AUTHORITY AND CONVERSION
OR: THE LIMITS OF AUTHORITY
Cristianesimo nella Storia 21 (2000) 207-229.
Joseph A. Komonchak
Roman Catholic thought about Church-authority massively emphasizes its objectivity. It stands “out there,” over-and-against the individual believer. It does not derive from the individual nor from the community of believers; it has been instituted by God; it is a participation in the authority of Christ; it is guided by the Holy Spirit; it is communicated by sacramental empowerment. It has behind it a long history, first set out only 150 years after Christ in lists of episcopal successions. It is articulated in a complex system of institutions, in interlocked sets of roles, and in numerous legal canons. Acceptance of it and obedience to it are constitutive dimensions of being a Roman Catholic.
This “there-ness” is an element of the positive character of Christianity which at its basis and at its heart is not the precipitate of the inner religious experience of individuals, but an encounter with Jesus Christ and with the God who was in him, reconciling the world to himself (see 2 Cor 6:19). The Church is the visible historical and social difference Jesus Christ has made and makes today. In the overwhelming majority of cases, people encounter Jesus Christ and his God and Father by encountering the Church, just as once it was possible that a first-century Jew might encounter that God and his demands and call by happening upon Jesus of Nazareth on a dusty road in Palestine. To put in somewhat Barthian terms, Christianity–the Church–is the brick hurled through the living-room window, startlingly, stunningly, inescapably demanding attention and a response.
How far that brick-metaphor can take one is a good question. On the one hand, it does not leave much room for the Catholic insight and instinct that the revelation embodied in Christ comes as the fulfilment of the deepest desires of the human mind and heart and as the healing of their severest wounds. On the other hand, it fulfills by utter transformation (“Eye has not seen…”) and it heals by the way of the cross, foolishness to Greeks and weakness to Jews (see 1 Cor 1:1825). The revelation itself unveils the range of the desire and the depth of the need. Christian anthropology is an effort to understand who we must be if God can place before us such a fulfilment purchased at such a price and requiring such a conversion.
Conversion and fulfilment, then. Conversion recalls the objectivity, fulfilment the subjectivity of the Christian experience. (more…)