Authority of the Church

I posted again in the Being Frank blog (it’s quite good) under the entry entitled "Wrestling with dissent". The discussion in the thread has turned to the dogmatic status of some teachings in the Catholic Church, including priestly ordination being reserved for men alone, and the disorderedness of contraception and homosexual acts (all very controvercial and distinctly Catholic teachings); so this is what I posted in seeking some clarification on the matter:

Thanks for the edifying posts. Speaking as one who hasn’t entirely figured out these matters, I think it would be helpful to get to the underlying principles in a couple of ways:

1. Infallibility

I guess the issue comes down to the means and the sphere of infallibility: for the former, the question would be "what are the means through which these are infallibly defined, and the required conditions for each of these means?", which naturally leads to the latter "which teachings fulfill these conditions and therefore are infallible?" (it seems to me this is the contentious part). May I be so bold as to suggest this as a new blog topic(s) for another day?

As I understand it, the Catholic Church has three infallible authorities which compliment each other: Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and the Sacred Magisterium, so explanations of these and the requirements of each would cover the first question. For the second question, it might be good to examine those issues we have talked about earlier – women’s ordination, homosexuality and contraception – in the light of the first part (so, for example, whether or not the Pope’s proclamation in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis fulfills the conditions for Papal Infallibility and therefore Sacred Magisterium).

Related to this are the questions, "what are the philosophical and scriptural basis for this doctrine?" and, "what are the fallible teachings of the Church?", which may help to understand the issue more.

2. Obedience

An interesting question is, "are there any instances in which the faithful is allowed to disobey their superiors or the magisterium or dissent from the official teachings of the Church (be it infallible or non-infallible)?". I think an explanation of the theology of obedience would help clarify a lot of things (I know it would for me, at least).

God bless!
TTM

It’s a fascinating topic which generates a lot of questions. Watch this space!

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2 thoughts on “Authority of the Church”

  1. Your article prompted me to write this in my babbling blog

    Certain churches seem to elevate the Bible to the status of something to worship. The bible has become a Golden Calf. Instead of worshiping the Author, we worship the words. The argument goes that you can’t question one word in the bible or you have to doubt the entire bible. But what it really means is if you question “their” interpretation of the bible, then you’re not really a “Good Christian”.

    I think about times when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees. They would hold up the scriptures and point down at Him from their place of authority. For example, in Luke 6:1 Jesus and his disciples picked up grain in the field to eat. The Pharisees said, what you are doing is not legal. Jesus responded (my interpretation), “Which is more important, the scrolls or the author of the scrolls?”

    Numerous times Jesus went to heal on the Sabbath. He was always condemned for breaking the law.

    Luke 6:9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

    In each time he was confronted, Jesus would respond (my interpretation) “what is really important is a man’s heart. To love the Lord God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind, and that he loves his neighbor’s as himself.

    I think those that stand on their high cliff and point down to the masses and shout at them about how scripture condemns them, really misses the point of Jesus’ message.

  2. I agree about the over elevation of the Bible. It is not the Bible we worship; we worship the Word of God made incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think this over elevation is simply a part of the premise of the Sola Scriptura doctrine, which is that the Bible is the sole infallible source of truth – and to hold to this means to believe that one is capable of perfect interpretation (supposedly through the Holy Spirit), since otherwise there is no other means to obtain the truth. This is the reason why many churches do claim that “you can’t question one word in the bible” and, as you have rightly pointed out, end up preaching their interpretation of it as the truth the Bible proclaims (which is just one among many, often contradicting, interpretations). Jesus has promised that, “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Sola Scriptura has proven to contradict this, since conflicting interpretations continue to divide Protestant denominations. This is why the Catholic Church rejects the Sola Scriptura doctrine (so, you might be closer to a Catholic line of thought than you might think).

    One must ask, in addition, what happened before the Scriptures were written down, or before they were compiled – did they still preach Sola Scriptura then? What about the times when a Bible was worth an entire year’s wages, and therefore inaccessible by a vast majority of the ordinary mortals? What about the illiterate people of today, or throughout history? I think Sola Scriptura is simply too modern a concept to have been a viable concept throughout the Church’s 2000-year history.

    The alternative to Sola Scriptura, of course, is to have an authority set up by Christ himself (Matthew 16:18). This is complimented by the Apostolic, spoken Word of God (1 Thess 2:13) handed down (2 Thess 2:15) as we see recorded in the Bible itself (2 Tim 2:2). A cursory look at the Church’s claim in the light of the Scriptures, for example at Catholic Answers, would additionally confirm the mutually reaffirming nature of these three authorities.

    As for the examples you cite, the Nelson Catholic Commentary on Holy Scriptures states: “the objection made to our Lord is that the action of his disciples is equivalent to reaping” (p.948), which is of course a silly legalism. The Jerome Commentary also mentions that it was OK to walk through a neighbour’s field, but the Pharisees forbade this on the sabbath, and so Jesus did away with a silly law which was not serving its intended purpose.

    To examine this still further, we should look to the preceding verses in Luke 5:36-39, the parable of the old wineskin and the new. Nelson states, “He does not condemn the old Mosaic observances (as Mt makes clear in 5:17-20 and Lk will indicate later, 16:16-18); they are good in themselves but they have served the purpose for which God gave them. …Jesus has yet to make them realize that the Mosaic Dispensation loses nothing of its honour in finding its perfection and completion in him. But it would be false to conclude from these parables that he has any intention of preserving it; to add the Gospel on the frame-work of the old observances would only spoil both.” (p.948) It’s interesting to note that “both are preserved”, since straight after these incidents He goes on to choose the 12 Apostles, indicating formation of a new Israel (equivalent to the 12 tribes). The new has come, and the old has passed.

    The point Jesus seems to be making here is that the natural and moral law, the very aspects of God’s nature which man was designed to find freedom in, were the things the Mosaic law was trying to communicate for the good of man, and not as a set of silly legalisms. Thus, we are now to observe the law Christ the Logos. My Oxford American Dictionary defines as follows:

    Logos |ˈlōˌgōs; -ˌgäs|
    noun Theology
    the Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ.

    So, when Christ responds to the legalism of Pharisees, he is not advocating relativism or any sort of relaxation in the law, but the fulfillment of it in His very nature. This, he makes clear in these following verses:

    “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-20)

    So, when the Church speaks about women’s ordination, homosexuality, contraception or abortion, it’s not talking about some trivial legalities, it’s the very expression of Christ’s nature through natural law and moral law.

    Hope this helps.

    God bless!
    TTM

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