The teaching of the Catholic Church with regards to the priesthood is that the priest is ontologically superior to the lay person. This superiority occurs at the moment of ordination. Ordination, like baptism, confers an indelible mark upon the soul of the priest, and it is this mark that causes the superiority.
There are a few points that should be made concerning in what way, and why, the Church says this about her priests. There is a long-established philosophical principle agere sequitur esse. This means “What you do follows upon what you are.” This principle applies to everything. Dogs do doggy things, humans do human-y things, and priests do priestly things. Everything does what it does because of what it is.
Ordination and baptism confer something special to the humans who receive them, and this permits humans to do things that they would otherwise be unable to do. In the case of baptism, Christians receive an indelible mark on their soul that permits them to receive sanctifying grace. This is something that the human, in his natural state, could not do; it is beyond, or above, his nature. Thus, such a thing is supernatural, i.e., above nature. Those who are baptized become ontologically superior to those who are not, because they are capable of doing things that are superior to the kind of things that the non-baptized can do.
Ordination also confers an indelible mark on the priest’s soul which permits him to do things as well. This mark is distinct from the one that is conferred at baptism, and conforms the priest’s soul more closely to Christ. The priest, after ordination, is capable of doing things that others cannot. The priest can forgive sins, he can consecrate the Eucharist, and bishops can ordain men to the priesthood, that is, they can confer more indelible marks of this kind to others. Christ could do these things as well; a priest is more conformed to Christ, and thus is ontologically superior to a lay person.
Along with this superiority, there are moral expectations for those who have received such a gift. Those expectations, for example, are that such men attempt to model themselves closely to Christ, they should imitate his love for all souls, and they should serve as a witness to others of the joy of sacrificial love. This is why religious priests make vows of the three evangelical counsels (obedience, celibacy, and poverty), and why diocesan priests make promises regarding the first two. Most especially, priests are meant to administer the sacraments for the salvation of souls capable of receiving them. Given the nature of ordination and what it permits the priest to do, it is also incumbent upon ordained men to be informed, that is, to be educated, so as to inform, that is, to educate, those who can receive the sacraments.
What Ordination Does Not Guarantee
Now, regarding the ability to administer the sacraments, such a thing is supernatural, just as the ability to benefit from them is supernatural. Thus the sacrament of ordination confers on the priest the ability to perform the sacraments, just as the sacrament of baptism permits the faithful to benefit from them. However, the ability to learn, teach, and live the Christian life is something that is possible without ordination, excepting the benefit of the grace required for Faith, Hope, and Charity.
What does this mean? It means that each of these expectations (that the priest learn, teach, and live the Christian life) are things that are not conferred by the sacrament. That is, they are not necessarily present in the priest without a tremendous amount of dedication and practice. To be more explicit, the ontological superiority enjoyed by the priest pertains to his ability to perform the sacraments (and the consequences thereof) and nothing else. Along with that ability comes expectations of excellence, and the duty to teach and guide, but the competence to do these things cannot be presumed to be present by virtue of ordination.
Why is this important? This is important because sanctity (“betterness”) and superiority are two different things. For example, Satan is ontologically superior to every human being and every fallen angel. However, Satan is not “better” than anything or anyone at all. He is, in fact, the most damnable of them all. Likewise, Our Lady is better than everything in creation, yet she cannot consecrate the Eucharist, though the most morally reprobate priest can. The distinction between ontological superiority and “betterness” is a distinction that many Catholics, priests included, have not kept clear in their minds. Priestly superiority pertains not to the moral quality of a priest, nor to his competence to lead or teach, but to the ontological state of his soul that conforms him to Christ and permits him to perform the sacraments. This conformity is not moral conformity or sanctity; it is one of being. Thus any judgment concerning the superiority of the priest must be limited in mind and practice to the particular aspects of a priest’s life to which the superiority pertains.
Today many people, lay and ordained alike, conflate the notion of ontological superiority with moral “betterness.” This leads to statements such as “the ordained life is better than the lay life.” Such a disposition makes the temptation to complacency much more potent. The laity may be inclined to leave holiness to priests, and priests might errantly presume that, by virtue of their ordination, everything they do is excellent. It also makes relationships between distinct groups of the Church strained; those who are more competent in the non-sacramental duties of the priesthood might be ignored out of deference to the priest, and priests who do not know what they are doing regarding teaching, learning, or leading might feel overwhelmed, or, worse, they may fail in these tasks, hurting those to whom they minister. As an analogy, just as a father has a duty to ensure the health of his children, but fails miserably in that duty if he presumes to be doctor, surgeon, and counselor, so too do priests have responsibilities incumbent upon them by virtue of their ordination, though they might not be competent to directly carry them out and will fail if they attempt to do so.
Paul notes the different gifts that members of the Body of Christ have received: some are teachers, some healers, some speak in tongues, and some are leaders. He does not link any of these charisms specifically to being ordained. We have, unfortunately, fallen into the practice of expecting the priest to be all of these because he is “better,” and our priests and laity suffer because of it. This damages unity in the Body of Christ, and limits the exercise of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the sake of healing and building up the Church. I think we are seeing what happens when we limit the expectation of excellence to the ordained; the Church does not have all of her gifts at her disposal, and the Body of Christ suffers.
This suffering occurs often within caste systems, in which one group of a society presume themselves to be simply better than another group, causing the whole society to founder given the lack of justice as well as the lack of resources—available but untapped in the lower caste. This presumption is something that Catholics are especially susceptible to given the rich anthropology that the Church has and from which her notion of ontological superiority comes, along with the way it is taught in her formation programs. Priests can do things that the laity cannot do; priests should do things that every Christian should do; and every Christian should live a life of excellence, pursue a deeper understanding of Christ, and exercise his gifts for the sake of the Church.
If we situate the notion of priestly superiority rightly, we will find that our family grows more united, and the Body of Christ will flourish. However, if we see it as it has been seen for many years—as a principle of distinction in the Body of Christ whereby some shall “receive the choice portions” (Jer. 31:14) and others shall wait for “the scraps from the table” (Mark 7:28)—we will begin to mimic the structure of the most damnable, rather than exhibiting the harmony of the holy. We would become like the sons of thunder, whom Christ reminds “you do not know from where you come” (Luke 9:51-55) when they wanted to exercise raw authority and judgment. When we struggle over who is better than whom, we resemble the apostles who argued among themselves over who was greatest (Mark 9:33-36), and who delighted that the demons had to obey them (Luke 10:17). We need to recall what Christ said at those times: to be like little children and to not rejoice that we have superiority over others, but that our names are written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).
(Photo credit: Papal ordination of priests, April 26, 2015; Bohumil Petrik/CNA)