Authority is Inescapable. It Might as Well Be With the Lord and His Church – A Meditation on Authority With a Spiritual Master

In yesterday’s Gospel we pondered some teachings about authority from the Lord. Among His teachings was that authority is necessary and that, other things being equal, a Christian is bound to submit to lawful authority, both in the Church and, regarding temporal affairs, to lawful authority in this world.

In the Church  there is a “Chair of Moses” which the Lord has given to Peter and his successors (Matt 16:18). The Lord spoke of Peter’s role to bind and loose, and also to be the Rock, to  confirm, i.e. strength and unify, his brethren (Lk. 22:32). The sad experiment among Protestants, and to some extent the Orthodox, of trying to have a Church without a Pope, without a central governing “chair” of authority, shows the disunity, and even venom that can result without a pope. If no one is pope, everyone is pope.

I have been reading in the last weeks, for spiritual reading Fr. Thomas Dubay’s S.M. (R.I.P.) Authenticity – A Biblical Theology of Discernment. There are so many passages I have marked to share with you in the future. But for today I want to share with you some excerpts from Fr Dubay on the need for authority, just as a practical matter. He also ponders what happens if we, in some utopian way, think we can live apart from it.

Fr. Dubay has been one of my chief teachers in spirituality. He passed away last year – headed home to meet the Lord, whom he loved and preached. He was a devout and sober man, a fine theologians, deeply immersed in Scripture and Tradition, a terrific spiritual master, and always a keen observer of what ails us.

As is often the case, I will present his text in bold, black italics, and my poor comments in plain red text. I would like to give you page numbers in the book, but, sadly, the Kindle edition from which I have read does not have a coherent way of referring to pages (as far as I can tell). I can only say that the passage is in the last third of the book in a section entitled “Verification.”

Christ and St. Paul and the whole New Testament community were hardheadedly human. They knew better than we (because they were more holy than many of us) of human weaknesses and failings, but they could not imagine [as some do today] an “invisible Church of Christ.” In more than a theoretical way, the disciples knew they were not angels, and they could not have dreamed of the ekklesia of the bodily risen Kyrios lacking effective institutional elements.

Yes, the word I like to use is that they were “sober” about human sinfulness, and our tendency to be divisive and fractional, often about the most petty of things. And even in more profound matters, our sinfulness often causes us to have distorted thinking, our senseless minds can become very dark and jaded.

In the midst of all the scandalous division after the Eastern Schism, and the Protestant movements, some have tried to imagine that there is somehow an “invisible church” where “nasty little things” like structures, and authority are not necessary. In this dreamy, “kumbaya” thinking where all hold hands and sway as they sing “we are one in the Spirit,” there may be a legitimate dream.

But imagining we are one is not the same as actually being one. True unity will manifest in concrete, not just theoretical ways,  for a central tenet of the faith is that of the incarnation. And the Church remains, incarnationally,  the Body of Christ. I may like to imagine that a severed hand is still part of my body. But while I dream, the hand begins to decay, and my body bleeds out. In the end reality has a way of setting in.

The Biblical fact is, that where Peter is, there is the Church (ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia). He is Christ’s vicar on earth, and the one who holds the keys. Christ noted that the devil would seek to divide, to “sift” the apostles like wheat. But Jesus solution was clear: But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, you will strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:32). Bishop Sheen once said of this passage that we share in Christ’s prayer for unity in the Church, only through Peter.

There is no “invisible church.” Only the visible and structured one founded by Christ and rooted in his prayer for Peter.

Graphically St. Paul reminds the overseer-bishops of Ephesus that it was the Holy Spirit himself who established them in office, and it is through these human instruments that the Spirit will deal with “fierce wolves” who invade the flock (Acts 20:28-31).  The apostle goes so far as to say that anyone who objects to his teaching is not objecting to a human authority but to God himself, who gives us his Holy Spirit (1 Th 4:8). The Thessalonians are to foster the “greatest respect and affection” for their leaders (1 Th 5:12-13). All sorts of gifts from the spirit are given to the authorities in the Church: apostleship, prophecy, teaching, leading (Eph 4:11-13).

Yes, in our anti-authority modern age, we must recall that authority in the Church is established by God, and upheld by him. It is the Lord’s way of protecting the Church from the fierce wolves of error and division. God teaches authoritatively through his Church, and her appointed and anointed leaders. We have to trust God in this.

Authority is not perfect. God uses imperfect human instruments to accomplish his tasks.

In my personal journey I have come to discover that, while I have often wished that those in authority were more prompt and prophetic at times, I have also come to discover that there is a place to be more reflective. When I was first ordained, I was zealous for orthodoxy, but I was also rigid in unnecessary ways, and often impatient. “If only the Church would adopt my plan of action, all would be well.” Or so I thought. But, interestingly enough the Lord did not choose to promote me to bishop in those early zealous years, (or even now), and I must humbly recognize that there are often other ways of approaching issues. The general demeanor of the Church is to be thoughtful, reflective, and yes, slower than many moderns prefer.

But somewhere in the midst of this rather consistent approach, we need to see that our leaders have been anointed by God. We can surely seek to influence them and be part of the discussion. Most reform movements well up from the people of God. But we do not, and ought not, get ahead of our leaders, or refuse submission to them merely because we have a bright new idea. There may well be a reason to go slower and be more broad based that some who are zealous would prefer.

This bodily-structural element in the ekklesia comes out in many ways in the New Testament: Jesus sends men into the world, and they speak with his own authority so that those who listen to these representatives listen to him (Mt 28:16-20; Lk 10:16) . . . the leaders in the Church test the authenticity of her members (Rev 2:2; pastorals, passim) . . . all are to obey their spiritual leaders (1 Pet 5:5; Heb 13:17) . . . they who disobey are inauthentic, not from God (1 Cor 14:37-38; 1 Jn 4:6) . . . even a supposed messenger from heaven may not contradict what the human leaders have taught (Gal 1:6-9) . . . the presiding officer in the local church has all sorts of duties in the areas of teaching and governing (1 and 2 Tim and Titus) . . . the Holy Spirit is with them in the performance of these duties (2 Tim 1:6, 14). i.e. authority is biblical and from God.

Although we do not find the same degree of organization in the first-century ekklesia that we find in that of the twentieth century (it would be amazing if we did), we do find a plurality of functions that are clearly governmental. The leaders teach and proclaim the word (1 Tim 3:2; 4:13, 16; 5:7, 17; 6:2; 2 Tim 1:8; 2:2, 14, 24; 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; 2:1-10, 15; 3:1-8; Acts 20:28). They pray for the sick and heal them (James 5:14-15). They correct aberrations and errors and faults (1 Tim 5:20; 6:17; 2 Tim 2:25; 4:1-5; Titus 1:9-14; 2:15). They govern the ecclesial community, the Church of God (1 Tim 3:5; 2 Tim 1:14; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1-4). These superiors are said to be God’s representatives, and their authority is not to be questioned (Titus 1:7; 2:15). The faithful are told in plain language to obey these leaders and do as they say (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:5)….

To teach govern and sanctify are the essential roles of Church authority and the faithful are expected to be submitted to their leaders.

This is a critical reminder in an age like ours that often celebrates rebellion as well as angry invective and derision directed at leaders, both secular and religious. While our world may celebrate this and many who act rebelliously get “credit” for being bold and “free,” there is little or no biblical basis for this behavior, especially insofar as the Church is concerned.

While a Catholic may make some discernment as to the level of authority involved in a given pronouncement, legalistic minimalism should also be avoided and Catholics should remain teachable even in non-infallible teaching of the popes, bishops and magisterium  (cf CCC # 892).

It is not accidental that people who now commonly speak of our generation as “men come of age” are often those who belittle the need for societal government. ….The error in this position lies in its partiality. It fails to provide for the many other needs among perfectly adult men and women that cannot be met [apart from]… the essential role of authority. No matter how mature a society has become, its members cannot provide for protection, for international trade, for airports and highways (and a host of other things) by mere friendly agreements. To desire to substitute consensus as a universal replacement for authority is merely utopian.

Yes, utopian is the word.

It is the dreamy arrogance of our modern age that has caused us the most grief. The more we speak of ourselves as “men come of age,” the less mature we seem to become. In our culture, maturity is further and further delayed, and there are many in our culture who never grow up. Dependent and demanding, many sound more like petulant children, than grown adults. Further, the dismissal of the wisdom of previous generations, and the refusal to be accepting of authority, bespeaks more of a teenage rebellious stage than sober adult refelction. I have written more on that here: Stuck on Teenage

When the members of a group are all open to the Holy Spirit, a discernment process can produce consensus, but who will maintain that, in our sinful condition, we can hope, in larger societies, to be free from selfishness and ignorances of all sorts. And even aside from our sinfulness, we need to note that all judgments made for an action are surrounded with contingencies that make it impossible to demonstrate the necessity of any [one] given prudential judgment. One of the functions of authority, therefore, is to choose among many defensible courses of action one that all must follow….

Yes, so well said. Even in the best, the most mature and spiritual of communities, some one still has to call the shots. For not all, or even most, decisions are between good and bad things, but often between numerous good options in the face of limited resources.

If a group of people rejects an official teaching authority in the Church, it does not follow that there is no teaching authority. There surely is, and often it is more apodictic [demanding of submission] and harsh in its condemnations than most popes have ever been. The allegiance given to quotations from “in” theologians can be remarkable….

Pope Benedict has often remarked on the tyranny of relativism wherein those who cloak themselves in tolerance and open-mindedness are often the least tolerant when it comes to a host of issues they regard as politically correct. Many of the College campuses who have prided themselves on their liberal openness often have the most severe “speech codes” and the most strident applications of political correctness. Don’t try and uphold a lot of traditional Catholic and Biblical moral teaching there. If you do, prepare in most instances to shouted down, shown the door, and called hateful, bigoted, close-minded and number of other personal attacks.

Further, unquestioned loyalty to certain theories, scientific, political and philosophical, and the kind of venom, if you even have just a few questions, is remarkable. Talk about “religious” zeal.

Oh yes, we will confer authority on someone, it just depends on who. I had rather accept as authoritative a Church I believe founded by God and upheld by him. An old hymn says, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Jesus founded, establishes and upholds the Church, so I’ll go there and be submitted to authorities I believe, by faith, he upholds and inspires.

The binding force of an ecclesiastical Magisterium is commonly viewed [today] as an infringement on a healthy freedom in the academic realm. It is no more an infringement on freedom than the experimental data of the positive sciences are an impediment to scientific progress and freedom. The divinely guaranteed Magisterium liberates the theologian from the morass of his own subjectivity, just as the hard-nosed data of scientific research liberate the theoretician in pure physics from the illusions of a thought, lacking contact with the real world…..

One of the keys to understanding freedom is that it is only enjoyed within limits. I am free to communicate with you now only if I accept certain grammatical parameters.

Absolute freedom does not exist for limited and contingent beings such as ourselves. Hence, Christian theology must accept that there are necessary limits and guard rails which guarantee the greatest freedoms. Outside the guard rails of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, lie only thickets, precipices, dead ends and a howling wilderness of subjectivism and the directionless wandering of an “off road” experience.

I have written more on the paradox of true freedom HERE

It is alleged that Roman congregations have made mistakes and that these impede progress. Some (not all) of these allegations are true. But in sheer number they are few indeed in comparison to the thousands of mistakes that theologians have made….History abounds in examples of the bizarre aberrations possible even in well-intentioned enthusiasms.

Yes. Thank you Fr. Dubay. Rest in peace.

Here is video that illustrates the modern tendency to celebrate rebellion. While it’s funny, it must also be said that this ads ridicules limits and people who believe in them. The man who says “stay within the lines” is presented for us as an object of ridicule and the notion of limits as “childish” hides the teenage immaturity of those who celebrate rebellion and reject limits. The ad does not follow the woman “off road” as she surely hits ruts, messes up her alignment and may even flip the vehicle. Paved roads with guard rails are usually better, faster and safer.

9 Replies to “Authority is Inescapable. It Might as Well Be With the Lord and His Church – A Meditation on Authority With a Spiritual Master”

  1. I don’t think the modern problem of Protestantism is authority. I think it’s obedience. Look at the slow secular drift of many denominations. Take Anglicanism as an example. The authority is clear. Both the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic faction of Anglicanism agree, but “the mushy middle” has accepted virtually every heresy known to man but no-one is able to do anything about it, since talk of obedience to anything else other than one’s conscious (code for “whatever is convenient for me”) is strictly taboo. And so Anglicanism drifts, and the only way to save it is to split, i.e. disobedience from the main body.

      1. There are two aspects.

        One is that even if you have authority, if you don’t have obedience you will see what you want to see and be blind to what you don’t. It’s not just my observation, it’s a common refrain by former Protestants on EWTN’s “The Journey Home”. Take John 6:66. It’s clear as day what’s being said, but because it doesn’t say what Protestants want it to say, they rationalize it away as many do about the need to be baptized or the need to be in the right state with God before receiving the Eucharist. The issue isn’t authority. If it were, Protestants would read the Bible the same way, or at least the same way the fathers of the Reformation did. But they don’t. In many ways, Calvin and Luther sound very Catholic (at least when compared to modern Protestants). The issue is obedience.

        The second aspect has to do with indifferentism (at least in modern Protestants). It’s very common for Protestants to switch denominations several times in their lives, if they don’t like what’s being taught. Church discipline is impossible since no-one is obedient to any particular church or what’s taught there. That doesn’t mean Protestants are anarchists, it just means that even if they admit that the preacher is far more knowledgeable about the Bible that they are, and thus more authoritative, they have to make the final decision about what’s right for them and are thus free to disobey whatever the preacher preachers. And if everyone teaches things you don’t agree with, you can start your own church based on what you want to be true. Who’s going to stop you?

  2. Obedience and authority are inseparable. To what is one obedient if not to authority? By definition, authority is that which must be obeyed. However, for bizarre mental and linguistic gymnastics trying to argue that only obeying what one agrees with is true obedience (as opposed to that blind type which all of us pharasaical Catholics indulge in due to our intellectual limitations, at least that’s what they seem to imply) take a visit to Best sprinkle oneself with holy water first – they won’t mind as I doubt they believe any more in sacramentals than they do in the supernatural. Thanks for a great article, father.

    1. Obedience and authority are inseparable.

      Ideally yes, but even St. Paul struggled with this (see Romans 7:14-20).

      Or as an extreme example, Satan would agree that God has authority but he is still disobedient.
      It is a fundamentally disordered condition, but God has given us the freedom to choose Hell if we want it.

      1. Very true – obedience must be voluntary but if refused to lawful authority it is objectively the wrong choice.

  3. I often struggle with this gospel. I have no issue with the authority piece. My thoughts often turn to what Christ said about how those in authority love titles and special dress and to sit at places of honor, etc. As Catholics, we do all of those things, particularly with honorifics to the bishops and Pope. Up until Paul VI, we used to crown the pope! Then there is the whole point about all of the Apostles being equal and “all brothers”. Honestly, it is a struggle at times to justify.

  4. I pray for the strength to be obedient often and to temper my intellect and will to stay in line with the Magisterium of the Church. For, to love God is to obey God, and to obey God is to obey the authority which He established on Peter and the Apostles, and those who rightly succeed them within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. To obey is to love; to love is to obey.

    This heals my conscience and brings me peace and joy. I hope the same for all others.

  5. Well, I can’t argue against what you are saying. It’s like being stuck under a lake covered with a sheet of ice while trying to find the ice hole. You get awfully anxious holding you breath in the mean time. When you finally find an opening and get a breath of fresh air, someone in authority gives you this look as if to say what are you doing up here, didn’t you forget something?

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