Rorate Caeli

The Council and the Eclipse of God by Don Pietro Leone – SECTION II – CHAPTER VI - MAN– second part– Man’s Choice of Life – The Priesthood


In addressing  the  Council’s teaching on the priesthood, Don Pietro examines the Council documents PRESBYTERORUM ORDINIS, SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM, INTER MIRIFICA and OPTATAM TOTIUS, exposing how they have gradually led to a demeaning  of the priesthood,  by subtly emptying this sacred calling of its divine nature as Alter Christus, and the priest as a man set apart principally to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and forgive sins in the Sacrament of Confession. The Council teaching  emphasizes the role of teacher and brother as the focus of his ministry, in this way overshadowing his traditional role as a  Father who feeds his children the divine food of the Sacraments.  In this installment, Don Pietro also highlights how the teaching of Philosophy in seminaries has been debased by being put on the same level as the modern human sciences of sociology and psychology, always in flux, in contrast to traditional Thomist philosophy which focuses on objective truth and falsehood.                F.R.


B.   The Priesthood


In this section we shall consider:


1.     The Nature of the Priesthood;

2.     Priestly Celibacy;

3.     The Priestly Formation;

4.     The Ministry and Life of Priests.


       1.     The Nature of the Priesthood


Now the Catholic priesthood is sacramental, the Sacrament of Order endowing the ordinand (whether Bishop, priest, or deacon) principally with a power regarding the Blessed Eucharist. The particular power with which this Sacrament endows the priest is that of consecrating the Blessed Eucharist, and, second to this in magnitude, the power to forgive sins. The Council plays down the excellence of the sacramental priesthood: by expressing the priest’s rôle at the Mass rather as presidential; by playing up his teaching office; and by stressing the spiritual priesthood which he shares with all the baptized.


We shall accordingly now briefly look at Council texts concerning:


     a)  his presidency;

     b)  his teaching office; and

     c)  the spiritual priesthood.



a)       Presidency


i) ‘… the assembly over which the priest presides…’ (PO 5);

ii) ‘… the priest presides over the assembly…’ (SC 33).


Corresponding to the erroneous view that the Mass is a communal gathering rather than a sacrifice, as we shall seen in the section on the ‘Assembly Theory’ in the next chapter, the priest is here presented not as sacrificial priest but as ‘president’ over the assembly.



b)    The Teaching Office

ii)‘These men [the priests in the early Church] held… the sacred power of order, that of offering sacrifice and forgiving sins’ (PO 2); 

ii) ‘The purpose… for which priests are consecrated… is that they should be made sharers… in  Christ’s priesthood, and, by carrying out sacred functions, act as ministers of him…’ [in the administration of the sacraments] (PO 5);

iii)  ‘in the most blessed Eucharist is contained the entire spiritual wealth of the church… the Eucharist appears as the source and summit of all preaching of the Gospel…’ (PO 5).


iv) ‘it is the first task of priests (primum habent officium)… to preach the Gospel to all’ (PO 4);


Text (i) re-affirms the doctrine of the Council of Trent on the priesthood [1] : ‘… the power delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering the Body and Blood, as also of forgiving and retaining sins’; text (ii) gives pre-eminence to the priestly office of sanctification; while text (iii) gives it to the Eucharist in particular. These three texts are then orthodox in their teaching.


Text (iv), shortly preceding the orthodox text (ii) above, suggests, in contrast to the other three texts, that preaching is the priest’s primary function. Its phrase ‘first task’ (or primum officium) can of course here be understood in an orthodox manner as ‘first chronologically’, that is in order to prepare people for the sacraments by Faith, but it is more readily understood as meaning ‘first in importance’ in direct contradiction of text (i) 2 .


In conclusion, text (iv) concerning preaching introduces unclarity and incoherence into the Council’s teaching on the priestly ministry.




In the section on the Church Hierarchy in the first chapter and in the sections on the Paschal Mystery and the Assembly theory in the last chapter, we have shown the Council’s predilection for the common, merely spiritual priesthood of the whole faithful over the sacramental priesthood.



         2.     Priestly Celibacy


‘Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven was recommended by Christ the Lord (Mt 19.12)… and has always been held in especially high esteem by the church as a feature of priestly life… It is true that it is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature (non exigitur quidem sacerdotio suapte natura)…’ (PO 16). 


Here the praise given to priestly celibacy is qualified, and thereby also dampened, by the last phrase with its obscure reference to ‘the nature of priesthood’. Is the Council here pointing to the fact that  celibacy is not required for the validity of the reception and exercise of the priesthood, as is seen in the Eastern Church ( - although even in the Eastern Church it is of course required for religious and for Bishops), thereby opening a door to dispense with it in the future?


One would have to reply to such an argument, that the Church views things not according to rationalist arguments such as these, but according to Tradition, both written and oral. Church Tradition concerning celibacy is that it is more appropriate to priesthood than marriage is. We refer to the words of Our Blessed Lord referred to in the text above: ‘He that can take, let him take it’ and to the words of St. Paul (1. Cor. 33): ‘He that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world: how he might please his wife. And he is divided’.


To this traditional Church teaching we may add the following theological proof: Since the consecrated person is the person united most closely to Christ, it is appropriate that (s)he must lead the best and most blessed life that there is, which is the celibate life, for the Council of Trent declares dogmatically: ‘If any-one should say that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in marriage, Anathema sit.’ (s.24 can.10).


A number of Council Fathers had wished to have the requirement of priestly celibacy lifted, but Pope Paul VI in a letter to Cardinal Tisserant told the Council not to discuss the issue, stating that this ‘ancient, sacred, and Providential’ law should not only be maintained, but also re-inforced [3].



        3.    Priestly Formation


We shall here examine the following themes:


a)     Authority over the Seminary;

b)    The Secularization of the Seminary;

c)     Philosophical Formation



a)      Authority over the Seminary


‘In each country and rite… a specific ‘Program of priestly formation’ shall be established by the Episcopal conference, to be reviewed at suitable times and approved by the holy See, so that the general rules may be adapted to the special circumstances of time and place…’ (Optatam Totius 1)


Archbishop Garrone had made a violent attack on the Congregation of Seminaries in the Council, proposing to entrust the formation of seminarians to the Episcopal Conferences [4] which clearly influenced the abovementioned text. The result of this provision was that Rome was to a large degree to lose control over priestly formation which from now on was to be subject to considerable variation, in other words, in the present doctrinal climate, to a considerable risk of heterodoxy. Similar remarks may be made, mutatis mutandis, for the abovementioned delegation of responsibility for the liturgy to diocesan organisms.



b)      Secularization of the Seminary


Cardinal Doepfner asserted: ‘Priestly sanctity is insufficient. The priest must fit in with the times…  Cardinal Suenens likewise, after having expressed his agreement with Cardinals Léger and Döpfner for their proposal to diminish the role of St. Thomas in seminary formation (cf. the following section), insisted on the reform of seminaries, particularly to prevent them from being ‘isolated from the external world’[5].


i) ‘Projects designed to effect this [the theoretical and practical formation in the proper use of the media], especially among the young, should be encouraged and multiplied in catholic schools at all levels, in seminaries, in lay apostolate…’ (Inter Mirifica 16)


Here no mention is made of the moral dangers to the young in the use of the media. These dangers range from curiosity and waste of time to mortal sins of impurity. The dangers are clearly all the graver for young children and for seminarians. The latter also need to maintain a spirit of recollection and separation from the world.


ii) ‘… organizations for vocations… should… co-ordinate all pastoral action for fostering vocations…, not neglecting whatever suitable help may be found in the insights of modern psychology and sociology.’ (OT 2)


iii) ‘The principles of Christian education are to be religiously observed and appropriately supplemented by the latest findings of sound psychology and pedagogy.’ (OT 11 cf. also OT 20)


Ingenuous trust is shown in the ‘insights’ and ‘findings’ (as though infallibly true) of modern psychology, without taking into consideration, or warning against, its typically so profoundly anti-Catholic metaphysical and moral pre-suppositions. Such a spirit led in the postconciliar years to the introduction of psychological programs of Freudian inspiration into many seminaries and religious communities, sometimes even with the deliberate intention of destroying them.


iv) ‘Study courses in the minor seminary are to be such that the students can continue them elsewhere without disadvantage should they choose another state of life.’ (OT 3)


This provision effectively means that study courses can only be of a secular nature.


v) ‘Since doctrinal training should aim not at mere communication of ideas, but at a genuine and profound formation of students, teaching methods need to be revised…’ (OT 17).


As Canonicus points out [6], this is an accusation typical of those who desire to move away from traditional pedagogical methods, such as memorization and the systematic presentation of knowledge, in the direction of experimentation and reform. We add that a revision of teaching methods can easily be made to encompass a revision of teaching material.



c)    Philosophical Formation


Historical Background


In his encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1879, Pope Leo XIII had proposed Thomism as the basis of higher philosophical studies, describing it as the primary and necessary response to the philosophical errors which were menacing the very foundations of the Catholic Faith and of natural morality itself. On the purely philosophical level, the ‘historico-critical’ method adopted by the Modernists was dominated by the principle of ‘immanence’ or ‘idealism’ which regards human consciousness as the source of, and criterion for, being. This method directly opposes Thomistic philosophy, radically altering the very notion of ‘truth’, ‘religion’, and ‘Revelation’.


In his Syllabus Errorum, Bl. Pius IX condemned as Error 13: ‘The method and principles, according to which the ancient scholastic Doctors cultivated Theology, are in no way suited to the necessities of our times and to the progress of sciences.’


In Pascendi, St. Pius X condemned the philosophy of immanence and prescribed scholastic philosophy as the foundation of sacred studies, understanding it principally (‘praecipue’) as that of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the document Doctoris Angelici of 1914, he further expressly ordered that scholastic philosophy should be made the foundation of sacred studies, specifying once again that he meant the philosophy of St. Thomas, a foundation ‘upon which all science of things natural and divine should be placed’ He ordered categorically (Nos volumus, jubemus, praecipimus) that the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas be re-introduced as text for studies. In the following month, the penultimate of his life, he ordained that the Sacred Congregation for Studies published the 24 Thomistic theses that, according to the same Sovereign Pontiff, contained the ‘principia et pronuntiata majora doctrinae S. Thomae[7].


In the Code of Canon Law of 1917, Pope Benedict XV required all Professors of philosophy and theology to teach the method and doctrine of the Angelic Doctor, and in Humani Generis of 1950 [8], Pope Pius XII stated that the Church demands that future priests be instructed in philosophy ‘according to the method, doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor’.


The Council debate on priestly formation brought to light profound divergences on the part of the Council Fathers between the progressive and traditional views. Cardinal Léger attacked St. Thomas and the philosophia perennis, affirming: ‘Wretched the man who has only one book! Wretched also the Church who has only one doctor! …’ Cardinal Döpfner announced that he was in full agreement with him on St. Thomas. Monsignor Staffa, by contrast, Secretary of the Congregation of the Seminaries, later affirmed: ‘St. Thomas is not a limit, but a light-house. We must conserve, cost what it may, the fundamental principles of St. Thomas enumerated in the encyclical Humani Generis[9]. A few days prior to the final vote on the document concerning priestly formation, Cardinal Ruffini was to complain to Pope Paul VI about the scarce references to traditional Magisterium and to Thomistic doctrine that it contained [10]. And indeed the text on seminary formation was to bear a character strongly opposed to Tradition.



Analysis of Texts


‘Philosophical subjects should be taught in such a way that students [i.e. seminarians] are first of all gradually led to a solid and coherent knowledge of human nature, the world and God, guided by the philosophical tradition of lasting value [here a footnote refers readers to the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII]. At the same time they should take account of modern philosophical developments, particularly those of influence in their own country, as well as recent progress in the sciences, so that with a proper understanding of the present age, they will be equipped for dialogue with people of their time. The history of philosophy should be taught in a way that enables students… to hold fast to elements proved to be true and recognize and refute the roots of error’ (OT 15).


This text is partly positive and partly negative. It is positive in that it takes objective truth as an ideal, proposing traditional philosophical teaching on man, the world, and God; as well as instruction in the history of philosophy to enable the students to distinguish between philosophical truth and falsehood.


The positive part of the text is, however, cast into the shade by its following negative features:


-         It makes no reference to St. Thomas, the universally acknowledged Master of traditional philosophy, despite the explicit and insistent instructions of St. Pius X concerning philosophical formation, their codification in the Code of Canon Law of 1917, and the strictures of Pius XII;

-         It requires from the seminarians a knowledge of ‘modern philosophical developments’ and ‘recent progress in the sciences’ over and above whatever they may have learnt in the history of philosophy, as though philosophy were simply a discipline like the natural sciences, developing over time, and providing ever more adequate models for understanding reality. Traditional philosophy, by contrast, is a closed system containing the ultimate principles for the adequate understanding of natural and, (in as far as is possible) of supernatural truth as well;

-         The Council, in envisaging the study not only of Tradition and of the history of philosophy, but also of ‘modern developments’, here suggests that traditional philosophy is insufficient for understanding reality, and must take its place on equal terms as an object of study with modern and contemporary philosophy - as has in fact happened in seminaries subsequent to the Council;

-         In proposing that seminarians should acquire knowledge of the philosophy influencing their own country and present times and in encouraging them to ‘dialogue’, it favors scepticism in regard to objective truth. For it insinuates that objective truth cannot fully be attained, but only a truth relative to given places and times; and / or that philosophy does not attain, or does not fully attain, objective truth; and / or that it is not a purpose of priestly formation to come to know, and to communicate, the Truth;

-         It adopts a humanistic stance reminiscent of idealist, subjectivist modern philosophy in describing the material of philosophy in the order: ‘human nature… God’ rather than in the reverse order, as St Thomas does in the Summa.




          4.      The Ministry and Life of Priests


Rather than subjecting the whole document Presbyterorum Ordinis to scrutiny, we limit ourselves to several texts which we take as representative of its spirit.


The texts relate to:


a)     The Priestly Ministry; and

b)    The Priest and the World.



a)  The Priestly Ministry


i)‘ … priests are especially bound to attain perfection… this sacred council…issues the strongest appeal to all priests to strive always by the use of all suitable means commended by the church towards that greater holiness that will make them daily more effective instruments for the service of God’s people.’(PO 12).


ii) ‘Priests are to be sincere in their appreciation and promotion of lay people’s dignity… they should also have an unfailing respect for the just liberty which belongs to everybody in civil society. They should be willing to listen to lay people… and recognize their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able to recognise along with them the signs of the times… special attention ought to be devoted to those graces by which a considerable number of people are attracted to greater heights in the spiritual life… Priests should bear in mind the guidelines on ecumenism, and should not forget those Christians who do not enjoy complete ecclesiastical union with us.’ (PO 9)


These texts, just like the last text we have examined, are partly positive and partly negative, whereby the negative outweighs the positive element. Text (i) is positive in calling priests to holiness - just as  the Council calls every-one to holiness [11]; text (ii) is positive in exhorting them to guide the faithful spiritually. They are negative in otherwise encouraging priests to interact with the laity on a purely natural level.


This naturalist attitude comes to the fore in the Council’s silence on the Church’s duty to evangelize. The words ‘dignity’ and ‘liberty… in civil society’ in text (i) recall the language used by the Council to justify religious liberty. The Council thus seems here to be demanding respect for men of other religions; it later also demands respect for non-Catholic Christians (in accordance with ‘ecumenical guidelines’) - a respect which in both cases precludes concern for the ultimate good of such men.


A similar, naturalist attitude is also recommended in relation to the laity in general. The Council states in text (i) that priests should learn from them, just as it calls Catholics to seek the Truth together with ‘others’[12].


The phrase ‘signs of the times’ that we read in text (ii) (together with the phrase ‘our times’) may stand as a leitmotif of the Council, both of its texts and of the speeches in the aula; it derives from the book ‘Une école de théologie, le Saulchoir[13], an attack on Antimodernism, and put on the Index five years after its publication. This book calls theologians to read as ‘signs of the times’ the manifestation of Faith in history, and in particular the Christ of Faith in the Christ of History [14]. This call seems to encourage a new, naturalist form of Christianity adapted to the times such as has been presented in this section - a form no longer requiring the possession or practice of the Faith. 



b)      The Priest and the World


i) ‘Priests can learn, by brotherly and friendly association with each other and with other people, to cultivate human values and appreciate created goods as gifts of God.’ (PO 17).


We note that the priest as alter Christus is indeed, after the model of Our Lord Himself, a brother and friend of the faithful; but he is primarily a father as the one who gives them divine life in Baptism, the Holy Eucharist and in all the other sacraments: indeed this is why the priest is called ‘Father’ in the first place. The emphasis on brotherhood and friendship encourages priests to cultivate worldly relations with laymen rather than to adopt that prudent and modest distance from them which the Church has always prescribed for the clergy.


The Catechism of Trent ends its treatment of the priesthood by declaring that the priest should always act in a way that is grave and worthy of respect. The Father of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, writes [15]: ‘Nor indeed is there any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfillment of the ancient curse: ‘As with the people, so with the priest.’


Clearly priests can, and anyway do, cultivate ‘human values’ and appreciate ‘created goods’, but it is unclear why the Council should wish to encourage this, if not to re-inforce the purely natural vision of the priesthood illustrated in the texts just examined and in the texts quoted in the chapters above.


ii) ‘Secular culture and even sacred science are advancing at an unprecedented rate in our time. Priests are therefore urged constantly to strive to attain an adequate knowledge of things divine and human. In this way they will be better equipped for dialogue with their contemporaries.’ (PO 19).


Here priests are urged to familiarize themselves with ‘sacred science’. But what can this ‘sacred science’ be, if not that current of Neo-Modernism which was so rapidly developing at the time? Professor de Mattei describes this current as ‘the legacy of modernism’: the biblical, liturgical, philosophical - theological movements of which the Nouvelle Theologie was the expression, together with the ‘ecumenical movement’ into which the other movements flowed.’ [16]

In text (ii), then, Neo-Modernism is dubbed as ‘sacred science’, and ‘sacred science’, in its turn and in conjunction with ‘secular culture’, dubbed as the knowledge of ‘things divine and human’ – the very phrase applied by St. Pius X to the philosophy of St. Thomas [17].


iii) ‘… the church’s ministers… in the midst of this world feel themselves estranged from it and are anxiously seeking suitable methods and words by which they may be able to communicate with it.’ (PO 22)


Any-one with a minimum knowledge of the Faith who enters the seminary in view of the priesthood, knows that the World is the enemy of man. He prepares himself to confront it not with anxious perplexity, but with calm, study, and asceticism. Canonicus [18] comments on text (iii) and the similar text in PO 14, by saying that it was not a spirit of anguish, but rather a spirit of tepidity that had entered the clergy in the 1950’s, tending towards a spirit of openness, or of relaxation, in regard to the World; he adds that anxiety, or rather existential Angst, was rather the part of proponents of the Nouvelle Theologie such as the conciliar experts with their doubts about the Faith and their moral compromises with the World. We add that the spirit of tepidity and the spirit of Angst are simply different manifestations of Fallen Nature, the former characterizing an earlier stage of man’s decline than the latter.



Conclusion to Section B


The Council demeans the priest in three ways:


a)     by stressing not his intrinsic dignity, but his service of the people and the Episcopacy [19];

b)    by stressing not his sacramental dignity, but rather the common, spiritual dignity that he shares with the laity as the purported ‘president’ over the assembly, as teacher, and in other ways [20];

c)     by assimilating him to the layman morally:


-         by representing him as their brother and friend;

-         by attributing to him a largely naturalist ministry;

-         by desacralizing his studies in and after the seminary; and

-         by opening to him the door to marriage [21].


We see in short a naturalization, or ‘de-supernaturalization’ of the essence, and then of the activity, of the priesthood. It is true at the same time that the Council emphasizes the sanctity of the priest, but relatively little is said of the sanctification of the people to which it is oriented.




[1] s. 23, ch.1, can. 1

[2] A similar remark may be made concerning the two ends of marriage: placing the finality of ‘love’ before that of ‘procreation’ the Council suggests that (sexual) love is first in importance rather than just first chronologically.

[3] RdM VI 10

[4] RdM V 12

[5] RdM  V 12

[6] Sinossi p. 136

[7] RdM I 5

[8]  s.31

[9] RdM V 12

[10] RdM VI 10

[11] chapter 1 (c)

[12] chapter 1, 2 (b) above

[13] by Father Chenu OP, 1937

[14] RdM I 5

[15] Oration II 82, cf. Hosea 4.9

[16] RdM II 2

[17] quoted in section 3 (c) above

[18] Sinossi p. 137

[19] ch.1

[20] ch 1, 6, & 7

[21] ch.6