The Catholic Church and Authority Part II

(Continuing from last week is Fr. Longenecker’s explanation on how authority works and why it is so necessary in the Catholic Church. This article is taken from’s online magazine. Fr. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism who admittedly struggled with the idea of the Church’s authority when he first came into the Church…. now he’s writing about it.

Here Fr. Longenecker begins to address the 12 Traits of authority, in six paired sets, and that while some other Christians churches may possess some of the traits, all of them exist in the Catholic Church.  Here are eight of the twelve traits.


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.  (Part III of Authority continued next week)A

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