refereeSome years ago I was privileged to bring a man into the Church who gave me some insight into the question of authority. He approached entering the Catholic Church with some misgivings. He had come from a Protestant tradition of a simpler but dignified liturgy that featured good preaching and hymn singing. As he looked at the state of Catholic liturgy he found mostly poor preaching and what he considered to be awful music. Also, some Catholic traditions, regarding the saints and devotion to Mary were not doctrinally problematic to him but just felt a little unusual.

But in the end he entered the Catholic Church and I remember that one of the chief reasons he was drawn was over the question of authority. He remembered thinking some years back as he sat in a Protestant service, “How do I know that this man in the pulpit has authority to preach in Jesus’ name?” In the end, authority to preach and teach had to come back to Jesus’ commission: “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16). But just because a person mounts a pulpit or gets a divinity degree does not mean they share in the commission of Jesus. Who actually does speak for Jesus and how can their authority be demonstrated?

In the end the Catholic Church (and also the Orthodox Churches) are the only ones who can demonstrate a direct connection to the Apostles. The laying on of hands is a direct connection to the promises of Christ that the apostles and their successors would speak in his name. All the Protestant denominations broke away from that line and explicitly rejected the need to have a connection to the apostolic succession through the laying on of hands. Who speaks for Christ? Only those who share in the charism of Christ promise to the first apostles “He who hears you, hears me.”

This promise of Christ serves as the basis for authority in the Church. It is the Bishops, in union with the Pope who call the Church to order and unity. It is the authority of Christ, but exercised through his designated representatives. A bishop unites his diocese and the Pope unites the college of bishops. Peter was told that he would “strengthen his brethren” (Luke 22:32), the other apostles. What happens when this system is discarded? It is not necessary to look far. Martin Luther, the first Protestant breakaway, substituted the authority of Scripture for that of the Church. The result? Some estimates now list over 30,000 different Protestant denominations. Why, because when no one is Pope every one is Pope. Without an authoritative interpreter the Bible can divide more than it unites. Put four Christians in a room with a quote from scripture and there my be six opinions as to what it means! Without an authoritative interpreter the text will divide the group. Pastor Jones says it is necessary to be baptized, Pastor Smith says not exactly. Pastor Jones says no to infant baptism but Smith says it is OK. Who is right, who is to say? Who speaks for Christ? Protestantism offers no answers to these questions since they have rejected any authority outside the Book.   The Bible is wonderful but what if there are disagreements over how to understand the Book? No answer.

Christ did not write a book. He founded a Church, with apostolic leaders united around Peter to preach and teach in his name. They ordained successors and this system which Christ established comes to our day as the bishops of the world in union with the Pope. The Bible is precious but it emerged from the Church. It is the Church’s book and it must be authoritatively interpreted somehow. Otherwise, huge division.

This video by Fr. Robert Barron says more on this topic. It is a well crafted video and Father uses a sports analogy to explain Church authority. He also does a very good job of explaining the boundaries of that authority which exists not so much to micromanage the discussion of faith, but, rather to referee the discussion.

9 Responses

  1. Carlos says:

    I might be seeing this from the wrong angle, but I’m wondering about that last part that Fr. Barron mentions on the video, that there can be “over-refereeing.” Aren’t we supposed to practice our faith (and thus bring the Church) to all aspects of our lives? If so, by that same analogy, the referee does participate in every instance of the game. What am I missing?

    • I think Fr. Barron is referring to something different than you describe. It is not the presence of the Chruch teaching in everyday life choices that he refers to. Rather, I understand him to refer to theological discussions and biblical interpretations. In such matters there are permissible differences in interpretation but the Church referees the discussion to keep it within the bounds of the permissible. Take for example a scripture passage, say the passage where Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go in search of one lost sheep. There are a variety of interpretations possible here. The Chruch does not propose that only one understanding is possible. Some interpret the 99 righteous sheep to be the angels in heaven and we are the one lost sheep. Others consider the parable to be intentionally absurd in order to illustrate the complete craziness of God’s love for us, that God loves us in a reamrkably generous and (from a worldly perspective) absurd way. He loves us “for no good reason.” Others try to equate the parable with actual shepherding practices of the day (which I cannot fully recall to list here). There are all possible ways to try and understand Jesus’ words. The Church will not over-referee by trying to weigh in on these legitimately held differences. There is no reason to take sides or shoose only one interpretation. but suppose somebody proposed a meaning to the parable like this: “Jesus will eventually get fed up with humanity (the 99) and leave planet earth in search of another more deserving but lost sheep (planet). :-) I know its absurd but sillier things have been said, believe me. Here the Church would blow the whistle and throw the penalty flag since such an interpretation denies the “everlasting mercy” of God and also the promise of Jesus to remain with us always unto the end of the world. Another more realistic example is this: When Jesus says, “this is my Body.” he is speaking in a literal way. A passage like this has a much more specific meaning than the one above. Here the Church is more involved in insisting on a rather specific understanding. Hence, if someone were to say the Lord was only using hyperbole and only intended that communion was a symbolic presence, the Chruch would blow the whistle and throw the penalty flag becuase such an interpretation goes against other scripture and the full weight of sacred Tradition. So what Fr. Barron is saying is that the Chruch in some cases has to strictly limit us, in other matters there are legitimate freedoms that we have within the guradrails of Scriptuer and Tradition. . I hope this helps.

      • Carlos says:

        I think I have another question lingering there, but it hasn’t been fully formed yet. Other than that, I think I generally agree. Thanks.

  2. CastingCrown says:

    It has been said that there may be a shortage of vocations to the priesthood, but there is definitely no shortage of vocations to the Papacy…

  3. Erin Garlock says:

    What happened to Mark 9:38-41? What about those whom we call saints or blessed who were not part of the established hierarchy of popes, bishops, priests. I agree that the hierarchy is charged with teaching, but it frequently seems to me that the hierarchy has taken personal license to dictate that they are the only only ones authorized to teach.

    Whoever Is Not Against Us Is for Us
    38″Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

    39″Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40for whoever is not against us is for us. 41I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.

    • Well, again that’s kind of the point that both Fr Barron and I are making at the end. The Church does not need to silence everyone all the time, there are freedoms in expression of the faith that fall within the gurad rails. ut the Church does have to set some limits for the discussion. Otherwise people can just end up redefining the Christian faith as received from the Apostles. The “Brand name” has to be protected. So there is a balance of maintaining freedom but within boundraries. Otherwise any one can say or do anything and call it “Christian.”

  4. jj says:

    I’m glad the church has referees. But we at times want to challenge the call of the referee, and thus prolong the game and if we protest too much to the refs call, we may be thrown out. Oopsy! Did I say that. (smile)

  5. Brian says:

    Great article–thanks!

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