Some 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.