Today is our third installment on the Catholic concept of the priesthood as expressed by John O’Brien:
When the priest announces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the Victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim.
Indeed it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary. While the Blessed Virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, the priest brings Christ down from heaven, and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal Victim for the sins of man, not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo! Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows his head in humble obedience to the priest’s command.
Of what sublime dignity is the office of the Christian priest who is thus privileged to act as the ambassador and the vice-gerent of Christ on earth! He continues the essential ministry of Christ: he teaches the faithful with the authority of Christ, he pardons the penitent sinner with the power of Christ, he offers up again the same sacrifice of adoration and atonement which Christ offered on Calvary. No wonder that the name which spiritual writers are especially fond of applying to the priest is that of alter Christus. For the priest is and should be another Christ. (John O’Brien, The Faith of Millions, 255-256)
Today I would like to highlight the following phrase:
Of what sublime dignity is the office of the Christian priest who is thus privileged to act as the ambassador and the vice-gerent of Christ on earth! He continues the essential ministry of Christ: he teaches the faithful with the authority of Christ, he pardons the penitent sinner with the power of Christ…
Let’s tease out the implications of this statement. By way of contrast, as usual, we go to the Bible, this time in Mark 2:1-12:
1 And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Rather than healing the paralytic right away, Jesus forgives his sins. What you need to notice is the indignant reaction of the scribes in verse 7: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
The Jews understood the true implications of Jesus’ words. By claiming the authority to forgive sins, he was claiming a divine prerogative. In other words, as the scribes implied in their indignation, no one can forgive sins but God alone. The healing that follows, then, has a point and purpose – to establish the legitimacy of Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sins, and in so doing to authenticate his own divinity.
So the New Testament teaches that only God can forgive sins, and this is proper. After all, every sin is ultimately a personal affront to God. Every sin, whether it has a human victim or not, is a rejection of God’s rightful authority and holiness. Therefore, while a human being can forgive that aspect of a sin that offends him, he cannot absolve the sin entirely because God is also offended and alone has the power to forgive it completely.
Catholic theology denies this by delegating the authority to forgive sins to a human priest. There is no denying the force or implications of O’Brien’s statement: “he (that is, the priest) pardons the penitent sinner with the power of Christ”; after all, the priest is the object of the verb pardons. The priest is doing the pardoning, not God. He does so “by the power of Christ,” yes, but that merely reduces Christ to being an instrument. It does not change the essential nature of the act: it is the priest who acts, not Christ; the priest who decides in the individual case, not Christ; the priest who dispenses (or withholds), not Christ; and so, as is evident from O’Brien’s effusive praise, it is the priest who receives the glory, not Christ. (More on that in a later post).
The bottom line here is that Catholic sacramental theology takes a power that belongs to God alone and gives it to a mere, sinful man – along with all the glory that comes with it. In the process, it denies the uniqueness of Christ and diminishes his deity. A human being who claims to have the power to forgive sins, as the Jews rightly objected, blasphemes our Holy God. And so does the Roman Catholic Church.