The source & nature of Church authority is one of the major issues that beginning Catholics have to examine and come to terms with.
The Catholic Church makes an amazing claim: it teaches, governs, and sanctifies with the authority of Christ himself.
Catholics believe that this gift of Church authority is one of the jewels that Christ has given to us as an aid to our salvation.
Keep three things in mind:
There is a large amount of evidence in Scripture to support the Catholic Church’s claim to authority, as well as from early Church history.
The nature and scope of Church authority are widely misunderstood.
Rejection of this claim is usually based on the common misconception of “misplaced worship” — the accusation that Catholics worship the something else (the Church, the Pope, Mary, the Saints, etc.) instead of God.
After briefly stating the Church’s teaching on this subject, we’ll look at some of the major Scriptural sources for this doctrine.
Catholic Church authority in brief
Christ himself is the source of the Church’s authority.
The New Testament shows that Christ deliberately created his Church to be the vehicle of his continuing mission in the world. He promised to remain present in his Church for all time, and he lovingly guides it through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
To ensure the success of this mission, Christ gave his Church the ability to teach, govern and sanctify with Christ’s own authority. The Apostles appointed successors to ensure that the Gospel would continue to be handed on faithfully as “the lasting source of all life for the Church” (Vatican II, “Lumen Gentium” 20; also Catechism #860).
The source and guarantee of this Church authority is Christ’s continuing presence in his Church — “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
The purpose of this authority is to give the Church the ability to teach without error about the essentials of salvation: “On this rock, I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
The scope of this authority concerns the official teachings of the Church on matters of faith, morals, and worship (liturgy & sacraments). We believe that, because of Christ’s continued presence and guarantee, his Church cannot lead people astray with its official teachings (which are distinct from the individual failings and opinions of its members, priests, bishops, and Popes).
Church authority in Scripture
The New Testament bears witness in numerous places to the fact of Church authority. It clearly shows that Christ gave his Apostles his own authority to continue his mission.
(Remember that Catholics view the Bible as one of two definitive witnesses to divine Revelation. Christ taught many other things to the Apostles that are not recorded in Scripture; we call this Catholic Tradition, literally meaning “that which is handed on”. Tradition is the full, living faith of the Apostles as received from Christ.)
Here are some of the more important Scriptural references that address Church authority.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)
This brief passage contains several critical points about Church authority:
Jesus tells the Apostles that the authority he is giving them derives from his own, divine authority. (“All authority…” / “Go therefore”.)
The Apostles’ authority and mission comes directly from Christ himself.
The nature of this mission is to lead or govern (“make disciples”), sanctify (“baptizing them”), and teach (“teaching them to observe”).
Christ promises to remain present with them always in support of this mission (“I am with you always”).
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” (Jn 20:21)
In this passage, Jesus commissions the Apostles with continuing his own mission. Again, this mission has its source in the divine authority of the Father. (CCC 859)
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (Mt 10:40)
“He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Lk 10:16)
Here, Christ explicitly identifies himself with the Apostles: this identification is so complete that accepting or rejecting the Apostles is the same as accepting or rejecting Christ.
What’s more, both passages compare the union between Christ and his Apostles to that of the Son and the Father within the Holy Trinity.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Mt 16:18-19)
This is a key passage for understanding the Catholic doctrine of Church authority:
Christ’s deliberate intent to establish a new Church (“I will build My Church”)
His choice of Peter as the foundation, or head, of this Church
Christ confers on Peter his own divine authority (“the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”) for ruling the Church (“bind” and “loose”). This power to “bind and loose”, repeated also in Mt 18:18 to the Apostles as a whole, is understood as applying first to Peter and his successors (the Pope), and then to the rest of the Apostles and their successors (the other Bishops) in union with Peter.
The Acts of the Apostles (a New Testament book) provides abundant evidence of how Church authority was practiced during the Apostolic age (during the lives of the Apostles themselves, after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ).
In Acts, we see repeated examples of the Apostles teaching, governing, and sanctifying (baptizing and confirming, as well as “breaking the bread”).
One of the most striking passages in Acts tells how the Apostles describe their decision about whether pagan converts should submit to the Jewish laws of circumcision. They say, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” that those laws of the Old Covenant should not apply (Acts 15:28). This passage shows:
The Apostles knew that they had the governing power necessary to decide this question (this is a huge point: they’re overriding the ritual law of the Old Covenant!); and
They are conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit who is guiding their decision, so ultimately it is God who has decided the matter.
This passage in Acts would be meaningless, even blasphemous, if the Apostles did not in fact possess the authority of Christ, supported and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the various Epistles in the New Testament (the letters of Paul, Peter, etc.) likewise give many examples of the Apostles exercising their teaching and governing offices. In fact, those letters only exist because the Apostles knew that it was their role to teach and lead the various local churches!
The nature & scope of Church authority
It is important to repeat that this authority exists so that Christ can continue to guide his Church in the continuing work of salvation. Church authority is entirely at the service of that work.
We believe that Christ desired the Church to have this authority so that we could be sure of essential matters of the Faith.
The scope of this authority is limited to things that are essential to our salvation: faith, morals, and worship (the sacraments and liturgy). Additionally, since the Church’s authority is at the service of Christ’s gift of divine Revelation, the Church takes care to show how its declarations about faith and morals are consistent with that Revelation (Scripture and Tradition).
It’s important to see this authority as something other than a simplistic being able to “boss you around.” Actually, most Catholics experience Church authority in the form of straightforward declarations regarding faith & morals:
That something is or is not a part of the Faith; and
That living in accordance with the Faith requires or forbids certain actions.
You always retain the freedom to decide whether or not to remain in the Faith by following those teachings.
(In the Gospels, there are many cases where people hear Christ but evidently decide not to follow him. By definition, his disciples are those who seek to follow him closely and learn from him. Even when it’s hard. Catholics see the Church as continuing in Christ’s role of teaching the truth: “He who hears you hears me.”)
Why do Protestants reject this claim?
Non-Catholics usually base their rejection of Church authority on the common misconception of “misplaced worship”: it is claimed that Catholics worship the Church instead of God.
Opponents of this authority sometimes also accuse the Catholic Church of claiming power that is only proper to God.
Catholics believe that this criticism is mistaken.
The best argument for the Catholic doctrine of Church authority comes from the New Testament itself: the Acts of the Apostles reveals the Church’s self-image as a body at the service of Christ’s saving Gospel, acting in the ways and structures taught to them by Christ himself. The Apostles are keenly aware of the authority that has been given to them by Christ, and of their own need to remain ever faithful to Christ as they exercise that authority.
Additionally, this same Church authority is the only thing that guarantees the accuracy and inerrancy of the Bible itself. It was the Church that selected the books of New Testament and defined the canon of the Bible. Those who believe that the Bible is reliable, are in fact relying on the Church’s testimony that the New Testament books accurately reflect the faith & teachings of the Apostles, which is in turn grounded in the faith & teachings of Christ.
(There were many other writings available that were not selected to be a part of the Bible because their contents were flawed in some way. The Church itself made the selection many years after the death of the Apostles, based on its living witness to the Faith, guaranteed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.)