Authority in the Church, or ecclesiastical authority, will verify, though in its own way, the concept already developed in the general treatment of the term authority. If the Church is a true society of human beings, a group seeking a common end through concerted action, it is inevitable that there is need of control, some power to determine ways and means, to allot functions, to re-dress grievances—in a word, to protect against the centrifugal tendencies that jeopardize communal action. Men in the supernatural order still display the diversity of viewpoint that makes authority necessary wherever life is to be lived within community structures.
Early Church. From the beginning the Church was conscious of this need for persons who could decide points of conflict, administer community goods, preside over community assemblies; and the Church recognized that those so empowered owed their selection and their rights not to any decision by the community, but to Christ's own determination.
As the Gospels testify to the preparation of the twelve as surrogates of Christ, so the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles testify that the Twelve and paul (as one later raised to the same dignity and functions) directed community life. In ch. 6 of Acts St. Luke describes the first major rift in community relations, the outburst of the Hellenist group against the Hebrews on the grounds that the Hellenist widows were being slighted in the distribution of community alms. He makes it clear that the plaintiffs instinctively brought their grievances to the apostles for adjudication. He makes it clear too that the Twelve without hesitation acknowledged its competence to apply a remedy by setting up a subordinate commission.
Within the Pauline communities the same picture emerges and nowhere more clearly than in 1 Corinthians, where Paul rules on the exclusion from the community of the incestuous man (5.1–5), on the handling of quarrels among the brethren (6.1–8), on the licitness of eating flesh of animals sacrificed in pagan rites (ch. 8–10, esp. 10.23–30), on the attire of women at religious services (11.2–16), on the conduct to be observed at the Lord's Supper (11.17–34), on the discipline to be observed in the exercise of charisms (ch. 12–14, esp. 14.26–40), and on the manner of gathering alms for the relief of the brethren in Jerusalem (16.1–4). The pastorals, too, whether from the hand of Paul or in the spirit of Paul, are filled with instructions that cover nearly every aspect of community life and chart for Titus and Timothy the course they are to follow in arranging ecclesiastical life in Crete and at Ephesus. This claim to direct is always based on the mandate from the Lord, who entrusted them in His place with powers of binding and loosing (Mt 18.18) and of teaching the baptized to observe whatever He had commanded (Mt 28.20). And as He will be with them constantly till the end of time, this claim will be reiterated by those who succeed the original Apostles, who are as such "not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (Gal 1.1).
A description of ecclesiastical authority would be inadequate and misleading if it were confined to the area of external Church order. For the competence of the Apostles is also a doctrinal one; i.e., they are commissioned to propose the message of salvation, and in such a way that their presentation is not that of simple messengers. From the start it was to the "teaching of the apostles" as well as to "communion of the breaking of the bread and prayers" (Acts 2.42) that the community devoted itself. The gospel is that "which also you received, wherein also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold it fast, as I preached it to you" (1 Cor 15.1–2). And Paul is always ready to explain further and authoritatively the sense in which he and the other Apostles had preached it. He did not deliver the message of salvation once for all; he constantly renewed and deepened their intelligence, so that he could claim not only that he delivered the gospel but that through the gospel he had begotten them in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 4.15). The gospel is in St. Paul not something merely to be brought externally to the attention of others, but a principle of fecundity by which he generates offspring in Christ and assumes the direction incumbent on a parent: to develop and train those whom he has procreated.
Adequate Concept. Real and pervasive as this authority is in the Catholic understanding, it need not operate to smother the activity of those who are subject to it. The Christian life is not to be thought a mechanical execution of impulses externally received; those begotten in the gospel are the human children of God and must develop internal principles too of supernatural life by which they continually grow. The very need for authority arises in part from the need of pruning the exuberance of Christian activity and from the need of maintaining free from aberration doctrines not passively received sometime in the past but doctrines constantly pondered and daily being reduced to principles of action. Authority is not to hinder fructification, but through its divine-human action to prune every branch that does bear fruit that it may bear more fruit (Jn 15.2).
See Also: hierarchy; governance, power of; keys, power of; society (church as); church, articles on.
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[s. e. donlon]