In the wake of the McCarrick revelations and the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, I have repeatedly found myself in conversations with well-meaning Protestant friends who are baffled by the Catholic Church’s teaching that the priest stands in persona Christi capitis—in the person of Christ the Head. They argue that if unduly exalting clergy—revering the priest as if he is God—has led to abuse cover-ups, then perhaps we should bring the priests down a peg.
Many Protestant churches view the pastor simply as a representative of the people. He is supposed to be well-trained in explaining the Scriptures and endowed with gifts for prayer and pastoral care. Beyond that there is little that separates him from his congregation.
But for Catholics, the priest stands in the place of Jesus within the Church’s sacramental life. Actually, it might be more helpful to say that Jesus stands in the priest’s place. When the priest hears confessions, it is not his hand that offers absolution, but Christ's. At Mass, when the priest says “This is my Body,” it is Christ who speaks the words through his mouth.
This idea has roots in Holy Scripture, but the first great articulator of the teaching was St. Augustine, in his fourth-century writings against Donatism. The Donatists believed that if an immoral priest baptized you, your baptism was no good. Likewise, if a less-than-perfect bishop had ordained your parish priest, all the Masses you went to were just a waste of time. St. Augustine argued in response that the real celebrant of each Sacrament is Christ Himself, so the priest’s moral state cannot affect the validity of the Sacrament.
It is easy to see how this teaching could be abused. I have heard people argue that it is somehow Donatist to think that the priest's moral state matters at all. This notion would shock St. Augustine, who took the need for holiness quite seriously. We need priests to strive for holiness. Priests are meant to teach holiness, so it is always painful when one fails dramatically at the task.
Still, correctly understood, the teaching of in persona Christi capitis humbles the priesthood rather than exalting it to some magical status. It is precisely this teaching that protects the Church from devolving into a cult of personality.
I live half an hour from Lakewood Church, one of the largest churches in America. Not everyone knows the church by name, but most people know the name of the senior pastor, Joel Osteen. It is impossible to separate the church from Osteen. Though Osteen’s late father founded it decades ago, his son is now the life of the place. People come to Lakewood to see him. They tune in to the church’s televised services because they like what he has to say. He is the church. And that is a highly dangerous situation for a church to be in.
Where will Lakewood Church go when Osteen retires someday? Can it even exist without him? Or, the more apt question, what happens if he starts to preach and teach heresy? If Osteen tells his people—as he regularly does—that God will bless them with material prosperity if they merely convince themselves to have a positive attitude, who or what is there to correct him?
Catholic priests have followings too, of course, and one priest is not completely interchangeable with another, but at the altar and in the confessional every priest is the same. He is changed in his character by ordination, but only to the extent that Jesus Christ can and does minister through him. His words and actions are prescribed. He is a vessel for Christ, not a platform for his own grand ideas.
The reverence that many of the faithful hold for their priests is not about them but about Jesus working in and through them. The fact that some priests and bishops have confused this and used it for their own nefarious purposes is a monstrous tragedy, but divorcing the priesthood from Christ will not solve the problem. If anything, doing so would make the problem worse. A priest who thinks of himself as just another one of the folks has no recourse to give people the one thing he has been ordained to give them: a tangible means of knowing and being known by Jesus.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is a Catholic priest in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He is Chaplain of St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas.