“Priesthood of the Laity” became quite a thing in the Catholic Church a couple of generations ago. The phrase has played a role in the Catholic identity wars that have been raging ever since. Often if someone hammers the idea of priesthood of the laity, they advocate a de-sacramentalized church in which we all get to do the fun things that only ordained priests once were allowed to do. Flat church, anti-hierarchical, indistinguishable from low church Protestantism.
The struggle over the true meaning of the phrase has turned over all sorts of interesting keys in the last few decades. I can’t pretend to encompass all the literature, nor do I care to broaden myself by attempting to do so. I’m sure there’s a lot of good work being done out there, and you should definitely go read it and tell me all about it. Spoilers: we’re not low church Protestants.
But when I think of the priesthood of the laity I think of the books of Samuel. I’ve written a few things about that before—king-priests, intercession, Purgatory. Would people be so quick to tout the priesthood of the laity if they took it to mean that, as priests, it is our job to take a spiritual bullet for all the baptized?
The king-priest of I-II Samuel is meant to take upon himself the curse of death to save his people. Jesus Christ of course is the perfect realization of this, and His saving sacrifice is perpetuated through the Eucharist validly confected by the ordained priests He made for Himself.
But there is a real universal priesthood which we enter through baptism; it is the power of intercession. Sure, I’m a priest—so I pray for the living and the dead, I suffer for the living and the dead, I become as one of the dead so that they may live. Sounds fun, right? Now that’s what I call equality! Give me another hearty helping of that equality!
This also makes sense out of a sometimes-puzzling feature of our tradition: that the souls in Purgatory do not merit for themselves. I’ve always wondered about that one a little, despite knowing the argument for it pretty well. But if we are called to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God, a task we never fulfill perfectly in this life, it makes a scary amount of sense that our time in Purgatory be taken up with the perfection of this task. I only exist for the others then. You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek…indeed.