"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

July 24, 2010

Authority and conversion

Filed under: Essays — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 9:01 am



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. Augustine set out the two poles in his commentary on the word of the Lord: “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him.” To come to Christ is to believe in him. Believing in him is a free act. How can you freely believe if you must be drawn, pulled? Augustine replied:

            It is too little to say that you are drawn simply by the will (voluntate), you are drawn also by pleasure (voluptate). What is it to be drawn by pleasure? There is a certain pleasure of the heart for which that heavenly bread is sweet. If the poet could say, “Each has his own pleasure, which draws him on” (Virgil, Eclogue 2)–not necessity, but desire, not obligation, but delight–then how much more strongly ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ if he delights in truth, delights in blessedness, delights in justice, delights in eternal life–all of which Christ is? Or is it that the body’s senses have their desires, while the soul lacks desires of its own? If the soul has no desires of its own, how is it said: “The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life, and in thy light do we see light” (Ps 35:8-9)? Give me someone who loves and he will understand what I am saying. Give me someone who desires, give me someone who hungers, give me someone who is wandering in this desert and thirsty and panting for the fountain of his eternal home: give me someone like this and he will know what I am saying. But if I am talking to a cold man, he does not know what I am saying.[i]

The First Vatican Council kept both elements in tension. On the one hand, faith is an assent to revelation, not because its intrinsic truth is perceived by reason, but on the grounds of the authority of God, who can neither be deceived nor deceive. On the other hand, saving faith is impossible without the light and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that make assenting to and believing the truth a free and meritorious act of which the word “suavitas” [pleasantness, delight] may be used (DS 3008, 3010).

In classical modern apologetics, the emphasis fell on extrinsic arguments on behalf of the revelation in Christ: the fulfilment of prophecy, miracles, the objective marks of the Church. It was difficult to bring in and to integrate the subjective elements of the coming-to-faith in Christ. Appeals to the “method of immanence” were often suspected of subjectivism, relativism, and individualism, of neglecting that delight (suavitas) is purchased at the price of conversion. The result, both in analyses of the act of faith and more generally, has been the massive emphasis on the objective dimensions of authority. And this emphasis has been echoed in the typical fashion in which authority is thought to function within the Church.  Auctoritas trumps suavitas.

An adequate theory of authority will have to hold the two together. Vatican I’s description of the authority of God himself acknowledges the sacred condition: God must be believed, not because he is bigger and stronger than we, but because he can neither deceive nor be deceived, that is, because of his goodness and wisdom, so that we may be sure that to believe his word is no threat to our desire for and delight in the truth. In believing him we have to sacrifice nothing of our desire for truth, blessedness, justice, eternal life, all of which Christ is, as Augustine said. Love these, desire these, and you will be drawn freely to Christ. A theory of authority, then, will be incomplete if it does not take into account the subjectivity of those who, when it operates most effectively, delight in submitting to it.

I offer, then, some observations that may be helpful in considering how authority works when it works well. They begin with reflections suggested by reading in the philosophical and sociological literature on authority and then move to asking about its pertinence to the Church.

Authority, Community, and Trust

First, authority is a social relationship, that is, a relationship between an A and a B. According to Aquinas, even God could not be called “Lord” before there were creatures.[ii] Obviously, the creatures do not constitute God as Creator, but they are necessary for it to be true that God is Creator and Lord.

Social relationships are constituted by the reciprocal and mutually reinforcing knowledge, agreement, actions, and expectations of the two parties. A knows what is expected of himself and of B. B knows what is expected of himself and of A. Each knows that the other knows. These mutually reinforcing expectations are the social relationship. One might consider, for example, what happens on the first day of class at a university, where the professor is A and the students are B.[iii]

In an authority-relationship, the two parties are not equal in all respects. If A is an authority for B, B is not an authority for A in the same respect or with regard to the same matter. The asymmetry of the relationship grounds the distinction between authority and mere persuasion, which presupposes equality.[iv]

Distinguish authority from mere power. Power is the simple ability to impose one’s will on another, rightly or wrongly, and rests finally either on superior force in A or on B’s fear of punishment or desire for reward. At the limit, this fear or desire may be so great as to remove B’s freedom. Authority is legitimate power, that is, rests on something more than superior force, is motivated by something other than fear or desire for reward, and is intelligently and freely acknowledged by B. Authority-relationships respect the intelligence and freedom of B; relationships of mere power may not. A first meaning of “legitimacy,” then, is compatibility with intelligence and freedom.

Power is legitimated by reference to some common interests or concerns that link A and B and extends as far as do those interests and concerns. This community of interest precedes, generates, and undergirds the authority-relationship between A and B. Outside the field of common interest, A and B are not linked by an authority-relationship. Their roles may in fact be reversed as the fields of interest vary. Thus a student who is a B in the classroom of his professor (A) may become the expert (A) when the professor wants help (and thus becomes a B) in getting on the Internet.

De facto, it is B who legitimates A’s power by understanding and accepting that, given their common purpose, A has the ability to contribute something which B needs but cannot, either absolutely or conveniently, permanently or temporarily, provide for himself. This “something” may be quite varied, but for the moment let us simply refer to it as “direction.” In an authority-relationship, B acknowledges the capacity of A to supply direction which is in accord with or can be justified or legitimated by reference to the prior interests and concerns. The direction may take the form of a command (political authority) or of instruction (epistemic authority).

Let us call this acknowledgment B’s trust or confidence in A. An authority-relationship exists, then, when there is a B who trusts an A to supply direction.

The authority-relationship is co-constituted by the two parties. In A it is constituted by the capacity to provide direction; in B it is constituted by the acknowledgment and acceptance of that capacity. B does not make A an authority in the sense of supplying A with the capacity, but B does make A an authority by acknowledging and accepting A’s capacity. People who claim to be Napoleon but have no army behind them wind up in mental hospitals. Newman said that the Church would look rather silly if there were only clergy and no laity.

The notion of legitimacy has undergone a shift in modern social science where today it is taken to be measured by the degree of acknowledgment of A’s right to provide direction. As such it is analytically useful for determining whether and where an authority-relationship actually exists and functions. It does not need to displace classical notions of legitimacy, however, which appeal to transcendent norms (divine positive law, natural law, right reason, etc.) or to norms deriving from the community of interest in order to discriminate, among authority-relationships, those that ought to exist and those that ought not to exist. By these criteria some A’s should not be trusted and some should be, while some B’s trust A’s they shouldn’t trust and do not trust A’s they should trust. B’s trust or its lack settles the modern empirical question about legitimacy; other criteria settle whether an A is genuinely trustworthy and so legitimate in the classical sense. Note, however, that there is in fact no A at all, genuine or not, if there is no B who trusts A, however genuine A may be.

As it functions de facto, A’s authority is trusted by B, a trust motivated by B’s conviction that  A has the capacity to provide needed or desired direction for the pursuit or achievement or sustaining of some common interests or purposes. B’s trust is in the capacity of A. It is not necessary that on every occasion A actually spell out the justification that legitimates a particular direction he gives. It is enough for B to trust that, if questioned, A can justify his direction by appeal to criteria implicit in their community.[v]

It is a sign that an authority-relationship is either dead or moribund if every act of A is skeptically questioned by B; it means that A is no longer trusted. A credibility-gap is a crisis in authority. On the other hand, a consistent unwillingness or inability on the part of A to provide the reasons behind his decisions is likely to generate the suspicion that no such reasons exist and to weaken B’s constitutive acknowledgment of A’s authority.[vi]

Social bodies of a certain complexity articulate power in institutions which differentiate offices and roles. In a healthy society these institutions are trusted by their members as reasonable and effective ways in which to articulate social power. This social articulation then lends its authority to the occupants of the offices, who may personally be unknown to the other members. When people are said to be “in authority,” it is meant that they occupy offices in which the members of the society expect to find people who can be trusted to provide the direction which the society needs. On the other hand, it is also possible for people who are “in authority” to betray that prior trust; and repeated betrayals of trust may result in the offices themselves, and indeed the whole system, losing authority, that is, ceasing to be trusted

This is one of Max Weber’s classic trilogy of types of authority: the authority of office. In addition, he described authority-relations based upon tradition or upon charisma. (Weber also acknowledged that these might overlap, as in the case of charisms of office.) Note that the differentiation is based upon the grounds for the trust placed in the person, but the constituent of de facto authority in all three cases would appear to be trust.

The usual framework for discussions of authority is political, but the analysis given above can also be applied to other social relationships in which ordinary language also speaks of instances of authority. Thus books are often praised by reviewers as “authoritative.” Noted scholars are “authorities” in their field. Science today has a notable “authority.”

Authority in all these cases also can be interpreted as trustworthiness. The scientists and scholars are consulted, the teachers have students, and the authors are read because they are considered to know more about a subject than all or most others, which means that they and those who approach them are in an asymmetrical relationship. The authority-trust relationship thus also functions here; and, despite common assumptions to the contrary, it is an essential component of the transmission and accumulation of knowledge even in a scientific age. Scientists and scholars trust one another more than they often acknowledge; and there would be no progress in knowledge or cooperation in its pursuit if it were not considered reasonable to trust the work and conclusions of others.

The grounds for such trust in an epistemic authority are his knowledge of the pertinent data, ability intelligently and critically to interpret and assess them, and intellectual integrity. Such qualities, manifested in work published or otherwise communicated, ground a scholarly or scientific reputation, which makes one an authority in a field, someone whose next communication is likely to be welcomed with antecedent trust.

The communication of knowledge is socially articulated in educational institutions, where the authority relationship between A and B is expressed in the typified roles of teachers and students. Teachers are appointed to their offices because they have met the institutionally established criteria which ac-credit them, that is, declare them to be worthy of the trust that they will fulfill the expected roles. Students enroll in their courses because they trust that no one will be teaching them who cannot be trusted and/or because they have heard from various sources that they are good teachers.

Instances of teaching are usually guided by the structure and dynamics outlined above. The teacher is an authority, that is, one who is trusted to be able to give reasons for what he teaches. In the normal case, students trust what the teacher teaches; a teacher whose every word is challenged is no longer an authority. While it may be the aim of education to bring the students to the point where they accept what is taught on the basis of their own intelligence and reason, the path to such a goal is initially one of trust or belief and, in more cases than not and with respect to substantial portions of what they learn, they never cease to hold their views on the basis of  trust. Most of what we have learned and consider ourselves to know we have never verified for ourselves.

This, in brief, is how I think authority works in fact. It is an omnipresent element in society, differently structured and articulated, of course, from the most casual and fleeting of encounters (“Do you know what time it is?” “Is this the train to Rome?”) to the most formal and traditional of official relationships. Trustworthiness and trust are part of the social glue. They are part of what Durkheim called the pre-contractual basis of social order and part also of the most contractual elements of modern society. It is hard to conceive of any society of any size or duration that does not depend on it.

Authority in the Church

Presuming here the existence of offices of authority in the Church, I wish to argue that the analysis here given illumines much about the functioning of authority in the Church.

The authority-relationship which distinguishes and relates hierarchy and faithful exists within a community into which people freely enter, the acknowledgment of authority being one of the dimensions of this community. One enters the community by faith in the Gospel made possible by the transforming and justifying grace of the Holy Spirit. This grace enables one to accept the words of men as the Word of God (1 Th 2:13) and to accept the Gospel as an ultimate criterion to depart from which is to cease to be in communion (the anathema sit of Gal 1:8-9). Constitutive of the community in its “objectivity,” then, is the Gospel; constitutive of the community in its “subjectivity” is the grace of the Spirit and the faith it makes possible. Everything else, including the Scriptures and the forms and structures of authority, exists to prepare for or to articulate the implications of the work of the Spirit.[vii]

On the Catholic view, offices of authority within the Church exist by the divine will and are promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and this belief grounds the antecedent trust that Catholics are expected to place in those who occupy offices of authority and in their decisions and teachings. That these ministries exist and must function within the objective limits set by the constitutive communion in faith is clear from several considerations: the Pauline injunction that a bishop be an “apt teacher,” which scholars interpret in terms both of what and of how to teach; the requirement, which is more than a matter of liturgical etiquette, that an ordination by preceded by the confession of faith; the ancient canon that “Romanus Pontifex a nemine iudicatur nisi sit a fide devius” and the millennium of canonical and theological reflection to which it gave rise on what the Church must do if a pope becomes a heretic;[viii] the canonical qualities required in a bishop, which include “the talents which make him fit to fulfill the office,” “a good reputation,” and either a degree or expertise in Scripture, theology, or canon law (c. 378, § 1-2); that the assistance of the Spirit to bishops and the pope in the exercise of the teaching office, is not a matter of new revelation but requires them to use every apt means for investigating and expounding revelation;[ix] etc. In all these are visible both the objective referent to the constitutive faith and certain human and spiritual qualities required for one to be a good leader and teacher in the Church.

The objective and subjective dimensions of the constitutive and undergirding community must condition at every point the exercise of authority and the healthy functioning of the authority-relation. The distinctive faith has a substance, a content, which has made it possible, ever since the apostolic age to say that some views are compatible with it and some are not. But, on the other hand, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit” and a later tradition would insist that no one can come to believe except freely. Freedom is, then, constitutive of the Church and of all relations within it.

The role of the Church in coming to faith cannot be reduced to that of the formal authority of divinely instituted offices. An ancient testimony can be found in Augustine’s dialogue with the Manicheans in which the famous statement appears: “I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church so moved me.” By auctoritas here, Augustine was not referring exclusively to the hierarchy. A few paragraphs before he had told the Manicheans what kept him in the Catholic Church. After referring to “the purest wisdom” that could be found there, he went on:

                But there are many other things which quite properly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me, as does the authority that was inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, confirmed by age. The succession of priests keeps me, from the very seat of Peter the Apostle to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, entrusted his sheep for shepherding down to the present episcopate. Finally, the very name “Catholic” keeps me, which not without cause among so many heresies this Church alone has obtained, so that although all heretics wish to be called Catholics, still when some stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic would dare to point to his own basilica or house. So many, then, and so great are the most precious bonds of the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, even if because of the slowness of our understanding or the character of our lives the truth may not yet fully disclose itself.

But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or to keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. If the truth is displayed so manifestly that it cannot be doubted, then it is to be preferred to all the things which keep me in the Catholic Church. But if truth is only promised and not displayed, no one shall move me from that faith which binds my mind with so many and such strong ties to the Christian religion.[x]

The famous statement about the Gospel and the auctoritas of the Catholic Church then serves as a dialectical tool. The Manicheans refer him to the Gospel. Augustine says he accepts the Gospel on the authority of the Church, which, however, warns him against the Manicheans. If he accepts the Gospel on the weight of the Church, then he must also accept the same Church’s repudiation of Manicheism.

A more recent statement reflects this large view of the many, great and “most precious bonds of the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church” and how they serve its authority. From the father of a young man whom John Henry Newman had just received into the Church came a letter expressing his concern. Newman replied:

            Nor do I feel, as I should perhaps if I were you, that he is putting himself under a sort of intellectual tyranny by doing an act which he is not allowed to reverse. The ecclesiastical prohibition to doubt and inquire, is not so much a practical rule as a scientific principle, which is laid down to make the theological system consistent with itself. A Catholic is kept from scepticism, not by any external prohibition, but by admiration, trust, and love. While he admires, trusts, and loves our Lord and His Church, those feelings prohibit him from doubt; they guard and protect his faith; the real prohibition is from within. But suppose those feelings go; suppose he ceases to have admiration, trust, and love, of Our Lord and His Church; in that case, the external prohibition probably will not suffice to keep him from doubting, if he be of an argumentative turn.

Thus it avails in neither case; while he loves and trusts, it is not needed; when he does not love and trust, it is impotent.

I expect that, as Eddy experiences more and more what the Catholic Religion is, its power, strength, comfort, peace, and depth, the greater devotion will he have towards it, as the gift of God, and the greater repugnance to put it on its trial, as if he had never heard of it. To bid him authoritatively not to doubt, will be as irrelevant, as to tell him not to maim himself or put his eyes out.[xi]

An experience of the “power, strength, comfort, peace, and depth” of Catholicism will lead the new convert to the “admiration, trust, and love” that make skepticism or doubt inwardly repugnant to him, that when present make appeals to merely formal authority superfluous and when absent make it powerless. I take this to fill out what I described earlier when speaking of community as the matrix of effective authority. Newman would have had to bow to few thinkers in the nineteenth century in emphasizing the necessity of authority, but he never reduced this to hierarchical authority and he was acutely aware of the conditions and limits of authority.[xii]

When Newman reprinted the Via Media in 1877, he added not only a long Preface but abundant notes to indicate where he still maintained or wished now to modify statements made in the original edition, written in defense of Anglicanism. In the midst of a criticism of the Catholic Church for imposing the Tridentine dogmas as articles of faith, he felt it necessary to defend the Anglican Church from the charge of having done the same thing with the Thirty-Nine Articles. His defense begins with these comments, which he left unannotated in the Catholic edition:

            I say the Church is not familiar with tests, not as if she may not adopt them as a matter of expedience, if she thinks fit, but because they are but the resort of authority when it is weak. We bind men with oaths when we can secure their fidelity in no other way; but the Church Catholic is inherently strong, can defend herself, and fears nothing. Ignorance of her own power is her only weakness. She admits her members on their profession of Christianity, and if in the event they become heretical, she ejects them as she admitted them. But when, from circumstances, she suspends her use of that power, being deprived of her natural defense, she needs others; she makes “alliances,” so called, or appeals to her civil rights; and in like manner declarations and pledges on the part of her members may become a suitable, as well as necessary expedient, for securing herself against the encroachments of heresy.[xiii]

That “tests” and “oaths of fidelity” might in certain circumstances be suitable and even necessary, Newman here acknowledges; but the initial comments remain: that they are “the resort of authority when it is weak,” when fidelity can be secured in no other way. In the normal case, they should be unnecessary because of the inherent power of the Church, which I take to refer to the force it should have when it is such as to gain what in the other text he calls the “admiration, trust, and love” of its members.

On the other hand, Newman was aware of what may hide that force from people. In a note added to the 1877 edition, he wrote:

            The Catholic Church is by its very structure and mission a political power, by which I mean a visible, substantive body of men, united together by common engagements and laws, and thereby  necessarily having relations both towards its members and towards outsiders. Such a polity exists simply for the sake of the Catholic Religion, and as a means to an end; but since politics in their nature are a subject of absorbing interest, it is not wonderful that grave scandals from time to time occur among those who constitute its executive, or legislative, from their being led off from spiritual aims by secular. These scandals hide from the world for a while, and from large classes and various ranks of society, for long intervals, the real sanctity, beauty and persuasiveness of the Church and her children.[xiv]

The note recalls a comment in the new Preface to the same volume in which Newman once again set out the large considerations which attract people to the Catholic Church and the difficulties many of them experience:

            …there are those, not a few, who would be Catholics, if their conscience would let them; for they see in the Catholic Religion a great substance and earnest of truth; a depth, strength, coherence, elasticity, and life, a nobleness and grandeur, a power of sympathy and resource in view of the various ailments of the soul, and a suitableness to all classes and circumstances of mankind; a glorious history, and a promise of perpetual youthfulness; and they already accept without scruple, or rather joyfully feed upon its solemn mysteries, which are a trial to others; but they cannot, as a matter of duty, enter its fold on account of certain great difficulties which block their way, and throw them back, when they would embrace that faith which looks so like what it professes to be.

To these I would address myself, as far as my discussion on a very large subject extends; and, even if I do not succeed with them, at least I shall be explaining, as I have long wished to do, how I myself get over difficulties which I formerly felt as well as they, and which made me for many years cry out bitterly, “Union with Rome is impossible.” Most probably I shall be able to do little more. It is so ordered on high that in our day Holy Church should present just that aspect to my countrymen which is most consonant with their ingrained prejudices against her, most unpromising for their conversion; and what can one writer do to counteract this misfortune?[xv]

The point of all this, of course, is to indicate the conditions and limits of official authority in the Church. It presupposes something which it by itself cannot guarantee: admiration, trust, and love of Christ and his Church. Where these are present, authority will pass without great difficulty; where these are absent, it will not by itself have any force. Whether they are present or absent is, of course, a matter of conversion on the part of members and converts, a recognition of the Church’s “sanctity, beauty, and persuasiveness;” but this recognition can be impeded also by the failures of those in authority or by their lack of conversion.

Authority and Conversion

Much of the discussion of authority neglects the necessity of conversion both in the bearers and in the subjects of authority. This neglect is perhaps less obvious in the latter case since so many invocations of authority include appeals to obedience and assent, which certainly are acts of conversion. But the neglect I mean here is the neglect of the intelligent and free character of the acknowledgment of authority, of the trust that follows from it, and of the acts that embody whatever obedience or assent is required. One sometimes senses an oddly Kantian notion of obedience as more meritorious when it is more difficult, when it runs most counter to one’s own views or instincts or desires. (Aquinas thought that merit was measured, not by the difficulty of the act, but by the love with which it was posited.[xvi]) One sometimes senses that authority is considered to be necessary as a substitute for the exercise of intelligence and freedom on the part of those subject to it. One sometimes senses that authority is thought by itself to suffice as a motivating cause of obedience or assent.

Perhaps something might be learned from the Thomist analysis of the reasonableness and the merit of faith. At the beginning of the Secunda secundae, Aquinas replied to the objection that to assent to things beyond reason’s grasp is dangerous, since a person cannot resolve them into the first principles that permit him to judge whether they are true or false. His answer appeals, not to “objective” authority, but to the graced subjectivity of the believer: “As by the natural light of intellect, a person assents to principles, so a virtuous person by the habit of virtue passes correct judgments on matters that befit that virtue. It is in this way also that by the divinely infused light of faith a person assents to the things which are of faith and not to things counter to it. And so there is no danger or damnation in those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1), illumined as they are by him through faith” (Summa theol., II-II, q. 2, a. 3, ad 2m).

To the objection that faith cannot be a meritorious act since to believe is either a matter of assenting to the evident or is irresponsible, he replies: “One who believes has sufficient motive for believing since he is led to believe by the authority of divine teaching confirmed by miracles and, what is more, by the inner instinct of the inviting God. Hence he does not believe lightly. Still, since his motive is not sufficient for knowledge, the ground for merit is not removed” (Summa theol., II-II, q. 2, a. 9, ad 3m).

Finally, in a discussion of the causes of a person’s assent of faith, he writes: “One of them motivates him externally: e.g., a miracle witnessed or the persuasiveness of the one who leads him to faith (persuasio hominis inducentis ad fidem). But neither of these is a sufficient cause. Of those who witness the same miracle or listen to the same preaching, some believe and others do not believe. And so one must posit another and inner cause, which inwardly moves a person to assent to the things of faith.” While Pelagians think that this is the person’s free will, Aquinas went on, this cannot be because the act is supernatural, and therefore “it is necessary that it be in the person because of a supernatural principle inwardly moving him, and this is God. And therefore faith, with regard to assent, which is the principal act of faith, comes from God inwardly moving a person by grace” (Summa theol., II-II, q. 6, a. 1; see the ad 1m: “The principal and proper cause of faith is what inwardly moves one to assent”).

In these three arguments Aquinas certainly maintained as an element of the process of coming to belief what might be called external motivations. He mentions two of them: confirmation by miracles and persuasiveness in preaching, to which, presumably, one might also add the formal authority of office. But that these external motives do not suffice he argued first from experience– some believe and some do not–and, secondly, on theological principle–it is Pelagian to think that all that is needed is the external motivation and free will. God has to be at work, through an inner invitation and the infusion of an inner instinct which not only is the most important element rendering the initial act of faith reasonable and responsible but provides an inner criterion for discerning the things of faith. Aquinas admirably holds together the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, dimensions of the question.

It was this sort of appreciation of how people come to believe that made Newman so impatient with people who dismissed the genuine difficulties of a man like Döllinger over the definition of papal infallibility:

            Every consideration, the fullest time should be given to those who have to make up their minds to hold an article of faith which is new to them. To take up at once such an article may be the act of a vigorous faith; but it may also be the act of a man who will believe anything because he believes nothing, and is ready to profess whatever his ecclesiastical, that is, his political party requires of him. There are too many high ecclesiastics in Italy and England, who think that to believe is as easy as to obey–that is, they talk as if they did not know what an act of faith is. A German who hesitates may have more of the real spirit of faith than an Italian who swallows.[xvii]

It is also what led Newman, in the difficult months after the Syllabus of Errors was issued, to add a chapter to his Apologia pro Vita sua in which he said:

            …he does most deeply enter into the feelings of a fourth and large class of men, in the educated portions of society, of religious and sincere minds, who are simply perplexed,–frightened or rendered desperate, as the case may be,–by the utter confusion into which late discoveries or speculations have thrown their most elementary ideas of religion. Who does not feel for such men? Who can have one unkind thought of them? I take up in their behalf St. Augustine’s beautiful words, “Illi in vos saeviant,’ etc. Let them be fierce with you who have no experience of the difficulty with which error is discriminated from truth, and the way of life is found amid the illusions of the world.[xviii]

The text of Augustine which Newman paraphrased appears in the same anti-Manichean work already cited and is worth quoting more fully:

            Let them be fierce with you who do not know how hard it is to find the truth and how difficult to avoid errors. Let them be fierce with you who do not know how rare and hard it is to overcome the imaginings of the flesh by the clarity of a pious mind. Let them be fierce with you who do not know how difficult it is for the eye of the inner man to be healed so that it can gaze upon its sun–not that sun which you worship, which shines with the brilliance of a heavenly body on the fleshly eyes of men and beasts, but that sun of which it is written by the prophet: “The Sun of righteousness has arisen upon me” (Mal 4:2), and of which it is said in the Gospel: “That was the true light, that enlightens every man who comes into the world” (Jn 1:9). Let them be fierce with you who do not know with what sighs and groans the slightest understanding of God is reached. And, finally, let them be fierce with you who have never been deceived by the same error they see has deceived you.

As for me, it was only after long and difficult discussions that I was able to discover what that simple truth is which can be perceived without being narrated in a silly legend. Wretch that I was, I barely succeeded, with God’s help, in overcoming the vain imaginings of my mind, gathered from theories and errors of various kinds. It was quite late before I, to remove my mind’s darkness, submitted to the call and persuasion of the all-merciful Physician…. I cannot, then, be fierce against you, but must now bear with you as once I had to bear with myself and show as much patience towards you as my friends showed to me when I was madly and blindly wandering away in your beliefs.[xix]

Even more serious for a balanced theory of authority in the Church is the neglect of the need for conversion in those who exercise it. The literature on this subject is not vast. In fact, there seems to be a ratio of inverse proportion at work: the lower the place one occupies in the Church the longer is the discussion and the warmer the recommendation of virtue, the higher the post the less attention given. This certainly is the case in the Code of Canon Law where there are lists of qualities desirable or necessary for priests and bishops but none for the pope, and where there are lists of conditions under which a pastor may be removed (including what used to be called the odium populi), but none for the removal of a bishop nor, a fortiori, for the removal of a pope. This comparative silence is perhaps a recent development: most of the patristic treatises De sacerdotio were about the episcopal office, and St. Bernard wrote the De consideratione for a pope.

From one perspective, this reluctance to explore the moral and spiritual duties of those in offices of authority in the Church makes perfect sense: to be too specific about these might give people grounds for questioning the juridical authority of their decisions. Thus, for example, at both Vatican Councils the doctrinal commissions were aware that the pope is under a moral obligation to undertake the appropriate investigations needed when a question of faith comes before him; but at both Councils a reluctance was expressed to spell these out in detail, presumably because such details might ground an investigation as to whether that obligation had been properly met.[xx] (It is, of course, a good question as to what precisely such investigations should be, and theologians and canonists could be expected to disagree on the matter.) Such questions could disturb the good order of the Church.

But this perspective, of course, is a very limited one, as limited as is the one that reduces the process of coming to believe to a simple matter of accepting things on the authority of God or on the authority of the Church.[xxi] Life is more complex than that, at all levels. However little it may be able to be discerned or judged by other human beings, it remains that the exercise of pastoral authority requires great discernment whether in teaching or in governing. Discernment is not something that is automatically communicated by episcopal ordination or papal election. It is, in fact, a function of intellectual, moral, and spiritual development, and it is clear from history, not all of it remote, that men have been promoted to positions of spiritual authority who should not have been and whose exercise of it has been greatly compromised, to the grave injury of the Church, by their lack of such development. It was in part a recognition of failures on the part of occupants of his own office that led John Paul II to invite the help of other churches in a reflection on the exercise of  papal authority.[xxii]

Once again, Newman has a paragraph that invites to thought.

                Consider the Bible tells us to be meek, humble, single-hearted and teachable. Now, it is plain that humility and teachableness are qualities of mind necessary for arriving at the truth in any subject, and in religious matters as well as others. By obeying Scripture, then in practicing humility and teachableness, it is evident that we are at least in the way to arrive at the knowledge of God. On the other hand, impatient, proud, self-confident, obstinate men are generally wrong in the opinions they form of persons and things. Prejudice and self-conceit blind the eyes and mislead the judgment, whatever be the subject inquired into…. The same thing happens also in religious inquiries. When I see a person hasty and violent, harsh and high-minded, careless of what others feel, and disdainful of what they think–when I see such a one proceeding to inquire into religious subjects, I am sure beforehand that he cannot go right–he will not be led into all the truth–it is contrary to the nature of things and the experience of the world, that he should find what he is seeking. I should say the same were he seeking to find out what to believe or to do in any other matter not religious, but especially in any such important and solemn inquiry; for the fear of the Lord (humbleness, teachableness, reverence towards Him) is the very beginning of wisdom, as Solomon tells us; it leads us to think over things modestly and humbly, to examine patiently, to bear doubt and uncertainty, to wait perseveringly for an increase of light, to be slow to speak, and to be deliberate in deciding.[xxiii]

I know of no reason why what Newman here writes should not be considered to apply to leaders and teachers in the Church as well as to the ordinary faithful. If they do so apply, what are the implications for the theory, practice, and structures of authority?

First, they suggest the need to see to it that the people selected for high office in the Church are marked by the virtues Newman here describes, particularly those in the last lines. This care is surely something needed if the people are to trust the institutions of the Church and through them the temporary occupants of those offices. Repeated appointment of people whose actions display a lack of such virtues will eventually threaten the general trust in the institutions.[xxiv]

Second, as Congar remarks, “It is not enough to define apostolic successor by a purely juridical continuity…, and then to make ethical elements the simple object of the spirit in which the function must be exercised. These ethical elements have to be introduced into the very ontology of the charge received.” He explains this in terms of the Church as a communion of which holiness is a constitutive element and the work of the Spirit is necessary in all members and for all activities. But if the Spirit’s assistance is infallibly promised, it does not work ex opere operato by some sort of “automisme de la grâce” but requires on our part fidelity as a duty and a gift.[xxv] Congar cites abundant examples from the pre-Reformation periods in which fidelity to the apostolic faith was considered constitutive of the authority of preachers and teachers in the Church.[xxvi]

Third, they would seem to suggest the need for institutions or procedures for the correction and repair of abuses of authority and, at the limit, for the removal from office of people who demonstrate that they are not up to the high demands of the office.

Fourth, they would suggest the need to develop more collegial structures for the exercise of authority at all levels so that the unfortunate consequences of defects in an individual leader may perhaps be compensated for by the advice and participation of others. An exaggerated emphasis on the lonely individual leader, as for example in the recent statement on episcopal conferences, threatens the emphasis on co-responsibility that was one of the hallmarks of the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Here some of the great theologians, hardly suspect of anti-Roman affect, displayed great common sense. Johannes de Turrecremata, for example, wrote:

            When doubt about the faith is very great to the point that the pope and cardinals are in doubt, then it would be right that a universal council of bishops be called. But when the Glossa goes on to say that a council is greater than a pope, it seems that this is not true of a greater power of jurisdiction if there is a true and undoubted pope, since a head is always superior in governing authority to the rest of the body and since councils derive their force from the Apostolic See….But as a rule it is quite true of a greater discretionary authority according to the saying that the more one uses reason, the more authority his words seem to have…, and this is presumed to be greater in a whole council than in a single man.

Cajetan had a similar view:

            Although the pope alone has as much intensive authority as the pope along with the rest, he does not possess as much extensive authority, as much wisdom, as much unquestioned authority from all…, as much solemnity, which commonly has great influence on men’s minds, as much goodness and grace before God, which is very effective with the multitude in persuading them that he was guided by the Holy Spirit and cannot err. For matters which touch the whole Church in its individual members must be done is such a way that they will be most easily acceptable to all; and for this universal councils, celebrated especially by respected prelates, are of great effect.

And Baronius reports the following argument submitted to the pope in 1441:

            We must distinguish between two kinds of authority both in the pope and in the other prelates. One is the authority of the power entrusted to them, and this is always the same in all the supreme pontiffs… The other is the authority of good esteem or reputation, and this derives from virtues and from virtuous works, and that is why it is not the same in all the supreme pontiffs, as is clear from Gregory the Great and St. Leo, who enjoyed the highest authority and reputation…. And this is why general councils are said to be of supreme authority with respect to the authority that comes from reputation or esteem.[xxvii]

Much of what I have tried to say here is illustrated in the redactional history of Lumen gentium. No. 25 offered an explanation of the famous formula, “ex sese non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae,” used of papal definitions at Vatican I:

            For then the Roman Pontiff is not offering a judgment as a private person; rather, as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom is singularly present the charism of the infallibility of the Church itself, he is expounding or defending the doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when it exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To such definitions the assent of the Church can never be lacking because of the action of the same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and makes progress in the unity of faith (LG 25).

In the final amending of the text, a proposal was made to substitute for the simple conjunction “autem” the stronger conjunction “ergo”. This would have made the final sentence quoted here read: “For this reason the assent of the Church can never be lacking…” The Doctrinal Commission rejected this proposal: “The sentence does not express a conclusion but an explanation. The principle of the unity of faith is the assistance of the Holy Spirit.”[xxviii]

This exchange is interesting. The Council, of course, stated the special assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to the magisterium by which their definitions are preserved from error. The proposed amendment would have made the assistance and the formal authority it grounds the reason why the Church’s assent will never be lacking. Instead, the Doctrinal Commission rightly pointed out that the Holy Spirit is also active in the whole community and that it is by his work that the faithful are led to give their assent to the magisterial definitions. It does not deny that formal authority may and even ought to serve as a motive of this assent, but it usefully recalls that the acknowledgment of that formal authority and the assent that may be motivated by it are both activities made possible by the Spirit’s grace. For this reason the Holy Spirit is the ultimate principle of the Church’s unity of faith. Neither in the occupants of the magisterial office nor in the faithful do the structures of authority suffice for preserving the unity of the Church’s faith without the assistance of the Spirit.

This, it seems to me, states well the ground, and the limits, of authority in the Church.


 [i]. Augustine, Tractatus in Ioannis Evangelium, 26, 4; PL 35, 1608.

[ii]. “Although God is prior to creatures, because the meaning of ‘Lord’ implies that he has a servant and vice-versa, these two relative terms, ‘Lord’ and ‘servant,’ are simultaneous in nature. Thus God was not Lord before he had a creature subject to him;” Summa theologica, I, q. 13, a. 7, ad 6m.

[iii]. For a good description of the sequence of habits, expectations, and norms that generate and construct institutions, see Dennis H. Wrong, The Problem of Order: What Unites and Divides Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 37-69.

[iv]. See Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking Press, 1968) 92-93.

[v]. Thus Carl J. Friedrich defines political authority as “the capacity for reasoned elaboration upon communally valid values” (Tradition and Authority [New York: Praeger, 1972] 62). See also his Man and his Governement: An Empirical Theory of Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963) 223-24: “the communications a power-handler offers in connection with the exercise of his power exhibit a particular kind of relationship to reason and  reasoning. They are capable of reasoned elaboration, that is, there exists the potentiality of such reasoned elaboration, but they are usually not elaborated, and they are certainly not demonstrated through scientific discourse. A communication that is ‘proven’ scientifically requires no authority for its acceptance.”

[vi]. When Etienne Gilson, upset that a book by another great medieval scholar, M.-D. Chenu had been placed on the Index, asked the then Msgr. Giovanni Battisti Montini what doctrinal errors had been found in it, Montini replied: “Le propre de l’autorité, c’est de ne pas se justifier” (“The distinguishing mark of authority is that it doesn’t justify itself”); see Laurence K. Shook, Etienne Gilson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984) 248. I would distinguish: the exercise of authority is not the demonstration of reasons, but a challenge to a decision requires the wielder of authority to demonstrate a “capacity to elaborate what he prefers by reasoning which would make sense to those who follow him” (Friedrich, Man and his Government, 223-24). One is reminded of Aquinas’ reply to the question whether theology should rely on authority or on reasoning: it should rely on authority to settle the question an ita sit; but when people seek an understanding of the truth, “one must rely on reasonings that investigate the root of the truth and that enable them to know why what is said is true. Otherwise, if the master settles a question by mere authorities, the hearer will indeed be assured that such is the case, but he will acquire nothing of science or understanding, and he will go away empty; Quodl. IV, q. 9, a. 18.

[vii]. This is an ecclesiological application of the treatment of the new law in Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, I-II, q. 106, a. 1: “Et ideo principaliter lex nova est ipsa gratia Spiritus Sancti, quae datur Christi fidelibus…. Habet tamen lex nova quaedam sicut dispositiva ad gratiam Spiritus Sancti, et ad usum huius gratiae pertinentia, quae sunt quasi secundaria in lege nova.”

[viii]. See also the similar canon: “…cunctos ipse [sc. Romanus Pontifex] iudicaturus a nemine est iudicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius.” Decretist text, Dist. 40, c. 6. On the origin of such texts from strongly papalist sources and on the larger issues, see Yves Congar, “Apostolicité de ministère et apostolicité de doctrine: Essai d’explication de la Réaction protestante et de la Tradition catholique,” in Ministères et communion ecclésiale (Paris: du Cerf, 1971) 51-94, esp. 79-80, where, after noting that the possibility of a heretical pope was a unanimous tradition down until the counter-Reformation, Congar adds: “The idea that a pope could be a heretic seems to us still today methodologically necessary for a theology de sacra hierarchia et speciatim de potestate papae” (p. 79-80)

[ix]. Commenting on LG 25, the Doctrinal Commission explained: “This paragraph states that the above-mentioned definitions necessarily agree with revelation; that when they define something the Roman Pontiff and Bishops are required to be in conformity with the written and handed-on Word of God, as Gasser explained at Vatican I when he said that ‘they have the same sources as the Church;’ and finally that the Magisterium must make use of appropriate means of investigation. The Commission did not wish to make explicit mention here of consulting ‘theologians and exegetes’ or experts, but simply to refer to appropriate means” (Alberigo/Magistretti, Synopsis historica, 459).

[x]. One will note the magis amica veritas argument toward the end.

[xi]. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. XX (London: Nelson, 1970) 430-31; what Newman meant by the “consistency” of the theological system is set out at some length in “Faith and Doubt,” Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892)  214-37.

[xii]. “Denunciation neither effects subjection in thought nor in conduct…. You cannot make men believe by force and repression. Were the Holy See as powerful in temporals, as it was three centuries back, then you would have a secret infidelity instead of an avowed one–(which seems the worse evil) unless you train the reason to defend the truth. Galileo subscribed what was asked of him, but is said to have murmured, ‘E pur muove’” (Letters and Diaries, XX, 425).

[xiii]. John Henry Newman, The Via Media of the Anglican Church (London: Pickering, 1877), I, 235.

[xiv]. Newman, The Via Media, 107n.

[xv]. Newman, The Via Media, xxxvi-xxxvii.

[xvi]. See the discussion of merit and charity in Summa theol., I-II, 1. Q. 114, a. 4, and the application to the case of faith in II-II, q. 2, aa. 9-10. A similar wisdom is visible in his discussion of obedience in II-II, 1. 104, particularly the insistence that obedience itself is an act that proceeds “libera electione ex proprio consilio” and the nuanced discussion of whether obedience is diminished by delight in what is commanded.

[xvii]. Newman, Letters and Diaries, XXV, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973) 430.

[xviii]. Newman, Apologia pro Vita sua, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) 234-35.

[xix]. Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manicheus, I, 1-5.

[xx]. See Juan Alfaro, “Problema theologicum de munere Theologiae respectu Magisterii,” Gregorianum, 57 (1976) 57-58, where he comments on the remarks of Bishop Gasser at Vatican I. The official Relator acknowledged that the pope has no other sources on which to draw than those the Church possesses and that the consensio ecclesiarum “is a rule of faith also for pontifical definitions” and that the pope is therefore bound to make use of every appropriate means for discerning the truth; but then he said that this duty was a simple matter of the pope’s conscience “and therefore should be considered to belong to the moral rather than to the juridical order.” Alfaro comments: “These last words seem more an evasion than a serious treatment of the problem; Y. Congar rightly notes: ‘These ethical elements have to be introduced into the very ontology of the charge received.’”

[xxi]. Commenting on some typical Protestant theories of the relationship between authority and holiness, Congar says: “From an ordinary Catholic perspective, these seem to confuse a question about life with a question about structure, to judge a matter of right on the basis of a matter of fact, to misunderstand the reality and the role of the institution. That this misunderstanding exists seems obvious enough, but this evaluation of a ministry by its fruits derives from a theology of the Church or of the ministries which is interested in the actual action of the Lord who builds his Church by his Spirit and not in an institution so perfectly equipped that one could say of it, as in Möhler’s famous comment, ‘God created the hierarchy and in so doing more than sufficiently supplied for the needs of the Church down to the end of the world;’” “Apostolicité de ministère,” 61-62.

[xxii]. In reading Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpa’s of John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books, 1998), one might ask oneself how many of the faults and sins for which the present Pope has expressed regret and asked forgiveness were committed, permitted, or even encouraged by Church leaders; see p. 229: “The history of the papacy could give any pope a reason for repentance. And not only its past history, but also the papacy in modern times…”

[xxiii]. John Henry Newman, “Inward Witness to the Truth of the Gospel,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. VII (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1891) 113-14.

[xxiv]. A theologian who took part in the redaction of LG 25, once told me that after working on the section which gives great weight to the teaching office of the individual bishop, a group of experts engaged in a conversation over dinner at which one bishop was described as an ignoramus, another as stupid, and a third as mentally unbalanced. Does this, he wondered, not have some implications for what we just wrote about the bishop’s teaching authority?

[xxv]. Congar, “Apostolicité de ministère,” 91-92.

[xxvi]. Congar, “Apostolicité de ministère, 70, 77-78. Thus Augustine: “A preacher speaks: if he speaks the truth, it is Christ who is speaking” (“Tractator loquitur: si vera loquitur, Christus loquitur.” Contrast this text to his famous: “Judas baptizat, Christus baptizat.”) “We should not follow even Catholic bishops if they should fall into error and pass a judgment contrary to the canonical Scriptures.” Anselm: “Bishops retain their authority to the degree that they agree with Christ; similarly, they lose it if they disagree with him.” Aquinas: “We give credence to the successors [of the Apostles] to the degree that they preach to us the truths which the Apostles left in the Scriptures.” “When a threat to the faith looms, prelates may be criticized even publicly by their subjects.”

[xxvii]. The three texts are cited by Y. Congar, “La ‘réception’ comme réalité ecclésiologique,” RSPT, 56 (1972) 400-401.

[xxviii]Acta Synodalia, III/VIII (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1976) 92. At its first presentation of this text, the Doctrinal Commission had explained: “The assent of the Church to such definitions can never be lacking because of the Holy Spirit by whose assistance the definitions are immune from error and by whose action the whole flock of Christ adheres to them and also progresses in faith. This applies to definitions issued either by the Roman Pontiff or by the body of Bishops with him, so that definitions of a Council also are irreformable ex sese and do not need the approval of the people as many in the East mistakenly hold, but rather bear with them and express the consensus of the whole community;” Synopsis historica, 459.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for making this essay available here. It offers a deft and persuasive approach to the problem of authority in the church which troubles so many today, and deserves a broad audience. The conclusion is powerful, but carefully prepared for. And the rich footnotes are worth reading thoroughly. Much learning is distilled in those notes and a delicious bit of gossip [xxiv] will strike home with many readers.

    Comment by Susan Gannon — August 10, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

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