Restoring the Authority of the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The full twenty-volume Oxford dictionary distinguishes two basic meanings of ‘authority’: first, the power to enforce obedience;  second the power to influence action, opinion or belief.

It is clear that two entirely different forms of power are involved here.  The first is linked clearly with enforcement.  A military commander has this kind of authority, as he can deploy actual force to arrest and sequester a rebellious officer.  So long as any agency can deploy some kind of decisive sanction against anyone, it possesses the ability to enforce its ‘authority’.  This authority may not be loved – may in fact be detested – but its coercive clout gives it a weight it would not otherwise possess.

But there is another entirely different kind of authoritative power – one that emerges out of the freely-given respect of one person for another.  Once that respect has been earned, the one who has earned it enjoys a power of influence that does not rest upon coercive capability.

It is perfectly clear that the Catholic Church in the West presently stands at a point in time when its leadership no longer possesses either kind of authority to the degree that it did even a century ago.  No longer in a position to direct the state anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that leadership cannot deploy coercive power – unless perhaps against its own direct or indirect employees.  And having lost the trust and confidence of most Catholic lay people, that leadership has lost the power of influence also.

It is against this backdrop that we presently conduct a debate on ‘the moral authority of the Church’.   Far too often this debate focuses upon the authority of the hierarchy – as though ‘the Church’ as a whole is still to be identified in some crucial sense with its leadership.  But the fact is that the authority of the church is a matter for the whole church – and it would be a profound mistake to work towards any restoration of hierarchical authority that would provide it once again with any degree of coercive power.

Recovery by the hierarchy of the power of moral influence is another matter – but this rests entirely with the success of the hierarchy in recovering its own integrity.  To the degree that it remains many steps behind the process of media exposure of its own secretive maladministration it currently lacks a visible corporate integrity  – whatever about the personal integrity of its individual members.  It will take some years – at least a decade – for the hierarchy as a body to persuade the wider church that its love of truth, and its love of its own laity, are once more beyond question.  And as this must depend also upon profound changes in Rome it is far from certain to occur even in that timescale.

But even that desirable eventuality would not give the church the authority to which it now needs to aspire.  We live in an era when appeals to the authority of another party are absolutely worthless, and even ludicrous, in any discourse about faith with anyone of a different mindset.  To say “the Pope (or the magisterium) teaches x” will immediately invite the response “But what do you believe, and why?” from anyone who disagrees.  To respond to this with “I believe what the Church teaches, because it tells me I must” is to invite incredulity or scorn.  Such an assertion lacks, in a word, authority – because the free personal, reasoned commitment of the witness is lacking – the persuasive evidence of a personal comprehension of, and free personal commitment to, whatever is being upheld.

This is so not just because our Church leadership currently lacks visible integrity, but because the same process of erosion of faith in institutions is endemic in the secular world also.  Deluged as we are by palpably false commercial information, we are not impressed when politicians employ focus groups to determine their manifestoes, and spin doctors to package presentation.  Because most information comes at us now in an exploitative stream, all truth claims are diverted into a long mental queue that we label ‘only possibly true’ – and may never reach the mental desk at which personal life decisions are made.

It is this above all that those who currently exalt the authority of ‘the magisterium’ need to understand.  Catholicism is currently getting a drubbing in the secular media not simply for being dysfunctional on matters of sexuality, but for brainwashing people – and especially children.  The exaltation of the authority of the magisterium – explained in simplistic terms as the bishops—sets every Catholic child up as conclusive proof that this is true, because it demands of that child intellectual deference to patriarchy as a badge of loyalty – as a virtual definition of what a Catholic actually is.

That this process does not prepare Catholic children for the egalitarian cut-and-thrust of third level education, or for the harsher secular marketplace, is surely plain for all to see.  The virtual collapse of Catholic identity at the age of eighteen shows that a whole new approach is needed in the understanding of authority.  A patriarchal definition simply doesn’t cut it any more – and it never did.

When we hear in the Gospels that Jesus taught with authority, we cannot suppose that this authority rested on reference to what others may have taught him.  It is clear, certainly, that he knew his Hebrew sources – but that is clearly not why people came to listen.  The truth he carried was patently also carrying him – it had been freely embraced and integrated at the deepest personal level.  What he believed was patently what he believed – not simply what he had been taught to believe.  No other explanation is possible of how he could, when his life was at stake, say ‘I am the truth’.

It should be clear to all by now that there is all the difference in the world between a faith that is inherited, and a faith that is freely and deliberately embraced.  In the first case the individual is enveloped in a specific culture which creates a powerful incentive merely to conform.  Conformity rather than integrity becomes the highest virtue taught.  So enveloped, the individual is essentially passive – like the infant upon whom the water of baptism is poured.  In the second case it is the individual who, as an autonomous adult, freely chooses a given faith from a range of alternatives.  In that case it is the chosen church that becomes the passive object towards which the adult believer consciously moves.

It is crucially important for the church as a body to understand that the first kind of faith, which we may call received faith, is a most delicate and fragile plant – very unlikely to withstand an unfavourable climate.  It is only the second kind – chosen faith – that is likely ever to amount to an authoritative faith – one that can confidently engage in adult discourse.  Received faith may eventually mature into chosen faith – but one of the biggest problems in our church is that it tends to behave as though no such transition is necessary for the lay person – or as though received faith is or at some point automatically becomes chosen faith.

Such an assumption is highly dangerous not only because it is fundamentally mistaken but because it underlies what is probably the single most important point of difference between the lay person and the cleric or religious.   For the latter, faith is far more likely to be chosen, and therefore more informed and authoritative.  Most important, that adult commitment is liturgically celebrated in a ceremony of ordination or free commitment to vows. Here we find the essential weakness of Irish Catholicism – the essential reason for the diffidence and passivity – and lack of authority – of the typical Irish Catholic lay person.  For if we laity do not need a chosen faith – if our received faith is considered forever sufficient – we are never actually invited into Christian adulthood, and may forever remain spiritual children.

Indeed, given that this has all been fairly obvious for some decades, there is good reason to believe that the permanent  spiritual childhood of the laity is something that is actually preferred by Catholic paternalism at the summit of the church.  Clericalism rests upon the need of laity for a ‘Yes, Father’ relationship – one in which the priest will remain the autocratic and dominant – and thinking – force.  Far better then, that laity should never move beyond a childish dependency and a school-based understanding.  Nothing else can fully explain the lack of commitment to adult education by the self-described magisterium, and the failure to provide the structures for upward communication and adult participation required for full implementation of Vatican II.

The continued dogged adherence to the bestowal of all three sacraments of initiation before puberty, and to the complete absence of any liturgical expectation or celebration of adult lay commitment, leaves Irish Catholicism especially firmly in Craggy Island territory.  This is precisely why the sudden loss of authority by the Catholic hierarchy has been so devastating.  In a decade it is as though the Irish Catholic Church has actually disappeared from the national landscape – with secularist media commentators going so far as to suggest that it is currently undergoing its ‘last rites’.  Soon enough we will experience in Ireland what has already happened in Italy – a demand that the Church records the free decision of Irish Catholics to repudiate their baptisms – in the same way that it recorded their involuntary baptism after birth.

It seems to me that if we Irish Catholics-by-choice wish to make ourselves, and our children, authoritative as Catholics – fully committed and confident carriers of our saving truths – we need either a postponement of the sacrament of Confirmation, or a new sacramental/liturgical event which might be called Affirmation.  Either way, Confirmation or Affirmation should celebrate the free and deliberate decision of  mature adults to commit entirely to the truths of the faith.  And all teaching prior to this should emphasize the crucial importance of that moment for the person concerned – of the necessity of complete freedom as the only context in which any adult faith commitment can be made.

At present we make the appalling mistake of supposing that of necessity what has been taught and apparently received has also been freely chosen – that committed Catholics will emerge inevitably from a process of catechesis controlled by the catechist.  They cannot, because to say ‘I believe’ implies a complete freedom not to say it – and that context of freedom we never provide.  “We were taken for granted!” This is one young student’s damning verdict on this process – a verdict seemingly repeated by the majority, to judge by the total indifference of the vast majority of baptized students in Irish universities to the ministry of their chaplains.  And it is confirmed by all we have recently learned about the collapse of sacramental observance among those in the age range 18-30.

On the other hand, to hear a young adult say, with full confidence and in complete freedom ‘I believe’, restores in an instant the authority that has been lost by the church – for at that moment the faith has found another free adherent.

So in the end, authority and freedom are inseparable – and the authority of the church is inseparable from the mature freedom of its members.  It is no coincidence that the authority of Catholicism should have reached its nadir in the West under a ‘magisterium’ that is so needlessly afraid of freedom, so determined to preserve at all costs the fiction of a morally inerrant clergy, and the absurd contention that loyalty and deference are the same thing.

To restore the authority of the Church it is now of paramount importance that laity be invited liturgically into chosen adult faith – and organizationally and intellectually into parity of esteem.  The authority of the hierarchy in the wider secular world will rest ultimately on the integrity of its contention that our church, from summit to base, offers enhanced and equal personal dignity to all – and only we Catholic laity will be in a position to vouch for this from personal experience.

At present we truly cannot – because to do so would be to speak against the truth of our own experience.

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