Priesthood of believers (à la Albert Vanhoye)

This is not meant to be a rejoinder to the previous post but just an invitation to those interested to read what I consider the best essay written on this subject from an RC point of view: Common and Ministerial Priesthood by Albert Vanhoye (“Sacerdoce commun et sacerdoce ministériel: distinction et rapports,” Nouvelle revue théologique 97:3 (Mar. 1975) 193–207, as translated in Theology Digest 25:2 Summer 1977, 157–161, with the following editorial comment: “Very few articles grow on one with re-reading. We think our readers will find the following article one of these rarities.”)

I have permission to reprint this for my students and workshop attendees.


  1. I really like this article. The author is honest about the historical differences.

    One part that I found myself questioning, however, is the middle ground the author makes when referring to the ministerial priesthood as “less real,” and (it seems) secondary to the common priesthood of the faithful. How does this reconcile with the ontological change of someone who receives Holy Orders?

    He then tries to reconcile it by talking of the importance of the character of the priest as “Christ-mediator” in the next paragraph, but is vague about whether this is a priest exercising his common priesthood in a unique way…? I don’t know– I was lost there at making the connection.

    Perhaps someone with a bit more education on this particular subject would comment?

  2. Sorry – found the article to be dated and his primary distinction (which you highlight Chris) to be left hanging and poorly defined. Also, not sure that 30 years later our experience of key VII documents has not led to a different way of looking at this question.

    1. This is an important topic.
      A good, more up to date, resource is:
      Susan K. Wood, ed. Ordering the Baptismal Priesthood. Liturgical Press,2003.

  3. Chris, I am glad you appreciated the article.

    How does this reconcile with the ontological change of someone who receives Holy Orders?

    You should know that Pope John Paul II did develop this teaching in his 1992 apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 13

    The new priestly people which is the Church not only has its authentic image in Christ, but also receives from him a real ontological share in his one eternal priesthood, to which she must conform every aspect of her life.

    When presiding at Eucharist, the ministerial priest is exercising his ministerial priesthood, in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ, head of his body, the Church.
    Is this any clearer?

  4. I liked this article, and found it still fresh in its insistence on the dignity of the common priesthood and on the primacy of that priesthood even for the ordained; and its finding a good way of moving the ministerial priesthood away from the ecclesiological centre. But I’d question the logic, at least on the basis of the English summary, implying that the unique mediation of Christ must be ‘openly displayed in the Christian life’ through something like the ministerial priesthood as we currently have it, reserved for some Christians only under particular conditions. My speculation would be that the necessary symbolization of Christ’s unique mediation might take other forms as well. Why isn’t baptism an adequate sign of this?

  5. I cannot write too much about the Catholic debate around the question of the priesthood of believers and I have not, unfortunately, read Vanhoye’s book but I will add a comment on Luther’s role as it has perhaps not been adequately explicated.
    Luther certainly was not interested in encouraging individualism! Modern understanding of individualism actually runs quite counter to his reform agenda. This is most clearly seen in his writing on the sacrament of the altar and his defense of real presence. In fact, his toughest battles, especially in the later 1520s and onwards, was against the so-called “enthusiasts” – those who believed that the Holy Spirit inspires and gifts without the visible (tangible) means of the church. For Luther, such individual appropriation of the Spirit’s work led only to frivolity and shallowness.
    When the common priesthood was raised in the treatise “To the Christian Nobility” (1520), the issue addressed was not the question of individual inspiration or call. In this treatise, Luther addressed the question of “status” or “stand” or “walk of life.” There was not, for Luther, two “estates” – a worldly estate and a spiritual estate. Certain people were not more privileged (spiritually) simply because they were priests or bishops. Everyone is called to the spiritual estate by virtue of their baptism. Through baptism, we all have a spiritual calling. However, this does not mean that everyone is a priest or can exercise the pastoral office.

  6. Sorry… just a follow up. The ability to exercise the pastoral office is given by the community to select individuals who become stewards, in the community’s midst, of Word and sacrament.
    At the heart of the spiritual calling in baptism is servanthood. We are all “priests” through baptism to one another (as another comment has already pointed out).
    For a great discussion of this topic in Luther’s writing, see Timothy Wengert’s book, “Priesthood, Pastors, Bishop: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today” (Fortress Press, 2008). In this wonderful little book, Wengert points out that Luther never actually used the phrase “priesthood of all believers” (das allgemeine Priestertum alle Glaeubigen) – and certainly not in the way it has been misappropriated by later generations!

  7. My comment above has to do with the use of “ontological” as the key frame of reference. This is based on an “old” neo-Thomistic understanding that I would argue was revised and updated by some of the documents of VII. Rather, what is needed is that we are all baptized and within that sacrament we have various ministries – ordination being one such ministry but not defined or lived to a degree that there is separation and “ontological” differences from the rest of the baptized. This better captures the traditional catholic theology of both/and.

    Review a recent talk by Richard Gaillardetz who comes at this with a provocative title – “Does VII Theology of the Laity have a future”…..go to: and click on his talk.

    Highlights: “….early Christian reflection during the first two centuries of the church was less preoccupied with distinctions within the community than between the Christian community as a whole and the world in which Christians lived. Differences between lay and cleric were eclipsed by a concern for the common demands of discipleship.”

    Differences began to emerge in the 4th century and later through these steps:
    eucharist as sacrifice needed an “ordained” priest
    Priest and celibacy separates more
    Adoption of greco-roman philosophical language – e.g. ontological
    influence of monasticism
    gradual reduction to ordained only for all ministry e.g. Gratian states there are two kinds – ordained and lay.

    His end…

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