Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Vestiges of the Church’s Authority

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 08, 2024

Early in His public ministry, the crowds of Nazareth did not receive Jesus well, and He could not work miracles in their midst because of their lack of faith. Jesus explains, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mk. 6:4) His kinsfolk were not ready to recognize His Messianic authority. They were yet unable to respond with filial obedience to His words. The encounter prompts us to consider the relationship of authority, power, credibility, obedience, and even common law.

We see the exercise of authority in every aspect of life. The trust of a child is relational but also based on power. A baby knows if it cries loud enough, Mother will feed it. Parents soon learn to ask, “Are we running the house, or do the children run it?” Mark Twain famously quipped, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Experience and competence enhance authority. We trust experienced mechanics, businessmen, doctors, and repairmen. We appreciate their competence and hope to learn from them. The desire for order, the allure of stability, the fear of chaos, or the dread of punishment prop up the exercise of authority and an obedient response.

An organization chart establishes lines of authority and responsibility. Since ancient times, ranks and uniforms have served as significant props of authority. We expect scholars and experts to present the facts fairly and express informed opinions. We tend to trust the work of credentialed academics over armchair intellectual hobbyists. Authority needs the undergirding of logic for credibility. Aristotle formulated the law of non-contradiction: “The most indisputable of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true.”

Authorities must continually earn credibility, respect, and obedience. Medical authorities lose their credibility when they abuse medical technology. The authority of logic is underutilized and violated. The requirements of academia often undermine common sense. The once-mighty Stanford University now has a Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “FGSS helps students analyze how gender roles, relations, and identities intersect with hierarchies of power such as race, class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and age.” As that mouthful demands credibility for its litany of grievances, graduates expect those deplorable working taxpayers to pay off their student loans.

Power may necessarily force compliance, but raw force impairs the credibility of authority. Mao Tse-tung—the most prolific mass murderer in history and a darling among many Western elites—once observed, “All political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” In a 2011 book, Three Felonies a Day, a defense attorney reveals how federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from the English common-law tradition and how prosecutors can pin federal crimes on anyone for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. (Note to self: Measure a lobster for regulatory compliance before purchasing it.) Authority rooted in raw power alone destroys respect and credibility. The power of logic and justice is essential for filial obedience.

The Church also uses the customary props of authority to proclaim the Gospel. Seminary education and formation train the clergy as experts—more or less—in the Catholic faith. Ordination and the conferral of ecclesiastical degrees establish priests as reliable (one hopes). The appurtenances of clerical attire—from the Roman collar to liturgical vestments—set priests apart as distinctly religious with religious authority. The Church integrates priests and bishops into an orderly worldwide hierarchy.

Jesus, through the Church, confers pastoral authority on her priests. A priest proclaims the Gospel, celebrates the Sacraments, and manages his parish. Yet his credibility remains elusive. After ordination, a priest’s parish becomes his new hometown, and he learns that his credibility falls short of his God-given authority. He slowly realizes that God intends his carefully considered pearls of wisdom primarily for his conversion and, at best and with God’s grace (especially in the confessional), the incremental conversion of parishioners.

Indeed a priest often speaks on the need for conversion even as he struggles with his predominant faults. Occasionally God’s grace brings us to our knees in a wholesale conversion (like Saul on his way to Damascus or King David after the Prophet Nathan’s courageous indictment). The best hope of a priest is that hearers will take to heart, with God’s grace, a sentence or two of his carefully crafted remarks that challenge aspects of unholy worldviews (including his own).

The mighty deeds of Jesus validate His teaching. But on the Cross, Jesus loses every appearance of authority except for the credibility of his innocent suffering. His authority as the Suffering Servant draws all men to Himself and puts to death our sins. Jesus refuses to use His power to gain our servile compliance with His teaching. His authority—stripped of all power on the Cross—elicits our filial and loving obedience.

A priest’s most effective sign of authoritative credibility is his obedience to the words of Jesus: “Do this in memory of me.” The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass encapsulates, fulfills, and replaces the entire history of Jewish worship. Just as the synagogue and Temple integrate God’s word with Jewish sacrifices, the Mass unites the words of Jesus with His sacrificial love.

The mechanism of common law hands down reasonable and credible laws. The Mass similarly hands down the Deposit of Faith magnified by the graces of infallibility. The daily, weekly, and relentlessly cyclical participation in the one Sacrifice of Jesus in the Mass is the ultimate sign of the Church’s authority and credibility.

The Mass is the Gospel, and the Gospel is the Mass. The Mass brings us to eternal life and guarantees the promise of Jesus: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35)

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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