The Powers of the Priests

The Powers of the Priests
Chapter II of The Sacerdotal Mystery
by Saint Alphonse Louis Constant

For the priest to be powerful, he must know or he must believe. The reconciliation of science with faith is the province of the great hierophant. If the priest knows without believing, he may be either a man of good will or a dishonest man. If he is a man of good will, he employs the faith of others in the interests of reason and justice. If he is dishonest, he exploits their faith in the interest of his own greed; but then he is a priest no longer, he is the vilest of criminals. If he believes without knowing, he is a respectable but dangerous dupe, who will be dominated and kept in check by the men of science.

In Christendom, priesthood and royalty are only delegations. We are all priests and kings; but since the priestly and royal functions imply the action of an individual upon a multitude, we entrust our powers to a king in the temporal order, and to a priest in the spiritual order. The Christian king is as much a priest as the rest of us, but he may not exercise his priestly office. The Christian priest is a king like us, but he may not wield royal authority. All society is safeguarded by the balance between these two powers. It is the priest's duty to guide the king, and the king's duty to protect the priest. The priest holds the keys and the king bears the sword. Saint Peter was the priest of early Christianity, and its king was Saint Paul. The king and priest hold their powers from the people as a whole, who had been consecrated king and priest by the holy unction of baptism and the application of the divine blood of Jesus Christ.

If there were no pope tomorrow, there would be no king on the day after, and no person to reign in either the temporal or the spiritual order, because no one would obey any more. Then there would be no more society and men would slaughter one another.

The pope is the priest and the priest is the pope, because the one is the representative of the other. The authority of the pope comes from the priests, and that of the priests descends from the pope. Beyond them, there is only God. Such, at least, is the belief of the priests.

Hence the priest disposes of divine power through those who have trust in him. I will even dare to suggest that his power has the appearance of being more than divine, because he purports to command God, and to create Him at a word! Owing to the prestige attached to his person, he strips men of their pride and women of their modesty. He compels them to come and recount depravities which men would hate to be suspected of, and women would refuse to voice outside the confessional. But once they are there, it is acceptable to divulge their petty acts of shame, told in a low voice. And the priest pardons them or imposes a penance on them: a few prayers to say, some mortification to suffer, and they go away consoled. Is a little servitude to dear a price to pay for peace of heart?

Seeing that religion is a spiritual medicine, servitude is as certainly involved as when the doctor prescribes his remedies and submits the patients in his care to a course of treatment. Nobody could reasonably dispute the usefulness of medicine, but this does not justify doctors in forcing the healthy to dose and purge themselves.

It would be an amusing sight to see the president of the French Academy publish an encyclical against all those who live without laxatives, and lay a ban upon those that try to do without the doctor by dint of sobriety and plenty of exercise. But the scene would change from comedy to tragedy without a hint of humor, if the government, adopting the pretensions of the dean, gave the recalcitrants a straight choice between the hypodermic syringe and the firing squad. The liberty of medical treatment is as indispensable as liberty of conscience.

You will say to me, perhaps, that one does not ask the mentally ill for their opinion before giving them cold showers. I agree, but take care: this argument could be turned against you. Those who are mad are opposed to common sense. They entertain exceptional beliefs and extravagant notions which they want to impose on others and which drive them frantic. Do not try to make us believe that the proper way to answer defenders of the Syllabus is with obligatory cold showers.

The authority of the priest is entirely moral and cannot be imposed by force. But on the other hand, and as a fair compensation, force is unable to destroy his authority. If you kill a priest, you make a martyr. Making a martyr is equivalent to laying the first stone of an altar, and every altar produces its seminaries of priests. If you knock an altar down, twenty more will be built from the scattered stones which you will not demolish a second time. Religion is no human invention; it is inevitable, that is to say providential. It comes into being of its own accord to satisfy a human need, and that is why God has revealed it and willed it.

The man in the street believes in it because it is incomprehensible to him, and apparently it is sufficiently irrational to appeal to him and to win his allegiance. As for me, I believe in it because I understand it and I should think it absurd not to believe in it.

“It is I, be not afraid,” said Christ, as he walked on the waves at the height of the storm.

“Lord, if it be thou,” said Saint Peter, “bid me to come to you, also walking on the waves.”

“Come!” replied the Saviour, and Saint Peter walked on the sea. Suddenly, the wind blew more furiously, and the rollers rose and fell, and the man was afraid. Immediately he began to sink, and Jesus, catching hold of him and holding him up with His hand, said to him, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”

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