The Modern Crisis of Authority and the Abiding Prowess of the Papacy, Part I


“The real reason I cannot be in communion with you [Catholics] is not a disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.”

— C.S. Lewis, “Christian Reunion: An Anglican Speaks to Roman Catholics” (posthumously published essay, 1990)

W. G. Ward, a nineteenth-century Catholic convert-theologian-mathematician is famous for having said, “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast”—and yet, we all know that the economy of grace is not so simple. As Catholics, we must trust in the sovereignty of God over the Magisterium, yet also maintain a realistic “margin of error” in which human freedom can go astray. Catholicism is a religion of human freedom tempered by grace, not negated by it. Thus, while we all can be assured of God’s protection and guidance in our vocations, we still remain capable of abusing our freedom.

To many critics, it seems that Pope Francis is not taking his papal duties seriously enough, or, to be more precise, is putting so much emphasis on “reaching out” that he’s failing in the more fundamental papal duty of “strengthening” the flock (Luke 22:32). The walls of the Church can open only so wide before they simply collapse. Yet, as defenders of the Holy Father’s offbeat “pastoral style” are quick to note, simply by virtue of occupying the Petrine See, Francis is strengthened and enlightened with extraordinary graces. In other words, while he may ruffle feathers, he can’t do any lasting or serious damage to the Church. All is well. Keep calm and tweet on.

Such pious optimism is commendable, but unfortunately rests on a truncated understanding of the synergy between grace and freedom. On the one hand, as the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis is indeed buttressed with special graces and the prayers of countless Catholics. On the other hand, as a fellow human being, the Holy Father is as free as any of us to squander or spurn such graces. While Karl Marx and the socialists are wrong to regard all human action and morality as the product of our socioeconomic environment, we must agree that the unique expression of our freedom is constrained and influenced by numerous historical, cultural, philosophical and biological factors. Not even popes and bishops are exempt from this conditioning upon their freedom. The Church is always free “in the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:17), yet the manner in which she expresses this freedom is influenced by larger philosophical and social trends, some of which impinge upon the Church for decades and centuries.

As such, while Pope Francis is indeed a unique “papal personality,” my thesis is that he is but the expression (or culmination) of a much larger trend in the Church which has been unfolding for many decades now: the magisterial crisis of authority vs. power. In a word, the expansion of “papal positivism” and magisterial activism in the past century has led, paradoxically, to both a compromised respect for authority among the faithful and an increase in clericalism among our pastors.

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Authority is commonly understood to mean power, but in fact, as Joyce Little argues in The Church and the Culture War (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), authority is a form of servitude and obedience, and thus the antithesis of “power,” as the word is now commonly used. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s 1958 essay, “What Was Authority?”, Little explains that “while the Greeks had no specific word for or concept of authority, the Romans had a well-developed notion of it which was closely linked to the understanding of religion and tradition” (Ibid., p. 24). Little adds that Arendt referred to religion, tradition, and authority as the “Roman trinity.” Arendt provides more detail about the Roman concept of authority:

Those endowed with authority were the elders … who had obtained it by descent and by transmission (tradition) from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come, the ancestors, whom the Romans therefore called the maiores [or “greater ones”]. The authority of the living was always a derivative, depending upon … the authority of the founders who no longer were among the living. … As long as this tradition was uninterrupted, authority was inviolate; and to act without authority and tradition, without accepted, time-honored standards and models, without the help of the wisdom of the founding father, was inconceivable. (Ibid., p. 24-25, emphasis added)

The Church has not only inherited the precincts of the capital of the Roman Empire, but has also ingrained within its structure certain deeply Roman concepts. Rome is our national capital (1 Peter 2:9) just as we may say that Romanism is our conceptual seedbed. Citing Arendt, Little explains:

Since then [when the Catholic Church took over the triune amalgamation of Roman religion, tradition and authority] it has turned out … that wherever one of the elements of the Roman trinity, religion or authority or tradition, was doubted or eliminated, the remaining two were no longer secure. Thus, it was Luther’s error to think that his challenge of the temporal authority of the Church and his appeal to unguided individual judgment would leave tradition and religion intact. So it was the error of Hobbes and the political theorists of the seventeenth century to hope that authority and religion could be saved without tradition. So, too, was it finally the error of the humanists to think it would be possible to remain within an unbroken tradition of Western civilization without religion and without authority. (Little, p. 32, emphasis added).

I shall label this delicate balance the “Roman Catholic tripod” (RCT)—authority, tradition, and piety (or Magisterium, Doctrine, and Liturgy/Discipline).1 The RCT is not to be confused with the classical Anglican tripod of “Scripture, reason, and tradition.” From my experience as a classroom teacher, I liken the three legs of the tripod to the teacher’s authority (Magisterium), the assigned textbook (Tradition), and the expectations/responsibilities for students (Liturgy and Discipline). When authority is compromised, either by inconsistent implemnetation of the expectations or a disregard for the textbook, the classroom falls to pieces and the teacher must resort to personal power or persuasion.

Little provides an interesting, and highly relevant, example of how delicately interconnected the three legs of the RCT are:

When in 1968, Humanae Vitae produced such controversy, the question was frequently raised as to whether we were facing a crisis of authority or a crisis of faith. Today it is obvious that it was and is both, and that both crises are rooted in a single cause–the dominance of power in the thinking of so many people today in both the Church and society. … [Critics of Humanae Vitae] could no longer recognize that those in authority, in the words of Ratzinger, ‘do not create anything but simply articulate what already exists in the Church of the Lord’ ” (p. 38).2 Church, Ecumenism and Politics (New York: Crossroad, 1988), p. 130.

Elsewhere, Little elaborates in broader terms how the RCT functions—and malfunctions—in the Church, arguing that “ecclesial authority is not the same thing as force. As Arendt points out, ‘where force is used, authority itself has failed’” (p. 26). Moreover, “because ecclesial authority is sacramental [‘Holy Orders’] or representational, it requires that those who exercise it also obey it.” In other words, “although authority is hierarchical by nature, the hierarchy it establishes is not one of inequality between some who simply command and others who simply obey. Since those in authority derive that authority from Christ himself, they are as much obliged to obey it as anyone else in the Church” (p. 27, emphasis added). Finally, Little notes, “ecclesial authority … [always] looks back to the founding event of the New Covenant for its legitimacy [and, therefore,] Church authority is inviolate only as long as continuity with that past event is sustained in the tradition” (p. 27, emphasis added).

Thus, pace Lewis in the opening quotation, Catholics are never positioned to receive some new teaching, but rather are always poised to accept a new and living teacher in the same stream of truth which flowed from Christ’s pierced heart onto the pages of Scripture and into the channels of sacramental grace. As Cdl. Ratzinger explained, “The true sense of the teaching authority of the Pope consists in his being the advocate of Christian memory. The Pope does not impose from without. Rather he elucidates Christian memory and defends it.”3 Quoted in “A Man of Conscience”, Inside the Vatican, zero issue, Spring 1993.

Little’s overall point is that “power and authority … move in quite opposite directions.” Authority “is rooted in and derives all of its legitimacy from the givenness of a reality uncreated by those who exercise authority.” In contrast, power “seeks to master or control any reality it encounters. … Therefore, power per se sets no limits upon itself.” (p. 29) She then sharpens the contrast between authority and power by explaining that

while authority looks to a past founding event … and relies upon tradition to establish continuity between that event and all subsequent generations, power sees the past solely as the source of a given reality it seeks to overcome and looks therefore to the present and especially the future as the arena for its own achievements. And power positively revels in the discontinuities or ruptures [or creative novelties and surprises]  it is able to create by destroying or changing what has been given from the past” (p. 30).4 This throws an interesting light on why a German Jesuit instantly recognized that Pope Francis “knows exactly how power is spelled”, and why a world-famous semiotician sees in Francis “something absolutely new in the history of the Church, and perhaps in the history of the world”, of which more in later posts.

The crisis of authority — or, life on the wobbly tripod, which the Church has experienced for decades — is fundamentally the crisis of clericalism, and is therefore bigger than the recent Synod on the Family, bigger than Pope Francis, bigger than Paul VI and the Humanae Vitae hurdle, bigger even than Vatican II, which, as I shall explain in a later installment of my analysis, ended up being a Trojan horse for clericalist sappers.

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Recall how tightly woven the three strands of the RCT are: authority, tradition, and piety (or Magisterium, Doctrine, and Liturgy/Discipline). The eccelsial will to power has been present to varying degrees and in different ways throughout the Church’s long history. The fact we must face in the present context is that in the name of populist pastoralism, some of the Church’s shepherds appear to confuse their power over the Church’s discipline with their authority as guardians of tradition and doctrine. Authority is staid while power is kinetic. Authority is boring while power is entertaining. Displays of pastoral power give the impression of energy and vitality in the Church, but, for every flash of light generated by such power, another layer of smoke shrouds the authority of tradition. The more closely the Church’s authority is confused with displays of power — media savvy, political responsiveness, folksy populism, rhetorical compromise, and the like — the weaker her authority actually becomes.

I offer these reflections for two reasons. First, to encourage those now harboring deep concerns about what is apparently being fomented in the Church not to despair. Askew though the RCT may be these days in favor of pastoral power plays and papal positivism, Christ shall right the Barque of Peter in the end and bring us on-board into our heavenly harbor. Second, to foster an understanding of the larger crisis of power vs. authority, which can help us make better sense of the sources and aims of Pope Francis’s style of governance. In part two, we shall explore these sources in more depth.


1 The RCT is not to be confused with the classical Anglican tripod of “Scripture, reason, and tradition.”
2 Church, Ecumenism and Politics (New York: Crossroad, 1988), p. 130.
3 Quoted in “A Man of Conscience”, Inside the Vatican, zero issue, Spring 1993.
4 This throws an interesting light on why a German Jesuit instantly recognized that Pope Francis “knows exactly how power is spelled”, and why a world-famous semiotician sees in Francis “something absolutely new in the history of the Church, and perhaps in the history of the world”, of which more in later posts.

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