In their fascinating exchange on the clergy (“Imagine There’s No Clergy”), William M. Shea and David Cloutier seem unable to distinguish the “clerical state” from the “sacrament of orders.” One author appears to seek elimination of both for the sake of evangelical renewal, while the other appears to seek preservation of both for the same reason.
Contrary to what appears to be the argument of both authors, the “sacrament of orders” and the “clerical state” are historically distinct and institutionally separable. During its first three centuries, the Greek-speaking church developed and sustained the “sacrament of orders” for episcopoi, presbyteroi, and diaconoi (bishops, presbyters, and deacons). But there was as yet no “clerical state.” That came only in the fourth century, through the Constantinian fusion of the Catholic Church with the Roman Imperial State.
In that fusion, the leadership of the Roman Empire transferred imperial “hierarchical” privileges from the pagan priesthood to the ordained servant-leaders of the Catholic Church. The new imperial “clergy” were legally empowered to rule over the non-clerical “laity.” Prior to this development, the entire church (meaning both ordained servant-leaders and the entire membership) had been understood as both sacredly lay (the holy laos) and as divinely chosen (the holy kleros).
Since the sacrament of orders and the clerical state are historically distinct, the former having existed for three centuries without the latter, that means they are also institutionally separable. Indeed, in the Western Church canon law recognizes the distinction between the sacrament of orders and the clerical state. When Roman Catholic priests decide to marry, they may apply for a “reduction” to the lay state. This reduction removes them from the clerical state but, according to official church teaching, they remain ordained priests “ontologically.”
In short, the sacrament of orders is of apostolic origin, while the “clerical state” is a fourth-century legal construction by the Roman Empire. Later, in the eleventh century, the Western Catholic clergy were further segregated from the laity when the papacy imposed mandatory celibacy on all diocesan presbyters and bishops in the West. (By so doing, the papacy also forced many wives of bishops and presbyters into homelessness, slavery, or even suicide. See Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s book Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy.)