Authority 1

Some time ago an Anglican priest who reads this blog said that he disagreed with Catholicism because he could not go along with papal infallibility. He said an infallible authority other than the Bible simply wasn’t necessary. I thought it warranted a post on its own, but the more I thought about it, the more it seems that it warrants a series of posts on authority in the church. I hope those who are out there who read this blog might join in and comment and pick me up where my ‘thinking out loud’ goes wrong.

Apart from anything else, this comment illustrates just how far most Anglicans are from being Catholic even if they continue to profess how much they are ‘Catholic Anglicans’ or ‘Catholics in the Anglican Church.’ At the fundamental level most of them are Protestant Bible Christians. Do not get me wrong, this is not to knock good Protestant Bible Christians, nor is it an attempt to knock Anglicans. It is simply a statement that clarifies a position.

The fact of the matter is, that there are really only two positions to take regarding authority in the church: 1. That you believe in an infallible authority or 2. that you do not. In the first case you believe in revealed religion. In the second, you believe in relative religion.

It is easy to think that those who believe in an infallible authority are all Catholics who believe in the Pope. However, it is not so easy as that. While Catholics do believe in an infallible authority structure, what we believe about that is not quite so easy as, “If the Pope says it that settles it.” I will come to an explanation of the Catholic teaching on papal infallibility eventually, but first let’s observe that there are other ways of believing in an infallible authority.

When I was a fundamentalist most of the good Christians I knew believed in an infallible church authority. It was their pastor. Now they did not hold ‘pastoral infallibility’ as a point of doctrine, but they behaved as if they believed it. Infallibility is simply the belief that what a teacher teaches is without error in matters of faith and morals. In other words, it is trustworthy and true. Most of my fundamentalist friends and family go to their church week in and week out with the basic, underlying assumption that their pastor teaches them the truth in matters of faith and morals. In that respect, they believe he is infallible. They know he is an imperfect man, but they believe that an imperfect man might teach the perfect truth perfectly.

They know that he does not know everything and that he is not the final authority on all things, but in that respect again, they are like the Catholics, who also admit these things about their pastor (the universal one that is) Furthermore, most church goers admit this of their system of theology, their mode of worship and their style of church governance. In other words, they assume at the basic level, that their way of doing things is not only right, but it is God-given.

When you think about it, it is obvious that anybody who wants to belong to a church has to work on this assumption, otherwise their church wouldn’t ‘work’ for them. How can you belong to a church when all the time you are doubting that it’s underlying authority structure is unreliable? To belong to a church you have to make the assumption that the whole substructure is true and trustworthy. So there are all sorts of ways of believing in an infallible church authority even if people are not aware of it.

There are also many ways of not believing in an infallible church authority and following relative religion. It is easy to say that the only people who follow a relativist creed are the flaming liberals who think anything goes and ‘if it feels good do it.’ However, just as infallibility can be held unknowingly, so can relativity. The conservative Evangelical is just as relativist in his underlying philosophy as the most radical liberal, it’s just that he doesn’t think he is because he professes to trust in ‘Biblical authority’.

However, every Evangelical and every Evangelical denomination interprets the Bible differently. Furthermore, while they profess to hold to the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ most of them are guilty of moral and doctrinal drift as much as the liberal denominations, even though that drift has not been as far and as fast. 

The typical Protestant, therefore is in a real bind. His belief in Biblical authority has led him to both reject an infallible authority other than the Bible, (while actually in practice he treats his pastor or his denomination as infallible) and to reject relativism (while in practice his faith is relativistic because he has no infallible authority) Totally confused yet?

To put it simply, the non-Catholic Christian (without a recognized infallible authority) can only be relativistic, but in order for his world not to drift and melt away totally, he has to behave as if his personal opinion or the opinion of his pastor or the decisions of his denomination are, in fact, infallible. If he gas honestly thought these things through and says, “Well, it is true and we have no infallible authority, and this means our decisions are in constant flux and are at best provisional.” Then he is really admitting to his relativist position.

Finally, there does seem to be another way. The typical Anglican will say, “Our authority is the Bible and Church tradition, and the first seven (or however many they choose) councils of the church and Vincent of Lerins’ statement, “That which has been believed by all everywhere.” In other words, a kind of “Mere Christianity” the problem with this, of course, is that it too, slips and slides away, for who is going to decide just what constitutes this ‘Mere Christianity’ or Vincent of Lerins’ catechism or which parts of the first councils to receive or which parts of the belief of the church in those early centuries to embrace or reject? Those who hold this more ‘traditionalist’ view cannot agree among themselves just what this ‘Mere Christianity’ consists of, and therefore they too slip back into the same relativist position.

Given the assumption that the relativist position is untenable for any Christian who believes in a revealed religion (“What! Shall we have a revealed religion in which the essentials of the faith remain concealed?”) I will go on in future posts to outline just what we might be looking for if we were to decide that we did, indeed, need an infallible authority in the church.  In other words, what might a God given infallible authority look like?

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  • Peter Brown

    Fr. Dwight,Please make sure you include the Orthodox in your thinking. Otherwise, your claim that "there are really only two positions to take" falls a bit flat.I'm not at all trying to suggest that this can't be done—only that you haven't (yet) done it, at least as far as I can see.Peace,–Peter

  • Damien

    The scene: Jesus has just ascended and the angels have admonished the Apostles and disciples. What does one believe and what does one do?The answer is to believe as the Apostles believe and to do as the Apostles teach — they are the stewards of the Faith given to them by Jesus. Christian writing, what we call the New Testament, wasn't written for decades after the Ascension and wasn't definitively compiled for centuries.The Church was established by Christ and founded on Peter, the Rock. The Church (and its beliefs and practices) came before the New Testament — the New Testament authority is derived from the Church's authority.This is why I must be Catholic and not anything else.

  • shadowlands

    This is really interesting stuff Father.It's something cradle Catholics need to know properly too,in order to help proclaim why we adhere to Church authority.Obedience is the beginning of wisdom,but a clear understanding of the whys and wherefores is necessary too.

  • Remy Rosenhoover

    Papal Infallibility is a minor concept I believe in comparison to teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Papal Infallibility is a relatively recent dogma emphasizing one aspect of the traditional role of the See of Peter. The role of the Pope and his relation to the Catholic bishops & Orthodox bishops, the successors of the Apostles, is widely misunderstood in secular society and the non- Catholic Christian communities. Evangelicals and others accept a 1500 year worm-hole in time that produced the King James Bible and the teaching of Sola-Scriptura. Mormons are a little more intellectually honest than descendants of Martin Luther in that Mormon's honestly believe that Christ's teaching was hidden from the world until discovered by Joseph Smith in the early 1800's buried in a hill in upstate New York. I see many Evangelicals disenfranchised when a pastor is evicted because the elders of the church have sided with the associate pastor as the one truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. What church's teaching and authority spans beyond the few years of a single lead pastor, whose teaching remains consistent for a lifetime from conception until death, whose teaching remains consistent that can be found throughout history all the way back to Christ? What are the teachings of the Church before the Bible? What church codified and selected the writings that became the Bible? What apostle is mentioned more in the Bible than any other? Honestly launch out into the deep and dive into Church History!

  • truthfinder

    Damien, I agree. Apostolic and Papal authority (and the Eucharist) are why I finally became a Catholic.

  • Damien

    Remy,There are no "recent" dogmas since since they must have been implied, but undefined, in the Faith from the beginning.Even if papal infallibility was defined at the First Vatican Council, it flows out of the promise Christ made to Peter. And though there weren't many pronouncements "from the chair," the popes asserted their authority from time to time. Look up Pope St. Leo and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).There is much that has been said by experts about the popes, the Church, and teaching authority. That they exist is Christ's will for us to know him, love him, and serve him.

  • Obpoet

    Here is something I would like to know: how many ex cathedra statements have been issued? Does anyone know?It was helpful to me to know that only two have come down in the last 200 yrs, both Marian dogmas. And that they affirmed something previously held, not some new age idea dreamt up by a new pope.But how many such statements have been issued? I have never seen this discussed.

  • Remy Rosenhoover

    Lets be clear. A council defining a dogma in 1870 is recent for a institution that teaches timeless truth. Yes the Church accepted the infallibility of the successor of Peter throughout the centuries in creeds and in practice. Interesting enough it was a church council that codified or named the concept in 1870. It was not the Pope speaking ex cathedra that defined Papal infallibility. Jesus makes clear the supremacy of Peter in Mathew 16: ""But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The Pope will never define a doctrine that is not taught by the bishops of the church. The teaching authority of the church cannot be factored into a correct teaching and a false teaching. Peter has a special grace to clarify Church teaching and guide the bishops of the church in teaching the faith. My bishop still teaches the faith that the bishop of Hippo taught to the Africans, that St. Paul taught to the Greeks, that St. Peter taught to the Romans and that Jesus Christ taught to his fellow Jews in Palestine. Something more is at work here than Sola Scriptura.

  • Shaughn

    Remy,It's very curious that you bring up St. Augustine. He was notorious (along with most bishops in North Africa) for happily ignoring the Bishop of Rome when he disagreed with him. (This was especially the case on those occasions when the Bishop of Rome was — gasp! — an Arian.) St. Cyprian is a fine example. Briefly, there was some to do about whether heretics should be rebaptized or whether they could be returned to the church. The Bishop of Rome argued that Baptism is Baptism is Baptism — just lay on hands, call for repentence, and off we go. Cyprian disagreed, insisting on rebaptizing heretics. There are two remarkable observations to be made here:a) The Roman position on this particular issue eventually won, but not without difficulty.b) Disagreeing with Rome on a fundamental issue like Baptism did not remove North Africa or St. Cyprian from the Catholic Church.In other words, there is a very strong historical precedent for the authority which some claim to be infallible to be a) ignored and b) not critical for membership in the Catholic Church. That's just one. I could go on about Rome's largely inconsequential presence at the Ecumenical Councils, too, but those are cheap shots, you know.–S.

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    Father,I don't know if you have yet taken a look at my demonstration that infallibility of doctrine is a logical necessity of Christian faith.I am probably far more proud of it than I ought to be.

  • Remy Rosenhoover

    @ShaugnYour argument makes is sound like infallability means there can never be theological discussion about unsettled matters among bishops. This is not the case. Infallability ensures that the church teaches what is true. Today's Sunday mass said around the world will contain the same truth.

  • dave

    You guys/gals are chasing rabbits; whatever became of, "On Christ the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand: ALL other ground is sinking sand?"Cling to your religion if you FEEL good about that; but beware that this approach is like the Proverbs' 5 strange woman whose feet go down to death, her steps take hold on hell.You've bought the lie about Peter who would be aghast at your setting him up as some sort of foundation when he is NOT…go re-read your Greek.

  • Fr Longenecker

    Dave, those are words to a hymn you've just quoted–not Scripture.Jesus told Peter he was 'the Rock' on which he would build his church and St Paul said the church was built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ being the chief cornerstone.I'm not sure what Greek you're referring to, but if you mean the old one about 'Peter' meaning 'little pebble' you need to read a bit more theology and Biblical commentary. Do read Steve Ray's 'On This Rock' for a full treatment of the text in question.

  • Obpoet

    Again, does anyone within earshot know how many ex catherdra pronoucements there have been?

  • Remy Rosenhoover

    @ObpoetShort answer once.Looking forward from 1870; the See of Peter has issued dozens of holy encyclicals, & thousands of homilies on the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church. Are these on there own ex catherdra pronoucements? No. Are they a source for spiritual growth? Absolutely.So in the one time the Pope spoke ex catherdra he did so on the traditional Christian belief in the Assumption of Mary: "that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."To quote Luke 1 46-55:And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." Amen!

  • Obpoet

    Since 1850, there have been two ex cathedra pronouncements. Most os us are familiar with those. What I cannot determine is how many preceded 1850. Does anyone on the planet know?

  • shadowlands

    ObpoetI don't know,but I did try and find out, and came up with pages quoting as little as two,and as many as two hundred and fifty!!Not much use,I know.As a child,I remember being told there were only six,four before the date you mention and that these four are contained in the Creed and held in common with other main Christian religions.However,don't take my word for it,theologian I ain't.

  • Obpoet

    It strikes me as odd that no one seems to know. This seems like it would be trivial pursuit 101 for Catholic Apologists. The point being that most if not all of these pronouncements might be to negate heresies, to uphold what has consistently been held by the faithful, and nothing new and radical at all. But it seems few if any know what they are. If such were known to be the case, it would go a long way to state that Papal infallibility is not such an onerous entity at all.

  • Damien

    In his letter, ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS (1994), Pope John Paul the Great, said in paragraph 4, "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."It is the "definitively" that makes this a pronouncement from the Chair of St. Peter. So there's at least 3 infallible pronouncements.

  • Obpoet

    Hmmm….I am not sure. I have always heard that ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS was not a dogmatic decree. So that just leaves the two. But how many before those?

  • Stevo

    How does the Catholic come to the conclusion that the RCC is infallible and authoritative? He must personally interpret Scripture and the early Church fathers (inter alia). So, the Catholic's belief that the RCC is infallible and authoritative rests upon his reasons for coming to that conclusion.We could evaluate the adequacy of these reasons from a subjective or an objective perspective.Subjectively, did the Catholic form his belief responsibly, or did he deliberately neglect contrary evidence prior to forming his belief? etc. etc.Objectively, has the Catholic actually interpreted Scripture and the Church fathers correctly? etc.At this point you *cannot* appeal the RCC's infallibility or authority to substantiate your reasons; otherwise you reason circularly and demonstrate your belief to be irrational.So, you must justify your Catholicism in the same way the protestant must justify her Protestantism. You're all in the same boat here: personal interpretation etc.So, fallibility isn't a problem for the non-Catholic unless it's a problem for the Catholic. No matter how you word your objection to prots, I'll reword it to backfire on the Catholic.

  • dave

    Scripture is not open to any private interpretation, Stevo, ("He must personally interpret Scripture…"). The RCC has, for centuries, done the very thing that it along with countless others have been commanded to not do. There is no justification for its so-called "infallibility."