Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In Persona Christi Capitis

This Latin phrase means, “In the Person of Christ, the Head,” and expresses Roman Catholic doctrine about the role of a bishop or priest.

In Persona Christi Capitis has two basic meanings. One is to distinguish the cleric, acting in the capacity of the Head of the Church, from the layperson, who acts only as a “member” of the church. The other meaning is that Christ is present to the Church precisely in and through the clergy.

This way of thinking divides the Church into two castes: the clergy and the laity; and of these, only the clergy would (were all else equal) be "Church" in any Orthodox sense of the word. On second thought, neither would, if the priests were acting in Christ's place.

Obviously we Orthodox, too, have both clergy and laity, and make a distinction between them. But none of us, clergy or laity, would dare to think we were acting in the capacity of the Head of the Church.

Furthermore, Christ is present in all of us, every baptized and chrismated one of us. Is He equally present in all of us? No, but the degree of fullness is not determined by our status as ordained or lay. Instead, it is in direct proportion to our purity of heart. The priest may have made less room in his heart than the six-year-old fidgeting beside me in church. We Orthodox highly respect the office of the priest, but he has to earn our respect for his person. We have no two-tiered Christianity with the clergy as mediators between God and man. Neither is the priesthood a spiritual status. Rather, it is a spiritual service.

We also object to phrases such as acting “in the Person of Christ,” or “in the stead of Christ” as downright blasphemous. We do of course realize that, “in the Person of Christ,” is a mistranslation of 2 Corinthians 2:10, which ought to read, “in the Presence of Christ” (prosopo).

But nobody, nobody at all, can stand in Christ’s place or stead or act in His Person (although we can indeed act as His members). The simple reason is, He acts in His own person. He stands in His own place. His place is not vacant. It isn’t as though He had departed and bequeathed His place to someone else. It isn’t as though Christ were replaceable.

We can say of our clergy that the bishop is supposed to be for us the living icon of Christ and that the priests, as the bishop’s delegates, share in that function. But they never occupy the place of Christ, which is already occupied! They do not minister in Christ’s stead, but alongside Him. They perform the visible counterparts of what Christ Himself is doing invisibly. The priest prays (all of us joining his prayer), but Christ sends His Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine and to effect the change in them. The priest immerses a person, but Christ baptizes him, grafting him into Himself, into His own life. The priest prays the prayer of absolution, or in some cases even pronounces the absolution, but Christ forgives.

It’s not that we deny Christ works through people, including priests. (John 20:22-23) Our objection is to the idea that He acts exclusively through priests and not others and not also directly, in accordance with Orthodox experience.

In Persona Christi Capitis, I note, is an example of what I have called a “papal doctrine” or a doctrine, the effect of which is to bolster papal authority, power, and prestige. That's its effect; its intent, one may only surmise.

P.S.) Too bad this error wasn't always caught and corrected during the Reformation.



Chris Jones said...

As I am sure you know, I carry no brief for the Pope. But Lutherans also use the phrase in persona Christi and say that the pastor acts "in the stead and by the command of our Lord."

Perhaps there is something different about the way Roman Catholics understand these phrases which would make them more objectionable than what we Lutherans mean by them (it would not be the first time!). But as far as I can see, regarding the priest as an icon of Christ and regarding him as acting in Christ's stead are pretty much the same thing.

The notion of in persona Christi is, in my view, no more and no less than "He that hears you hears me; and he that despises you despises me" (Lk 10.16). What am I missing?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, Chris,

Not sure what, if anything, you are missing or have that you shouldn't, but you may like to see whether you have these:

* Christ working in and through every Christian, not just clergy

* Christ dealing with us directly, and not only through clergy, but Himself, in Person, nobody in between

* Somebody (cergy) daring to act in the person and place of the Head of the Church, for the full phrase is "in Persona Christi Capitis" and Christ shares His Headship with nobody

*"Instead," according to Merriam-Webster, means as a substitute, equivalent, or alternative. Since it would be blasphemous to suppose there could ever be a substitute, equivalent, or alternative to Christ, we ought to reject the phrase, "in the stead ... of our Lord" in favor of something like, "on behalf of," or, "in the Name of", or "as an icon of," any of which implies representing without replacing.

JTKlopcic said...

Perhaps there is something different about the way Roman Catholics understand these phrases which would make them more objectionable than what we Lutherans mean by them (it would not be the first time!). But as far as I can see, regarding the priest as an icon of Christ and regarding him as acting in Christ's stead are pretty much the same thing.

I think the key comes from this phrase from the Catechism (follow the link in the original post):

[The priest] is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).

"made like" indicates the iconic function of the RC priest. However, the quote goes on to state that he also "possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself". This, I think, is what directly counteracts the Orthodox understanding. The Roman Church views the priest as a sort of legate of Jesus, authorized to take certain actions in His stead. I don't know that much about Orthodox ecclesiology, but this is not the way I understand it works.

Anastasia, is this what you meant by your third point? Honestly, I'm still new to this Orthodox way of viewing clergy. Can you elaborate on the role/function/authority of a priest in the Orthodox Church?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, I think that says it pretty well. Every Christian, being united to Christ and living in and for Him, is supposed to be acting in Him all the time. But as a member of Him, and not as the Head!

It is also true that the Orthodox priest is authorized to do certain things. But the things he does in no way replace what Christ Himself is doing meanwhile. They make it visible and audible, what Christ is doing. But Christ Himself is still doing it, invisibly! The priest cannot magically change bread and wine into Christ's Body and Blood. The priest does not have the power to graft someone into Christ at Baptism or to sanctify the water so it washes you of more than physical dirt. The priest does not have the ability to send the Holy Spirit to live within you. Christ sends the Holy Spirit to do all these things. The priest only performs the outward signs of them, the material counterparts.

(That's OUR reason for not worrying whether the priest is or is not worthy.)

Hmm. Perhaps I've already said all I know about the holy priesthood ... or most of it, for sure. I think about that, maybe learn some more, and if so, pass it along. (Or you could learn more and tell me.)


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Re-reading what I justg wrote, I'm unhappy with it.

The main point is firmly to reject any notion of priesthood that puts the priest between us and Christ, to reject any theology that denies us Christ's immediate, direct, personal Presence. Our access to Him does not depend upon priests or bishops or popes or patriarchs.

Sacraments are performed not by one, the priest, doing everything on behalf of the Other, but by BOTH, Christ *and* the priest, ministering together, each doing what belongs to H/him to do.

JTKlopcic said...

In other words, if "valid form" and "valid matter" and "valid intent" are all brought together (my limited understanding of RC sacramental theology), God is not compelled to perform a Sacramental work?

In what ways is the Orthodox understanding materially different? We may not have the same concerns about "validity", but there is still concern about the use of the proper liturgical rite, possession of the antimension, and the disposition of the priest. Or, is this one of those cases that escapes definition, but rather, "We know Sacrament when we see it"?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Well, these questions are asked in terms of categories that really don't apply within Orthodoxy.

For example, we do not usually speak of God ever, ever, being compelled to do anything. In the West, His commands to do this (the Eucharist) are taken as promises by which He compels Himself. For us, they are commandments and gifts. But even if we were to take them as promises, God promises those things which He had already, long before "promising," freely willed to do or to give.m (And we don't require "promises," eiher, before we can trust God.)

Another example: whereas God's relationship to Israel in the OT was a kind of "deal," -- you do this and I'll do that -- that is not how His relationship with the Church works. The Church is His own Body, the fulness of Him, and He is the Head. The Church does not operate by bribes or threats any more than your head relates to your body that way. You just tell your fingers to type and they type. Similarly, the Church and Christ relate by mutual indwelling, by a shared life, by sacrificial love.

For Holy Communion to BE Holy Communion, the only requirement is that it be Orthodox. Otherwise, we don't know what it is. To be Orthodox, it must be presided over by an Orthodox priest with at least one Orthodox layperson present. (There are no "private masses" in Orthodoxy.)

The antimension, as far as I know, is simply a tradition drawn from the fact that "forgiveness shines forth from the Tomb," Christ's Tomb, Who was the first Martyr. Also from the book of Revelation, in which the martyrs are shown under the altar.

The reason (besides respect) we don't play around with the form of the Divine Liturgy (although we have several approved forms of it) is that form can alter content if one is not careful. The shape of the container matters. You can't fit uncooked spaghetti into a butter dish without breaking it. You can't keep the air or bugs out without a tight lid. And so forth.

JTKlopcic said...

I understand the Orthodox viewpoint, but I'm having trouble comparing it to Roman Catholic doctrine without falling into Roman Catholic categories. I know that there is a distinct difference, but I can't seem to be able to put it into words.

Oh, well. I'll keep reading, thankful that there are many heads that are wiser than mine.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yup, it is hard, period, with or without "falling into Roman Catholci categories." To make comparisons between things that make use of different assumptions and categories of thought is just plain tough. So if you can't put it into words, that's only natural and we all share the same problem!

When we can't answer a question on its own terms, then sometimes the best we can do is compare the questions.