Authoritative teaching, liturgy, and authority

Elsewhere, it was suggested to me that authority “seems to be a major element of Catholic belief” for me, as does liturgy. I gave a lengthy explanation of my views on authority in The Catholic proposition, 2 MPA 77 (2012), but some additional remarks will not hurt.


Authority, in the sense of the sources of authoritative teaching, is not simply a major element of Catholicism—it is the element. It is the decisive question between various Christian groups, the hinge upon which the entire matter turns. 1 After I became a Christian, it became immediately apparent that one cannot simply declare oneself a Christian and stop there, because there are myriad groups that style themselves as Christians, and most of them have mutually-exclusive things to say about what it means to be a Christian. One of them must be right. The rest must, perforce, be wrong. (Not wrong about everything, of course!) So which one is right?

As I tried to figure it out, perhaps the most useful thing that I read was a book by the evangelical theologian J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. The decisive question that a Christian must answer, says Packer, is this: Where may we look for answers? What is authoritative in the Christian faith? There are a few candidates, he says. There’s the Catholic/Orthodox answer, and there’s sola scriptura. (He does identify a third, the approach of liberal protestantism, but since Packer wrote, that approach has lapsed into bankrupcy.) He concludes that the Catholic answer is wrong, and I respect that. Over the next couple of years, however, I was forced to conclude that sola scriptura is untenable. Packer’s conclusion was wrong. But he had asked the right question, and one of these days I must send him a letter thanking him for his perspicacity and prescience in asking precisely the right question. If scripture is the sole authority to which a Christian may turn, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are the tools of the Enemy and we must flee from them as fast and as far as our legs will carry us. If, however, the Catholic Church’s assertions about her authority are true, if those claims are correct, then we must be in full communion with her.

Why do I say that? Well, because the Catholic Church—or, more precisely, the so-called “hierarchy” thereof, which we generally call “the Church” for short—claims to teach with authority. 2 She explicitly claims to be the repository of Sacred Tradition and the custodian and authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture. 3 She claims the right to govern the Christian community. If she has not received that authority by Christ she does not have it; accordingly, her pretense to it and actual exercise of it would be an affront to God that has lead millions of souls to their ruin. If our protestant brethren were correct that the sole rule of faith is scripture, and scripture alone, interpreted by itself, then the Church is the best trick that Satan ever played: The vast majority of Christians who have ever lived have been led wildly astray by an instrument that must, perforce, be infernal.

Accordingly, every person who becomes a Christian has a simple and straightforward choice to make. They must confront the Catholic Church and decide whether she really is what she claims to be, to the best of their judgment, knowing that their salvation may well depend on their answer. 4 If  you conclude that she is not: Run. Run fast and far. If you conclude that she is: Come closer. 5

There is no room, none whatsoever, for mushiness on this. There is no principled middle ground. Nor is there a way to avoid the question: Unless you received the faith from Christ personally, studying at his feet during his public ministry on Earth, you are entirely dependent upon the answer to the question of authority: For those of us who live between the ascension and the second coming, there is absolutely no way for us to know Jesus without answering the question of authority. Where can we learn the faith? Where do we find Jesus? How does He supply answers to our questions? Do we find Him and our answers solely in the Bible, as our protestant brethren insist? Or do we hear Him through the bishops, as the Church now insists, as Vatican II insisted, 6, as the Church has always taught, as our Orthodox brethren agree, and as Christ Himself tells us in scripture? 7 To what source may we turn for authoritative guidance on the faith? Does the Bible alone have authority? Or does the Church? Every Christian who lives between the ascension and the second coming must face and decide, with honesty, candor, and awed fear, the question of authority, and if you have not  answered that question consciously, I must suggest to you that you have answered it subconsciously and thus, perforce, inadequately.


Now, let me say a couple of words about the liturgy. I have said that we cannot fix—we will fail to fix—the Church if we do not first fix the liturgy. Ecclesiam non poterimus reparare nisi liturgiam primo reparamus. If we get the liturgy wrong, we get everything wrong. If we don’t understand our relationship to God in the setting of our purest, most direct and intimate encounter with him, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of our Christian lives, 8, how can we expect get anything right? And if we structure the externals of the liturgy in ways that do not reflect the ontological realities of what is happening in the Mass, how can we claim with a straight face that we understand those realities and that relationship?

And how, come to think of it, can we seriously profess surprise that our children do not absorb those truths? One of the wonderful things about children is that they have a sensitive bullspit alarm. When they hear a person say how the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary and makes Christ really, truly, substantially present, and yet they see a manner of celebration that reflects anything but that conviction, they might not say anything, but they do internalize it. They conclude that you’re full of it.

I’ve asked this question of “liturgists” and “liturgical musicians”: If the second coming was happening next Sunday, right here, in this church, at 9am, and you were in charge of the music, tell me honestly: Are you really going to have a half-hearted guitar strumming some treacly David Haas song? Please! This is the king of kings! Our Lord and Savior! Are you really going to tell me that you’re going to greet him with the insipid, vacuous dribblings of Dan Schutte? Or are you going to break out the Palestrina and get the choir up to speed as fast as humanly possible? We all know the answer to that one. Well, guess what: Next Sunday, right here, in this church, at 9am, Jesus will be present—really. Truly. Physically. And how you would propose to greet him will tell us everything about whether you actually believe that or not.

So the way that we treat the Mass speaks volumes about what we believe about the Mass, and what we believe about the Mass screams what we believe about God. THAT is why the liturgy is so important. The enemies of the liturgy must be defeated because they are in fact, through their liturgical views, telling us that they are enemies of the faith, and we cannot let the faith be held hostage by those whose actions—no matter what they claim with their lips—confess that they do not share that faith.


I should also say something about the context in which all this arose: Authority in the sense of governing. I had expressed some dissatisfaction at the choice of Pope Francis to not wear his miter during his inaugural homily. The miter is the symbol of the bishop’s authority; it is a reminder that we are not listening to this man because he is learned or holy or likeable or because we agree with him, or any of the myriad reasons that one might choose to attend, say, a TED talk. We listen to him because of the office that he holds and the ministry that is discharged through him. He exercises a ministry that is contingent on no earthly power; he holds a warrant that defies and defeats all earthly powers. And for that reason, the symbols of that office should not be omitted, because we must not lose sight of the fact that we are not listening to Jorge Bergoglio, but to Christ speaking through Peter speaking through Francis. This is not a question of fashion; the miter isn’t simply a hat. The symbols of office matter because while these men may be good witnesses or not based on something in themselves, they are bishops by grace of God, not the assent of the faithful.

Oh, nonsense, it was asserted in response: True power comes from service. 9

No, it does not. Ecclesiastical authority comes from the divine constitution of the Church; none other. If a man should come up to you on the street and say “your book is wrong, you must recant,” you are not obliged to listen to a word he says. If he should be the retired Cardinal Archbishop of where-have-you, you are nevertheless under no obligation to listen to him, because titles, even ecclesiastical titles, confer no authority whatsoever. If his eminence famously spent his entire priesthood as the most famous do-gooder in the world, if he has stored up great treasure in heaven having done fantastic works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, perhaps you will listen to him because you are personally impressed with him, but you are nevertheless under no obligation to listen to him, because works, even mighty works, confer no authority whatsoever. But if that man instead turns out to be your bishop, or the bishop of Rome, or a duly-designated representative of the duly-designated relevant dicastery of the Roman Curia, then you are under an obligation to listen to him, not because he is important as a man, or because he is impressive as a man, or a single thing that qualifies him as a man, but because you are a sheep and the office he holds has made him your a shepherd. 10

Oh, well, it was rejoined, but Jesus did not distinguish His mission by his clothing. Jesus did not need to “distinguish His mission by his clothing or accouterments of office” because he is God! 11 He had the sovereign’s plenary authority to order relationships and people in any way he saw fit. But by what authority does a mere man claim such authority over any other man against the latter’s consent, constructive or actual? Only by the authority of the sovereign, God, who has constituted the Church as a society governed by the bishops.

Accordingly, men exercise ecclesiastical authority over other men only insofar as they are the duly-appointed holders of an office possessing such authority that has been duly-constituted by the Church, or belongs directly to her divine constitution. The duly-elected successor of Peter, as the universal pastor of the Church, has authority over the universal Church because the petrine office belongs directly to the divine constitution of the Church, and a duly-appointed bishop has authority over his diocese because the Church has duly ordained that the world be divided into discrete geographical areas with each shepherded by a duly-appointed bishop, and has constituted dioceses as a juridical expression of that ecclesiological judgment.
That is why Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit (for example) has no authority whatsoever over me, though he may well be a very learned and holy man for all I know, and yet Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis does. I like Archbishop Tobin, moreover, but the day that he ceases to be the Archbishop of Indianapolis, I will no longer be subject to his authority, because in a different post, he will have no duly-constituted authority over me. By the same token, had I lived in Los Angeles during the odious Cardinal Mahony’s tenure, Mahony would have had authority over me even though he be a mindless tool of the devil, and yet any number of holy and learned successors of the apostles would not, even though they are surely more worthy than Mahony. Ecclesiastical authority is in no way dependent on the man—is is a function of the position he holds and the grace of the Holy Spirit given to him in his consecration to the episcopate, in which he receives the fullness of the sacrament of Orders. 12


  1. Cf. “Why I am a Catholic” in a few brushstrokes, 2 MPA 1 (2012).
  2. Cf. Lk 4:32.
  3. E.g. Dei verbum, no. 10 (2d Vat. Co., 1962).
  4. “We can believe what we choose,” John Henry Card. Newman said, and “we are answerable for what we choose to believe.” Quoted in Edward Short, Newman and His Contemporaries 135 (2011)
  5. I must acknowledge that some of the best Christians I know are not Catholics. They have considered the question and, to the best of their judgment, before God and man, they conclude that the Catholic Church is not what she says she is. And I respect that. Still others are trying to figure it out; they have made a tentative decision (you have to make at least a provisional decision on any big, life-affecting question while you figure out the answer), and they’re actively working toward an answer. And I respect that, too. I can respect almost any position that is the product of a coherent and reasonable thought process, even if I disagree with it. It is somewhat harder to respect the position that many take, which is to completely ignore the question while tacitly (i.e. practically) answering it and wishing that the whole problem would go away, even as it knaws through their soul and riddles their faith with cracks and deformities, creating doubt, dissent, and scandal. Cf. MP: Revealed preference and the peril of interest capture, 1 MPA 7, 9 (2012). Small wonder that many of those who refuse to face this question directly remain nominally Catholic yet can’t quite bring themselves to believe what Catholics believe and do what Catholics do! It seems to me that one cannot have a firm foundation as a Catholic until one has first decided whether the Church to which they profess membership is or is not who she says she is, and what consequences follow from that belief .
  6. See Lumen gentium, no. 20, 57 AAS 5, __ (2d Vat. Co. 1964).
  7. See Lk 10:16.
  8. LG11, 57 AAS, at __.
  9. For the record, that is a corrupted reference to Francis’ inaugural homily, in which the Holy Father told us, albeit miterless: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.”
  10. Cf. MP: Episcopal competence and the public policy nexus, 2 MPA __ (2012); MP:  Catholic social teaching and public policy: Presuppositions, institutional settlement, and the competency of bishops, 1 MPA 151 (2012).
  11. See, e.g., Phil 2:6.
  12. CCC ¶ 1557.

Comment (1)

  1. Mark30339 wrote::

    A powerful post. C.S. Lewis makes a similar point about the claims of Jesus Christ. You can’t reduce him to being another prophet or a good human being. You have to confront his extraordinary claims, and either run away or pursue communion with him.

    I agree that the Catholic Church is empowered to preserve, teach and govern the Christian Faith. I do wonder how much it has diluted itself from the community of believers who nonviolently resisted Roman intimidations, and set such a profound standard that it converted Rome. We have converted great and objective intellects like Scott Hahn and yourself, but today’s community of believers aren’t wowing non-believers by impressive displays of fidelity or charity or clarity of belief.

    Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 8:47 pm #