This is the third in a series of essays discussing Catholic objections to the ordination of women and the second to address the argument that women cannot be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. Specifically, in presiding at the Eucharist, the priest acts“in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi). Since Jesus Christ is a male, only a male can play this representative role. In the previous essay in this series, I have summarized the biblical and historical background to the New Testament notion of priesthood, and to the understanding of ordained ministry in the early church.1 In that essay, I noted that there is no evidence that either the New Testament or the patristic church understood ordained clergy to play this representative role, i.e., to be acting in persona Christi. I now turn to find the sources of this theology in the sacramental theology of the Western Church, specifically as articulated by Thomas Aquinas.
During the early Middle Ages, Latin theologians taught that only the universal Catholic church was able to celebrate the Eucharist. Local churches who were in communion with the one holy Catholic church (una sancta catholica ecclesia) were understood to represent the whole church in the eucharistic liturgy. The priest who presided at the Eucharist was understood to represent the whole church when he acted as the liturgical leader of the local church. A key concern in the development of eucharistic doctrine was the problem of the heretical priest. How could a priest represent the whole church if he lacked the faith of the church? The consensus was that the Eucharists of heretical priests were invalid. The author of the Summa Sententiarum (probably Otto of Lucca [d. 1146]), held that they were invalid because in the eucharistic prayer the priest says “we offer” (offerimus), not “I offer” (offero); the priest thus acts ex persona totius ecclesiae (in the person of the whole church).2 In a discussion of the differences between the offering of the congregation and the offering of the priest, Lothar of Signi explained that the priest offers in the person of the whole church: “offerimus is said in the plural because the priest sacrifices not only in his own [person] but in the person of the whole church.”3
Different opinions concerning this ecclesiological status of who does or does not qualify to be a priest led to an “evolving theology of the hierarchical priesthood,” along with changes in terminology. Medieval commentaries on the Mass depicted the “priest of the New Covenant” as the fulfillment of Old Testament priesthood as one who offers sacrifice for the people. This description is applied first to Christ, and then to ordained clergy. Beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, figures such as Peter Pictor and Rupert of Dietz began to use the term similitudo (likeness) to describe the participation of ordained clergy in Christ’s priesthood. In addition, the imagery of drama is introduced and the priest is said to imitate Christ when he recites the words of institution in the Eucharist. Priests are referred to as vices Christi (deputies of Christ). The priest is compared to an ambassador – as ambassador of the church to Christ, and of Christ to the church.4
As mentioned above, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the central figure in the development of the notion that, in celebrating the Eucharist, the priest acts “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi), as representing Christ to the church. It is this theology of eucharistic representation that lies behind the recent and modern Catholic objection to the ordination of women to clerical office. If Jesus Christ is a male, then only a male priest/presbyter can represent Christ.