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The Church’s Real, and Perceived, Authority

The difference between what Catholics think the Church controls, and what actually lies within her jurisdiction, is startling. Some believe Church authority intrudes into every aspect of life; examples of this view include sneers about the Church “being in the bedroom” and the assumption that there is an official teaching for each verse in the Bible.

At the other extreme, some see Church authority as irrelevant to their lives and to matters Catholic – witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response [1] concerning whether she can receive Holy Communion as an abortion-enabling politician: “I think I can use my own judgment on that.”

Knowing where the Church’s authority does – and does not – reside is essential to Catholic living since where the Church is, there is Christ Himself.

Dominus Iesus [2], (a declaration issued by Cardinal Ratzinger during St. JPII’s papacy) perfectly articulates the source of Church authority: “Jesus Christ continues his presence and his work of salvation in the Church and by means of the Church, which is his body.” Since Christ is alive within her, the Church has His authority, first given to Peter and then the twelve apostles collectively, to “bind and loose,” i.e., to enact laws for the faithful. These laws are intended to flow in one direction: Lex animarum suprema lex (“The salvation of souls is the supreme law”).

The Church, then, mediates Christ’s salvation through the specific gifts He entrusted to her. His teachings are articulated as her doctrine and Scriptures; His grace is transmitted through her sacraments; His laws are redacted through her canon law. The Church has Christ’s authority to regulate all this under the direction of her divinely constituted leaders, the pope and the bishops in union with him.

Certainly, some Church teachings are closer to the supreme law of salvation than others. The colors of the liturgical seasons, for example, are not as essential as the beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed. Yet as I explain in Staying with the Catholic Church [3], these teachings are all connected because of their shared, divine source, as the leaves on a tree are all connected to the trunk. To cast doubt on one teaching is to cast doubt on all.

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By Christ’s mandate, it is not only the Church’s right, but her duty to see that her teachings and laws are heeded. That includes the teachings people do not want to hear – moral teachings concerning human sexuality included – and the sacramental laws that abortion-enabling politicians such as Speaker Pelosi think they can disregard. The Church’s primary method of teaching is through Sunday homilies and formal instruction of the young, of catechumens, and of those seeking sacraments. For very grave matters, the Church can enforce her law through excommunication. The intention in doing so is to help the guilty realize the gravity of their sins and the need for repentance.

At the same time, this seemingly unlimited power of the Church to rule is circumscribed by the deposit of faith – by what God has revealed through Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The Church cannot teach what is contrary to revelation. So, no pope, bishop, or priest can ever declare four persons in the Blessed Trinity, or that contraception or same-sex marriage are moral. They would no longer be in communion with the Church. The faithful are obliged to obey the clergy when they teach what the Church teaches; should certain clerics wander down the wrong theological path, the faithful ought not to follow them.

In her formal teachings, the Church deliberately clings to what God has revealed, especially in defining dogmas, which are infallible declarations of truths revealed by God. The Church only defines a dogma if she is completely certain that a teaching is from God. For example, in the declaration of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption, the Church does not state whether Mary died, for the simple reason that we do not know. Before the mysteries of God, the Church possesses a humility that most never notice.

This humility stretches to interpreting Scripture and to the spiritual life. Because God speaks to His people through the Bible, the Church does not force God’s voice into a single direction unless it becomes necessary to defend the Bible from heretics, as happened with Jesus’ statements about the Eucharist and about the Church’s foundation by Christ. Aside from these relatively few passages, Catholics are free to read the Bible and listen to God speak to them in the moment. The same goes for prayers and devotions; the Church sanctions them as orthodox but never requires us to partake of any beyond Sunday Mass.

The influence of the Church’s authority in Catholic living is directly proportional to one’s faith. Whoever strives to live devoutly will heed the Church more than those whose faith is weak or dead. But the latter cannot claim that the Church is for thee, not for me, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium [4] makes frighteningly clear: “All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”

Holy mother Church has one goal: to bring all her children to Christ, the light of the nations. Like any good mother, she sets the rules and gives us all the tools we need to reach our goal. She also gives us space for our spirits to roam with God’s expansive house so that, like young Samuel in the Temple, we can hear Christ’s voice calling each of us to do His will.

 

*Image: Samuel Relating to Eli the Judgements of God upon Eli’s House by John Singleton Copley, 1780 [Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT]

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.