To be a member of the Catholic Church is to be subject to various voices of authority. Much of the tension, even controversy, observable in the Catholic Church today centers on authority. A helpful insight about authority in the Church is offered by Yves Congar in his book, A Gospel Priesthood. He points out that authority in the Church is never only a political type of authority, but is always paternal, generative, and educative.
Jesus established a community on which he conferred religious authority. He did not, however, give any kind of blueprint about how to structure that authority. The personal bond of every Christian with Jesus remains the basis for all Church authority. The history of the Church shows that bond of love did not prove adequate to settle doctrinal or disciplinary differences. Other structures were needed.
To put that a bit differently: fundamental to the Church is the love preached by Jesus. But love needs specification. It is not a kind of funny putty to be molded according to individual fancies.
It is incumbent on an organization to define itself, to identify the requirements for membership. Thus within the Church there are clearly defined roles, even hierarchically ordered ones. Each of these roles has specific authority.
The concept of authority is complex. An essential characteristic of authority is that it is reciprocal in the sense that it takes two to be effective: one who exercises authority and one who submits. There is often a gap between what is claimed by authority and what is accepted.
For authority at any level there is the danger of overstepping. To avoid overstepping, becoming authoritarian, authorities should keep in mind that pronouncements on issues where contingent circumstances are crucial to judgment cannot be taken as definitive, let alone infallible.
It is also important for those with authority by reason of their office to be able to listen to other voices of authority such as the “sensus fidelium”. This latter (which may be translated as “consensus of the faithful”) has long been recognized as a valid source of authority in the Church.
The theologian Paul Tillich had this helpful insight about authority. “He who tries to be without authority tries to be like God. .….. And like everyone who tries to be like God, he is thrown into self-destruction, be it a single human being, be it a nation, be it a period of history like our own.”