Today’s first reading includes a rather curious line. The Apostles write to the Christians in Antioch, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” (Acts 15:28) It sounds as though they’re placing themselves on equal level with the Holy Spirit, as if their approval is necessary for his decision. It’s like the priest who began his sermon, “Our Lord once said, and I think he’s right. . .”
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us. Although a curious line, it is extraordinarily important as a statement about the Church’s teaching authority and indeed about the authority of all Christians. It doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit needed the Apostles’ approbation, but that He himself was speaking through the Apostles. A disagreement about the Gospel had arisen in Antioch. God did not leave his people in doubt, but guided the Church by the Spirit and the Apostles, his teaching authority.
Our culture is suffering an extraordinary crisis of authority. There’s no institution that hasn’t lost some or all credibility due to abuse of authority by a leader or leaders. Such leaders have used their authority for what should not be done and failed to use it for what should be done. Worse still, the particular instances of this abuse have prompted some to reject the very principle of authority.
Turns out authority is a pretty important thing for us contingent beings. We’re not as autonomous as we’d like to think. We will have some kind of authority. Just because we reject one authority doesn’t mean we won’t recognize another. When we close the door on a legitimate – but abused – authority, some other kind will sneak in through the window.
So, the danger is not that people will be adrift with no guidance whatsoever. It’s that people will lash themselves to capricious and harmful authorities. For stability and guidance, they will look to an absolutist government, or the “experts”, or the media, or “science,” or the economy, or the gang. And so on. Every “free thinker” who now writes or speaks against “the man” once upon a time yielded to the authority of his teacher to learn his ABCs.
The scene from the Acts of the Apostles is the earliest example of the Church’s magisterium, or teaching authority. It comes from what is commonly known as the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened to address whether Mosaic Law (and circumcision in particular) still obligated Christians. This was a turning point for the Church. Either they had to keep the entire Mosaic Law, or they didn’t.
The Apostles’ exercise of authority was greeted enthusiastically by the Christians in Antioch (perhaps by men in particular): “they were delighted with the exhortation.” (Acts 15:29) Needless to say, that’s not how we moderns greet authoritative teachings. No, we see them as an imposition, a restriction on our thought.
In fact, the Church’s magisterium is at the service of thought. The Church teaches authoritatively not to enslave Christians but to free them from error and division. By teaching authoritatively on the Mosaic Law, the Council of Jerusalem freed the first Christians from the slavery of the Judaizers and kept the nascent Church from division.
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us. This line reveals the fulfillment of what our Lord promises in today’s Gospel: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Jn 26)
It is the Spirit himself who teaches the Apostles in Jerusalem and who teaches others through them. The Spirit causes them to remember all that the Lord told them and thus makes the Church a remembering institution, the body that makes him and his teachings present.
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us. These words apply in a unique manner to the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. In another way, they apply also to all Christians.
First, they prompt us to ask what authority we follow. What shapes our lives? Is it the Gospel of Christ as we know it through the Church, or some worldly ideology? There will be some authority in our lives. It will be either the Spirit speaking through the Church, or some force in the world. Either we receive the Church’s authoritative teachings with delight, or we reject them and become slaves to another power.
Second, our own thoughts, words, and actions should be the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us. This requires our being receptive and responsive to the Spirit’s promptings. The Holy Spirit is given to us not so that we can live our own lives with his help but so that we can think, speak, and act as Christ. Or, rather, so that we can say with Saint Paul, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) The Spirit is given to be our advocate and guide. He should encounter in us a generous and obedient response to his promptings.
This oneness of the Church with the Spirit makes her members authoritative witnesses to Christ. As we see in the saints, docility to the Spirit’s promptings – the ability to say, it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us – gives a mere man or woman the moral authority that no worldly office can confer.
*Image: The Defenders of the Eucharist by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great. and St. Clare of Assissi are seen to the left of St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Norbert and St. Jerome are on the right. Thomas speaks with authority about the Eucharist, receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit (above).