In his recently republished The New Creation, the late, delightful Herbert McCabe defends the priesthood of the plebs as roundly as anyone could want. Citing Hebrews, he claims that “there is an essential difference between the Christian community and the community of the Old Law, or any other religious body.” Israel had a “priestly class” that repeatedly sacrificed, but this is “no longer necessary, for we have one High Priest, Jesus Christ, who has once for all offered the perfect and adequate sacrifice.” The church is thus “characterized by the absence of a special group of men called priests, separated off from the rest of the community. It is Christ who is the one Priest, though the community as a whole may share in his priesthood.” Following Aquinas, he insists that at baptism the baptized receives a character that deputizes him for a share in the worship of God.
This priesthood, he argues earlier in the book, is manifest in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. By baptism, the whole people “participated in Christ’s exodus; they have received the Spirit so that the New Law is written in their hearts,” while “in the Eucharist they celebrate the New Covenant in his body and blood.” Through sharing in these sacramental rites and sites, the whole people becomes “a royal priesthood and a sacred nation.” Christ’s continuing presence on earth is sacramentally mediated; that’s the whole thrust of the book.
McCabe is Roman Catholic. So it is not surprising that he has more to say about the baptismal, Eucharistic priesthood of the church. Not surprising, but what he says is disspiriting nonetheless. He quite ingeniously argues that what was once sacred/profane has been transformed into already/not yet in the new covenant: “None of the life of the Christian is profane, all his life except for sin is a realization of the eternal life within him, not all of it is a sacramental revelation of that life.” He rightly says that both the priest and the layman are, “by baptism, members of the laity, the laos, the People of God, and both have a priesthood.” Both these priesthoods are literal; neither is metaphorical.
But – you knew it was coming – there is a difference in that “the priests offering of the Mass qua priest consists in certain sacramental acts, whereas the layman’s offering need not do so.” The layman “exercises his baptismal priesthood and offers the Mass to the extent that he is personally committed to what is taking place.” His involvement in the Mass depends on his personal commitment: “this personal element . . . defines his priestly activity.” As a result, it is possible for him “in special circumstances” to participate in the Mass, and actualize his baptismal priesthood, “without even receiving communion.” In contrast to the ordained priest, who must participate in the Mass sacramentally, the baptized priest is “free” to participate otherwise: “This sacramental act [of eating communion] is not itself essential to his offering.”
The rhetoric of this is misleading. Historically, it is not the case that the baptized priesthood participated non-sacramentally in the Mass “in special circumstances.” They participated non-sacramentally in most circumstances in the late medieval period. That “free to exercise” is also misleading, since, historically, the Catholic laity did not choose to participate non-sacramentally but were prevented from participating sacramentally.
Put that aside. We still have a wrenching shift of gears in the argument. Christ is mediated sacramentally; Christian worship is sacramental, and the Christian life, individually and communally, is sacramentally formed. This, again, is the theme of the book, as McCabe says at the outset: “This book will be about revelation, about the community God has established, and about the sacraments that constitute it.” Yet, when it comes down to it, this strictly pertains only to the ordained priesthood. Only they “must” participate sacramentally in Christ’s self-mediation to the church. The laity are “free” to participate in Christian community non-sacramentally. On this argument, the plebs are still left with a half-priesthood.
McCabe’s arguments confirm a suspicion: The mainstream Reformers were not anti-sacramental, but that’s not the suspicion. The suspicion is that the mainstream Reformers were more sacramental than the Catholic church. For the Reformers, no one was to participate in the life of Christ’s body non-sacramentally. That was simply a contradiction in terms, for the sacraments were the means of participations. Sacramental participation and membership in Christ are completely co-extensive; there’s no spillage or overlap, such that someone (an infant, say!) might be seen as a member of Christ without being marked with Christ’s sacramental sign.
The Reformation was not a triumph of word over sacrament; it was a triumph of sacraments.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House in Birmingham, Alabama, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.