23 November 2007

Authority as God would have it

St. Pope Clement of Rome: 1 Peter 5.1-4 and Matthew 16.13-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

We could spend the day just listing the legion of challenges and difficulties facing the contemporary church. How the church, universal and local, responses will be calibrated each time either to push back against our bullies or to turn the cheek and accept insult. The universal difficulty that faces the church in these tumultuous times is the crisis of authority, that is, the general, wholesale rejection—inside and outside the family—the rejection of the Church’s ministry in defining and defending, in teaching and preaching the truth of the apostolic faith. We could spend tomorrow listing all the reasons for this rejection. But let’s cut to the chase and talk about the one reason we can directly confront and fix: the failure of ecclesial authority to define, defend, teach and preach as Christ himself did.

Matthew reports that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” We would expect this question and its subsequent answer to lead Jesus to teach his friends and students the nature of the Son of God and Man. Rather than launching into a lecture on the Messiah, Jesus takes a decidedly different tact when Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus asks his question of ALL the disciples, only Peter answers. Turning to Peter alone, Jesus says to him that only the Father could reveal such wisdom and because of this revelation to Peter, he, Jesus, gives to Peter, the Rock, the keys to the kingdom; that is, the authority and power to “bind and loose” on earth and in heaven. In Jewish terms, Jesus is making Peter his household steward, giving him the keys to the palace pantry, treasury, and troops. “Binding and loosing” refers to the authority of the rabbis to declare doctrine either true or false. With the “keys to the kingdom” and the authority to “bind and loose,” Peter, the Rock, is made vicar of Christ on earth.

Peter, in his first letter, writes to his fellow priests, as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ,” that they, his priestly co-workers, must be exemplary shepherds, tending God’s flock “willingly” not by constraint, “not for shameful profit but eagerly” as God Himself desires it. In other words, priestly authority must be wielded FOR the people and not against the people; for the truth and beauty of the faith and not for personal wealth or power, for public celebrity, overblown ego, or career advancement. The scandal of authority raises its ugly, lying head most dangerously in clerical narcissism—the use and abuse of the gifted-keys for MY glory, for MY elevation, for MY Self, bloated and callous, hungering after attention and fame. Priestly authority, used for this purpose, will divide the church, destroy the preaching, deny God’s people the truth of their faith, and ultimately, kill the spirit of both the shepherd and his flock. Our own “crisis of authority” is less about the failure of the Father’s good sheep to obey (the failure to listen) but more about the failure of our shepherds to lead in the way that “God would have it.”

How would God have His priests and bishops lead? Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ…” does not lead Jesus to expound a theology of the Messiah. Peter’s answer, “You are the Son of the living God” leads Jesus to appoint Peter to the office of vicar, steward of the kingdom, Rock for the church! Peter and his co-workers draw the fresh water of ecclesial authority from a deeply seeded trust, a root system of flourishing faith and love, and they branch out, across the church and the world, to speak the Word, to teach and preach The Truth that liberates. It is out of the deep well of abiding love for Christ and his people that any priest, any bishop draws the power to announce the Good News, to admonish and correct error, to set right those wandering away from the beaten path of our ancestors in faith. For a priest or bishop to use that well to slake a thirst for power, for fame or glory, or to puff up a failing ego is to drink his own destruction. And what is more scandalous for legitimate authority, what could throw on the path of the Way a stone larger than one of Christ’s apostles self-destructing before the eyes of the world?

Peter, the Rock, admonishes his priestly co-workers, “Do not lord [your authority] over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” Show them Christ and they in return will show you redeeming love.


  1. At the root of the failure of which you speak, it goes deeper. See the old Trent Catechism on the Creed for the explanation of I believe [] the Holy Catholic Church

    It is an article of faith that we believe the authoritative voice of the Church, which speaks with the authority of Jesus Christ Himself. This is the scandal of the incarnation lived out to the end of time; flesh speaking for God.

    Without adhering to this article, a man has no faith whatever, adhering by his choice and opinion, not faith(Summa, IIa IIae, Qq 5); with it, the rest of the issues disolve in the obedient heart inflamed with Divine Love.

    the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?

  2. Mark:

    You might be interested in the use I've made of that same passage from Aquinas.