Roman Catholic Garb

captain-america-best-worst-costumesRecently there was a short discussion with Jason Stellman (PCA minister turned  Roman Catholic in 2011.) While discussing the issue of Reformed Ministers of Word and Sacrament wearing a Genevan gown Mr. Stellman stated:

But here’s where the disconnect comes in for me: What makes Catholic priestly garb make sense is not just that it’s distinct clothing for a distinct job (since that would apply to working at Chili’s), but that the person wearing the vestment does so because he believes he has been empowered sacramentally (through holy orders) to actually do something that cannot be done by a layman. But for the Reformed, even though they believe that a layperson shouldn’t serve communion since he is not allowed to, the result of it can still be the same. So if a church either springs up from nowhere and uses vestments (FV), or allows communion to be served by non-ordained people (Calvary), the Reformed have no *principled* reason to object.

When I read this two things came to mind. First, the priestly garb in Stellman’s mind is a distinct clothing for a distinct job. For the Reformed position the reasoning behind the Genevan gown is the same. It is a distinct clothing for a distinct job.

Second, the underlying premise is a problem for Mr. Stellman that can easily be seen. Because for Stellman, the Roman Priest has another reason (perhaps primary) for wearing his garb. The person has been “empowered sacramentally” to do something. The priest isn’t wearing his garb to hide the man, as Reformed ministers often say. But the priest wears the his clerical vestments because of the man. It is a sign depicting his “sacramental empowerment”. To put it in contemporary terms, he is dressed in his super hero costume because much like a super hero, he is different from everyone not by his office but because of his powers.

When we think of the word “empowered sacramentally”, it implies that something has been added to the man that was not existent in him before. Empowered  sacramentally speaks of a power specifically that didn’t exist in the person but now does. It is sacramental in the sense that it has changed the man’s being. The man is now specially and uniquely transformed. When we think of people receiving a commission or receiving authority, such as a police man or a soldier, we think of someone who has been uniquely qualified to execute tasks. This person, the soldier or the police officer, is any different of a person. They are still susceptible to fall, betray other soldiers or be known as a “dirty cop”. Even as they carry out their duties they may do it below standard, to the standard or above standard, each person is different. But this is not the case with priest who have been sacramentally empowered. In Stellman’s view, they are different from the other people in the congregation or parish. The holy orders they have received has given the person a unique position, they are above the others not in office but as a person.

The priest for Rome has been empowered sacramentally, they are not the same person they were before. Therefore they have to wear a costume that is indicative of the powers they are in possession of. This is why we don’t think twice when we see Superman with his red and blue tights and a cape. The costume is indicative of the powers that he possesses. Only when speaking of Roman priests we are not speaking of Superman (born different), this is more like Captain America. He was someone who was “infused” with powers that were alien to him making him different.

But what is it that this Roman Catholic “Captain America” must do? He is now empowered to do miracles, primarily turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. We thought he was in heaven but that apparently isn’t necessarily the case for Rome. It is something that the laymen in Rome cannot do. But the priest can because he has been empowered.

Now the question could be reversed to illustrate the point. If the priest didn’t wear his garb, robe, vestments, would he then be “powerless”? Is the power in the uniform? Is this a special cloth or material? Of course not. The priest has been given a “special power”? Is he in possession of a special ontological distinction because as Stellman says, “he believes he has been empowered”? What would this mean to believe you have been empowered? Of course Clark Kent still is superman even if he isn’t wearing the tights and cape, an Captain America is still the same even if he isn’t in uniform.

For the Roman Catholic the miracle of turning the bread and wine into the blood of Jesus lies in the person administering the elements. But the Reformed recognize that the power lies not in the person who administers (the minister) but the person who speaks (God). God speaks through reading the words of institution. When we read the words of institution, it is God speaking, once again declaring “My Body broken for you.”


3 thoughts on “Roman Catholic Garb

  1. I wonder, not knowing, if the Lutherans fall more to the side of Rome on this one. In other words, is it not truly the body and blood (real presence) if a lay-Lutheran were to set the Lord’s table?

  2. I have a bit of actual Lutheran data to address that question; CFW Walther, in his Theses on Law and Gospel seems to imply that (in extraordinary circumstances) lay baptism (and absolution) are valid.

    Once upon a time two persons were traveling in a ship, one of them a converted Christian, the other a pagan. They formed an acquaintance. The Christian proclaimed the Gospel to his new acquaintance, and by the operation of the Holy Spirit the pagan became a believing Christian. Suddenly a fearful tempest arose. Death was staring the passengers in the face, as everybody despaired of being saved. The former pagan’s one supreme wish was that he might receive Holy Baptism before going down into the water, while the Christian was craving for absolution. In this predicament the Christian proposed to the pagan a plan by which both their wishes could be fulfilled: he would baptize the pagan, and the pagan, having been made a Christian, would then absolve the Christian. The plan was carried out, and when they had safely weathered the storm by the protecting providence of God and reached land, the bishop to whom their doings on board ship were reported did not pronounce them invalid, but both the baptism and the absolution were acknowledged to be valid.


    Here’s a link for more.

    I’m not sure we Calvinists would go that far, as we confess that baptism is not necessary to salvation, I think we would say that faith and confession are sufficient to save, if the ship went down and they died, and if they survived, the converted pagan would need to seek out a true church and get baptized by a minister of the gospel, duly ordained.

  3. (a) sorry for the terrible run-on-sentence there, and (b) I realize this doesn’t actually answer the question about lay communion, but it hints that some Lutherans might deem it valid in extraordinary circumstances.

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