Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Question of Authority

A Question of Authority
Here’s a trivia question: Which Christian Church claims the least authority?  I’ll give you a hint: It’s the one that, in reality, has the most authority.  Right, it’s the Catholic Church.  Seems counter-intuitive, but I can prove it.
First, let’s look at what authority the Church has.  It is responsible for safeguarding the Deposit of Faith.  It can interpret the Faith and teach it with authority, but only as guided by the Holy Spirit, which is why its doctrines can’t change to suit the prevailing culture.  It has the authority to bind and loose on disciplinary matters.  Because these refer to the living out of the Faith in time and space, these things can change.
This sounds like more authority than many other communities would claim for themselves, but in actuality, it is the Church that is restrained in its authority claims.
For example, until 1930, every Christian group condemned artificial contraception as contrary to the moral law.  Then, one by one, each denomination changed its teaching and “caught up with the times.”  Now, in 2013, only the Catholic Church holds firm to this ancient teaching.  Why?  In 1968, as the world awaited Pope Paul VI’s authoritative teaching on the matter, many people speculated that he would change the doctrine.  He did not.  Paul VI gave a beautiful theological explanation of the teaching, but in the end, he did not have the authority to change the moral law – it had come from God.  The Church safeguards the Faith; it does not invent it.
From the beginning of Christianity, priests have all been male.  Slowly, many groups have changed this, and you find “priests,” pastors and even bishops in other denominations that are women.  Surely, the Church would change this teaching?  In the 21st century, it is a big stick to beat her with.  When Pope John Paul II wrote his Apostolic Letter on reserving the priesthood to men, he claimed very clearly and emphatically that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women.  Certainly he also gave a beautiful theological explanation as to why God established a male priesthood, but in the end, he said, the issue is closed because the Church does not have the authority to do otherwise.
Now we are faced with the issue of homosexual “marriage.”  Most Christian groups are defending marriage, but little by little, we are seeing denominations begin to adopt same-sex “wedding” rites.  Does anyone believe the Catholic Church will ever follow suit?  Of course not.  Why not?  Well, if you understand the teaching on the nature of marriage, it should be theologically obvious.  But by now we should also realize that the Church will tell us that marriage was given to us by God and the Church does not have the authority to change it.  (This is also why the Church stands alone in not sanctioning divorce.)
So the next time we hear someone complaining that the Church claims unwarranted authority, we should remember that it is only the Church that refuses to believe it has authority over God.  Martin Luther said that every Christian is his own pope and council when it comes to interpreting Scripture.  He soon lamented that “there are as many beliefs as there are heads.”  The Catholic Church claims that no one has that much authority.