Authority in the Church

A recent commenter asked if I could shed some light on the nature of authority in the Catholic Church. While Ecclesiology is not my strongest suit (I am actually pushing my studies in the direction of Old Testament studies), here is my attempt to provide a quick precis of this topic. If I make any errors here, I of course defer to the Church.

First of all, it is worth distinguishing between Apostolic Tradition and just plain tradition. The former relates to the substance of the faith as handed to the Apostles by way of divine revelation. As such, the actual truths expressed in it have been a closed book since the death of the last apostle (no further revelations will add or take anything from it). However, what is implicit within these truths can be articulated in a more explicit fashion if need be – this is what is usually called the development of doctrine. Doctrines regarding the nature and ministry of the hierarchy fall under this category.

The latter, lower case ‘t’ traditions, are disciplines and practices which have developed in the Church. They do not belong to the faith as such (and so are subject to alteration), but are still important. A good example of this would be priestly celibacy and the college of cardinals.

So while we should not expect to see a perfect correspondence between the practices of the primitive Church and what we currently recognize as the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not in the sense of there being a rupture between the two – looking at the beginnings of the Church is more like looking at childhood photos of someone who is now an adult. There is a continuity of substance between the two. And I do think that we should expect there to be such a continuity in the Christian tradition if we want to take the notion of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church seriously.

The bishops of the Church are seen as the successors of the Apostles, with the Pope being specifically the successor of St. Peter. So their role in the Church should be understood in light of the mission and ministry of the Apostles.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Christ, in his divine nature, works miracles with the words he speaks. In this instance, his alteration of the Passover ceremony into a symbol of his sacrifice actually becomes that sacrifice – his body and blood, separated in his passion, become sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine (of note, this is the one miracle which the Apostles do not see – they are asked to believe in it on the authority of Christ’s own testimony). And in this action we specifically see Christ executing his office as high priest, offering up a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. But Christ links this with a commandment for the Apostles to do the same “in remembrance of me”. This makes the Apostles themselves into a sacrament: they represent Christ’s priesthood, and, in repeating his actions at the Last Supper, make that priesthood present, and the same miracle happens. This sacramental character also extends to other aspects of Christ’s ministry, such as the forgiveness of sins, but the primary and essential purpose of the priesthood is to perpetuate the Eucharistic sacrifice until the end of time. 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 offers good evidence of the importance of the Eucharist to the Church in the immediate decades after Christ’s ascension.

As only the Apostles were invited to the Last Supper, this ministry can be seen as a vocation given specifically to them as opposed to Christ’s disciples more generally. Hence it is not simply a a living out of one’s baptismal state in a leadership position – it is, like marriage, an ontological addition to one’s status as a Christian.*

(it is perhaps worth pointing out that in the very early Church there was no distinction between priests and bishops. It was only after the Church grew to the point where the local bishop could not realistically minister to everyone in his diocese that the practice of imparting men with this sacramental character who could act in the stead of the bishop arose)

The hierarchy also has a teaching authority – what is called the Magisterium. Already within the New Testament we see that controversy arose over issues that were not explicitly addressed by Christ (for instance, the necessity of circumcision), and a need was felt to distinguish what was authentically Christian from what was not. At the Last Supper, Christ promised that the Apostles would have the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17), with Pentecost confirming this promise. It would, I think, be strange if the gift of the Holy Spirit did not entail that the Apostles had received the charism to adequately address issues which can potentially threaten the unity of the Faith and the Church, especially given Christ’s priestly prayer for unity (John 17: 22-23)

This charism means that, although individual bishops may go astray in their personal beliefs, as a collective whole, the hierarchy will not fail in matters pertaining to faith and morals. Now, given that the bishops are not a hive mind in perfect accord with each other, there needs to be specific mechanisms in place for arriving at definitive answer to major disputes. This is the role that ecumenical councils and the Pope’s ex cathedra statements play.

If the Church is not going to go astray, the highest court of appeal needs to be infallible. The Church has historically looked upon the dogmatic definitions promulgated by ecumenical councils as representing the last word on the matter. An ecumenical council should, ideally, involve all the bishops. But this has for the most part been a practical impossibility, and, after the schism between east and west, things have gotten even hairier. So there does need to be someone with the authority to say that such a council represents the universal Church, as opposed to, say, a particular region or jurisdiction. And it follows from that that this someone needs to have a universal jurisdiction in order to have the authority to make such a pronouncement.

This person is, of course, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Every council that the Church has declared to be ecumenical has had the Pope either convoke, be involved with, or ratify it after the fact. Not all of these factors need to be present in any given case – the first seven ecumenical councils, for instance, were largely an eastern affair with limited participation from the Latin Church. It does not have to be the same pope who, say, convokes a council and approves it. What is important is the reciprocal relationship between the teaching office of the pope and the council.


This reciprocal relation suggests that the charism of infallibility is also enjoyed in some manner by the pope – that he can, in highly specific circumstances, unilaterally define dogma. Here is the text from the First Vatican Council, where this gets defined:

Moreover, that by the very apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, the chief of the Apostles, holds over the universal Church, the supreme power of the magisterium is also comprehended, this Holy See has always held, the whole experience of the Church approves, and the ecumenical Councils themselves, especially those in which the East convened with the West in a union of faith and charity, have declared. For the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, adhering to the ways of the former ones, published this solemn profession: “Our first salvation is to guard the rule of right faith […]. And since the sentiment of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be passed over when He says: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church’ [Matt. 16:18], these words which were spoken are proven true by actual results, since in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated. Desiring, then, least of all to be separated from the faith and teaching of this [Apostolic See], We hope that We may deserve to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the solidarity of the Christian religion is whole and true”/ Moreover, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks have professed, “that the Holy Roman Church holds the highest and full primacy and pre-eminence over the universal Catholic Church, which it truthfully and humbly professes it has received with plentitude of power from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles, of whom the Roman Pontiff is the successor; and, just as it is bound above others to defend the truth of faith, so, too, if any questions arise about faith, they should be defined by its judgment”.Finally, the Council of Florence has defined: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians; and to it in the blessed Peter has been handed down by the Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and guiding the universal Church.”


For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.


So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.

But since in this very age, in which the salutary efficacy of the apostolic duty is especially required, not a few are found who disparage its authority, We deem it most necessary to assert solemnly the prerogative which the Only-begotten Son of God deigned to enjoin with the highest pastoral office.

And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema.

Note the language of the bold parts. The language of teaching a divinely revealed dogma, and anathematizing the opposing position, is key that the doctrine is being offered as infallible.

As can be seen in the document, the fact that the Bishop of Rome should enjoy this authority is traced back to Jesus’ statements in Matthew 16:17-18.

It is worth noting a couple of things here: first, a doctrine does not have to be defined by a council or pope for it to be binding on Catholics. For instance, the Resurrection of Christ was never defined, because Scripture is extremely explicit about it,and it has never been a seriously disputed issue within the Church. To go back to what I said earlier, the development of doctrine here is about articulating what has already been divinely revealed in a more explicit fashion, if there is a necessity for it.

Secondly, there are non-infallible exercises of the magisterium (i.e the “ordinary magisterium). The most prominent example of these would be papal encyclicals. However, because these do represent the official teaching of the Church, a Catholic should not publicly dissent from them without good cause – and that cause should come from a concern for preserving the Faith, rather than from private agendas.

Lastly, the Pope and Bishops have an authority of governance. The Pope has the authority to set Canon Law and is, in essence, the boss of all the bishops. The bishops themselves exercise a legitimate authority within their diocese. While priests naturally are to be seen as spiritual fathers, they are there on the sufferance of the bishop, and it is to the local Bishop (and pope) that we are expected to be obedient. We can, of course, disagree with what current disciplines and still remain in good standing, but that we still obey what is asked of us is critical. To make an analogy with civil law, people can reasonably disagree over what the legal drinking age should be while still obeying how the law currently stands.

To wade further in this direction is to take me into the realm of Canon Law, of which I am not competent to say much about. I will perhaps add that obedience to the local bishop goes back to the early Church. To quote the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians in the second century,

Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God,is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.

All this does not mean that there is not a place for rebuking the poor behavior of bishops and popes. But we do have a grave duty to obey the legitimate exercises of their authority.

I think this covers all of the bases I wanted to touch upon. Unfortunately I don’t really have a good go-to book to refer to for people interested in digging their teeth more deeply into these topics (but I welcome any recommendations)

*With regard to the question of the maleness of the clergy, I refer to this helpful article by Sister Sara Butler (pdf)

**It is perhaps worth pointing out that this is a particular theory of the definition of ecumenical councils which has its origins, I believe, in Robert Bellarmine, and which enjoys a popularity in Catholic thought. As far as I can tell, there is no magisterial list of ecumenical councils. I do find it to be a useful model, and like how it segues nicely into discussing the infallibility of the Pope.


About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
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6 Responses to Authority in the Church

  1. Angelorum says:

    Reblogged this on Contemplans Profundes and commented:
    An excellent summary of the authority structure of the Church.

  2. jubilare says:

    Thank you. This does clarify some questions I had. I will have to mull it over for a while.

  3. Duane says:

    Can a council declare an infallible doctrine or dogma, without the Pope unambiguously indicating his approval of that doctrine? If so, are there memorable examples of that? Again if so, then by what criteria is the council infallible – is it as clear cut for a council as Vatican I defined it for the Pope? I will be happy with general answers, though I may follow up (I don’t expect to become unconfused about this in a hurry). Thanks!

    • Josh W says:

      The short answer is, yes. The doctrines defined at an ecumenical council (as opposed to the disciplinary and pastoral issues discussed) are infallible by dint of it being an ecumenical council. It is just that the question of what counts as an ecumenical council is a rather hairy one. There have been different theories articulating the criteria, with Bellarmine’s one currently being the predominant one in the Latin Church. I kind of regret how I handled this in my post now, as the appeal to the approval of the Pope in the matter of councils will likely only carry weight for someone who already views the Papacy as an important foundation of Christian unity. This is why I should maybe do second or third drafts…

      Here are a couple of longish paragraphs from Aidan Nichols’ book, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” (p 211-213), which you may find helpful:

      “Until the late sixteenth century, only eight or at most nine councils were regarded as ecumenical by the Catholic Church. These were the first seven, from Nicaea I in 325 to Nicaea II in 787, along with the Council of Florence in 1439, and sometimes the 869 council which condemned the Byzantine Patriarch Photius (ca. 810-95) for his Church policies, a council referred to those who upheld its ecumenicity as Constantinople IV. The reason for the brevity of this list is that until the sixteenth century the Catholic Church accepted as criteria for ecumenicity (by and large) the tests generally agreed upon in the late patristic Church. According to these tests, it is not enough for a council to be attended or approved by the Roman pope in order to be ecumenical. It must also be attended or approved by the other apostolic patriarchs, the holders of the four great Eastern sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, in whose persons the bishops of all the Churches of the East were seen as somehow present. Using this criterion, only the first seven ecumenical councils plus Florence would be regarded as ecumenical, with the possible addition of the anti-Photian synod in the late ninth century. The status of the latter was odd, since its decisions were formally suppressed by the papacy itself some years after its meeting. It was only in the twelfth century that Western canonists began to maintain its ecumenicity because its provisions against laymen appointing the Byzantine patriarch became extremely relevant to the situation of the Latin Church during the Investiture Contest. In the late sixteenth century Bellarmine, then teaching at the Collegium Romanum, almost singlehandedly introduced the idea that the papally approved councils held in the Western Church (alone) since 1123 were also ecumenical. The most obvious reason for this innovation, which led to an immediate extension of the total number of councils to eighteen or nineteen, was the need to present the Council of Trent as a fully ecumenical council over against Protestant dissent. But the virtually instantaneous and universal acceptance of Bellarmine’s list in the Latin Church testifies to the fact that whatever its immediate motivation, it corresponded to a deep and widespread theological instinct. However, it does not correspond to the criteria used in the patristic Church. Is there any way we can resolve this?

      In writers of the century before Bellarmine, we occasionally find a distinction between two types of ecumenical council, and the distinction may be of use to theologial students in their efforts to bring order into their theological authorities. To begin with, people spoke of an ecumenical council in its plenary form: universal not simply by virtue of approval by the pope as univeral bishop, but also by virtue of its membershop, with particular reference to the need for the participation of the Eastern Patriarchs. But then in the second place, there can be an ecumenical council in a less than plenary form, where, despite the deficiencies of representation, sanction by the pope as head of the college of bishops confers sufficient authority on a council for it to be called exumenical though not in the fullest possibble sense….More widely, it may be suggested that the ecumenicity of the councils is an analogical, rather than a univocal, ecumenicity. A council would only be ecumenical in the highest degree if Peter and the Twelve, the pope and the entire episcopal college, took part, and if the matter dealt with were a matter of fundamental Christian believing – and not simply, say, something for the disciplinar good order of the Church. Arguably no one has ever supposed that all ecumenical councils were on the same level: that Lyons II or Trent has the same significance as Nicaea or Chalcedon…”

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