Priesthood for All?

Review by Garwood Anderson

The Priesthood for All Believers offers an extended remedy for clericalism, but it is not a prescription for lay ministry. The book’s most important phrase is in the title — “The priesthood for all believers,” an obvious but significant play on the more familiar Protestant phrase. This is a book primarily addressed to ordained persons and about ordained ministry — one that strives to resist clericalism.

Contrary to certain possible expectations, combating “clericalism” will not consist in a diminution of the priesthood as a sacerdotal order, or of holy orders more generally, nor with some vague notion of empowering the laity. Rather, clericalism will be combated through the priesthood, and holy orders more generally, reconceived as “anti-clericalist.”

That much is promising. What is called “clericalism” could have been an easy target, admitting any possible complaint that might be leveled against clergy — fair or unfair — and it is likely that the criticism will not only be unfair, but simplistic. It will often be simplistic because a criticism of “clericalism” often does not begin with the constitutive necessity of clerical orders for the existence, to say nothing of the flourishing, of the Church.

Cuff’s book does not follow these more convenient narratives. Instead, he advances a strong case for clerical orders as necessary and intrinsically good; he does not imagine a Church apart from them since, as he understands it, the clerical orders are a necessary part of the answer rather than the problem.

If I were to summarize his thesis, it would be that clericalism is best averted when each ecclesial vocation understands and is enabled to exercise the particularity of its own vocation. Most distinctly, Cuff resists the diminishing of clerical orders with the facile assertion of the priesthood of each believer. He discerns this as its own version of clericalism and as a mistaken individualizing of the corporate vocation of the Church.

Instead, Cuff avers, clericalism is subverted not by the elimination of difference but when each order is given its due in its particularity as a vocation in the larger ecclesial ecosystem. Critical to his argument is that the ecclesial priesthood is derived uniquely from the priesthood of Christ and is not to be thought of as a repristinating of a cultic priesthood or an imitation of other ancient religious analogues.

Thus, Cuff asserts a maximalist account of Christ’s priesthood, not simply from the Letter to the Hebrews — as is to be expected — or by means of an ex post facto theologizing — as is the custom — but from the ministry of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. That Jesus has taken up the priesthood into himself demonstrates that it is not a patrilineal privilege, but self-renunciating in character. Thus, Cuff norms the exercise of priesthood in the particularity of Jesus Christ, both victim and priest. The “unlikelihood” of the priesthood of Christ as narrated in the Gospels spares the Christian priesthood any false analogies or cultic extrapolations not grounded in the unique — but then shared — character of Christ’s priesthood.

In a clarifying chapter on the “priesthood of all believers,” Cuff discerns the excess and failure of the trope. While qualifying and partially excusing Luther’s claim for its polemical context, Cuff’s anti-clericalist agenda does not resist the notion of a priesthood of all believers. Rightly, Cuff understands that the New Testament concept of the people of God as a “priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5; or “royal priesthood,” 2:9; or “kingdom of priests,” Rev. 1:6; cf. 5:10; 20:6) is not a distributed, individual, universal charism, but a characterization of the people of God in its relation between God and the world, not the making of every person a priest unto God.

Indeed, Cuff wishes to say that the most obvious anti-clericalist remedies are in fact reinforcements of clericalism. It is no remedy either to eliminate clerical orders or to “clericialize” everyone by a facile appeal to a “priesthood of all believers.” This is simply to reinforce an assumed intrinsic superiority of the clerical orders that will invariably devolve with its own hierarchy worked out on other grounds.

This is perhaps the place to note that Cuff is not especially clear about what he means by “clericalism” or even what liabilities it carries. His diagnoses and solutions imply that clericalism amounts to elitism or privilege in an ecclesial key, that is, especially if lay persons can just as easily be guilty of it as clerics.

I suspect that this underlying flat definition is what keeps this study from living up to its promise. It is not clear to me what it is we are trying to “fix,” which in turn is why the prescriptions recommended awaken no zeal for their implementation. What are the failures of clericalism: an authoritarian clerical order? insularity and a failure of accountability? a passive and unformed laity? the perceived incapacity of lay persons to lead and minister? the undervaluing of edifying ministries that are not sacerdotal? I would say “yes” to all of these and more besides, but I don’t know what it is besides elitism and privilege that troubles Cuff.

Some observations may help to illustrate: although there is reference to bishops, there is no treatment of their function or status. If one didn’t know better, one might simply conclude that they are merely priests with administrative responsibilities. That there is a definitional hierarchy or that the episcopate is historically constitutive of the Church is not evident.

Meanwhile, in the substantial chapter on the diaconate (“The Priestliness of the Diaconate”), we learn, with no little repetition, that deacons are not defined by “menial service” (following the work of J.N. Collins, Diakonia) but are “go-betweens between the margins and the center.” In other words, the sine qua non of the diaconate is the egalitarian ministry of leveling.

Similarly, in a chapter on anti-clericalism and anti-racism, we learn that racism is not so much an analogue for clericalism as an overlapping reality, that opposing clericalism participates itself in anti-racism (which is but one system of marginalization, along with misogyny, homo-, bi-, and transphobia, and economic class prejudice).

In a chapter on “Worship and Priesthood,” Cuff argues that the private prayers of priest and deacon during the Eucharist assure that Christ and not the ministers are the focus of the worship. While this seems a salutary reminder to those who preside and serve at the Mass, it was hard for me to see how this observation structurally addresses the issue of clericalism — though, in fairness, the case for an ad orientem celebration as anti-clerical was welcome.

For me, however, the biggest disappointment is that nowhere are we encouraged to think at any length about the ministry of the laity. In fairness, this may simply be mistaken expectations — it may not be fair to critique a book against the one the author did not intend to write.

Even so, it would surely have helped the anti-clericalist case to offer a compelling vision for lay formation and ministry. I take it that it is everywhere assumed, but it is only stated in the most general terms of being “empowered” to engage the “scandalous particularity of one’s vocation.” I can only think that a “priesthood for all believers” would be that much more appealing if the ministry of those believers was on offer in practical terms.

In the end, The Priesthood for All Believers is to be commended for the path it takes, even if it is not clear that it reaches its destination. Perhaps a sequel?

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is dean of Nashotah House and professor of New Testament.


Online Archives