My conversion to the Catholic faith began in the world of Protestant fundamentalism. After being brought up in an independent Bible church, I attended the fundamentalist Bob Jones University. While there I became an Anglican; later, I went to England to become an Anglican priest.
My pilgrimage of faith came to a crisis in the early 1990s as the Anglican Church struggled over the question of the ordination of women. By instinct I was against the innovation, but I wanted to be positive and affirm new ideas rather than reject them just because they were new. I decided to put my prejudices to one side and listen as openly as possible to both sides of the debate.
As I listened I realized that from a human point of view, both the people in favor of women’s ordination and those against it had some good arguments. Both sides argued from Scripture, tradition, and reason. Both sides argued from practicality, compassion and justice. Both sides honestly considered their arguments to be persuasive. Furthermore, both sides were composed of prayerful, church-going, sincere Christians who genuinely believed the Holy Spirit was directing them. How could both be right?
From a human point of view, both arguments could be sustained. This led me to a real consideration of the question of authority in the Church. I realized that the divisions over women’s ordination in the Anglican Church were no different, in essence, than every other debate that has divided the thousands of Protestant denominations.
Some groups split over women’s ordination; others split over whether women should wear hats to church. Some split over doctrinal issues; others split over moral issues. Whatever the issue and whatever the split, the basic problem is one of authority. If Christians have a sincere disagreement, who decides?
Wobbly Three-Legged Stool
Evangelical Protestants say the Bible decides, but this begs the question when the two warring parties agree that the Bible is the final authority. They eventually split because they can’t agree about what the Bible actually teaches. I had moved away from the Protestant understanding that Scripture is the only authority, and as an Anglican, believed that authority rested in Scripture, tradition, and reason.
Anglicans call this the “three-legged stool.” By turning to Scripture, tradition, and human reason they hope to have a secure teaching authority. I came to realize, however, that this solution also begs the question. Just as we have to ask the Protestant who believes in sola scriptura, “Whose interpretation of Scripture?,” we have to ask the Anglican, “Whose reason and whose tradition?” In the debate over women’s ordination (and now in the debate over homosexuality), both sides appeal to human reason, Scripture and tradition, and they come up with wildly different conclusions.
In the end, the Anglican appeal to a three-legged stool relies on individual interpretation, just as the Protestant appeals to sola scriptura. The three-legged stool turns out to be a theological pogo stick.
A Son of Benedict Speaks
About this time I had a conversation with the Abbot of Quarr Abbey (a Catholic Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight). He listened to my situation with compassion and interest. I explained that I did not want to deny women’s ordination. I wanted to affirm all things that were good, and I could see some good arguments in favor of women’s ordination. He admired this desire to affirm all things but he said something that set me thinking further:
Sometimes we have to deny some lesser good in order to affirm the greater good. I think you have to deny women’s ordination in order to affirm the apostolic ministry. If the apostolic authority says no to women’s ordination, then to affirm the greater good of apostolic authority you will have to deny the lesser good of women’s ordination. Because if we deny the greater good, then eventually we will lose the lesser good as well.
He hit the nail on the head. His words led me to explore the basis for authority in the Catholic Church. I already had read and pretty much accepted the Scriptural support for the Petrine ministry in the Church. I also had come to understand and value the four-fold marks of the True Church—that it is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” As I studied and pondered the matter further, however, I saw twelve other traits of the church’s authority.
These twelve traits—in six paired sets—helped me to understand how comprehensive and complete the Catholic claims of authority are. I came to realize that other churches and ecclesial bodies might claim some of the traits, but only the Catholic Church demonstrated all twelve fully.
It Is Rooted in History . . .
What are the twelve traits of authority, and how do they work? We have to ask what a group of Christians who were deliberating a difficult matter would need to make their decision.
First of all, it seems clear that their decision would have to be made from a historical perspective. It was not good enough to decide complex moral, social, or doctrinal issues based on popularity polls or yesterday’s newspaper. To decide difficult questions, a valid authority has to be historical.
By this I mean not only does it has to have an understanding of history, but itself must be rooted in history. In addition, the authority has to show a real continuity with the historical experience of Christianity. The churches that have existed for four or five hundred years can demonstrate this to a degree, but only the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Church has a living link with history that goes back to Roman times—and then, through Judaism, back to the beginning of human history.
. . . and Adaptable
The historical link is essential, but on its own is not sufficient. Historical authority has to be balanced with the ability to be up to date. An authority that is only historical becomes ossified. It never changes. An authority that cannot be up to date is not only rooted in history, it is bound by history. A valid authority structure needs to be flexible and adaptable. Christians face complex modern moral and doctrinal dilemmas. A valid authority system draws on the wisdom of the past to rule properly on the questions of the present.
It Is Objective . . .
A third quality of a valid authority system is that it needs to be objective. By this I mean it needs to be independent of any one person’s or group’s agenda, ideology, philosophy or self-interest. A valid authority transcends all political, economic, and cultural pressures. The objective quality of this authority system also allows it to make decisions that are unpopular or that go against the spirit of the times and majority opinion.
An objective authority is based on certain universal basic assumptions, immutable principles, and observable and undeniable premises. From these objective criteria the valid authority system builds its teaching.
. . . and Flexible
For the authority to be valid, however, it cannot rely on abstract principles and objective criteria alone. The valid authority is suitably subjective in applying objective principles. In other words, it understands that the complexities of real life and the pastoral exigencies of helping real people demand a flexible, practical, and down-to-earth application. The Catholic authority system does just that. Throughout the Code of Canon Law, for example, we are reminded that the law is there to serve the people of God in their quest for salvation.
Individual Christians, or particular Christian groups, often fall into one side of this pair or the other. The rigorists or legalists want everything to be objective and “black and white” all the time, while the liberals or sentimentalists want every decision to be relative, open-ended, and flexible according to the pastoral needs. Only the Catholic system can hold the two in tension, because only the Catholic system has an infallible authority which can keep the two sides balanced.
It Is Universal . . .
An authority that can speak to all situations can only do so if it comes from a universal source. This source of authority needs to be universal not only geographically, but also chronologically. In other words, it transcends national agendas and limitations, but it also transcends the cultural trends and intellectual fashions of any particular time. Every church or ecclesial structure other than the Catholic Church is limited, either by its historical foundations or by its cultural and national identity.
For example, the Eastern Orthodox find it very hard to transcend their national identity, while the churches of the Reformed tradition struggle to transcend the particular cultural issues that surround their foundation. The national, cultural, and chronological identities of other ecclesial bodies limit their ability to speak with a universal voice. When they do move away from their foundations they usually find themselves at sea amidst the fashions and trends of the present day. They also find that they lose their distinctive identities when they drift from their foundations. A universal authority system, on the other hand, transcends both chronological and geographical limitations.
. . . and Local
However, this universal authority needs to be applied in a particular and local way. An authority that is only universal remains vague, abstract, and disincarnate. For a universal authority system to be valid, it also must be expressed locally. Catholicism speaks with a universal voice, but it is also as local as St. Patrick’s Church and Fr. Magee on the corner of Chestnut Street. Not only does the universal Church have a local outlet, but that outlet has a certain autonomy which allows it to be flexible in its application of the universal authority. Catholicism travels well, and because of the universal authority structure, it can allow far more varieties of enculturation at the local level than churches which are more bound by the time and place of their foundations.
It Is Intellectually Challenging . . .
The fourth pair of characteristics that demonstrate the validity of the Catholic authority system include its intellectual satisfaction and its accessibility. If an authority system is to speak to the complexities of the human situation, then it must be able to hold its own with the philosophical and intellectual experts in every field of human endeavor. What other ecclesial system can marshal experts from every area of human expertise to speak authoritatively in matters of faith and morals?
Time and again, the Catholic Church has been able to speak with authority about the spiritual dimension of economics, ethics, politics, diplomacy, the arts, and philosophy.
This authority must not only be able to hold its own with the intellectual experts in all fields, but it must be intellectually satisfying and coherent within itself. A unified and complete intellectual system must be able to explain the world as it is. Furthermore, this intellectual system must continually develop and be re-expressed—always interpreting ageless truth in a way that is accessible for the age in which it lives. This intellectual system must be an integral and vital part of the religion, while also being large enough to self-criticize. Only the Catholic faith has such an all-encompassing, impressive system of teaching.
. . . and Accessible to the Uneducated
Nonetheless, while the authority system must be intellectually top notch, the religious system must also be accessible to peasants and the illiterate. A religious system that is only intellectual or appeals merely to the literate can speak only for the intellectuals and literate.
Some denominations appeal to the simple and unlearned, but have trouble keeping the top minds. Others appeal to the educated elite, but lose the masses. Catholicism, on the other hand, is a religion of the greatest minds of history and the religion of ignorant peasants. It is a religion that is complex enough for St. Thomas Aquinas and simple enough for St. Joseph Cupertino. It has room at the manger for both the magi and the shepherds.
It Is Visible . . .
As a Protestant I was taught that the Church was invisible. That is, it consisted of all people everywhere who believed in Jesus, and that the true members of the Church were known to God alone. This is true, but there is more to it than that. Invisibility and visibility make up the fifth paired set of characteristics that mark the truly authoritative church.
The Church is made up of all people everywhere who trust in Christ. However, this characteristic alone is not satisfactory because human beings locked in the visible plane of reality also demand that the Church be visible. Even those who believe only in the invisible church belong to a particular church which they attend every Sunday. Those who believe only in the invisible church must conclude that the church they go to doesn’t really matter.
. . . and Invisible
The Catholic system of authority recognizes both the invisible dimension of the Church and the visible. The Church is greater than what we can observe, but the church we observe is also greater than we think. The invisible Church subsists in the Catholic Church, and while you may not be able to identify the extent of the invisible Church, you can with certainty point to the Catholic Church and say, “There is the Body of Christ.”
A few small Protestant denominations claim that their visible church is the true church, but their claims are ludicrous because they have none of the other twelve traits of true authority. Because it has all these traits, only the Catholic Church can claim to be the living, historical embodiment of the Body of Christ on earth.
It is Both Human and Divine
Finally, for the church to speak with authority it must be both human and divine. An authority that speaks only with a divine voice lacks the authenticity that comes with human experience. So Islam and Mormonism, which are both based on a book supposedly dictated by angels, are unsatisfactory because their authority is supernaturally imposed on the human condition.
On the other hand, a religion that is purely a construct of the human condition is merely a system of good works, religious techniques, or good ideas. Christian Science or Unitarianism, for example, is developed from human understandings and natural goodness. As such, both lack a supernatural voice of authority.
The Judeo-Christian story, however, is both human and divine. The voice of authority is always expressed through human experience and human history. Divine inspiration in the Judeo-Christian tradition is God’s word spoken through human words. This incarnated form of authority finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who hands on his totally incarnated authority to Peter and his successors.
Built upon the Rock
Some Churches may exercise some of the twelve traits, but only the Catholic Church is able to field all twelve as a foundation for decision-making. When the Catholic Church pronounces on any difficult question, the response is historical, but up to date. It is based on objective principles but applies to specific needs. The Church’s authority transcends space and time, but it is relevant to a particular place and time. The response will be intellectually profound, but expressed in a way that is simple enough for anyone to apply. Finally, it will express truths that are embedded in the human experience, but spring from divine inspiration.
This authority works infallibly through the active ministry of the whole Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that it is Christ who is infallible, and he grants a measure of his infallibility to his body, the Church. That infallibility is worked out through these twelve traits, but it is expressed most majestically and fully through Christ’s minister of infallibility: one person—the Rock on which the Church is built, Peter and his successors.
Written by: Fr. Dwight Longenecker