church fathers is any detailed discussion of this relationship between Christ’s priesthood and the priesthood of the ordained clergy. There is one passage (in Cyprian) that has been appealed to as an early example of an in persona Christi theology of ordained ministry, but this is almost certainly a misreading. There is no warrant in the writings of the church fathers for the claim that the church should exclude women from ordination because the priest represents Christ, and only a male can represent Christ. If the reference to “this teaching” in Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Responsum Ad Propositum Dubium” is to the teaching of Inter Insignories concerning the priest acting in persona Christi, then it is simply not the case that it is “founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church.” To the contrary, there is no such teaching either in Scripture or in the patrstic tradition of the church. To discover the origins of the notion that the priest acts in persona Christi, it is necessary to look to the theology of the later Medieval period, and particularly to Thomas Aquinas.