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The Catholic Priesthood

Question: You said that there are no priests in the church distinct from the laity. It is not true because the apostle Paul wrote to Titus: "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective and appoint Presbyters (Greek for Priests) in every town as I have directed you" (Titus 1:5). Then Paul gives the qualifications a man needs to be a priest.

Answer: No, there are no Catholic priests in the New Testament. The Roman priesthood was not instituted by Christ; it is a human invention that evolved in the post-apostolic period.

It is simply not true that "presbyter" means "priest". The Greek terms used in the New Testament to describe the ministers of the church are: 1. presbuteros (presbyters, elders); 2. episkopos (bishops, overseers); and 3. poimen (pastors, shepherds). They are never called hiereus, which is the Greek word for priest.

The change in the title of the ministers in the Catholic church corresponds to the change in their role. The Council of Trent defines the specific functions of the Catholic priest: "If any one saith, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood; or that there is not any power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord, and of forgiving and retaining sins; but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel… let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Session 23, Canon I). Thus the two main functions of the priest are:

  1. The offering of the propitiatory sacrifice of the Mass;

  2. The forgiveness sins by the sacrament of penance.

How does this compare to the teaching of the New Testament? In the apostolic church, the Eucharist was considered a "remembrance" and a "proclamation" of the Lord and His sacrifice, and not a carrying on, perpetuation, renewal and re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, as the modern Catholic Church teaches. There is no place for a "visible and external priesthood" in the church since Christ, our Priest, offered one perfect sacrifice, and He ever lives to intercede for His own. "He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood" (Hebrew 7:24). The Greek word (aparabatos) translated "unchangeable" means "not passing away, untransferable, perpetual." Unlike the Levitical priests, who had to pass on their ministry from generation to the next because of death, Jesus Christ lives forever and therefore His priesthood is not transferred to anyone.

The other key aspect of the Catholic priesthood, auricular confession, was not practiced in the Western church until after the seventh century. The apostles and elders in the early church did not hear confession, give absolution or prescribe penance for the remission of sins. Rather they were involved primarily in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel; they insisted that forgiveness was through faith in Christ. "And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:42,43). The Council of Trent derogates this work as "only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel" -- the Bible exalts it as the divine mandate to reach out the world with the grace and forgiveness of God.

Today, Christian pastors continue to lead people to Christ by the preaching of the Word that they may receive life and forgiveness through faith in Him. We thank God for their faithful and invaluable service to us.

The Roman priest stand in the way between the sinner and Christ. We cannot benefit from the sacrifice of the cross, or so we are told, unless the Catholic priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass. Nor can we receive God’s forgiveness apart from priestly absolution. That is not true! The Catholic priest is a stumbling block to the soul who is seeking God. The way is wide open to all who come by faith Jesus Christ. "Through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins."

© Dr Joseph Mizzi