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Dialogue Mass - CVII

Turning Clerics into Lay People

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
The Minor Orders were a valued and important part of the Church’s hierarchical Constitution and identity. But Paul VI ended the distinction between the clergy and laity as far as the minor offices were concerned. From 1972, entry to the clerical state would no longer be via the Tonsure but would start with ordination to the Diaconate, with all seminarians below that rank being regarded as laymen. In short, the corollary of this Novus Ordo system is that the Minor Orders are not entitled to have a part in the Hierarchy. From then on, the only legitimate status of ministry for these former clerics would be a lay one.

The abolition of Minor Orders derives from Vatican II

In Ministeria quaedam, Pope Paul VI stated that “while Vatican Council II was in preparation, many Bishops of the Church requested that the Minor Orders and Sub-Diaconate be revised.” [emphasis added] But how many? To gain some perspective on this, we need a clearer, more accurate assessment of the “many” in relation to the total number of Bishops consulted during the preparatory period. This is provided in the Acts and Documents of the pre-Council of 1960-1961 (1) which shows that of the 2,500 Bishops and Religious Superiors in the Church, only 4% requested a reform of the Minor Orders. The clear indication is that, immediately prior to Vatican II, the overwhelming majority of Bishops had no agenda for a change in the system.

Bishops at Vatican II

From 2,500 Bishops present at Vatican II only 4% asked for the reform of Minor Orders

With such paltry results, no document of the Council legislated on this subject. It was only in 1972 – almost a decade after the Constitution on the Liturgy – that Paul VI made the revelatory announcement in Ministeria quaedam that “although the Council did not decree anything concerning this for the Latin Church, it stated certain principles for resolving the issue.” We have, then, Paul VI’s word for it that the demise of the Minor Orders was not an afterthought or an unintended consequence, but was directly and deliberately willed by the Council itself. The principles referred to were, of course, based on the all-encompassing “active participation” of the laity, which was a convenient tool for justifying whatever the innovators wanted to achieve.

But these were not the established and settled principles by which the Church has always maintained its hierarchical constitution. For the reformers, Minor Order in the hands of the clergy were perceived to be of no benefit at all and instead to be an instrument of oppression of the laity, preventing their progress towards full emancipation and freedom to take an active role in ecclesiastical affairs.

Nothing could be more symbolic of the contempt for those who had been serving the Church in the lower ranks of the clergy since Apostolic times, even to the point of martyrdom, than this rubber-stamped document that diminished the “cursus honorum” – the series of sequential ordinations, each representing a higher step in the journey towards the Major Orders. Paul VI’s complicity in this act of treachery is evident: He supported the reformers who intended to remove the Minor clerical Orders, formally adopting their ideas as his own in Ministeria quaedam.

By contrast, the Minor Orders were historically treated with high regard, their ranks given honorable mention in Martyrologies, Calendars, Lives of the Saints and in liturgical books of the East and the West. They are also recorded in the intercessory prayers of the pre-Vatican II Good Friday liturgy of the Roman Rite. In doing this, the Church was honoring the recipients of Minor Orders for what they were – members of the Hierarchy. Such a roll of honor, which made the minor clergy stand visibly above the laity, could not be tolerated by the reformers who aimed to flatten the ecclesiastical curve so as to provide a level playing field in terms of opportunities for “active participation” of the laity.

Battering ram for a Marxist revolution in the Church

This gets to the heart of what the abolition of the Minor Orders was really about – creating a set of common rules and conditions primarily to prevent the minor clergy from receiving powers, privileges and status that are denied to the laity. The implication is that “fairness” demands positive discrimination in favor of allowing the laity to enjoy equal terms of access to liturgical and administrative roles formerly reserved for the clergy. Now they can all play a game of faux equals.

But the price to pay for this disastrous policy is a diminution in the honor that had always been given to the priest because of the pre-eminent dignity of his office. For, the concept of the Minor Orders is predicated on the greatness of the priesthood seen as the pinnacle towards which each ascending rank was progressing.

True value of Minor Orders

This testimony from a pre-Liturgical Movement priest, Fr. Louis Bacuez, Rector of the Seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris, illustrates the importance of the Minor Orders in relation to the ordained priesthood:

“[N]ever have the faithful a more exalted idea of the priesthood, nor greater esteem for the dignity of the priest, than when they see him assisted and served at the altar by numerous ministers, representing the various grades of the Hierarchy, every one of whom is above the layman in dignity and authority.” (2)


The mention of the Angelic Hierarchy has been omitted in the Novus Ordo Masses

This view of the Church’s Constitution is no longer proclaimed since Vatican II presumed a fundamental equality of all members of the Church, whereas the constant teaching of the Magisterium was that the non-ordained faithful are subordinated to the sacramental priesthood. It seems that the reformers had a problem with recognizing any ranking system that differentiated between higher and lower status. In the multifarious Prefaces of the Novus Ordo Mass, for example, the celebrant can choose not to mention the ranks of the Angelic Hierarchies (3) by selecting one of the numerous options from which they have been deliberately excised. And the new Code of Canon Law reflects the Conciliar ecclesiology of the Church as a so-called communio of all the People of God, which, in turn, has had a decisive influence on the revision of ecclesiastical law to blur the distinction between clergy and laity.

With Paul VI’s revolutionary act, we are prompted to ask how clerical orders that have been recognized as such from the earliest Christian times, can be turned overnight into exclusively lay ministries without adversely affecting the hierarchical nature of the Church. The question also arises as to how this can be done without affecting the priesthood itself, downgrading its transcendent character and changing its meaning.

Weasel phrases

The progressivist answer is as simplistic as it is specious: Lumen gentium § 10 declared that clergy and laity a “share in the one priesthood of Christ.” Although this is technically true, it is a phrase that belongs to theological discourse but which, when popularized in ordinary use, changes its meaning into something more general, less specific than intended by Tradition. Taken in a democratic sense (as intended by the reformers), it fails to differentiate between a literal sense – as applicable to the clergy – and a figurative sense (as to the laity). And this confusion has arisen precisely because of the abolition of Minor Orders, which had brought the seminarian step by step to a full participation in the priesthood of Christ at his ordination.

Moreover, it is hardly a phrase conducive to delineating any distinction of status between them, especially when reinforced in the same document by the hyper-inflated and vainglorious notion that every layman is his own “prophet, priest and king.”

Beggars on horseback

It was inevitable that such flattery would encourage the laity to become arrogant and forgetful of their place in the Church, with the result that respect for one’s ecclesiastical superiors was cast aside in favor of endless conflict between clergy and laity over ecclesiastical rights. As the 4th-century Latin poet, Claudianus, reiterating the wisdom of the ancients, put it:

Claudius Claudianus

Claudius Claudianus

Asperius nihil est humili cum surgit in altum. (4) (Nothing is more troublesome than a person of low status elevated to a high position)

Aesop could not have put it better. It should have been foreseen that the sudden acquisition of powers by the laity to which they have no intrinsic title in reality would bring nothing but tragic consequences for the Church in terms of undermining the sacramental priesthood. When, for example, the priest has consecrated the elements in the Novus Ordo, all the faithful present are meant to exercise their ministries even to the point of taking over from the priest and loudly proclaiming “the Mystery of Faith” – a phrase indicating transubstantiation which belongs to the Words of Consecration in the traditional Roman Rite.

One cannot help noticing the parallel between the fading relevance of the priest in the Novus Ordo liturgy and the perversity of certain people who, according to this historical account, “behave themselves like beggars on horseback, and not only ride furiously as soon as they are up, but endeavor to ride over those very Persons who, but the moment before, mounted them.” (5)


  1. Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando. Series I (Antepraeparatoria). Volumen II: Consilia et Vota Episcoporum ac Praelatorum. Pars I: Europa, 1960. This recorded 17 requests for reform of the Minor Orders from the Bishops of Belgium, France and Germany. See pp. 573, 579, 626, 636, 642, 698, 738, 773, 775.
    Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando. Series I (Antepraeparatoria). Appendix Voluminis II: Analyticus Conspectus Consiliorum et Votorum quae ab Episcopis et Praelatis data sunt. Pars II, 1961, pp. 107-113. This recorded 45 requests from Bishops the rest of the world, especially those from Missionary countries./li>
  2. Louis Bacuez SS, Minor Orders, St. Louis, Mo; London: B. Herder, 1912, p. 135.
  3. According to St. Gregory the Great (Homily 34 on the Gospels) their ranks in ascending order are: 1. Angeli (Angels); 2. Archangeli (Archangels); 3. Virtutes (Virtues); 4. Potestates (Powers); 5. Principatus (Principalities); 6. Dominationes (Dominations); 7. Throni (Thrones); 8. Cherubim (Cherubim); 9. Seraphim (Seraphim). All of these ranks – apart from the Principalities – are mentioned mutatis mutandis in the Prefaces of the traditional Roman Missal. Although all ranks are not mentioned by name in every Preface, all Prefaces contain a specific reference to some of them.
  4. Claudius Claudianus, In Eutropium, I, line 189. St. Augustine in his City of God, book 5, chap. 26, writing about 415, also quotes Claudian who, “although an alien from the name of Christ,”, was an eye-witness to the superior power of the victorious Christian army in the Battle of the Frigidus (394) and attributed the victory of the Emperor Theodosius to divine intervention. The victory of Theodosius in this battle finally determined the direction of the religious development of Western Europe when Rome became a Christian State.
  5. John Dennis, The Characters and Conduct of Sir John Edgar Call'd by Himself Sole Monarch of the Stage in Drury-Lane; and His Three Deputy-governors, London: M. Smith, 1720, p. 10.


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Posted September 27, 2021

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