Saturday, June 08, 2019

Guest Post: "Revisiting Our Concept of Authority" by Kevin Tierney

Today I am featuring a guest post from my friend and colleague Kevin Tierney on the subject of stepping back and revisiting our attitudes towards authority within the Catholic hierarchy.

Kevin is a writer living in Brighton, Michigan. His works have appeared regularly on Catholic Exchange and other venues. You may follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@catholicsmark).

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As the USCCB meets to discuss how best to implement new norms regarding sexual abuse, is everyone ready for the predictable debate about if homosexuality or clericalism are the big problem causing the crisis? I’m not, it’s a tired debate. I also think it can be sidestepped if we go a little deeper. I think that if we want to solve the problems the Church is beset it, its going to require us to go deeper, as uncomfortable as it makes us. I speak of the problems we Catholics have in articulating authority.

Before you reach for your “I would not believe the Gospel if not for the authority of the Catholic Church” (you don’t understand that quote) from Augustine, let’s talk about what authority is.  In most debates today in the Church, “authority” is a question of “who has the power” or “who can compel you to do something.”  Hence a critic of the pope is said to be undermining his authority, because people will not look to him for guidance if they hear he’s a bad pope.  The authority of the bishop is viewed in terms of the authority to execute justice and to direct policy in his diocese. To use a musical analogy, the priests and laity are instruments, the bishop is a conductor.  Or on a higher level, the pope is the conductor, and everyone else are the instruments.  In the words of one Catholic writer, we must become “the kind of Catholics Pope Francis wants us to be.”   To use an old analogy, the pope or bishop is the potter, we are the clay.  You may think that this situation would change under a “traditional pope”, but I am not that optimistic.

Even worse, authority is treated as a zero sum game.  To the extent the pope exercises authority, it comes at the expense of the bishops, or vice versa.  This was precisely the reasoning Rome gave in demanding the USCCB suspend any of their previous reforms, as these reforms would not give Rome a free hand to propose their own later reforms.  Rather than treating the reforms as a baseline that would be maintained but also adapted to meet local situations (strengthened where necessary), these were put forth with the expectation they would be the final word, and the USCCB has made clear that when they meet, do not expect much if any daylight from Vos Estis and their position, despite the fact they are freely clear to mandate additional reforms or additional mechanisms to make the rules more efficient.

This view of authority is, to put it bluntly, not Christian in the slightest.  To the extent it is believed, it is a religion that is not Christianity. It finds no basis in the Scriptures or Tradition. Worse, it is condemned explicitly by our Lord in the Gospel of Luke.  Yet this attitude has become a part of contemporary Catholicism.  To demonstrate why it is wrong, we must consider two questions:  what is the purpose of authority, and how is authority exercised?  

In a scene that could be repeated countless times throughout human history, the Apostles argue among themselves over who the best is, no doubt hoping the winner of that argument can catch Christ’s attention and be confirmed as the best.  Being the best involves prestige, authority, recognition, in a word, power.  Christ’s answer to this display is instructive for us:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)

The very concept of authority that we have is the very concept of authority Christ is concerned about.  In the political economy, it makes sense to understand authority primarily in the sense of who has power, and how that power can be wielded. That kind of understanding has its limits in the realm of the Church, which at its core is a family.  When the head of the family is primarily concerned with showing off his authority and reminding everyone else of their subservience, that family does not function.  Rather, for us, the point of authority is of service, not dominion.  In the Bible, whether it be the Gospels or the epistles of the Apostles, authority is described in terms of “making firm”, “setting straight”, never in the sense of imposing order or imposing a vision others must conform to.  The authority of the Apostles was not doubted (well at least not by the orthodox believer), but to understand authority in the terms of wielding and exercising power would have been foreign to them.

 In regards to how power is distributed or exercised, this case becomes even clearer.  Does Christ view the role of Peter as to transform his brethren into a different kind of Christian?  Is it to endlessly dictate policy to his brother bishops?

“Simon, Simon, Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

The role of Peter is fundamentally a role of supporting the Apostles, helping them remain firm against the attacks of the devil.  Sometimes that will involve settling disputes, and it will involve compelling obedience.  Yet the Bible avoids such grandiose visions of authority for a reason.  We see this line of thought continued within the Church fathers.  While many look at the local bishop as a conductor of the tools of his diocese, St. Ignatius of Antioch looks at it differently:

"For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son" (Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter IV)

Ignatius is the man in the earliest Church who laid out the clearest vision for the local bishop.  He presented the strongest vision of the monarchial episcopate in the Fathers.  Yet he also rejects the notion of authority present so often in the Church of our authorities as conductors of a symphony.  Rather, he is the harp that the strings attach themselves to.  The harp doesn’t direct the strings, but without the firmness of the harp, the strings cannot work together to make music.  Once the music is made, the faithful join in and then the symphony is produced.  The conductor is God, not the Bishop.

I sincerely believe that abandoning this model of authority has gotten us into a lot of trouble, especially in the present crisis.  Faced with the activities of robber bishop Michael Bransfield, the financial council of the diocese was “passive.”  Outside auditors were afraid to challenge him, “because of the Bishops position.”  Popes made serious mistakes in handling the abuse crisis, but hey, its their Church, they can run it as they see fit, right?

None of this is written to deny the pope’s authority, nor his jurisdiction.  Nor is it to deny that on prudential issues, the pope does indeed have a wide authority to take action (or not) as he sees fit.  Yet just because someone is given a position of authority, does not mean that authority should be wielded without question, or without a suggestion that it be wielded better.  Imagine if bishops stood up to the code of silence regarding abuse?  Imagine if diocesan employees refused to cooperate with the shuffling of predator priests while hiding it from the community?  Imagine if the financial practices of bishops were vigorously challenged by individuals who had just as much a stake in the success of the Church as the bishop does?  In terms of power, yes, bishops and the pope can make moves that others cannot.  Yet it is the job of the entire people of God to ensure that such authority is always used in the service of unity and making firm, and to never transform the local diocese or global church into the plaything of potenates.


Michael Dowd said...

Governance has been a problem with the Church since the time of Constantine and probably before. It is doubtful that Christ meant to set up the Pope as a kind of dictator which the papacy has clearly become under Pope Francis.

The entire method of electing a Pope is corrupt because a Pope has complete control over the College of Cardinals and control over the method of election. Thus, for example, the evils of Vatican II (Modernism) which is destroying the Church, can be maintained without any effective challenge.

Various suggestions for improvement are:
---All Bishops elect the Pope. College of Cardinals eliminated.
---Time limits in office imposed.
---A method of impeachment established.

The Papacy is both a heavenly and human institution subject to human failure as the history of the Popes tells us. That fact must be recognized in how the Church is governed. No Pope should have total power as it corrupts absolutely as we know and have been told.

Kevin Tierney said...

Impeachment would present all kinds of doctrinal problems. So it's a non starter

Time limits would also run 5he risk of multiple claimants to the papal office being alive. Other elective monarchies have made that work, but the Church isn't really a political institution. There's certainly nothing dogmatic about it against, but it would be quite a culture shift.

Direct election is always an option, you'd just have to make clear if the candidates are only Cardinals, must be a bishop, etc. I'm partial to it, but I think limiting the electors is still wise, and smart republican (small r) philosophy. Me I'd limit it to archbishops and above.

Michael Dowd said...


The Catholic Church operates as a government with diplomats, a grand strategy, alliances, compromise, etc. This is not good. I don't think this is the plan Christ had in mind.

With Vatican II the Catholic religion has been corrupted with Modernism. A couple of wayward Marxist/Freemason Popes are responsible (John 23 and Paul 6)

The governance system doesn't work and must be replaced. To do what Christ wanted the Church needs to be materially poor, politically powerless, but spiritually strong. To make this happen we need a revolutionary change. God can make this happen if he wishes. And it will be the only thing can save our dying Protestantized Church.

Christoph Rebner said...

To support abuse you need two ingredients: Absolute truth to which people adhere through the Truth`s authority and a mechanism which ensures that human choice takes gip on the aggregate

Ric said...

Authority is not the same as power. Authority is the right to tell you what you ought to do, power is the ability to do it.