I am going to begin this post, as with many to say this very strongly: I am not anti-Roman Catholic. I have many good friends that are Roman Catholic and I view them to be fellow brothers and sisters in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. While I may respectfully disagree with them on matters of the Church I in no way view what I, as an Anglican, that the errors in their discipline and doctrine have somehow brought them out of the love of Christ.
In the modern Church in Western Christianity there is a agreed upon view that of ordained ministers, that is Ministers who are in Holy Orders, there are three: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. This has been the Anglican view since the Elizabethan settlement in 1559. It has also been the largely settled view in in the Roman Church since the 1970s that there are three orders as well. However, this was not always the case, especially at the time of the Reformation.
If one goes back to the Reformation, and back to the 13th Century under St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that the view in the Latin Church of the time was there were Seven orders, that is:
The orders we split as well into the Major Orders (Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon) and the Minor Orders (Acolyte, Exorcist, Lector and Porter). You might have noticed that the Order of Bishop is missing altogether. That is because it was viewed that the Priesthood was actually consisted of two classes: the Presbyterate and the Episcopate. One relic we find in English is that the term Consecrate is used for the Ordination services of a Bishop. This is in part because of the Theology of Aquinas which pinned his view on Orders of Ministers to their function in the Eucharist and not the overall function of the Church. I would strongly encourage all to read Aquinas on the matter in Supplementum Tertiæ Partis, Question 37, Article 2 in his Summa Theologica.
The Priesthood and Diaconate were Sacramental Orders in that the act of Ordination involved the laying on of hands and gave a Sacramental Character. The ordination of a Subdeacon, nor of the minor orders, did not impart the Sacramental Character.
In 1972 Pope Paul VI issued Ministeria quaedam, which utterly changed the practice the Roman Rite used Orders: The Subdiaconate was removed, and the minor Orders were turned into “Ministries”. Conversely, the doctrine surrounding the Episcopate shifted to its present form with it being a separate order from the Priesthood rather than a different class in the same order.
So, how many orders are there: Seven or Three? I would categorically say Three as would Roman Catholic doctrine of today. The only persons who would strongly defend the notation of their being Seven orders would be traditionalist Roman-Rite Catholics, some of whom view the Second Vatican Council and the present Papacy as illegitimate and heretical.
The point I am trying to make in this post is not that the post-Vatican II Church is illegitimate; the point I am trying to make is that between the English Reformation and now the Roman view on Holy Orders has shifted fairly significantly but not necessarily very massively. However, it is significant enough in my view that to point out a potential hypocrisy when criticism is leveed from the holder of the “Chair of St. Peter” about those who changed the nature of orders only to have one of his successors change them as well.