holy orders [Lat. ordo,=rank], in Christianity, the traditional degrees of the clergy, conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Order. The episcopacy, priesthood or presbyterate, and diaconate were in general use in Christian churches in the 2d cent. In the Roman Catholic tradition a development, beginning in the 3d cent. and culminating in the Middle Ages, resulted in a division of major holy orders (episcopacy, priesthood, diaconate, and subdiaconate) and minor orders (acolyte, exorcist, lector, and doorkeeper), with a special rite of introduction into the clerical state called tonsure. From the late Middle Ages, the minor orders and the major orders of subdiaconate and diaconate were largely ceremonial, considered steps to priestly ordination, and were taken by those who intended to be ordained to the priesthood.
A considerable revision of that schema was undertaken under the direction of Pope Paul VI. In 1967 the diaconate was restored as an independent order with its own ministry (e.g., preaching, baptizing, distributing Holy Communion), and married men began to be received into this order. In 1972 tonsure, minor orders, and subdiaconate were abolished, and a rite of admission to candidacy to the diaconate and priesthood took their place. Thus the Roman Catholic Church, like the Church of England, has three orders—bishop, priest, deacon—and, like the Orthodox Eastern churches, it has permanent deacons who serve in local parishes and assist the priests. For various Protestant clerical systems, see ministry.
Traditionally in the West, the episcopacy has the plenitude of priestly power; bishops—archbishops, patriarchs, and the pope are bishops—alone have the power to ordain to major orders. In the Roman Catholic Church the ordination to the priesthood is considered a sacrament, conferring on the recipient the power to celebrate the eucharist and marking the priest with an indelible character. Like the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, ordination is never repeated. The rite entails the laying on of hands and the recitation of the prayer beginning "Receive the Holy Spirit." Priests are required to take an oath of obedience to the bishop or superior and a promise of celibacy (already taken at diaconate by those intending to be priests); they are also bound to recite the divine office, the traditional daily prayer of the priest. The diaconate was instituted in the primitive church for the distribution of alms and other material duties (Acts 6.1–6.)
The main administrative life of the Roman Catholic Church is conducted by bishops and their priests called secular clergy. Priests who are members of religious orders are called regular clergy (see monasticism). Monsignor and cardinal are honorary titles and are not identified with any particular office; they are not considered orders.
See also apostolic succession.
See D. N. Power, Ministers of Christ (1969); P. Bradshaw, The Anglican Ordinal (1971); C. R. Meyer, Man of God (1974).