Wednesday, April 26, 2017

In Persona Christi?

Maybe, maybe not.
The recent Good Friday article by His Traddiness reminded me of a theological question that has bothered me for a while. Namely, what is the history of the theology of Holy Orders in regards to the idea that the priest acts in persona Christi? (Of similar interest is the theology of the priest as alter Christus—"another Christ"—but this is more rarely found in writings on the priesthood.)

The phrase itself appears to be borrowed from St. Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians, wherein he writes, "I myself, wherever I have shewn indulgence, have done so in the person of Christ for your sakes" ("nam et ego quod donavi, si quid donavi, propter vos in persona Christi").

It appears in its more recognizable form in St. Thomas's Summa, where he distinguishes between Sacraments: some being effected in the person of the minister (e.g., "I baptize you..." or "I confirm you...") and others in the person of Christ (e.g., "I absolve you..." or "This is my Body..."). For Thomas, this appears to be a technical point concerning the meaning of the words effecting these Sacraments, rather than an observation on the effects of Holy Orders on ordained persons.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), though not quoting the council itself, says, "The priest is also one and the same, Christ the Lord; for the ministers who offer Sacrifice, consecrate the holy mysteries, not in their own person, but in that of Christ, as the words of consecration itself show, for the priest does not say: This is the body of Christ, but, This is my body; and thus, acting in the Person of Christ the Lord, he changes the substance of the bread and wine into the true substance of His body and blood." In this, the catechism is basically following Thomas.

Whereas previously the bishops held a special place as the ministers and missionaries of Christ, the Counter-Reformation seems to have gradually extended of this idea to all priests. St. Alphonsus Liguori (†1787), for instance, wrote tracts on the dignity of the priesthood, at one point opining, "For us it is enough to know that Jesus Christ has said that we should treat his priests as we would his own person."

Similarly, St. John Vianney (†1859) wrote, "After God, the priest is everything! Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is." Like sentiments are found in popular moral manuals and spiritual writings from the Counter-Reformation to the second Vatican Council.

The twentieth century saw an increase of exposition on the exaltation of priests. Even James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) famously depicts a priest trying to encourage the eponymous hero to pursue Holy Orders based on its magnificent dignity: "No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them; the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the altar and take the form of bread and wine."

P. Pius XII wrote in the encyclical Mediator Dei that "Christ is present at the august sacrifice of the altar both in the person of His minister and above all under the eucharistic species" and that priests "represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people."

The Vatican Council increased the danger of clericalism even while giving lip service to the importance of the laity. In Lumen Gentium, the council fathers wrote that the bishops "in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person." Also that the priests "by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ."

In the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, the phrase is mentioned three times (875, 1348, & 1548), albeit modified into, "in persona Christi capitis." The extension of the persona Christi theology goes even further in 1348: "It is in representing [Christ] that the bishop or priest acting in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi capitis) presides over the assembly, speaks after the readings, receives the offerings, and says the Eucharistic Prayer." This is the first "official" suggestion that a Sunday sermon should be considered as being preached in the person of Christ.

In 2009, P. Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio in which he modified the Code of Canon Law to clarify that only bishops and priests act in the person of Christ, not deacons.

While I am no expert in the development of doctrine, it seems that the relatively modest proposal of Thomas Aquinas got quite out of hand by the 20th century. His theological writings on the words of consecration have also caused no end of consternation with the various eastern Churches. It seems clear at this point in time that they contributed very unfortunately to the culture of clericalism, the quasi-quietism that idolized obedience even for the common layman.

One might say that a bishop acts in the person of Christ much like an ambassador acts for his country: in an official capacity, but sometimes poorly representing the desires of his fatherland, and being occasionally the cause of international incidents. Indeed, the aforementioned Pauline epistle calls the apostles "ambassadors of Christ," but it seems that St. Thomas had a very different meaning in mind when opining on the effecting of Sacraments.

P. Benedict's legal clarification is welcome, but does little to undo the damage of excessive clericalist spirituality. The recent sex abuse crisis saw many priests manipulating young men by asserting their role as "another Christ," and by claiming that whatever they willed was therefore willed by God. This is an extreme example of clericalism gone wrong, but not an irrelevant one. When your local parish pastor starts asserting his authority as an alter Christus, even for silly things like liturgical preferences in the Pauline Novelty Mass, but especially for more serious matters like demanding complete obedience to all advice given in the confessional, one must wonder why.


  1. That kind of theology totally bypasses the Christly character of those baptized...

    And about the last sentence. Sometimes i don't know about some moral issues and i google things. Mostly that leads me to catholic answers forums. People with perplexed consciences ask the same questions which i ask myself and most of what they get: "Ask your confessor.", "Ask your priest.".

    I would freakin' slap that person across their freakin' face for such a stupid answer which assumes that when the sacrament of confession has begun (such a limiting term too ... to begin a sacrament ... ) priest gains some superpowers and is on direct line with the Holy Spirit and is suddenly infused with the charism of infallibility...

    1. It used to be that only educated clerics (generally monks and bishops) were allowed to hear confessions. I think it was St. Alphonsus who, when he was made a diocesan bishop, made it one of his first orders of business to remove the faculties of preaching and hearing confessions from priests who had no good training in theology and morals. As I recall, only a small fraction were left who could do either by the end of his purge. I think that would be a fantastic order of business for any bishop newly assigned to a diocese.

    2. it is no wonder that the Church was so restrictive in the early ages as well, confining the power of forgiveness to bishops.

      i mean, as quasi-scrupulous as i am and confused all the time, i wouldn't want to be the one who will tell a person: "don't sweat it", and that as a result that person will sweat for eternity in Hell...

  2. Regarding the 20th-century exaggerations: I suspect this is a result of the ridiculous "project" to equate the "Table of the Word" with the "Table of the Eucharist." St. Thomas, of course, is merely explicating that when a priest acts formally by virtue of the sacramental character of Orders, he does so by sharing in Christ's priesthood as instrumental cause to principal cause (to use the philosophical terms).

    Regarding the confessional and spiritual direction: no one is bound to follow the priest's advice. The priest, on the other hand, is only bound to offer "more probable" opinions, not merely "probable" to some degree (a condemned proposition). Conversely, I would think the penitent is equally bound, morally, to eschew merely probable opinion for what is more probable. Sadly, most priests nowadays receive little or, more often, no training whatsoever in hearing confessions.

    1. Of course. A part of the problem is that penitents in the confessional are often in an emotionally malleable state, and just as often are lacking any solid moral training, themselves. Putting these two things together makes any advice given by the confessor all the more potentially dangerous. (And certainly more potentially live-giving, if done well.) Very frequently the only—literally the only—time a Catholic layman will hear a priest talk about real moral problems in a substantial way is if they come up in the confessional. A layman has to go far out of his way to learn even basic Catholic morality, these days.

    2. Very, very true. Looking back, I know I certainly received some dubious guidance in the confessional.

    3. Several times i wasn't absolved validly (and the rate has increased several past months).
      One time all that came out of priest's mouth after my act of contrition was (i'm rendering it in latin for the sake of grammatical cases):
      "Amen. (as a sort of a confirmation of my contrition)
      Et ego te a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

      Mind you, he wasn't speaking over me or anything. He waited me to finish and then, clara voce said all that and only that. Quid me a peccatis meis? Quid?! So i asked him to repeat it. He smiled at me to express how ridiculous my request was, but he did it nevertheless.

      More and more often, one priest, which was my regular confessor, unintelligibly pronounces the absolution too and sometimes to the degree of invalidity. Like, he starts from the beginning, and then in the midst of catching his breath, he sort of says "and i absolve you", but he sort of doesn't, because he's "saying" it while inhaling and he butchers those words. I know what he's supposed to say and that's why i know what he "says", but that's what my cognitive bias imputes to him. But does he really and properly say that, i don't know. And one time i asked him to repeat the absolution. He gladly accepted the request and again, he butchered the crucial words...

      I have to go to another town to get confession. And if i go there to repeat the confession, they don't care about those things and they tell me i should care either. One said to me: "If the priest absolves you he absolves you. Your theology MA doesn't mean anything. A priest cannot absolve invalidly. I've been confessor in st. Peter's for 30 years. I know what i'm talking about.".

      The same doubts happened about three weeks ago with the one who butchers the words by inhaling. He did the same thing. And again, i was in doubt.
      I went to the other town and then another priest there didn't let me repeat the confession, saying i shouldn't care about that and that God is merciful. And i didn't repeat it. I obeyed and confessed only what i had since that last one butchered absolution.

      Where have we come when a priest can possibly damn a soul God wishes to save?

  3. Christ is indivisivle part of the Holy Trinity. Who hears our confessions? The priest with his personal flwas and sins and God the Father.
    Traditionally the priest gives canon fir forgiveness and prays the sinners..perfectly if he can...crucufues himself.
    Have you ever confessed an obsession that kills you inwardly to an average priest and canon there was.. it just goes away? I have. God is present there, the person of the priest being irrelevant.
    It just happens. This is miracle not your horoscope turning guessed right.
    Imho the mistake of both Catholic and Orthodox churches ..a tactical mustake if you will.. is presenting a set of agenda to people to confess as regurarly as... Just let it happen. Even those outside the law have conscuences.. St. Paul's second letter to Romans.
    The person of the priest is irrelevant. That's it.
    And today..people say, they just say because it's wrong to call it a confession, a million dirty sins and thoughts to the anonymous audience..maybe that is the religion of the antichrist - we are judged by many as human as we are whilst we refuse to tell it to God because..the priest (one man) will hear it too.
    Just let it be...let it be...beetles and worms to eat us as we stand in the circus of the (bolshevich?) Crowd. Nobody cares in the crowd.. we feel 'forgiven' because nobody cares. While the silly dwarf the priest might care and say 'say what? You did...that?'.

  4. How does onde understand St. Ignatius of Antioch's "where the bishop is, there is Christ"? Is it as his plenipotentiary, as the Apostles were?

    1. Maybe in the same way as how Pope St. Leo I understood the primacy of the Roman See?

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  6. Marko. ABS brings the real absolution with him typed on a small piece of paper and he reaches around the screen, hands it to the priest and asks him to please read it as he gives ABS absolution if the occasion to do so arises.

    If the Priest says, I have already absolved you... ABS says I am scrupulous and need to hear absolution in that form to consider my self absolved...

    It has worked for ABS several times, likely because Seminaries are more social work factories than Theocentiric factories and the Priest needs help from we laity.

    ABS has had several priests ask him if he could keep it.


    O, and in the Church ABS regularly goes to Confession, the Pastor listens to your confession and doles out the same penance always...

    ABS could have just confessed Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession. I cooked a box of kittens in the Microwave and raped a crippled nun. That is all Father

    Say one Our Father and make a good act of contrition...

    One has to be a smart shopper, Marko :)

    1. Oh but he knows what he needs to say. He's just nonchalant and clumsy. Sometimes he says all, sometimes not. And i get tired and uncomfortable of repeating the same thing over and again. I want to say to him how to breathe properly and not to inhale while pronouncing words, but is that proper of me?

      Also, to some other priests i do say that and then they say: "Yeah you're scrupulous and you shouldn't repeat your confession because it's not your business if the priest has pronounced the words correctly or not.". My blood boils at that point.

      What i also don't get is how can't they abstract the "non-important" from the "important". You can read the whole paschal homily of st. Melitus but i still won't be absolved... If you don't feel like saying "God the Father of mercies...", just say the absolution part and that's it...

      My wits are useless if the other party is stupid as a rock...

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