Ordering the Body: 1. Unity in Difference

Ordination is perhaps the sacrament about which most Catholics have thought about least. Sure, we know that Father was “ordained.” And maybe we can list the “bishop, priest, and deacon” as the kinds of people who are ordained. [Although, there are quite a few people in our pews, who confuse the Sacrament of Order (sometimes called “Holy Orders”) with religious orders (Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Jesuits, etc.).]

Probably very few Catholics have spent much time thinking about why “ordination” is called that, or how the ways that we talk about it affect the ways that we speak about the church and its mission. Perhaps in the current situation, it’s time to revisit these questions. Since I write on this sacrament, I will periodically offer a reflection on an aspect of thinking about it during this year. Today, I’d like to start by thinking about why it’s called what it is.

Sacramentum Ordinis translates as the “Sacrament of Order.” For some reason, in English, it is often translated “Sacrament of Orders,” but the difference matters. When we talk about “orders” we are primed to think of the orders of deacons, of priests, and of bishops, which is language that we use in describing the effects of the sacrament. But this can lead us in two different and problematic directions.

First, it can encourage us to think of the sacrament only in terms of a grace that is given to an individual. We do, in fact, talk about “the indelible mark” of ordination, because it, like baptism and confirmation is an unrepeatable sacrament that permanently changes the person’s place within the church.

Second, it can lead us to think of the ordained as belonging to a number of parallel clubs. “He was inducted into the order of deacons” can make ordination seem to be the same kind of thing as becoming a member of the Moose or the Rotarians. Here, we can lose the connection not only of the orders to each other, but to the church.

And this is where I think the singularity of the name of the Sacrament of Order can cause us to think more carefully about these things. If there is, in fact, only one Order, then we cannot primarily think of that order as either a group (because there are different groups who are ordained) or a power. Because deacons are ordained “not to the priesthood, but to ministry” (LG §29), they are not “semi-priests” as we might think of them as if we think of the various ordinations as being the giving of more “powers” each time.

Instead, it encourages us to remember that all of the sacraments have ecclesial effects. Baptism builds up the Body of Christ, Confirmation deputes the Baptized to the Eucharist, the Eucharist “makes the church” (to quote Paul McPartlan).

Order, then, “orders” the body of Christ. It places some of the baptized in particular and necessary ministries in a permanent way (the traditional language of an “indelible mark”). It gives them the rights, duties and abilities to serve the church in these ways (the traditional language of “powers”). But it does so by giving order to the Body. In this way, deacons, priests, and bishops are different orders, but not in a way that endangers the unity of the Sacrament of Order (for there is only one order) or that divides the church (because the order that it creates is the structure of the church).

Finally, it lets us distinguish between those who have been ordained and the “common priesthood of the baptized” without dividing the church in half. Because, as Paul reminds us, a body is a body precisely because it is ordered in difference. If we consider how it is that we are able to hear, it is because our ears are ordered in a particular way such that different parts are ordered to each other in ways that make each necessary — remove any of them and the ear is not an ear that does what it is supposed to do well.

We are not always good at engaging questions of diversity and unity well, especially in the church. And there’s certainly a temptation to think of the ministerial and the common priesthood as being in competition with each other. I’ll talk more about that in the next of these columns.

Order is beautiful. But requires that we value difference. As Paul repeatedly reminds his churches, the Body is made up of many parts that have different callings, and none of which are the body without the others. We see the beauty of the Sacrament of Order best when the local church is gathered around the altar. In the Eucharist, we are gathered together with our Bishop whose thanksgiving to God is assisted by the priests, the deacons, and the baptized. Here is a new order that is to be an image of the Reign of God.

When, however, we forget that the order that is given is given for the sake of the whole, and not as a personal prerogative for those who are ordained, then we turn Order against the kingdom, and against Christ’s body.


  1. Thank you for this. I agree that we don’t think about this enough, and I worry about what becomes of ‘Ordo’ when there is a reduced sense of ‘Ecclesia’ – something which seems to have been the case for many hundreds of years. In the UK we talk (or used to) of people ‘going in to the Church’ when describing Ordination, as if the ‘Church’ was a profession of people being called bishops, priests or deacons, in effect priests only since most people had seldom seen a bishop and ‘deacon’ was something you ‘got’ before you ‘got’ priesthood.

    In my experience, titles that are merely honorific such as ‘Canon,’ ‘Monsignor,’ ‘Cardinal’ etc have long been confused with sacred order.

    This confusion is not helped by our custom (only recently abandoned and still in use in some circles) of having three priests at ‘High Mass,’ two of whom are playing at ‘Deacon’ and ‘Subdeacon’ – parts that are not theirs and in the second instance no longer exist.

    No surprise that there is confusion!


    1. Paul,

      If I may, McPartlan’s and others’ source for this is Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum.

      De Lubac characterizes the first thousand years of Eucharistic theology as emphasizing that the “the Eucharist makes the Church” (Notre Dame Press edition, p. 88). De Lubac goes on to say that the predominant emphasis in the second thousand years is that the Church makes the Eucharist. In the end, de Lubac insists that we need both together, “The Church and the Eucharist are formed by one another day by day: the idea of the Church and the idea of the Eucharist must promote one another mutually and each be rendered more profound by the other” (p. 260).

  2. But do you stop being a deacon when you’re ordained a priest? Or does a priest stop being a priest when he is consecrated a bishop? That has never been my understanding. If so, a priest can “play” at being a deacon, or subdeacon, without confusion.

  3. Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and irenic post. I appreciate the attempt to move beyond a “powers” idea of ordination in order to promote a harmonious unity of diverse orders within the church.

    But I really don’t think this argument works, at least not as you have stated it. Two reasons. First, calling the sacrament “order” rather than “orders” contradicts the general usage, reflected in the Catechism and many other official church documents. Although I cannot say it is never referred to in English as the Sacrament of Order, I do know “Holy Orders” is so common as to be ubiquitous. You don’t give a reason why, if “Order” is the better reading, it has not been translated that way. Surely it is not because English speakers cannot read Latin, or have failed persistently in this one particular way for no reason at all. There may be sound reasons why we should abandon the common usage, but I wouldn’t like to do that without a better understanding of how we got here.

    My second issue is more systematic, and it concerns the Order of Catechumens. This is a bona fide order in the Church, but it seems to be unaccounted for in your schema. I can’t for the life of me figure out how it would fit unless there are multiple orders in the Church: the order of catechumens, the order of the faithful, and the orders of deacon, priest, bishop. Paradoxically, by positing a single “order” of which the ordained are the agents and guardians, it seems to me you’ve given more power to the ordained and rendered the rest of the church dependent upon them for our unity. This isn’t so. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. Christ and the Holy Spirit are the agents of unity. We are one in Baptism. The ordained are ministers of the sacraments in proper order, but our unity doesn’t depend on the sacrament of Orders (or Order). Better to consider the existence of multiple orders in the church as part of our ecclesiology rather than “one” order, which the ordained are uniquely sacramentalized to…

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