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Teaching with Authority


We teachers are frequently required to attend workshops. The most recent one at our school, St John the Baptist in Brooklyn, was about the spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul. Father Ed, the presenter, was dressed in civilian clothes and focused on the idea of “servant leadership.”

The model of all government officials, he said, should be Christ, the servant of all. Offhandedly, he said that this idea of authority should apply to the Church hierarchy. Bishops and pope must listen to those beneath them and serve as a conduit for the great truths that emanate from the laity. For example, the laity want women to be ordained as priests. The hierarchy should accede to their wishes.

It was here that I began to get uneasy. I raised my hand. “But where, in this model,” I asked, “is there a place for authority?” Ed (as he preferred to be called) responded that the authority of the Church derives from the people of God. The hierarchy should decide important issues based on the “needs” of the people and not try to impose its own will. Then he thanked me for my helpful question and went on with his lecture.

I might have pressed the point, but my colleagues’ sidelong glances told me that they were ready to leave. Driving home, I reflected on our vocation. It was true, we were all there to serve the community. We had made sacrifices in order to teach in this inner-city environment, on Catholic school salaries. Yet I wondered what would happen if we followed the skein of Father’s reasoning as it unraveled in practice. Imagine if I came into the classroom and announced, “What do you need to learn today? What would you like to hear? I’m open to suggestions.” The only response would be the contempt that all students instinctively bestow on teachers who refuse to exercise their authority. No, even though we’re there to serve, our first obligation is to teach and defend the truth. Children cry out for structure, security, a firm hand on the wheel. If a teacher ignores these fundamental needs, the class will revolt; they force the teacher to restore order.

Of course, a liberal would respond that the Church is made of adults, unlike my sixth-grade class. But didn’t Jesus say that our goal as Christians is to become like little children? Isn’t the most basic need the need to know the truth, to rest secure in the stable and never-changing love of God? For years, reform-minded Catholics have urged that we look beyond institutional memory, going back to the example of Jesus for our idea of the Church. Theirs is the Jesus who healed on the sabbath, who ate with sinners and didn’t even wash his hands. He is the iconoclastic, nonconformist Son of Man.

The Scribes and Pharisees, of course, saw Jesus this way. To them, he was a troublemaker whose threats to tradition meant that he had to die. But how did the people see Jesus? Did they welcome him as their anarchist Messiah, sine who would destroy the tablets of the Law the same way he turned over the tables in the Temple? On the contrary. When Jesus first appeared in Galilee, the people said to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:27). “He taught them as one having authority” (Mark 1:22), and “they were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority” (Luke 4:32). Thus, the Catholic liberals have accepted the definition of Jesus offered by the scribes and Pharisees, the people who wanted Jesus to die, while rejecting the way Jesus was understood by his loyal friends and disciples.

This point recently came home to me most when my young cousin, a devout Jehovah’s Witness of exemplary life, suffered severe-brain injury in a traffic accident. She had no sooner arrived by helicopter at the trauma center than two Witnesses appeared on the scene to make sure that her mother did not allow her to receive blood. The Witnesses base their opposition to transfusions on Leviticus 17:10: “If anyone . . . of the house of Israel . . . partakes of any blood, I will set myself against that one who partakes of blood.” Never mind that this prohibition concerns dietary laws, not medical procedures. Jesus, by fulfilling the Law and becoming the one sacrifice, has liberated us from the Old Testament rules, to which our modern-day Pharisees, the Witnesses, cling. He has replaced them with love and life.

When Jesus found himself in a similar situation to my cousin’s doctors, challenged by the Pharisees while trying to heal a child, he was able to reply: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” (Mark 3:4). This is the voice of the Good Shepherd, who saves us from those wolves who would destroy us. God’s authority in the world, the Church, exists precisely for this reason. It is the Witnesses’ defiance of Christ’s teaching authority, vested in his vicar, the pope, that has led to their hardness of heart in prohibiting a potentially lifesaving measure. I knew viscerally, as I know with my reason, that God wanted my cousin to have any treatment, consistent with his new law of love, that might save her life. And I knew that the Church agrees with me. There is no contradiction between authority and love; in fact, authority is love.

Jesus devoted himself wholeheartedly to the service of his flock. Did he really “give the people what they wanted”? Did he not rebuke their hard hearts when he established his normative teaching on divorce? “Weren’t they amazed when he said a camel could go through the eye of a needle before a rich man could enter heaven? Did they not shrink from him when he announced that they must eat his body if they wanted to live forever? There were some, like the rich man, who left. But many remained. They didn’t stick with Jesus because he told them what they wanted to hear. They stayed because he taught with authority, not like the scribes. “Because he spoke this way,” John tells us, “many came to believe in bin” (John 8: 30)

To serve someone — to love someone — is not to give him whatever he thinks he needs. Ask the spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict. Charity without wisdom is meaningless, and so is service without fidelity to the truth.

The role of the hierarchy, according to father Ed, should be to listen to the laity and represent their needs. The polls have shown that the majority of Catholics favor contraception, divorce, and women’s ordination. The hierarchy must enforce the will of the people. But if the real wisdom of the Church comes from public opinion, why have a hierarchy at all? Is it not, on that model, a superfluous and parasitical institution? If there is no such thing as authority, then why not have a pure democracy? Decide things based on public opinion polls, and fire the bureaucrats. After all, they only reflect the genius of the masses. Why should bishops and priests get all the credit, if every good inspiration comes from below? If the priest doesn’t speak for a transcendent, divine authority, but only represents the popular will, isn’t the hierarchy a patronizing, unwanted imposition? The Quaker have no ordained ministers. Why should Catholics?

It’s the A&P Catholics — “ashes and pals”, those who only come to church for the big giveaways — whose views are reflected in the polls. Most faithful lay Catholics, I suspect, don’t want the Church’s teaching on faith and morals to change. They reject Father Ed’s version of servant leadership. If it ever succeeds it will ironically, be imposed from above by liberal priests. It is only when authority has no transcendent, legitimate basis — when it serves the god of public opinion that it degenerates into tyranny. The reformer’s vision of popular authority ultimately glorifies not God, but themselves.

We might grumble at an authority figure, but if we recognize that he is not speaking on his own behalf, but from the authority inherent in his office, we can accept his mandate. I didn’t really want to attend this workshop, for example, but my principal and the pastor of the parish required me to. God gives me the right to go to them for support, counsel, and assistance, and so God gives them the right to my obedience. They are God’s representatives, installed in their positions to bring me his words of comfort, help, and correction. Similarly, God has chosen me for my position, and so I expect my students to obey me unconditionally even when I make mistakes. My principal and my pastor are indeed there to serve me, but not to obey my will, because I don’t always know what’s best. I don’t always see the big picture. What they serve me is truth, and I accept the truth with docility, passing it on to my students. Discipline is love. I am there for my students every day, doing my best for them, lending structure and stability to their often chaotic lives. In turn, I know I can go to my principal and my pastor for help. This is true “servant leadership.” My students’ childlike trust — and mine — is the foundation of the Church.

The reformers argue that their model of leadership has deep roots in the American Church. Unfortunately, they are right. The Catholic Church in America has been tainted with democratic impulses from the beginning. In the ideological ferment after the American Revolution, the Church emerged as a champion of Jeffersonian democracy. This is not surprising, given that its headquarters, Maryland, was firmly in the agrarian South. The dark side of this liberal philosophy of unbridled personal freedom, of course, was the existence of slavery. The Jeffersonians championed the rights of the people, but unfortunately the “people” did not believe that blacks had rights. This led, of course, to a tyranny of the white majority, and the national government was too weak to defend the rights of blacks against the states. (It is interesting to note that Jefferson’s chief antagonist was Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a West Indian merchant. Hamilton, who favoured emancipating the slaves, stood for a strong republican government, while “democracy” was championed by the patrician slave owner Jefferson..) This liberal Church, to its shame, was a part of the slaveocracy that went hand in hand with Jeffersonian democracy. Priests and nuns in Maryland doubled as slave masters, and the guard towers on their plantations are still there to be seen.

And the American Church in those first days of independence was undoubtedly liberal. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the primate of the United States, was a staunch “Father Ed” Catholic. He encouraged lay trusteeship of parishes and independence of the American Church” from Rome in all disciplinary matters.

Apparently this policy caused him some headaches, for by the end of his tenure he almost completely renounced it. When new dioceses were established. Carroll, who had been popularly elected, took it upon himself to nominate their bishops.

Like Bishop Carroll, the Church in America grew older and wiser. Immigration from Europe, where the hierarchy retained its traditional role, helped to correct the abuse of Church democracy. The dynamic and popular Church of the early twentieth century was a hierarchical Church. Only since Vatican II have we seen a recrudescence of this old, failed strain of American Catholicism, and we have seen a corresponding decline in church attendance, fewer vocations, the closing of many schools.

The faithful do not trust a democratic Church where committees cast doubt on fundamental truths and ancient customs, a Church that is confused about its own beliefs. Like my students, quick to detect and despise a teacher who waffles on fundamental issues, we faithful crave the authority and truth which Jesus radiated.

An example of the democratic tendency is the Common Ground project inaugurated by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. The Church claims the right to adjudicate issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and the requirements for priesthood in the name of a transcendent, divine justice. The dissident factions want these matters decided on the basis of perceived human “needs.” There can be no common ground between these two points of view. If the Church’s authority has any basis in transcendent, divine justice, then the Common Ground project will not affect teaching on faith and morals. It will prove to be nothing but a bone thrown to the reformers. But if it provides a forum for Father Ed’s version of “servant leadership,” popular legislation of moral teaching, it may become a compromise with evil. More unborn children will be murdered, more young people will fall into promiscuity, disease, and disorders like homosexuality, and more souls will be threatened by apostasy.

The servant leader must be, first and foremost, the servant of God. This is the model of leadership given by Jesus “I do nothing on my own,” he said, “but I say only what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28). “I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgement is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:30). Some reformers speak as if the will of the people infallibly represents the will of God. Father Ed closed his talk with the words “everything that is truly human is truly divine.” While Jesus often listened to individual people, he never consulted the will of the masses as a basis for his teaching. It came from the transcendent Father. Certainly, we become truly human — Christ-like — by partaking of the divine nature that transfigured Christ’s sacred humanity. “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ as he humbled himself to share in our humanity.” But it is the divinity that takes the initiative, that challenges, that transforms. It is not our human nature that somehow provides the standard for goodness. God has to step in and redeem our fallen nature. That was why Jesus died, after all.

Our human nature can be cleansed, but only if we remain faithful to God as Jesus did. If we want to share in his authority, we must remain true to his transcendent justice, often sacrificing our own wishes. All baptized Christians share in his authority, and priests in a special way, but we hold it only at the sufference of the Father. If we are to be perfectly active, as Jesus was, we must also, like Jesus, be receptive to the Father’s will. Otherwise our human “authority” soon degenerates into pride, selfishness, and destruction. Abortion is only the most recent example.

But what is this authority that our Father imposes on us? Is it meant to subjugate us, put us in our place? Quite the opposite. Left to our own devices, we underestimate ourselves. God steps in to encourage us, to remind us that we can be holy. His is the dominion of love. We shrink from this love and mercy because at heart we know we don’t deserve it. We feel unworthy. This too is pride, the root of all heresy. The gloomy heretics (such as the Jansenists) as well as the jolly heretics (such as the Albigensians) were obsessed with the worthlessness of man. The Jansenists made it an excuse to avoid Holy Communion and perform atrocious penances. The Albigensians turned life into a perpetual party thinking that nothing they did would please God anyway, so why not have a good time? It’s heresy that really puts down human nature and that says we can’t rise above our selfish needs.

But God says the opposite. By his divine initiative, and not by our own merit, we have been cleansed, and now we can lead lives holy and pleasing to God, full of love for our neighbor. It is God’s authority that says, “Reject me if you want. But if you accept me, you must believe certain things. Believe that I forgive you. Believe that I love you. Do not be ashamed to come into my presence. Believe that you can be holy, that your relations with others can be governed by sacrificial love. There are other things you must not do, because they compromise your dignity as my children. These things are called sin. If we are to be united, then I command you to be happy. Love yourself. Love others. Remain in my love.” This is the teaching we must pass on without any hesitation if we are to teach with authority.


Seton, Anthony. “Teaching with Authority.” This Rock (February 1998): 19-20.

Reprinted with permission of This Rock.

This Rock, the magazine of Catholic apologetics and evangelization, is published eleven times a year by Catholic Answers Inc., Subscription rates are $29.95 for one year. Subscription requests should be sent to This Rock, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177

Copyright © 1998 This Rock



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved