What kind of authority does the church really have?

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St. Peter
The Church acknowledges God as the source of all earthly authority.

It’s the power of the keys. Jesus hands to Peter “the keys of the kingdom”: a commission to “bind and loose” on earth what will be, in mirror fashion, bound and loosed in heaven. This language recalls the authority of Jewish scribes who interpret the Law of Moses. Peter, and by extension his successors on the Chair of Peter, have the power to interpret what flies and what doesn’t in church teaching.

The territory of this authority is subject to ongoing definition. The First Vatican Council (1869-70)—see essay: "What happened at Vatican I?"— determined that the holder of the keys speaks infallibly in definitive teachings on matters of faith and morals. To some, this sounded like an expansion of the papal footprint. To others, it merely made explicit what had been implicit in Jesus’ commission. 

The footprint seemed to shrink a little when Pope John Paul II insisted in an apostolic letter that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, May 1994) Apparently there are some doors these keys cannot open. Some argue the teachings of Jesus are not subject to reinterpretation even by the key holder. Others point out that while Jesus initially chose twelve men to follow him, no teaching restricts the binding and loosing authority to males.

The Latin word from which authority emerges (auctoritas) means to grow or produce. One in authority governs communal growth and direction by persuading or dictating thought, opinion, and action. This invests a leader with great social power, not only over ideas and behaviors but also with the power of decision. The decider, it’s been said, gets to decide.

The Church acknowledges God as the source of all earthly authority. Jesus reminds Pontius Pilate of this during his trial: “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” In turn, God subjects all worldly dominion to Christ Jesus, putting everything at his feet. Human beings, as Pilate is warned, participate in this authority by faithfully serving God’s will alone. Peter makes this point to the Sanhedrin: “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men.” 

In addition, church authority can be delegated, and is most certainly shared by the Spirit’s own choosing. Paul’s delineation of gifts—apostle, prophet, teacher, leader—conveys the bounty of authority bestowed on the church. Finally, all church authority imitates the service demonstrated by Jesus at the Last Supper, humbly washing the feet of others. 

Scriptures: Matthew 9:8; 16:17-19; John 13:13-17; 19:10-11; 20:22-23; Acts of the Apostles 4:19; 5:28-32; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 15:25-28; Philippians 2:5-11

Books: By What Authority? Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church. Rev. Ed., Richard Gaillardetz (Liturgical Press, 2018)

Struggles for Power in Early Christianity: A Study of the First Letter to Timothy, Elsa Tamez (Orbis Books, 2007)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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