This is the fifth in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here. Part I, on baptism and confirmation, is available here; part II, on the Eucharist, is available here; part III, on marriage, is available here; and part IV, on penance and reconciliation, is available here—Ed.
After his death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus (c. 4 BCE–30 or 33 CE) understood their role as one of ministry and service to others. Sent out to spread the Good News of the Way of Jesus, they were called “apostles,” from the Greek apóstolos, meaning “one who is sent out.”
In the earliest Christian communities, men and women were apostles. There was a variety of ministries, but ordained priesthood was not one of them. There are no texts in the Gospels in which Jesus passed on a special power to perform sacramental actions such as baptizing, ordaining, or presiding over the Eucharist. Jesus gave no organizational blueprint for a future church.
First Three Centuries
As Christian communities developed, ministries and the ways of training and appointing ministers evolved to meet changing cultural conditions and social needs. Presbyters, from the Greek presbyteroi, were community elders. The supervisors (later called bishops), from the Greek epískopoi, had oversight and guidance of community affairs; and deacons, from the Greek diaconoi, were helpers, entrusted with assisting people in the community by caring for widows, doing charitable work, catechising, and assisting in baptisms.
The letters of Paul, written between 48 and 62 CE, mention a variety of charismatic gifts which can be thought of as ministries benefiting the local Christian community (“the building up of the body”), even though the ministers were not ordained in our sense of the word. For example, members who could teach taught. Those who were good organizers administered community affairs. Those who had the gift of tongues or interpreting what was spoken in tongues could inspire others. Those who had the gift of prophesy could tell the community what God wanted them to hear.
We know as well that men and women who were heads of households presided at the Lord’s Supper and hosted the gatherings in their homes. In Romans 16, Paul greets women leaders such as the deacon Phoebe, the apostle Junia, and the married apostles Priscilla and her husband Aquila. There is clear evidence that women were respected leaders in the emerging Jesus movement.
The term “holy orders” comes from the Latin word ordo, which came to mean a rank or class. The Roman army had its military ranks and Roman society was divided into different social classes. The early Christian communities, however, were relatively classless and egalitarian. At least they were supposed to be. “Holy orders,” however, would come later in Christian history.
The approval and blessing of the community for diverse ministries was symbolized by the laying on of hands. These ministries included preaching, prophesy, healing, working miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting what was said in tongues (see 1 Cor 12:4–30, Eph 4:11–12, and Rom 12:4–8). None of the men and women exercising these ministries were ordained. The Acts of the Apostles, written between c. 90 and 110 CE, mentions the laying on of hands for elders or presbyters, but here it was a form of blessing for those in ministry.
Although Peter (died c. 64 CE) was a key leader in the Jesus movement, the early Christian community in Jerusalem was not led by him but by James (died c. 69 CE), who was Jesus’s brother. At the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE), Peter, Paul, and others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter gave his argument, but did not have the last word. James concluded the matter and then the vote was taken.
Most contemporary biblical scholars are in agreement with the Catholic scholars Raymond Brown (1928–1998) and John P. Meier that the apostle Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a single supervisor-overseer (bishop) in Peter’s lifetime. When Peter arrived in Rome in the late 50s, Roman Christianity was already constituted with a number of communities with close ties to James and the Jerusalem community. The much later Catholic assertion that Peter was the “first pope” is, frankly, the result of medieval historical conjecture. The “belief” began to be affirmed in the fifth century by Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440 until 461. The belief was then strongly reinforced by Gregory VII, Bishop of Rome from 1073 until his death in 1085.
In the first three centuries of Christianity, we have no direct evidence of an ordination ceremony. By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. Initiation into these orders was accomplished through a rite of ordination that inducted a person into a local office in a particular community. It is important to clarify that ordination at this time was not about passing on some kind of sacramental power. It was a blessing on the minister and an assurance to the community that the ordained man or woman was competent, a genuine believer, and trustworthy.
There is ample evidence that in the West women were ordained as deacons and abbesses well into the Middle Ages. Women continued to be ordained deacons in the East and were ordained to a variety of ministries. Many contemporary scholars agree with Gary Macy, professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego, who argues that during the first 1,200 years of Christianity women were also ordained as presbyters and bishops. I find the arguments in Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination well documented and convincing.
In the 12th century, ordination changed from its earlier significance as a blessing for different ministries in service for a specific community to a bestowal of spiritual power “to confect” (“make it happen”) the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. The ordained now belonged as well to a higher social class. The classless and egalitarian church of early Christianity had disappeared.
The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento in northern Italy, issued several doctrinal pronouncements about ordination, reacting of course to the Protestant Reformation. The Tridentine bishops declared as required Catholic belief that ordination was a sacrament personally instituted by the historic Jesus. Trent stressed that the sacramental power of ordination was passed on through the tactile laying on of hands in an “apostolic succession” going back to Jesus’s ordination of the apostles—the very first bishops—at the Last Supper.
About tactile ordination, there was later some debate about whether or not it worked if the ordaining bishop imposed just one hand on the head of the person being ordained. The stress was therefore put on using both hands. As for the belief that the origin of ordination came from the hands of Jesus at the Last Supper, here are the key words from the 23rd session of the Council of Trent, July 15, 1563:
The sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Savior, and that to the apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering his Body and Blood, as also of remitting and of retaining sins. . . . For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in the most weighty terms, what things are especially to be attended to in the ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following orders, and the proper ministrations of each one of them to wit, those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, reader, and door-keeper, are known to have been in use; though not of equal rank . . .
Trent stressed as well that ordination brings about an essential change in the ordained person, which elevated the ordained to a level above the laity, leaving an indelible mark on the person forever. The Tridentine bishops emphasised as well that bishops have the fullest and highest degree of hierarchical sacramental power: “Wherefore, the sacred and holy synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded unto the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order. They are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Spirit, to rule the Church of God; and that they are superior to priests.”
One should not forget of course the influence medieval feudalism still had on the church at this time. There were three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Bishops, within a strongly patriarchal feudal system, held positions of power as feudal lords and as advisers to kings and nobles. Bishops generally lived with the same hierarchical powers, ornate dress, and luxuries as the nobles.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
Apostolic succession became a key issue in 1896 when Pope Leo XIII declared, in his papal bull Apostolicae curae, that all Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void.” The reason was that, due to earlier changes in the ordination ritual in England, the Anglicans had lost their apostolic succession and their sacramental power. (I explored this more fully in my 1980s doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Leuven.)
On November 30, 1947, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined once again the official Catholic position about ordination as passed on through apostolic succession in his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis: “The only minister of this sacrament is the bishop, successor of the Apostles. The matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop.’’
Even the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium, stressed apostolic succession: “Bishops have succeeded the apostles, not only because they come after them, but also because they have inherited apostolic power.”
Official contemporary Catholic teaching is still rooted in scholastic theology and medieval thinking. Leaders struggle with contemporary historical and theological understandings. Change often comes slowly.
Ordination, as a ceremony that celebrates the beginning of a professional life of ministry, could be much more flexible than it is today and open, of course, to men and women, married and unmarried, and of whatever sexual orientation. It could be for a specific number of years or lifelong.
Thinking about ordination and pastoral ministry today, I would like to see some creative changes. I would like to see ministerial appointments—ordinations—extended to religious educators, youth ministers, pastoral counsellors, social workers, and others whose faith and competence are well recognized. Youth ministers, for example, could be ministers of confirmation. Pastoral counsellors could be ministers of reconciliation. Religious educators and youth ministers could preside at small group Eucharists. Social workers could be ministers of the anointing of the sick during house calls and hospital visits as well as presiders at small-group Eucharists in residences for the elderly. I am sure there are many other creative ministry possibilities.
I would also suggest that the ordained be regularly evaluated and certified for a specific number of years. After, say, five years, the ordained man or woman could be recertified, provided (1) he or she has given evidence of ongoing theological and pastoral education; and (2) he or she has been re-evaluated and approved by the local Christian community.
What is celebrated in an ordination ceremony is not one’s obtaining power over other people or being elevated above the non-ordained. It is about making a commitment and responding to a call to preach the Gospel and care for others. It is about being of service to others, as genuine and credible ministers, and helping others grow in and with the Spirit of Christ.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reviewed the meaning of sacraments and spoke about Christ as the sacrament of God and the church as the sacrament of Christ. This was a welcomed and strong movement in the right direction. Nevertheless, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible” (1577).
Catechisms, of course, are always provisional. After 30 years with this one, it is time for a new edition. We all grow in our understandings and need regular updating. With the development of the sciences and the growth in human knowledge and understanding, it is time to put the medieval viewpoints and conjectures in a museum and move ahead with contemporary life and ministry.
Ordination ought to be what it was originally: a blessing and approval of the person for ministry. The ordained should be credible, trustworthy, and supportive guides for our Christian life journeys, helping us distinguish what confirms and strengthens faith and what undermines it and tears it down.
Yes, ordination has quite a history. But it is not just a Catholic issue. Regardless what Pope Leo XIII said in his 19th-century encyclical, ordination exists in and belongs to all Christian traditions. Why? Because all Christians are truly successors in the faith, witness, and ministry of the men and women who were apostles. That is what we best understand as “apostolic succession.” ♦
John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.