The eminent Fr. Dwight Longenecker had a piece last week about how to discern what a true authority is. I’d encourage you all to look it over. Allow me to share with you some of my own thoughts on the subject.
The appeal to authority is powerfully persuasive. We are encouraged and emboldened in our way of thinking to know that someone with knowledge or credentials or power thinks the same way. This is why commercials pay actors to dress as doctors and endorse their products. This is why the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval was so coveted once upon a time. This is why so many debates, even in the realm of science, are often reduced to this appeal: “But Dr. So-and-So, with all his degrees, doesn’t believe in climate change!” “Yeah, well, the National Association of Scientists Who Believe In Climate Change do. And they’re a national association of scientists.”
(This argument is also the subject of one of St. Thomas’ best jokes–“Appeal to authority is the weakest kind of proof, as Boethius says.” (ST I, q. 1, a. 8, ad. 2) Get it?)
In the Catholic faith, we’re well familiar with appeals to authority. Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium, ecumenical councils, papal pronouncements, the consistent teaching of the Church across time and space, each carry unparalleled weight when considering a matter of faith or morals. Does Jesus have one nature or two (or three, why not)? Well, the ecumenical councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon say two, so that’s that.
And yet, though we do have authorities within the Church, each has a certain way of operating, each a certain jurisdiction or purview or wheelhouse, each a particular competency. Not all work the same way. None is as all-encompassing as we might wish. There are a variety of temptations to abuse the appeal to authority.
The Protestant rallying cry of sola Scriptura is a classic example. While the Holy Bible is authoritative in that it communicates to us the Word of God, it cannot by itself decide all questions, since there is always another element to the equation: a book has to be read, interpreted, and applied. Any book can be misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied. Every heretic in history has pointed to some passage in Scripture to support his claims—“Look, right here, Jesus says, ‘The Father is greater than I,’ so they can’t be equal! Stop all this ‘consubstantial’ business!” A Protestant might point to other Scripture passages to argue this, but this brings us to a standstill: if Scripture is the authority, but it is being used to support contrary arguments, then to where are we to go? Scripture cannot do the job Protestants ask of it.
On the other end of things, there are those who have not developed the keen detection skills to distinguish the difference between traditions and Tradition. For some, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the one-time-popular theological opinion of the sanctification of St. Joseph in the womb have equal gravity and deserve the same energy in preservation. “But it’s tradition!” they say, seemingly unaware that once upon a time their ancient traditions were brash novelties, or that the so-called novelties of today were once ancient traditions.
Sometimes people correctly identify the authoritative person or body, but give them more authority than they’re due. Once a religious sister was giving a presentation on the Church’s commitment to peace to a group of us, and as she handed out a declaration from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops containing some reflections and suggestions on the possession and use of nuclear arms, the sister said in a solemn, almost hushed tone, “This… is the teaching of our Church,” as though she’d discovered some lost canon of the Council of Nicaea or the Third Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Whether the conference of bishops of a single nation have the capacity to define Church teaching on an issue, or whether the question is one of the prudential application of principles rather than defining a matter, was irrelevant to this sister. The point was that this is what she wanted to say, and she appeared to have back-up from the local successors to the apostles.
We see another example of this in the ever-present misunderstandings about the power and prerogatives of the pope. Papal infallibility is a limited gift that applies under certain conditions; yet many of us have heard someone seriously ask if we think the pope is perfect, or if the pope can predict the winning lottery numbers, or if everything he says is a divine utterance. And in an age where media outlets abound, where every off-hand remark is recorded, where media collectively have the memory span of gerbils and can’t remember what a previous pope or two said on the same subjects, and where the present pope’s personality is given to an informal style that is tailor-made for connecting personally with people but all too susceptible to being quoted out of context and misappropriated, those who are ill-informed are much more liable to think that the issuing of an encyclical on environmental stewardship means that “Thou shalt reduce, reuse, and recycle” has just become the Eleventh Commandment.
There is authority in the Church, and thank God for it, lest we become some anarcho-syndicalist commune in which we take turns acting as a sort of executive officer of the week. Christ the King has deputed his ministers to govern his kingdom; the Good Shepherd has sent out pastors to watch his flocks. Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church together guide us into a deepening of the truths preserved from the apostles. But let’s be on our guard to not let any of these, or their constituent elements, usurp the others. Because the pope is a good and holy man, but I don’t think he can pick the Powerball.