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Power and Authority



Before addressing some issues that involve "Authority in the Church", I wish to clarify the meanings of a number of words that will crop up over and over again. Those readers who may prefer to skip this "dull definitions bit" to start off with can jump to the beginning of the main text.

Power and Ability

These words indicate that some agent will achieve a particular objective if the attempt is made. They have no moral character and if true of an agent do not indicate that (s)he is right to set out to achieve what in fact they can succeed at. Note that power and ability do not imply any significant level of understanding, wisdom or expertise. A teenager who has just had a loaded sub-machine gun thrust into their hands for the first time has considerable power, but no expertise.
  • Despotic power is simply a form of violence based on a threat of harm if some command is not exercised. The threat need not be explicit, but may only be implied. Although such coercive power can be effective in controlling the actions of subjects, this is dependent upon the threat having credibility. It will only do so if the following criteria are fulfilled:
  • Expertise

    This is the knowledge and skills appropriate for some area of human activity. An expert has expertise in his or her field. Because of this they are liable to be able to successfully achieve objectives pertaining to their field of expertise. Expertise produces power, but - as already explained - the fact of power does not imply the presence of expertise.


    This is the property of being believable. It is characteristic of someone either who not only has expertise but has demonstrated that (s)he does, or someone who has advanced some kind of persuasive argument or presented some kind of documentation that has been taken to indicate that they have expertise. Credibility might pertain to someone acting as a witness, in which case the only expertise was "having in fact been present and conscious and rational at the time and place of interest". Alternately, it might pertain to some more general field of enterprise such as "Information Technology Support".

    Note that a charlatan relies on being credible even when (s)he has no expertise whatsoever. Any persuasive argument they have advanced in their own favour is a lie. Any documentation they have provided is fake or otherwise worthless. The salesman relies on his ability to persuade and upon being credible, when he knows little and cares less about the true utility of the "snake-oil" that he is promoting.

    False religion is based on the maintenance of a credibility that has no basis in fact or expertise or knowledge.


    This word literally means having the backing or permission or acting on the orders of the originator of something. If the "thing" is a state, then it means "having the backing or permission or acting on the orders of" the King or President or "the people". If the thing is "life in general" then it means "having the backing or permission or acting on the orders of" God. For an atheist, there can be no authority in such matters.

    The Bank of England, the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank all have the authority to issue bank notes that are legal tender in Great Britain. Each is backed by the State. Originally the State promised to exchange any bank note for the requisite quantity of silver metal. Sadly, this promise has long been reneged on. Hence inflation. Read the novel "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand.

    Sometimes this word is misused to mean credibility. So a professor of physics may be said "to be an authority" in his field, when what is meant is that he "has established his expertise" in this field.


    This word means being in accordance with the intention or will or purpose of an original source. So an authentic translation is one that is faithful to the meaning of the original text. The practice of life in a Benedictine Monastery is authentic if it conforms not only to the letter but also to the spirit of the rule of St Benedict. It is not authentic if the rule is somehow subverted to an end other than that envisaged by its author.

    A Prophet has authority when (s)he speaks authentically, in faithful accordance with the inspirations of God that they receive.

    Teachers have authority when they pass on to their students what they have themselves learned from others who themselves discovered what was true: that which "corresponded with reality". They may not really understand themselves what they are teaching, but so long as they carefully pass on the details; they are discharging their role and do so with something that may pass for authority. The difficulty here is that if they do not really understand the message that they are trying to communicate, then it is liable to become garbled. Such teachers do not then truly speak with authority because, perhaps in spite of their best efforts, what they say is not in fact authentic, does not correspond with the intention or will or purpose of its originator.


    This is the attitude of deference that one rationally adopts towards an expert: "I will listen quietly and attentively, because in that way I might learn something to my benefit". It is also the attitude that one rationally adopts towards someone that one accepts to have authority, if the authority in question relates to an originator who one believes themselves to be an authority. If some authority is respected, then it will be able to command obedience and so wield power.

    Face or "honour"

    This is an oriental concept. As best I can express it, it amounts to credibility based on a sham. If one is found to have lied or failed in some way, then one looses face. It is shameful not so much to do wrong, but to be found out to have done wrong. As long as one has not been exposed in some wrong-doing, then one can have self-respect and expect the respect of others. As soon as one is accused of some supposed wrong-doing (even, perhaps, if one is not in fact guilty!) then one can have no self-respect. The only dignified response to such an accusation is suicide. If the individual concerned refuses to kill themselves, then it may fall to their family or associates to murder them to avoid the dishonour transferring to them.


    This is the state of affairs that objectively is for the good of either a person or a community of people. See Plato: "The Republic".


    This is a set of rules and regulations and precepts that is intended to bring about the state of justice. If it does so, then the laws are good laws, might be said to be authentic and would certainly be due respect. If it do not do so, then the laws are bad laws and due no respect whatsoever.


    This is a right or claim to power or authority based on law, tradition or custom. It is a species of authenticity.

    What is the purpose of authority in the Church?

    There are three types of authority within the Church, and I shall deal with each separately. They all share the single purpose of being oriented towards helping those who are their subjects and advancing their well-being. This is contrary to the norm of secular authority, which often sees its subjects as being "subjugated" to the well-being of the authority.

    Within the Church "holy order" is the authority to act in certain ways that is possessed by Deacons, Presbyters and Bishops. These actions are of two categories: sacramental or priestly and pastoral or kingly.

    Priestly Authority

    Priestly authority exists to give confidence and security to sinners.

    It does this by being an identifiable bridge between this world and the spiritual realm of the Divine. When a priest acts and speaks in accordance with the priestly function, then what is said and done is authoritative and to be relied on. When a priest breaks bread and pours out wine and presents these as the Body and Blood of the Christ; then they are exactly that - because God has invested His priest with the authority to say that it is so and in so doing make it so. When a priest says that sins have been forgiven, then they are forgiven -  because God has invested His priest with the authority to say that it is so and in so doing make it so. As  far as sacramental action is concerned, "holy order" amounts to a Divine Undertaking that when the "ordained minister" does and says certain things, then God will certainly objectively honour them.

    All sacramental action is predicated on priestly authority. Without it, the sacraments would be mere symbols of pious wishful-thinking. When the sacramental symbols are underpinned by the Divine Accreditation and guarantee of effectiveness they become an inestimable source of comfort and consolation and strength. The fact that they are objectively under-written by God makes them subjectively helpful for sinners, who can be obsessed with their "unworthiness" and find it difficult to believe that God really cares about them.

    The sacraments - and the authority that upholds them - are not additional hurdles that God has instituted in order to filter out those who are acceptable to Him. The sacraments are not badges that we must collect before we are worthy to stand before Him. No, they are helps and medicines offered to us for our benefit and help and health and wholeness. The Catholic priest is not there to regulate or eek-out access to God, in the kind of role that some pagan priests assigned to themselves. His only authentic role is to build bridges, break bonds, pronounce forgiveness and distribute God's beneficence to all those who approach with as much as a semblance of good will. He is a door-keeper only in the sense of someone who has the key that will unlock the door. It is not his business to turn away any who honestly seek to enter; for he should be sure that all who knock have been led to do so by the prompting of Holy Spirit.

    Priestly authority can be mis-used if it is not exercised in an authentic manner. It is a power - because the priest is able to do something - but it is not an expertise - because he has no idea how he is able to do it! It is founded on an accredited authorization, otherwise known as "ordination". The priest knows what to do, and that he can do it; but not why or how his actions have the result that he believes them to have.

    Deacons have no specific power with regard to any of the sacraments.

    Kingly Authority

    Kingly authority in the Church exists to guide the activity of Her members. Just as this activity divides into mental and physical, so the guidance divides into theoretical and practical. The first is called "Magisterial" authority and the second "Pastoral" authority - part of which is "jurisdiction".

    Magisterial authority is the power and/or expertise to state and clarify the theoretical underpinning of the Christian Life: otherwise called Doctrine or Dogma. This is a power partly backed by expertise as being based on philosophical and theological study of the matters in question. The aspect of this authority that is not backed by expertise, but rather underwritten by Divine guarantees of "indefectability" and "infallibility" is properly called the "Magisterium". This is necessary as serving a function equivalent to experimentation in the Natural Sciences. Without the touch-stone or "reality check" of the Magisterium, theology would be a science without a clearly identifiable subject!

    The bishops of the Church are the agents by which the Magisterium is exercised. When they teach as individuals they should be concerned to authentically represent and explain the Catholic consensus of belief. When they teach in consort, as a united fellowship, they should be concerned to listen to the prompting of Holy Spirit and so be able to authentically develop this consensus in response to whatever new challenges or opportunities present themselves. The Bishop of Rome has a special role in the development of doctrine, of which I have written extensively elsewhere.

    Within the Church "jurisdiction" is the assignment and direction of the authority of "holy order" towards and for the good of a particular and identifiable group of individuals. Typically, a Deacon, Presbyter or Bishop is given charge of some community (with the type and scope of authority characteristic of their degree of order) by a superior Church authority.

    In the case of a Bishop, this superior authority is in principle "the entire fellowship of Bishops acting together". In practice it may be a sub-set of the entire episcopate (a local legislative synod) or a single Archbishop or Patriarch acting as executive officer for "the entire fellowship of Bishops acting together", in which case they should act in accordance with procedures established by unquestioned and immemorial custom or "the entire fellowship of Bishops acting together". Such procedures are normally set out as lists of regulations or "canons".

    "Holy Order" is a divine authority and in itself is not subject to any human regulation or emendation. Jurisdiction is the necessary means by which it is applied in practice, and is a question of the convenient and peaceable regulation of the exercise of "holy order". If it were possible for a single bishop to conveniently govern the entire Church then the concept of jurisdiction would not arise. However (thank God!) this is not the case and so there are many Bishops actively ministering within the Church. Jurisdiction is the formalization of how these equal authorities regulate their behaviour of "mutual deference" in "charitable respect" one to another.

    So far as pastoral action is concerned, "holy order" amounts to a Divine Undertaking to provide sufficient grace to the "ordained minister" so that the advice and guidance that (s)he gives to those in their care will be for the good. Unfortunately, this promise is often frustrated by the sinfulness of the minister, so that the "sufficient grace" does not in fact produce the effect it is intended to achieve, and in fact bad advice and guidance is given. Hence it is extremely important that any ordained minister should be committed to a life of repentance, prayer, theological study and sanctification. This is intended to inculcate that expertise generally known as wisdom or holiness.

    Prophetic Authority

    Hierarchical authority; that which is based on sacramental guarantees, is not the only form of authority that operates within the Church. It has to contend with that of Prophets and Teachers. Whereas priestly authority and kingly authority are largely directed towards communities and people in general, the prophet and teacher is generally concerned with individuals.

    The Prophet is a charismatically inspired proponent of God's Word. Obvious ecclesial examples are Stephen Protomartyr, Athanasius of Alexandria, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola and John Henry Newman. A prophet may be a member of the hierarchy or he may not be. He might even be a woman! He or she is typically not a comfortable or easy person for the hierarchy to get on with. They will spend a good deal of their time denouncing complacency and error and implicitly criticizing those in high places. The authority of the prophet is based on his authenticity: the connection that he has with God and his personal commitment to be faithful to the truth that is shown to him. The characteristic temptation of the prophet is to mistake his own subjective prejudices for God's objective vision.

    The Teacher is the proponent of reason and understanding within the Church. Obvious examples are Origen and St Thomas Aquinas. Nowadays, he or she is likely to be an academic theologian. Once more, this role is not an easy one for the hierarchy to come to terms with. The temptation of the priest is to coerce: to analyse situations in terms of the exercise of power, though this type of analysis should be foreign to the Christian Community! The Teacher, by contrast, seeks to understand and then to persuade: not to define and forbid. The authority of the teacher is based on his personal expertise. The characteristic temptation of the teacher is to show off his own skill in order to gain the admiration of pupils, at the expense of truth.

    Each of these dynamics has its proper place in the life of the Church. The Prophet encourages and denounces; the Teacher explains, criticizes and persuades; the Priest listens and decides.

    The Three-fold Ordained Ministry

    The witness of the Fathers

    "Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest"
    [Ignatius of Antioch: "Letter to the Magnesians"]

    "Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore - and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men. For they are not the deacons of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They must therefore guard against blame as against fire"
    [Ignatius of Antioch: "Letter to the Trallians"]

    "In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church. I am confident that you accept this, for I have received the exemplar of your love and have it with me in the person of your bishop. His very demeanour is a great lesson and his meekness is his strength. I believe that even the godless do respect him"
    [Ignatius of Antioch: "Letter to the Trallians"]

    "Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel"
    [Clement of Alexandria "Miscellanies 6:13:107:2"]

    "When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfil the bishop's command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful.
    .... On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive, and not the power to give. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains.
    .... Over a deacon, then, let the bishop speak thus: ‘O God, who have created all things and have set them in order through your Word; Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom you sent to minister to your will and to make clear to us your desires, grant the Holy Spirit of grace and care and diligence to this your servant, whom you have chosen to serve the Church and to offer in your holy places the gifts which are offered to you by your chosen high priests, so that he may serve with a pure heart and without blame, and that, ever giving praise to you, he may be accounted by your good will as worthy of this high office: through your Son Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and honour to you, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit, in your holy Church, both now and through the ages of ages. Amen’" [Hypolytus: "The Apostolic Tradition"]

    "A bishop is the same as a presbyter. And before dissensions were introduced into religion by the instigation of the devil, and it was said among the people, I am of Paul, and I of Cephas, churches were governed by a common council of presbyters. Afterwards, that the seeds of dissension might be plucked up, the whole charge was devolved upon one. Therefore, as presbyters know that by the custom of the Church they are subject to him who presides, so let bishops know that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than in consequence of our Lord's appointment, and ought to rule the Church for the common good."
    [Jerome: "In Titum 1.5"]

    "For when the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops, must not a mere server of tables and of widows be insane to set himself up arrogantly over men through whose prayers the body and blood of Christ are produced?  .... Peter also says in his first epistle: 'The presbyters which are among you I exhort, who am your fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of Christ ... taking the oversight thereof not by constraint but willingly, according unto God.' In the Greek the meaning is still plainer, for the word used is 'episkopountes', that is to say, overseeing, and this is the origin of the name overseer or bishop .....
    When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself..... For what function excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter?
    .... Of the names presbyter and bishop the first denotes age, the second rank. In writing both to Titus and to Timothy the apostle speaks of the ordination of bishops and of deacons, but says not a word of the ordination of presbyters; for the fact is that the word bishops includes presbyters also." [Jerome: "Epistle CXLVI"]

    Jerome is quite clear that there is no difference between a presbyter and a bishop apart from seniority and the exact role that he has been assigned to play - by law and custom - in the governance of a particular church.
    "It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them" [Oecumenical Council of Nicaea: Canon 18]

    "[In Philippians 1:1 Paul says,] ‘To the co-bishops and deacons.’ What does this mean? Were there plural bishops of some city? Certainly not! It is the presbyters that [Paul] calls by this title; for these titles were then interchangeable, and the bishop is even called a deacon. That is why, when writing to Timothy, he says, ‘Fulfil your diaconate’, although Timothy was then a bishop. That he was in fact a bishop is clear when Paul says to him, ‘Lay hands on no man lightly’, and again, ‘Which was given you with the laying on of hands of the presbytery’, and presbyters would not have ordained a bishop" [John Chrysostom: "Homilies on Philippians"]

    Chrysostom is pretty clear that Bishops and presbyters are quite different, to the extent that he has to excuse the Apostle Paul for suggesting that they are not! It would have been fascinating to ask him how the Bishop was distinguished from the presbyter in the days when "these titles were interchangeable"? His teaching is clearly in line with the straightforward interpretation of Canon 18 of Nicaea. The idea that the Bishop is an entirely different order, over, against and above the presbyter, has become the common view of the Eastern Church.

    The teaching of Florence

    According to the (noninfallible) positive Ordinary Magisterium of the Oecumenical Council of Florence:
    "The sixth is the sacrament of orders.
    Its matter is the object by whose handing over the order is conferred.
    So the priesthood is bestowed by the handing over of a chalice with wine and a paten with bread; the diaconate by the giving of the book of the gospels; the subdiaconate by the handing over of an empty chalice with an empty paten on it; and similarly for the other orders by allotting things connected with their ministry. The form for a priest is: 'Receive the power of offering sacrifice in the church for the living and the dead, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit'. The forms for the other orders are contained in full in the Roman pontifical.
    The ordinary minister of this sacrament is a bishop.
    The effect is an increase of grace to make the person a suitable minister of Christ."
    Note that this text clearly states that the diaconate is sacramental, but also that so is the subdiaconate and the minor orders. This is in accordance with the somewhat fluid view of what a sacrament is that was common before Trent insisted that there were exactly seven sacraments and that each was exactly defined and delineated by its object, matter and form. The idea that the bishop is only the ordinary minister of the sacrament of Order (as also confirmation) is interesting. It it in keeping with Jerome's notion that Episcopacy is only the senior rank of the Presbyterate, rather than a separate order in its own right. This idea is also indicated by the fact that no mention is made here of the bestowing of the episcopacy, but only the priesthood. The idea that a Bishop is just "a presbyter with jurisdiction" has been the common view of the Western Church.

    The doctrine of Florence has been repudiated, in the following particulars:

    The teaching of Trent

    ".... it was suitable that, in the most well ordered settlement of the church, there should be several and diverse orders of ministers .... so distributed as that those already marked with the clerical tonsure should ascend through the lesser to the greater orders. For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons .... and, from the very beginning of the church, the names of the following orders, and the ministrations proper to each one of them, are known to have been in use; to wit those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, lector, and door-keeper; though these were not of equal rank: for the subdeaconship is classed amongst the greater orders by the Fathers and sacred Councils, wherein also we very often read of the other inferior orders."
    [Oecumenical Council of Trent: Session XXIII, Chapter 2]

    "But, forasmuch as in the sacrament of Order .... a character is imprinted .... the holy Synod with reason condemns the opinion of those, who assert that the priests of the New Testament have only a temporary power ....  And if any one affirm, that all Christians indiscriminately are priests of the New Testament, or that they are all mutually endowed with an equal spiritual power, he clearly does nothing but confound the ecclesiastical hierarchy .... as if, contrary to the doctrine of blessed Paul, all were apostles, all prophets, all evangelists, all pastors, all doctors. Wherefore, the holy Synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees,

    "If any one saith, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema."
    [Oecumenical Council of Trent: Session XXIII, Canon VI]

    "If any one saith, that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that they have not the power of confirming and ordaining; or, that the power which they possess is common to them and to priests; or, that orders, conferred by them, without the consent, or vocation of the people, or of the secular power, are invalid; or, that those who have neither been rightly ordained, nor sent, by ecclesiastical and canonical power, but come from elsewhere, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments; let him be anathema."
    [Oecumenical Council of Trent: Session XXIII, Canon VII]

    The implication is that the Fathers of the Council of Trent considered all of the major orders - including the diaconate: though it is not mentioned explicitly - as fully sacramental. They did not, however, resolve the inter-relationships linking the episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate. Although Canon VII appears to teach that Bishops are radically different from presbyters, in fact it does not do so; for the "power that they possess" might be purely juridical rather than sacramental in character: as is almost certainly the case as regards their being "the ordinary ministers" of confirmation in the Western Church.

    In continuity with the teaching of Florence, the subdiaconate is once more clearly accounted as belonging to the ranks of the major orders, though the significance of this categorization is now left unclear. While it is never clearly stated that even the diaconate is sacramental; to the extent that it is so, it would seem that so are the minor orders - all being classified as "ministers" under Canon VI.

    The teaching of Vatican II

    While the Council of Trent is ambiguous about the sacramentality of the diaconate, this was affirmed clearly (but noninfallibly) by the second Vatican council, which stated that deacons are ordained and are strengthened by the grace of the sacrament. It also taught (noninfallibly, of course) that the Episcopate was a different order from the presbyterate. The "major order" of the  subdeacon was practically abolished in the Western Church by pope Paul VI when he published his ordinal.


    The dogmatic position is very untidy and has been subject to a significant degree of mutation over time. While it is clear: the following questions are still open, to various degrees:
    1. Is the Diaconate a fully sacramental order, constitutive of the nature of the Church; or is it only of human institution?
    2. Is the Episcopate a different order from that of the Presbyterate; or is a Bishop no more than a senior Presbyter?
    3. Do the minor orders participate at all in the sacrament of Holy Order?
    4. What is the matter of ordination?
    On the whole, the Eastern Church would answer "yes", "yes", "yes" and "imposition of hands"; whereas the Western Church (prior to 1965; following the teaching of Florence) would have answered "unsure", "no", "yes, as regards the subdiaconate at least" and "investiture with the implements" - a position that might be called "presbyterianism".

    The Credibility of the Catholic Magisterium

    For the Catholic Church to be effective in Her mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, it is necessary for Her chief spokesmen to have a degree of credibility. Now, this is not absolutely necessary; for the message of the Gospel as contained in the New Testament speaks for itself.  Moreover the multitude of the laity have a vital and, in theory, pre-eminent role in proclaiming and promoting the Gospel. Nevertheless, were the chief authorities of the Church to lose the respect of the audience to which they should be proclaiming the Gospel, then there would be a great tendency for the Gospel to lose its force. This is because the common man would tend to associate the Divine Message with its human advocates, and to the extent that they are disgraced, dismiss it as of little account.

    Such a loss of respect might arise from one of two opposing causes. First, from a resolute and principled stand being taken for justice and against some popular fashion or prejudice: as Jeremiah lost the respect (if ever he had it) of the rulers of Jerusalem. Alternately, from a pig-headed stand being taken against some new knowledge or insight or implementation of justice: as the popes lost the respect of much of the European Church when they failed to respond with sufficient vigour and wisdom to the corruption of the late medieval Church, even when this was brought forcefully to their attention by Martin Luther. In the former case, respect was lost because the authority has been concerned to remain authentic to its commission, in the latter case, respect was lost because the authority has failed to be authentic to its commission. It should not need to be said that the first loss of respect was "a necessary price that had to be paid" and was a source of grace, whereas the second loss of respect was the result of conceit and complacency, entirely avoidable, and the source of much evil.

    There is a great temptation for any authority to seek to maintain its credibility by denying that it has ever made any kind of mistake. This strategy is bound to fail: for all authority as exercised by human beings is necessarily fallible. Even if no clear mistakes can be adduced, the mere claim to beinfallible (in the common sense meaning of that term) is enough to undermine trust. This is because it indicates that the authority in question is not self-critical and, indeed, complacent, self-satisfied and out of touch with reality. When clear mistakes are easily found in the past (and this is certainly the norm) then any failure on the part of the fallible authority to recognize its own fallibility makes it obvious that there are no grounds for hope that the present exercise of power will be free of mistakes - though as yet what these may be is unknown.

    Already, in this document, I have given one example of how Catholic teaching has mutated significantly over the centuries, namely concerning the nature of the Sacramental Ministry: the relationship of Episcopacy and Presbyterate and the matter of Ordination. To this can be added the admission of women to the diaconate.

    Examples of the mutation of Catholic teaching and indicative practice

    I have written extensively on the following subjects elsewhere:

    Examples of issues where the Church's credibility is now at stake

    There are three other two "hot issues" in the Church at the present time. All are connected with gender and sex. The first is the matter of women's ordination, which I have covered extensively elsewhere. The second is the matter of pedophilia among Western-Rite Catholic clergy and the cover-up of the matter by their Bishops. The third is the matter of the Church's teaching on and policy toward "homosexuality" and "homosexuals".
    The pederast priest scandal
    It is not my business here to expose the horrors of what happened under the cloak of Catholicism in this regard. This should not be taken to indicate that I under-estimate or excuse in any way the sheer evil involved. My business is rather to indicate how the  response of the Catholic hierarchy was part of a larger pattern of wickedness. In fact, the "pederast priest scandal and cover-up" is just one part of a complex of mis-management that has characterized the Catholic Church since the 1960's. It only differs from issues such as:
    1. the decay of catechesis and Catholic Education;
    2. the prevalence of gross liturgical abuses;
    3. the decline in reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament, the Mother of God and the Saints;
    4. the mass laicization of Catholic priests;
    5. the huge increase in divorce and marriage annulment;
    6. the collapse in vocations to the Apostolic Ministry and Religious Life;
    7. the advance of syncretism into the heart of the Church;
    8. and the advance of indifferentism into the heart of the Church;
    in one regard. This is that the sexual abuse of children is a matter of concern to secular courts.

    In all cases - including the matter of pederasty - the policy of the Church has been:

    1. Deny that there is a problem:
    2. When it becomes apparent that there is a problem:
    3. Once it is clear that some individual is the cause of the problem:
    4. Go-back to 1.
    This is entirely oriented towards avoiding embarrassment and short-term loss of credibility.

    In the case of pederasty, this policy was pretty much certain to fail. Some lay person would eventually decide that "it just wasn't good enough", and that "someone ought to be held responsible". As soon as any lay person did come to this view, they would have the option to take the matter before the secular courts; and no motivation not to.

    The net effect of this policy has been to convince very many people that the Catholic hierarchy is not to be trusted. In some cases, people have been lost to the Church because they found it personally impossible to remain associated with an organization that has been so publicly discredited.

    This is linked with the issue of pederast priests in the minds of many. I believe that this is profoundly mistaken. However it is not possible to argue this case effectively because much of the evidence that I would want to refer to is not available. This fact is not accidental, but is itself a symptom of the presumption that exists in the minds of many - not least many in the Catholic hierarchy - that "homosexuality" is unwholesome and wicked. The required data is suppressed and any researcher who tried to discover the truth would be prevented from doing so.

    I have written on this topic extensively elsewhere. Here, it is sufficient to say that:

    Moreover, because: It would seem that the present official teaching of the Church is pastorally inept and hugely counter-productive.

    Finally, because:

    The Church is becoming more and more isolated from civilized, informed and educated opinion on the subject of "homosexuality", as it is on every issue related to gender, sex, reproduction and sexuality.

    How can the Catholic Magisterium regain its credibility?

    The answer to this question is very simple, though acutely unpalatable. The hierarchy must repent. They must acknowledge both as individuals and as a body that they have made many serious mistakes in the past: sometimes for understandable reasons, sometimes out of sheer idiocy or wickedness. The Magisterium must clearly spell out what exactly these mistakes were, why they were made, what lessons can be drawn from them and where these lessons might be applicable in the present day. Anodyne apologies, as made by pope John-Paul II, are useless; as they are remote from present reality and do not indicate any kind of change of mentality.

    This would not further sap the Heirarchy's waning credibility, but rather would boost it enormously. While it would undoubtedly be a "loss of face", it would convince many people of good will that the Magisterium had at last examined its own conscience, was becoming self-critical and was ready to dialogue. This would win the Heirarchy enormous respect, and people seeking for the truth would flood into the Catholic fold. It is possible that the millennial schism between Rome and Constantinople might be healed, and even the Reformation split be mitigated!

    There would be no need for the Church to give up Her claim to Infallibility: as it has been defined and is understood by theologians. Neither is there any need for the papacy to repudiate its legitimate central role within the Church. All that is required is the exercise of the central virtue of humility: something that has been sorely lacking in the Catholic Hierarchy over the last thousand years or more!

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