DPC LogoSmall“In Essence and Not Only in Degree”:

Ontological Difference between the Communal and Ministerial Priesthoods

By Mark F. Fischer

One of the most difficult texts for seminarians and seminary educators is the description of the ministerial priesthood in Lumen Gentium 10.  Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church distinguished between the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood and the common priesthood of faithful Christians.  It said that the two priesthoods “differ from one another in essence and not only in degree.”[1] This text is difficult for us educators because it appears to separate the common priesthood from the hierarchical or ministerial priesthood.  Some might wrongly conclude that the ministerial priesthood is more important than the common priesthood or that its members are higher in dignity.

This contradicts the promise of Christ that he came not to be served but to serve.  A false interpretation of the phrase “different in essence and not only in degree” might lead to the conclusion that the ministerial priesthood alone is real and that the common priesthood is merely metaphorical.  It might suggest that ordination to the priesthood confers a power directly from Christ, not mediated by the Church, a power to be exercised independently of the Christian community.  Such mistaken interpretations can hinder a seminary program of formation.

A scholarly interpretation of the phrase from Vatican II about the difference between the two priesthoods was published in 1996 by Father Melvin Michalski, a priest and seminary professor from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  Michalski’s book – a version of his 1986 dissertation at the Leopold-Franzens University at Innsbruck – analyzed the origin of Lumen Gentium 10 and subsequent discussions by U.S. and continental theologians.[2] The book spurred me to reflect on the phrase “difference in essence and not only in degree” in light of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation of 1992, Pastores dabo vobis.[3] I believe that it is as easy to misinterpret Pastores dabo vobis on the relation between the two priesthoods as it is to misinterpret Lumen Gentium.

To make this point I would like to analyze three passages in Pastores dabo vobis that easily can be misinterpreted as separating the ordained priesthood from the common priesthood.  The passages can be misconstrued so as to suggest the following:

  • Pastores, no. 12: The priest alone is configured to Christ, and that is the priest’s primary relationship.  He serves the community, but this is his secondary relationship, separable from his relation to Christ.
  • Pastores, no. 19: The priest enjoys true communion with other members of the hierarchical and ministerial priesthood.  He merely cooperates with the laity and does not enjoy a communion with them.
  • Pastores, no. 26: Because the priest-pastor shares in the authority of Christ the shepherd, and rules over the laity, his flock, he is not only ontologically different from it but superior to it.

I will show how these misinterpretations can arise from a reading of Pastores dabo vobis, and then suggest how to interpret the passages more correctly.  My point is not to cast doubt on the value of the Apostolic Exhortation for seminary educators, but to heighten awareness of the ways in which Pastores can be construed.  This will enable us to guard against misinterpretations.

  1. Configuration and Service

The first problematic assertion in Pastores emerges in its description of the identity of the priest.  The priest, we read, is “configured” to Christ so as to serve the Church.  The text then contrasts the ordained priest’s relationship to Jesus Christ and the Church:

Reference to the Church is therefore necessary, even if not primary, in defining the identity of the priest.  As a mystery, the Church is essentially related to Jesus Christ.”[4]

This passage calls to mind the Vatican II debate over the difference between the priest and the laity, a distinction which Pope Pius XII had characterized before the council as “not only different in degree, but in essence.”[5] The passage from Pastores makes it clear that the ordained priest relates primarily to Christ, and only in a secondary way to the Church.

How are we to understand the subordinate position of the church?  Why is Pastores so adamant that the priest merely serves the church but is configured to Christ?  One can form a conjecture based on no. 11 of the document.  There Pope John Paul spoke of the “crisis of priestly identity.”  The crisis, he wrote, “was based on an erroneous understanding of – and sometimes even a conscious bias against – the doctrine of the conciliar magisterium.”  What was this erroneous understanding?  John Paul II does not explain, but the pope links the erroneous understanding to “the great number of defections experienced then by the church.”  In other words, many priests left active ministry because they misunderstood, or had a bias against, the magisterium of bishops.  They had sided with “the church” (in the popular sense) and against the magisterium.

The 1990 Synod, reflecting on the loss of priests, sought to overcome that misunderstanding and bias.  Discussing the loss, the Synod Fathers “showed an awareness of the specific ontological bond which unites the priesthood to Christ the high priest and good shepherd” (Pastores, no. 11).  If the priests who resigned had had an adequate appreciation of the ontological bond between themselves and Christ, the pope implies, they might not have misunderstood the magisterium or cultivated a bias against it.  In other words, Pastores is suggesting a cause and effect.  Strengthen the bond to Christ (cause), and the bond with the magisterium grows stronger (effect).  The ontological bond between the priest and Christ links him to the magisterium as well.  Weaken the bond and the bias against the magisterium grows – and priests may eventually withdraw from ministry.  So Pope John Paul’s strategy in Pastores was to exhort formators to cement a strong relationship between seminarians and bishops.

This strong relationship is praiseworthy.  It can be misinterpreted, however, as driving a wedge between priests and people.  One can almost imagine seminarians being forced into a false choice about where they place their loyalty – to their people or to their bishops.  This is the false choice that seminary educators have to guard against.  The best way to guard against it is to assimilate the Vatican II doctrine of the priesthood.

After the bishops at Vatican II debated the schema De Ecclesia (that later became Lumen Gentium), wrote Michalski, they made several changes intended to affirm the reality of the priesthood of all believers.  For example, they introduced the term “common priesthood” shortly after describing the Church (in Chapter I) as a mystery or sacrament[6] but before describing it (in Chapter III) as a hierarchy.  The two “priesthoods” are forms of participation in Christ.[7] The point of the insertion of the language about the common priesthood, according to Michalski, is to affirm the priestly reality of the entire People of God.  “Only through the interaction of both ministerial and communal priesthoods,” wrote Michalski, “is the full priestly reality of God’s people actualized.”[8] Today’s seminarians must learn the proper relation between the ordained priest and the common priesthood.

Today, when we read Pastores dabo vobis, we have to place it in the Vatican II context.  Yes, the priest is configured to Jesus Christ.  But so are all the Christian people, as Pastores readily states.[9] Since members of both the ministerial and the common priesthood are configured to Christ, service to the Church is not a secondary reality.  It is not a mere consequence of the priest’s primary relationship to Christ, a corollary obligation to a flock wholly separate from the shepherd.  No, it is a service – liturgical, evangelical, and social – to enable the entire priestly people of God to accomplish the “spiritual sacrifice” or offering of their lives to God.[10] Service by the ordained enables the faithful to join their self-sacrifice to the liturgical celebration of Christ’s self-sacrifice.

When Pastores states that “Reference to the Church is therefore necessary, even if not primary” (no. 12), one can wrongly infer that there is a strict separation between the ministerial and the common priesthoods.  One might wrongly assume that only the ordained priest is configured to Christ.  To be sure, only the ordained priest can bring about the Eucharistic sacrifice.  Then he acts in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the head.[11] But he does so in service to the priestly people of God, linking the sacrifices of people’s lives to the sacrifice of Christ.  It would be false to say that he alone acts in persona Christi and members of the common priesthood are not configured to Christ.  That is the interpretation that seminary educators should oppose.

  1. Communion and Cooperation

A second problematic passage occurs in no. 18 of Pastores.  There Pope John Paul II treats the theme of the “new evangelization,” i.e., the re-evangelization of people already baptized.  The new evangelization, he writes, will require priests who embody

a new style of pastoral life, marked by profound communion with the pope, the bishops and other priests, and a fruitful cooperation with the lay faithful, always respecting and fostering the different roles, charisms, and ministeries present within the ecclesial community.[12]

This passage contrasts two forms of relationship.  The first is “communion” with members of the hierarchical priesthood.  The second is “cooperation” with members of the common priesthood.  The implication is that ordained priests should have a more profound relationship (a “communion”) with other ordained priests than with the priesthood of believers (with whom they merely “cooperate”).  Like consorts with like, Pastores seems to say, and ordained priests have more in common with their own.

This interpretation of Pastores no. 18 puts at risk some of the hard-won gains of Vatican II.  One of these gains has to do with the phrase “in persona Christi.”  Vatican II made it clear that the phrase was not meant to separate the Christian faithful from their priestly leaders.  Lumen Gentium 10 put it this way:

Acting in the person of Christ, he [the ordained priest] brings about the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of the people.  For their part, the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist in virtue of their royal priesthood.[13]

To be sure, the ordained priest “brings about” the Eucharistic sacrifice.  He alone has that specifically liturgical role.  But he undertakes that role “in the name of the people.”  He not only represents Christ, but represents them also.  He acts “in persona ecclesiae” as well as “in persona Christi.”[14] Michalski put it this way: “Ultimately what is at stake here is whether Eucharist is seen as the action of the entire Christian community or whether it is viewed as the action of the celebrant, attended by the people.”[15] The position of Vatican II, he argues, is clear.  The faithful join in offering the Eucharist because they are a royal priesthood.

Unfortunately, some[16] have interpreted the phrase “in persona Christi” to mean that the priest who presides at the Eucharist stands apart from the community.  In his office as sacramental presider, he alone is the one who makes Christ present.  He does so because he has received an indelible character in the sacrament of Holy Orders.[17] Christ has taken hold of him and enabled him to represent Christ’s own reality.  One can read this point of view in the text from Pastores, which also seems to put the unity of priest and people into question.  Communion with the hierarchy seems to be deeper than, and to overshadow, cooperation with the laity.

To separate priest and people, however, is to misunderstand their fundamental unity.  Lumen Gentium said that the ordained priest offers the Eucharistic sacrifice “in the name of the people.”  To assume that a disjunction exists between communion with the hierarchy and cooperation with the laity is a mistake and not the intention of Vatican II’s doctrine of the priesthood.  The ordained priest’s act of bringing about the Eucharistic sacrifice is not due to a sacramental institution, indelible character, or priestly activity exercised independently from the common faith of the Church.  Rather, it exists within that faith in order to strengthen it.

Vatican II’s doctrine of the common priesthood had been obscured, in the centuries since the Reformation, by Luther’s teaching about the priesthood of all believers.  In the polemics following the Reformation, Roman Catholicism tended toward an extreme separation between the priesthood and the laity.[18] When we read in Pastores 18 that the priest enjoys communion with the hierarchy and cooperation with the laity, we should be wary of a possible misunderstanding.  Some seminarians may wrongly draw the conclusion that the primary relationship for the ordained is the communion they enjoy with other ordained Christians.  Seminary educators must remind them that the ministerial priest acts in persona ecclesiae as well as in persona Christi.  He represents their common faith, and in that way he makes Christ present.

  1. Shepherd and Flock

A final problematical passage in Pastores dabo vobis utilizes pastoral imagery in the traditional sense.  Priests are good shepherds, it states, and the laity constitutes their flock.  Over them, the priest has authority.  In section number 21, Pastores puts the matter explicitly:

By sacramental consecration the priest is configured to Jesus Christ as head and shepherd of the church, and he is endowed with a “spiritual power” which is a share in the authority with which Jesus Christ guides the church through his Spirit.[19]

This passage strikes two chords with which we are already familiar – those of the sacrament of Orders and of configuration to Christ – and unites them with the themes of shepherding, power, authority, and guidance of the church.  By his ordination, the priest is not just different from lay people.  He has authority over them, the authority of Christ, to whom he has been configured.  Pastores sometimes refers to this authority as “messianic” (no. 14) and “prophetic” (no. 26).  In short, the ordained priest is the shepherd, and the laity comprises his flock.  This can be misconstrued as suggesting that the shepherd is the master of the flock and can deal with it has his personal property.

The Gospel of John echoes the Old Testament practice of using the word shepherd to refer to human and divine leaders.  The Lord God, for example, is a “good shepherd” of people who will “feed his flock like a shepherd” and “gather the lambs in his arms” (Is. 40:10-11).  Human leaders are supposed to be good shepherds, but often fail their flocks (Ez. 34:2-3; Jer. 23:1).  In its use of the word “sheep,” the New Testament uses the word “sheep” to refer mainly to people, characterizing them variously as aimless animals, as objects of a leader’s care, as intelligent recognizers of leadership, and as sacrificial victims like Jesus himself.[20] John’s reference to Jesus as the Good Shepherd may falsely obscure the fact that he is himself a sheep, i.e., the Lamb of God.  It may wrongly suggest that sheep need leaders because they are fundamentally ignorant.  The gospel’s use of pastoral imagery reflects an ancient practice but today is difficult to understand.  The equation of the ordained priesthood with “shepherds” and the common priesthood with “sheep” can be misinterpreted as demeaning to the laity.

How can we avoid misunderstanding the passage from Pastores about the ordained priest as “head and shepherd of the Church”?   One solution is to examine other passages from Pastores that illustrate how the priest is to exercise his authority.  Priestly authority finds its most concrete expression in governance of the parish.  In Pastores 26 we read that the ordained priest has the responsibility of “leading the ecclesial community.”  The text uses a term familiar from Canon Law, the munus regendi or “ministry of governance,” to describe the authority of the priest-pastor:

This munus regendi represents a very delicate and complex duty which, in addition to the attention which must be given to a variety of persons and their vocations, also involves the ability to coordinate all the gifts and charisms which the Spirit inspires in the community, to discern them and to put them to good use for the upbuilding of the church in constant union with the bishops.  (26)

This passage, which indicates how the ordained priest exercise parish leadership, suggests how best to interpret the traditional language about shepherd and flock.  As pastor, the ordained priest supervises a variety of persons whose ecclesial vocations are different from his.  The lay apostolate differs from that of the ordained priest, but the laity has a share in his ministry of governance.  Pastores describes the priest’s leadership in terms of recognizing the people’s gifts, discerning their charisms, and putting them to good use.  The priestly people of God make of their lives a spiritual sacrifice, and the ordained pastor helps them to unite their sacrifice to that of Christ.  To be sure, it is a ministry of governance.  The bishop entrusts the parish to the ordained priest rather than to the community.  But the ordained shepherd is not the owner or master of the flock.  He is rather the one who seeks to coordinate the gifts and charisms of the common priesthood for the sake of the Church.  Close attention to Pastores 26 will provide the context for a correct interpretation of the traditional pastoral language.


The teaching of Lumen Gentium 10, namely, that the ordained priest differs from the faithful “in essence and not only in degree,” easily lends itself to misinterpretation.  It can wrongly suggest:

  • That the ordained priest is the true priest, and the priesthood of the faithful is metaphorical and lesser in dignity;
  • That the ordained priest alone is configured to Christ, from whom he receives an indelible character that elevates him above the laity;
  • That the ordained priest, who brings about the Eucharistic sacrifice by acting in persona Christi, exercises this gift separate from his actions in persona ecclesiae.

Similar misinterpretations can be drawn from Pastores dabo vobis.  Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation can be misread to suggest that the ordained priest relates primarily to Christ, and only secondarily to the Church (no. 12), that the ordained have a true communion only with one another, not with the laity (no. 19), and that the ordained priest (the shepherd) governs by means of a spiritual power that elevates him above his people (the flock) and separates him from them (no. 26).

Seminary educators need to guard against these misreadings of Pastores and offer more adequate interpretations, based on a thorough understanding of the Vatican II doctrine of priesthood.  They can do so in the following ways:

  • Essence and degree.  When discussions arise about the ontological difference between priest and lay person, it is important to affirm that the entire people of God forms a royal priesthood, a people whose spiritual sacrifice the ordained priest serves through his liturgical role as presider.
  • In persona Christi.  To understand the ordained priest’s actions “in persona Christi,” one must also affirm that his actions are simultaneously “in persona ecclesiae.”  The ordained priesthood is not a power to be exercised apart from the faith of the Church, but represents that faith and serves it.
  • Pastor and flock.  The use of the traditional pastoral imagery must be couched in terms of the munus regendi broadly considered, namely, that the ordained priest exercises his authority in service of the common priesthood’s gifts and charisms.

Any document can be misread, even official documents as important as Lumen Gentium and Pastores dabo vobis.  The fact that these documents can be misinterpreted does not lessen their importance.  It requires careful hermeneutics.  The worst thing that the seminary educator can do is pretend naively that the meaning of these documents is self-evident.  A critical and nuanced reading of these documents serves the cause of priestly formation.  Seminary formators should emphasize that the ordained priesthood exists, not to separate itself from lay Catholics, but to unite the spiritual sacrifices of a priestly people with the sacrifice of Christ.

[1] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, Nov. 21, 1964), no. 10, trans. by Colman O’Neill, OP, in Vatican Council II, The Vatican Collection: Vatican Council II, vol. 1, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, new revised edition (hereafter: Vatican Council II), Austin Flannery, General Editor (New York: Costello Publishing, fourth printing, 1998), p. 361.

[2] Melvin Michalski, The Relationship between the Universal Priesthood of the Baptized and the Ministerial Priesthood of the Ordained in Vatican II and in Subsequent Theology: Understanding “Essentia et non Gradu Tantum,” Lumen Gentium No. 10 (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Mellen University Press, 1996).  Of the three “findings” listed by Michalski in his Preface, the third is especially relevant: “Ministerial priesthood exists to evoke the priestly life of the faithful.  Ordained priesthood is strictly speaking a relational reality; its context is the community of believers.  It exists for the sake of others.  The words of Lumen Gentium, No. 10, essentia et non gradu tantum emphasize ordained priesthood’s essentially ministerial function.”

[3] John Paul II, I Will Give You Shepherds (Pastores dabo vobis, March 25, 1992), Apostolic Exhortation following the October 1990 Synod of Bishops on the theme of “The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day,” text and format from Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1997).  Pastores quotes the phrase from Lumen Gentium at no. 17.

[4] Ibid., no. 12.

[5] This 1954 use by Pius XII (in Magnificate Dominum, quoted in Michalski’s “Preface”) is the earliest official reference (as far as I know) to the phrase “not only different in degree, but in essence.”

[6] “The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” Lumen Gentium, no. 1.

[7] “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.”  Ibid., no. 10.

[8] Michalski, p. 65.

[9] “By revealing and communicating this vocation to us, the Spirit becomes within us the principle and wellspring of its fulfillment. He, the Spirit of the Son (cf. Gal. 4:6), configures us to Christ Jesus and makes us sharers in his life as Son, that is, sharers in his life of love for the Father and for our brothers and sisters.”  Pastores dabo vobis, no. 19.

[10] “For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne-all these become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’” (Lumen Gentium, no. 34, with a footnote reference to 1 Pet. 2:5).

[11] The distinction between actions in persona Christi and in persona Christi capitis was made by the bishops at Vatican II, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis, Dec. 7, 1965), no. 2, trans. by Joseph Cunnane and revised by Michael Mooney and Enda Lyons, in Vatican Council II, vol. 1, p. 865.  Michalski (p. 141) notes that the laity can function in persona Christi when, for example, they serve as “extraordinary ministers of Baptism and ministers of Christian marriage.”  In this he follows Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976 and 1980), p. 604.

[12] Pastores, no. 18.

[13] Lumen Gentium, no. 10.

[14] In making this distinction, Michalski (p. 156) follows the lead of Edward J. Kilmartin and writes, “The activity of the hierarchy denotes, that is, directly signifies, aspects of the life of faith of the community; it connotes, that is, indirectly signifies, the active presence of Christ.”  Footnote reference to Kilmartin, “Lay Participation in the Apostolate of the Hierarchy,” in Official Ministry in a New Age, ed. James H. Provost (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, Catholic University of America, 1981), pp. 89-116, specifically p. 105.  Michalski (p. 156) also summarizes another of Kilmartin’s arguments: “Pastoral Office, first of all, is ordered to the Church, sacrament of Christ, and then to Christ, the sacrament of God.”  Footnote reference to Kilmartin, “Apostolic Office: Sacrament of Christ,” Theological Studies 36 (1975), 243-264, esp. 260.

[15] Michalski, p. 157.

[16] Michalski attributes a number of arguments to Ghisbert Greshake, The Meaning of Christian Priesthood, trans. by Peadar MacSeumais (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1989).  Greshake speaks of Christ taking hold of the priest at ordination (pp. 27 f.), of the priest as mediating the presence of Christ (p. 36), and of the priest’s indelible character that sin and personal failure cannot destroy (p. 63).  Greshake, wrote Michalski (p. 119), rejected the thesis of Edward Schillebeeckx, namely, that “ministry comes from below, but this is experienced as a ‘gift of the Spirit’ and therefore ‘from above.’”  See Schillebeeckx, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 45.

[17] The text of Pastores barely alludes to the doctrine of the indelible character imparted in Holy Orders, stating merely that “within the mystery of the Church the hierarchy has a ministerial character” (no. 3).  This ancient doctrine was defined at Vatican I during the 23rd session in its treatment of the Sacrament of Orders: “A character is imprinted which can neither be erased nor taken away” (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, no. 1767).  Michalski  (pp. 140-49) reviews some of the pertinent literature and then follows the lead of Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments.  Cooke argued that the sacramental character of Orders does indeed distinguish the ordained intrinsically from the laity as the source of liturgical-sacramental action.  But it does so, not to separate priests from the laity, but rather as an intensification of the basic priesthood of all believers.  Michalski (p. 145) paraphrases Cooke in this way: “Ministerial priests are no more priestly than other Christians, but they are called to give special sacramental expression to Christ’s priestly action in order that the entire community can celebrate more fully its priestly character” (footnote reference to Ministry to Word and Sacraments, p. 645).

[18] Michalski (p. 111) quotes Pope Pius X, who said that the difference between priesthood and laity is “as great as the difference between heaven and earth” (Pius X, Haerent animo, AAS 41 (1908): 560).

[19] Pastores, no. 21.

[20] The New Testament uses the word sheep to characterize people who are like aimless and helpless animals (Mt. 9:36, 10:16, 26:31; 1 Pe. 2:25), objects of a shepherd’s care (Mt. 18:12, Jn. 21:16, Heb. 13:20), a group that intelligently recognizes good leaders (Jn. 10:4-5), and sacrificial victims like Jesus himself (Acts 8:32, Rom. 8:36).