Pastoral Reflections about People Who Exercise Authority in the Church

“He taught with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees”

Pope Pius VI    —    Pope from 1775 to 1799


Authority comes from Latin auctor which means author: the capability to influence people.

Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: service and invitation to live the life of the  Spirit.


Historical Evolution of Authority in the Church:

In the second and third centuries authority is identified with trusting and trustworty leaders who preside over and guide the church.

In the fourth to eleventh centuries, authority becomes identified with political authority, now exercised by church leaders.  Monasticism with its stress on moral authority is a reaction against this.

In the eleventh century Gregorian reform (reform against lay encroachments on the church), the papacy claims monarchical authority.

The sixteenth century Council of Trent stresses hierarchical authority.

Vatican I (1870) stresses papal authority, the monarchical papacy, and proclaims the pope infallible.

Vatican II stresses that — in the style of Jesus — authority is for service and should be exercised in a collegial mode.

How we should understand church authority today:

I      The ability to influence and create specific consequences in the life of another, for good public order in the church.  This is impersonal, normative and legal authority. This is necessary but easily regresses into authoritarianism and self-serving mechanisms — often secretive — of institutional power and control.

II    The ability to motivate and transform people based on trusting relationships.  This is operative and relational authority.

 Contemporary reflections:

Good leaders and good followers are good listeners — in contact with reality.

Responsive leadership generates credibility which is the bond of trust that must exist in any healthy faith community.

Secrecy and a lack of tranparency in how leaders and followers make their decisions destroy Christian community.

Polarization in the church is an unhealthy development.

With honesty and transparency we need to focus

on mutual responsibilities, mutual conversion, and mutual collaboration in building and maintaining the church.