The Catholic Church and Authority

I am a priest and a so-so writer.  There are so many who are not priests and are excellent writers, and a handful of excellent writers who happen to be priests.  One such man is Fr. Dwight Longenecker.  He was an American fundamentalist Protestant who eventually joined the Anglican Church and then moved to England to study to become an Anglican priest.  He soon discovered, however, that he and the Anglican church were on divergent paths as he was more and more drawn into the beauty and truth of Catholicism.  In 1995 he, his wife and four children were received into the Catholic Church.  In December 2006 he was ordained a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.  He ministers at St. Joseph’s, and in the parish of St. Mary’s, Greenville, U.S.A.

In the readings for the next few weeks we will hear of the issue of authority.  In a world of political correctness there is little room for any talk about authority because there is an assumption that authority divides and allows for “an” authority, such as God or the Holy Father.  Over the next few weeks I will post an article by Fr. Longenecker which deals with authority as he has come to see it and respect it in the Catholic Church.      

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.

 (Next week’s bulletin will continue this article as Fr. Longenecker speaks of the 12 Traits of the Catholic Church’s claim to authority.)

Comments are closed.