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Catholics and Protestants mean different things when we say ‘priesthood’ and when we speak of Church hierarchy in general.So before beginning our discussion, we should clarify what we (Catholics) mean by the terms. Augustine defines ‘order’ as “the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place.” The English words ‘ordain’ and ‘order’ come from the same Latin word.This brings us to the terms relevant to our present inquiry: ‘,’ and their English equivalents: ‘presbyter’ (or elder), ‘priest,’ and ‘bishop.’ For the sake of simplicity, we will now refer to the Latin and Greek by the English terminology (understanding that ‘presbyter’ will be used for ‘‘).The terms ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ were subject, as were many other words, to the technicalization of terminology that we just explained.To understand the history of the terms ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ or to understand the way in which they were used in isolated cases is not sufficient to understand the concepts.It is also necessary to understand the realities to which those words were referring.That is, ‘presbyter’ was not originally a technical reference in the Greek language to a religious minister, much less to a Christian minister.

Whatever priesthood Christians have, whether common by baptism or visible and specific by ordination, exists only by participation in the true priesthood which belongs to Jesus Christ the High Priest.The story of the Christian theological triumph is the story of taking the common and “baptizing” it.And the story of Christian terminological development is the story of taking common terminology and investing it with technical theological significance.This ‘technicalization of terminology’ is not unique to Christian theology; it is an observable linguistic phenomenon common to the human experience.But in the context of Christianity, it seems to mirror our own theology of baptism and of the principle that grace perfects, rather than destroys, nature.

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As the Dominican Pedro de Soto observed regarding the minor Orders specified by the Council of Trent, “to preserve anything at all, it is not sufficient merely to go on uttering its name, but the reality behind the name must be understood and preserved too.” For this reason, if we are to discover the truth behind Holy Orders, both our starting and central focal point must be the Incarnation.

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