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  • On the Sanctification of the Catholic Priesthood1
  • Thomas Joseph White O.P.

The priesthood is traditionally understood to entail descending dimensions of mediation by which the priest conveys spiritual goods to us, and ascending dimensions, by which the priest helps lead us to God by his example and love of God. I would like to speak in this essay about each of these, internal to a historical narrative. The first part of the narrative begins in the Reformation and the second in our own time. Each is about crisis in the priesthood, and they come together in the consideration of the sanctification of the priesthood, for our own historical moment.


"To say this is to construct a new [and different] Church, [distinct from the Church of Jesus Christ]" ("Hoc enim est novam ecclesiam construere"). These words were spoken by Thomas de Vio Cajetan in October of 1518, in the course of public debate with the young Martin Luther, at a time when the Augustinian monk was still in communion with the Catholic Church. Earlier that year Pope Leo X had sent Cajetan as his representative from Rome to the Diet of Augburg, from which he was dispatched for theological dispute with the aspiring Reformer. Cajetan at the time was the Master of the Dominican Order, a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and archbishop of Palermo. He was a vocal promoter of reform within with the clergy and the curia, advocating for clerical asceticism and learning, himself pioneering early-modern commentary on Aquinas, while also favoring the emergence of Renaissance biblical [End Page 1] studies. He and Luther shared a common concern for the reform of the Church.

The debate took place on October 12–15, approximately one year after Luther's promulgation of ninety-five theses, and two years before the publication of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which was to mark a more definitive break with Rome. The subject under discussion was the so-called power of the keys. How is it that the forgiveness of God is commuted to a penitent through the sacrament of confession? Does this depend upon the apostolic authority of the pope and the episcopacy as well as the juridical delegation of a priest who grants absolution? It was no accident that Luther raised radical questions on this front. Behind this specifically sacramental question stands a more fundamental issue of authority and the Church. Does God give grace to us through the descending mediations of the Church, and if so, how? As Cajetan saw at the time, the treatment of apostolic authority in one domain carries over logically into others. How one treats the sacrament of reconciliation touches immediately in turn upon such topics as the perennial truth of Catholic dogma (defined by the authority of the Church), the nature and number of the sacraments, and the nature of apostolic succession. In their debate with one another, Luther and Cajetan elaborated two vastly divergent visions of Christianity which anticipated developments in early modernity. Christendom stood in the balance.

Luther for his part is finding his way in this early text toward the notion that justification occurs by faith alone, apart from works of the law or any mediations of sacramental agency. He claims against Cajetan that the classical tripartite of sacramental confession of sins, contrition, and ensuing satisfaction are not sufficient to procure forgiveness in Christ except insofar as they are accompanied by the penitent's inward act of faith in Christ, as well as—significantly—the subjective certitude that the sins which are being confessed have been definitively forgiven. He goes so far as to say that in the absence of certitude in my particular salvation by Christ for these sins, the sacrament leads not to salvation but condemnation. What is noteworthy about this, in context, is that there is no priestly mediation of the forgiveness of sins. The subject's interior judgment of his own righteousness before God by grace is the determining condition for the reception of grace, prior to and in a sense apart from any external rites and ecclesial measures of evaluation. Furthermore the individual sincerity of the subject in the act of faith is...


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