Was Christ a Layman?

At a 3-day Retreat for Priests held in the diocese of Rochester, N.Y., the featured speaker, a priest, repeatedly referred to Our Blessed Savior as "a layman." Alleging a "new prophetic hermeneutic of Jesus of Nazareth" who was "a layman reinterpreting [the] priesthood," the retreat master denied that in the New Testament there was any essential difference between the common priesthood of the laity and the ordained ministerial priesthood. Moreover, in the New Testament there was "no division between secular and sacred" as we have today in the Catholic Church which still clearly distinguishes between the laity and the ordained. In this Protestantizing hermeneutic, all the laity are priests and all are ordained "to do the gospel."

Surely some of the priests present must have been astonished at such a blatant deformation of traditional Catholic doctrine concerning Christ the Eternal High Priest and the essential difference between laity and those consecrated to God in Holy Orders. Certainly, the Second Vatican Council contradicts such distortion of fundamental teachings held by the Church since apostolic times. For example, Lumen Gentium unequivocally declared:

In virtue of the sacrament of Orders, after the image of Christ, the supreme and eternal priest (Heb. 5: 1-10; 7:24; 9:11-28), [priests] are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate the divine worship as true priests of the New Testament... It is in the eucharistic cult or in the eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that they exercise in a supreme degree their sacred functions; there... in the Sacrifice of the Mass they make present and apply, until the coming of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering Himself once and for all a spotless Victim to the Father.
(L.G., n.28)

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men (cf. Heb. 5:1-5) made the new people ‘a kingdom of priests to God, His Father’ (Apoc. 1-6; cf. 5:9-10)... Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered to one another: each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic Sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people.
(L.G., n.10)

The Second Vatican Council reaffirms the Apostolic Tradition that laity do not share in:

"the divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry [that] is exercised in different degrees by those who even from apostolic times have been called bishops, priests and deacons."
(L.G., n.28)

That Christ was only a layman who refused to establish a cultic sacerdotal ministry in His Church is an aberration that is found in several contemporary writers. Certain neo-Modernists similarly allege that Our Lord distanced Himself from the title of "priest," having abolished the Jewish priesthood with all its cultic and ritual sacrifices. Even where St. Paul referred to Christ being our "High Priest," Our Lord only exercised that priesthood which He imparted in equal and common measure to all His baptized disciples. As Fr. William J. Bausch argued in his "A New Look at the Sacraments" (page 248), "Nowhere in the entire New Testament is the word used of a Christian individual, even of any of the apostles." Thus, those we commonly call ‘priests’ are essentially no different from laymen.

One has only to read standard Catholic works on the Priesthood to acknowledge how foreign and alien to Catholic doctrine is the "Christ the Layman" thesis and the consequent effort to devalue the sacred priesthood instituted by Christ Himself at the Last Supper. In his well-known classic "Dogma For The Layman", Jesuit theologian Fr. Thomas Higgins wrote appropriately:

"His function of mediator Jesus fulfills as Prophet, Advocate, King and priest of the human race... Above everything else Jesus is The Priest. A priest is a public person called by God to act on behalf of society as its mediator with God, especially by offering Him the supreme worship of sacrifice. According to the Council of Ephesus, "the divine Scripture records that Christ was made high priest and apostle of our faith... when He was made flesh and a man like us." At the moment of the Incarnation God said to Him: "Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech" (Heb, 5:6). His priesthood is eternal, and He does not serve an earthly but "the true tabernacle which the Lord has created and not man" (Heb. 8:2). "He has obtained a superior ministry, in proportion as He is mediator of a superior covenant, enacted on the basis of superior promises" (Heb 8:6). While the blood of bulls and goats sealed the Old Covenant, the New Covenant is sealed by the blood of the High Priest Himself. Finally, the sacrifices offered by Aaron's priesthood were ineffectual, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. "But Jesus, having offered one sacrifice for sins... has perfected forever those who are sanctified."

"...By offering sacrifice as the priest of the race, Jesus fulfilled the grand purpose of the Incarnation. It is this one offering which redeems mankind, that is, restores the race to its original supernatural community of life with God."
(pages 83-84)

In continuity with the whole of Catholic Tradition, both East and West, such great theologians as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Fr. Clement Dillenschneider, C.Ss.R., and more recently Jean Galot, S.J., demonstrate in scholarly works that Christ was a Priest upon assuming human flesh. As Man He was anointed and consecrated Sovereign Priest of the New Law of Love in the Incarnation. From the moment of His conception in the womb of His Virgin Mother, He was an authentic Priest whose mission was to expiate the sins of fallen mankind by His redeeming death on Calvary. His entire life and mission was sacerdotal. By virtue of the Hypostatic Union (the union of the divine and human natures of Christ in the unity of one Person), the Man Jesus is not only the Son of God but He is also the Eternal High Priest of the New Covenant. It is true that He distanced Himself from the Jewish levitical priesthood (of the Order of Aaron), but it is also clear that He was establishing another priesthood, transcendent and more sublime in nature, a priesthood of the Order of Melchisedech. Jesus expanded the reality of the priesthood by assuring that the Sacrifice of Calvary would be perpetuated across the centuries by a priestly ministry exercised by men who were to hold in the community of the faithful the sacred power of Order, that of offering sacrifice and forgiving sins, and were to exercise the priestly office publicly on behalf of men in the name of Christ:

.... The priesthood of priests, while presupposing the sacraments of initiation, is nevertheless conferred by its own particular sacrament. Through that sacrament priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the Head.
(Vatican II's Decree On Ministry And Life Of Priests, n.2)

Contrary to the falsehood that Christ was a "layman," the truth is that the priesthood of Christ has its beginning at the Incarnation. By the Hypostatic Union Christ's humanity received a true priestly consecration. As the Eternal High Priest of the New Law, Christ fulfilled His mission to raise men from the fallen state resulting from Original Sin and re-establish them in the Divine friendship they had lost. As Priest of the New Covenant He offered to God worship and adoration worthy of the Divine Majesty, satisfied for the sins of mankind on the Tree of the Cross, and attained the full reality of His "everlasting priesthood" (Heb. 7:24) when He entered heaven to intercede for us as our "great High Priest" granting grace and mercy (Heb. 5:14-16). Through His ministerial priesthood, Christ also continues to exercise His Priesthood by making His Body and Blood available to His members in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

What an awesome gift to His Church is the Holy Mass as Sacrifice and Sacrament. What Pope John Paul II has termed the "marvel of the Eucharist" is made possible only by the existence of a sacred priesthood instituted by Christ and acting in His Name and with His sacred power.

Current assaults on the Catholic priesthood clearly seek to secularize and profane it. They evidence a loss of faith in both Christ and His Church.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage