Independent Catholic News logo Welcome Visitor
Friday, October 21, 2016
Text of Cardinal Cormac's lecture on Authority
Comment Email Print
¬†Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor addressed an audience at St Mary's College, Twickenham on the subject of Authority in the Church and Society on Friday, 11 October. This talk was one of a series given by Cardinals from around the world. I chose to speak tonight about authority in the Church and in Society. Irather wish I hadn't! Still you kindly chose to come and hear me speak, so as long so long as you don't go away thinking "You rather wish you hadn't" we'll all emerge the better for it! The notion and the practice of authority touches us all in a deeply personal way. The existence of authority, or rather authorities, is a fact of your and my everyday life. Yet, if we're honest, we are uneasy with that reality. I suspect this is because though not synonymous, we find it difficult to separate the idea of authority from the idea of power. And power makes us nervous. In recent times we have become accustomed to question how power is exercised in the religious, social and political dimensions of our lives. We are very conscious, and increasingly intolerant, of what we perceive to be abuse of power. That said - we are not naÔve. Human experience, from the very beginning, shows that we need authority. And the more sophisticated, balanced, free and open society becomes the more we seem to need, or we acquire, forms of authority, both to regulate our activity within society, and to preserve its central values. So, whether on a personal or on a social level, we simply cannot evade the question of authority. I am conscious that I cannot possibly do full justice to the range and complexity of our theme this evening. So I am going to limit myself to three areas: first I want to look in some detail at the question of authority in the Church - the reason why the Church has authority, and how it should be exercised. Then I want briefly to touch on the importance of authority in ecumenical dialogue. Lastly I will try to caste some light on how the question of authority in society and in the Church connect. Running through all three considerations is one fundamental reality: namely Christ. I will conclude with a brief reflection on the authority of Jesus, suggesting that he introduces something radical, profound and beautiful - but also unique - into our civic and ecclesial debates. I want him to have the last authoritative word, the word I hope you will take away with you to ponder in your own time, in your own heart! The Authority of the Church. Let me turn, first, to authority in the Church. It is easy to get caught up in all sorts of practical problems associated with the way authority is exercised in the Church, or with the Church's claim to speak with authority on many of the key issues that are part of our political and social discourse - some of which touch on particularly deep and painful dilemmas. But there is a risk when addressing these problems that we forget the very inspiration and basis of the Church's authority. The Church's authority has one source: that is the truth of Jesus Christ and what he means for our world. That truth is inseparable from, indeed it is what inspires the Church's mission. It is what makes the Church and her authority unique. Consider this extraordinary statement taken from Lumen Gentium, the Vatican Council's document on the Church's mission in the world: 'It [the Church] is founded by Christ for a communion of life, love and truth; by him too it is taken up as the instrument of salvation for all, and sent as a mission to the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.' There you have it in a nutshell: the purpose of the Church, the meaning and the context of her authority, and the reason for the Church's claim to speak and act with authority in the world. So what is the reason for authority in the Church? I am reminded of that striking phrase A Christo in communionem vitae, caritatis et veritatis constitutus. The Church is this 'communion' with Christ, and in, or rather out of, that profound and eternal relationship it is intended to be, or to become, a communion of life, love and truth among its members. Love and truth together give life. Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks of the 'inner solidarity between truth and love' which is 'the profoundest reason why the fellowship of the church is the place for truth.' Authority in the Church exists so as to preserve and foster this 'communio'. But it is a charism, a gift of the Holy Spirit, rather than an organisational necessity. The Bishops of England and Wales put it rather well in The Sign We Give back in 1995: 'When the communion nature of the Church is uppermost, authority can be seen in more relational terms... Authority is not a possession, but a possession between the members of the body. The source of authority is its connection with the purpose of the whole body, the mission of Christ.' Of course, there are different ways in which the authority of the Church expresses itself: there is the authority of Scripture, the authority of Tradition, the authority of the Magisterium - itself a communion incorporating not just the Pope and the bishops, but the doctors of the Church and that great authoritative witness of holiness that we see in the lives of the saints. In the life of the Church authority is not to be understood or reduced to a mere juridical or administrative exercise. It is a living and constantly developing relationship with God and with the members of Christ's body, for the building up of that body, for preserving its unity, and for deepening its sense of mission. What is more, and this is very important, the Church's authority is always exercised in the context of the sensus Ecclesia, an awareness of the Church and its mystery, as Paul VI called it. This sensus Ecclesia is something precious and essential born out of love for the Church and her mission. It has proved itself extraordinarily robust, transcending the tussles and conflicts that express themselves within any human community. Henri De Lubac commenting on Origen's phrase, 'For myself I desire to be truly eccelesiastic', captures this mysterious movement within the soul of the Church : 'Anyone who is possessed by a similar desire will not find it enough to be loyal or obedient, to perform exactly everything demanded by his profession of the Catholic faith. Such a man will have fallen in love with the beauty of the house of God; the Church will have stolen his heart.' Our love for the Church helps us to see through the fractures, disappointments and dark moments in the Church's history, to the abiding beauty within: despite all its failings this community still carries in its heart the life and reality of Jesus Christ. Which is a good way to understand what we mean when we emphasise that specifically Catholic gift of a living Tradition, and how we should experience it at the deepest level. It is the expression of all the learning that has gone on in the great school of 'life, love and truth' - that continuous dialogue of salvation and the believing community's confession of God's love in Christ, which is the life of the Church. This is why authority in the Church cannot be separated from Tradition, the transmission from generation to generation of the revelation of God, deepened by the growth and understanding that is God's continuing self-gift in history. This is not the handing on of lifeless formulas, but as the Constitution on Revelation says, it is 'growth in understanding of what is handed on, both the words and the realities which they signify.' It is one of the main purposes of the teaching authority of the Church to help that process of deepening - to lead the community in a faithful contemplation of the mystery that it may give joyful, confident witness to the world. But this authority is characterised in a particular way. As it says a little later in the Constitution on Revelation, 'the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in that of tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church's ongoing teaching function, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching function is not above the word of God but stands at its service, teaching nothing but what is handed down....[as it] listens, reverently preserves and faithfully transmits the word of God by divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit.' Which brings me to underline the very essence and purpose of authority in the Church: which is service. Authority in the Church means the service that is given, in a particular way by the bishops, with the Pope, but also by priests and religious and lay people to preserving, and holding in faithfulness and truth, all that Jesus gave us: the gift of salvation, which means life, forgiveness, love, hope of eternal life. This is the reason for authority in the Church. It is why Christ bestowed upon Peter and his successors, a particular role for service in the Church. And why the bishops, in communion with Peter, have a role to hold together the people of God in truth and in Sacramental worship, and in life. So much for what we might call the why, and the what, of authority in the Church. What about the how? It seems to me that here we enter into a far more dynamic area where cultural, social, even political and technological developments can have their own significance, and may affect the manner in which this authority is exercised. It is in the exercise of authority that the Church must always be open to reformation and development. Sometimes it is right to be critical of authority and the way it is exercised. Pope John Paul, himself, has recognised that legitimate questions can be asked regarding the way that the papacy is exercised. In a recent encyclical, "That they all may be one" (Ut Unam Sint) the Pope invites other Christians into dialogue with him regarding "a way of exercising the primacy which is open to a new situation". The Pope has used his position to make formal and sincere apologies for mistakes in the past. The Church should not be afraid to acknowledge mistakes in it's exercise of authority and to remedy them. An obvious example is the way in which allegations of child abuse have been dealt with in the past. This is not the place to explore the deep pain felt in the Church, particularly in the West, with respect to paedophilia - we are only too aware that the acts of a small minority of clergy have been both shameful and deeply damaging to authority in the Church. But I do want to stress the importance of honestly addressing these issues. We have a prime duty to ensure that allegations of abuse are properly and scrupulously dealt with, so that children can be protected from any kind of harm or exploitation from whatever quarter. We need to listen to the sometimes anguished criticism from victims and their families, in order to have a greater appreciation of their suffering. And we should not fail to reflect deeply on the frailties which have given rise to an incapacity or failure on the part of some priests to live chaste lives. Without in any way avoiding these issues I want to say this. I am confident that the Church will grow through these traumatic events and it will do so in truth. This confidence comes of my trust in Christ's faithfulness to us. His promise is to be with us till the end of time. Christ does not abandon his Church any more than he abandons you or me. I do not mean to over-spiritualise something so deeply traumatic for the human person, and for the whole community. But I do want to point to a reality which could become obscured in the emotion of our trauma. The Church does not claim some spurious institutional strength, or an immunity to the consequences of human failure - no. But in contemplating her own weakness the Church can only comprehend more vividly, and therefore profoundly, that she is upheld only through the constant abiding and faithful love of Him who gave his life for her. In the end, the Church's understanding of 'tradition' is not simply a collection of magisterial teaching, but the experience that she is not abandoned. This experience marks the transformation from human brokenness to our life in God. Allow me to quote the working document for 1999 Synod of Bishops, 'Even in great difficulties, when hope grows dim and faith is in crisis, Jesus is present. He does not abandon his Church but walks with her as a companion along the way .....accompanying her with a delicacy which attests to the absolutely gratuitous character of his love.' When in the Eucharistic Prayer we ask God to "look not upon our sins but on the faith of your Church" we are asking, with good reason, for the courage to trust not in ourselves but in Him. He is the author from whom our authority derives. He does not abandon us, and His authority can never be diminished, even by our failures. Authority and Ecumenism. I would like to move on now to speak a little about authority in an ecumenical context. Our differing understandings of authority have been at the heart of historical divisions between the Catholic Church and other churches. I am thinking particularly of the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church, with whom we have had, perhaps, the most intense dialogue in the recent past. Beginning with our dialogue with the Anglican Communion it is important to note that treatment of this issue in ARCIC's discussions and pronouncements, beginning with the first statement in 1976 and including more recently The Gift of Authority in 1999, has been remarkably nuanced and respectful. We have discovered a great deal of common ground. We both accept that authority is a gift of the Spirit, which creates and preserves that communio' or 'koinonia' which is the essence of the Church, and through which it reflects the image of the Trinitarian life of God. We acknowledge that the Spirit of the risen Jesus maintains the people of God in obedience to the Will of the Father and that by the action of the Holy Spirit the authority of Jesus Christ is active in the Church. We recognise that because of the grace of baptism the laity too, have a part to play in decision-making in the Church. But it is the special service of the Universal Primate, that is, the Pope and the bishops to have oversight. The Gift of Authority recognises the particular service to the Church given by the Bishop of Rome who, it says, offers 'a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy.' We are coming to a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Word of God in Scripture, the role of tradition of the Church and the exercise of teaching authority. So much for the common ground. Differences of course remain, further to be explored. The central issue now is not so much about the need for authority, but about how that authority should be exercised. Let me suggest some of the trickier issues that now face Anglicans and Catholics. Questions regarding authority are acute for the Anglican Communion today. One issue for Anglicans is to how to develop the structures of authority among its provinces. Are Anglicans open to the acceptance of instruments of authority, which would allow decisions to be reached which, in certain circumstances, would bind the whole Church? To what extent does unilateral action of provinces or dioceses concerning the whole church weaken communion? There are also issues facing the Catholic Church with regard to authority. If, as the Second Vatican Council has reminded us, the gifts of God are present in all the people of God we need to find ways in which to foster the effective participation of clergy and lay people in synodical bodies within the Church. Has the teaching of the Second Vatican Council regarding the collegiality of bishops being implemented sufficiently? Has enough provision been made to ensure consultation between the Bishop of Rome and local churches prior to making important decisions affecting either a local church or the whole Church? In supporting the Bishop of Rome in his work of promoting communion among the Churches, do the structures and procedures of the Roman Curia adequately respect the exercise of legitimate authority and responsibility at other levels? How will the Catholic Church address the question of a universal Primacy as it emerges from the dialogue with other Christians and the exercise of the office of the Pope to which John Paul II has invited Church leaders and their theologians to assist him? These are big questions and the answers won't be found easily or overnight! Without going into great detail regarding the dialogue with the Orthodox Church, which is so dear to Pope John Paul, we can recognise the concerns of our sister church. As a Catholic theologian has said "the Orthodox fear that any union with the Catholic Church at present would crush their distinctiveness". What these two great Churches need to underpin their dialogue is simply love and trust. In the Western tradition when we talk about the profound and unique reality of the unity of divine persons in the Trinity we speak of all being held in common, except for the distinction of relations. Unity and distinction in the Trinity are not oppositional or exclusive. On the contrary out of their triune distinction comes a living unity. Surely our understanding of the Church as a communion, which reflects the Trinitarian life, can provide an inspirational vision, as well as a practical programme for continued dialogue with our sister church. It sees to me that the experience of our two Churches trying to draw together is precisely an experience - long, halting and difficult - of what 'communio' really means. We have a long road to travel in our ecumenical adventure but as I always say, it is a road with only one exit. Church in Society Now let me turn just for a moment to authority in Society. If in the Church authority is ordered to the mission of love, in society, it is directed towards the common good. The common good concerns the life of everyone. I'd like to suggest that it should consists of three key elements. First the common good presupposes respect for the person. In the name of the common good, authority is bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person; allowing each one to fulfil his or her vocation. Secondly, the common good requires the well being and development of society as a whole. Thirdly, the common good requires peace or the stability and security of the just order. In other words to promote the common good authority must be founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love. Today some of the foundation stones which common moral sense and tradition have chosen as the bed-rock on which to build the social institutions which promote the common good are under threat. This is particularly true in what we call the West. I am thinking especially of the family, but also of stable and supportive communities, even long-established aspects of our legal system such as trial by jury, as well, of course, as parts of our Christian culture and the sense of connectedness that comes from shared faith. Family is the cement of human society, but it is under enormous pressure from the culture in which we live. Much established religion is in disrepair, or is considered as out of touch with the culture which it inhabits. The moral voice in our society is increasingly heard as the moralising voice. This lack of coherence in our social fibre, and increasingly fragility in some of the structures which sustain it, contributes in many people's experience to a sense of alienation, fragmentation and loss of direction or meaning. Alongside the extraordinary improvements in our lives derived from technology and science there appears to have been an unravelling of the bonds which hold us, and - more concerning - keep us together. Most of us, I am relieved to say, have maintained our instinct for social solidarity, so much a function of our common humanity; but we have allowed many of the means to express that solidarity to erode and collapse. In his speech to the Labour Party Conference the Prime Minister pointed up this paradox with great clarity when he said: "We have never been more interdependent in our needs and we have never been more individualistic in our outlook". On the one hand we are globalising, on the other hand we are tempted to turn in on ourselves. At the global level this phenomenon is at the heart of the struggle between the internationalists - the Prime Minister included - and the unilateralists. At the local level it can be seen in disputes between local communities trying to preserve their way of life and, for instance, outside commercial developers who have no established stake in the community. Social incoherence can produce a sense that we live with perpetual movement, but we have no sense of direction or purpose except a shallow gratification of immediate desires. Where is the stability in our social life? Where are the fixed points? Whose are the authoritative voices in our society? To whom do we listen in the cacophony of communication? If we are not careful we may begin to see an erosion in our collective sense that there is a shared common good to be built, never mind our determination to build it. We still need vision, authority and leadership in our post-modern society just as we did in the pre and modern version. It is becoming increasingly difficult for many, particularly perhaps the young, to see where to find these anchors. I would not wish to suggest that the Church alone can fill this void. We live in an increasingly complex culture where many voices and authorities will, and should be encouraged, to step forward. But the Church is not as some people think down, and on its way out. She remains an authoritative voice in our society. The Church cannot live anywhere else but in the heart of this world, for it is here that Christ chose, and continues to choose, to make his home. The Christian faith, by virtue of the Incarnation, carries the secret of who we are; it keeps alive that memory and in doing so keeps open the wells of transcendence from which we all live - believer and unbeliever alike. The theologian and philosopher, Fr. Bernard Lonergan expressed it well when he said, 'a religion that promotes self-transcendence to the point, not merely of justice, but of self-sacrificing love, will have a redemptive role in human society inasmuch as love can undo the mischief and restore the cumulative process of progress.' This, I think, brings us to the heart of the matter: the authority with which I am most concerned this evening is God's gift to His Church, that with His authority the Church may in her turn offer to our society and to our world the gift that none of us can afford to refuse - the gift of redemption, the gift of love. I would like to end on a note of real hope for the Church, and, indeed, through the Church, for society as a whole. The Authority of Christ The Gospels make the question of authority central to an understanding of who Jesus is. The burning question everyone wanted to ask Jesus was "who are you, where do you come from?". In fact for cultural reasons the question was expressed thus: 'by what authority do you say and do these things?". The answer is clear - Christ's authority comes from the author of all authority, God, Himself. Our own encounter with Jesus tells us something similar. No-one can read the Gospels, or encounter the living Christ in any meaningful way, and not experience, even if only to wrestle with, his authority, his power: to liberate, to caste out evil, to heal, to restore, and ultimately to forgive. The unique character of Jesus' authority is that it reveals something no other can: 'To have seen me is to have seen the Father.' (Jn. 14:9) His authority makes God present, active among us. Jesus opens up a marvellous new horizon, creating for us a new covenant or relationship with God. His is the creative authority of the Spirit that purifies, renews, and generates new understanding. And if we were to press harder and ask yes, but what is it specifically that makes this a revealing and salvific authority, we would have to say that it lies in the gift of forgiveness. It is this, above all, that distinguishes Jesus' authority. Today talk of any of Jesus' miracles can provoke polite bewilderment or mild embarrassment; but in his own time his miracles of healing were greeted with joy and amazement but not, interestingly, hostile questions about his authority. These were provoked, along with incomprehension and scandal, by Jesus' audacity to forgive. Surely God alone can forgive? I would like to think that Christ's authority and desire to forgive could have as electrifying an effect in society today. Because it seems to that our culture is in imminent danger of losing all sense of forgiveness - both our own need for forgiveness and the requirement on us to forgive. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us". Ours is becoming a name, blame and shame culture. A kind of killing culture where reputation, self-respect and the communion of caring and solidarity which keeps society together are swept away in an instant by an impulse to sell or buy a so-called "news" story. We urgently need to step back from this cultural brink. We need, whatever our creed (or none), to turn again for inspiration to our spiritual forefathers, to the wisdom of the ages. In our Christian culture, which, incidentally, is not the same as the culture we call the West, it was the prophets who first talked about God's forgiveness, but who also spoke about his righteous anger. And then comes Jesus who does more than speak of forgiveness. Scandalously, incredibly, but actually and truly, he forgives in his Father's name. In so doing he reveals an authority which calls all our earthly power games completely into question. Whether in Capernaum with the paralytic lowered through the roof, at table with despised tax collectors, or in the house of Simon the Pharisee with the woman who delicately washes his feet, Jesus reveals the astonishing simplicity of our God who does not hide himself from us, or from our shame, but like the Prodigal's father or the Good Shepherd comes out to meet us where we are, how we are - weak and sinful - and loves us back to life. The insight which Jesus offers into the forgiving heart of God is central to the Church's understanding of its own authority. The Church has no authority of her own; only that which she has received from Christ and exercises in his name. Which means that there is no more profound authority, for Christians at least, to consider. It also means that the Church must bear that authority to the world with the greatest of humility. We cannot allow ourselves to become trapped in ways of acting which are less than the mission of service to mankind to which we have been called. The Church has nothing to offer but Jesus Christ. The reality that the Church offers to our world is Christ, His gift of forgiveness and His gift of love. These are given in His Word, in His Sacraments, in His Presence, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Peter in the Acts of Apostles we say -"I have neither silver nor gold, but I give you what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene- walk, and Peter then took him by the hand and helped him to stand up". (Acts 3: 7). If Christ's is the authority of the Church, Peter is the model of its exercise. He is also a sign of the paradox which is our experience of human weakness and God-given strength. Peter was given the power of the keys, but it was not because he was strong or because he was faithful. He was, for some considerable time, neither. He betrayed Jesus out of his own mouth. His shame and his moral collapse at that moment was utterly disabling. Surely Peter is the least authoritative and trustworthy of founders? One might think so; but it is here that something of the mystery of God's graciousness and freedom is revealed and, as with the cross, we discover a truth which is a source of incomprehension (perhaps even scandal) to many. The answer is that we can trust Peter precisely because he has fallen, because he is weak, because he is forgiven and because is raised up to service. We trust him because in him we see God's power working in our human weakness. Peter knew from his own experience the depth of the gift he offered; he knew that it was neither his gift, nor his authority, but that of the One he denied and yet loved. Like each one of us, he experienced not only his own need of forgiveness; he experienced at first hand from where that forgiveness comes. He was both empowered and commissioned to go out and to offer that same forgiveness to the whole of mankind. He was indeed the rock on which the Church was founded. She, like Peter, speaks not out of any kind of false strength but out of her experience of weakness. And she speaks God's truth that she lives and experiences every day. This is the authentic voice of the Church, a voice enriched with the gifts Our Lord has given her and emboldened and quickened with the authority with which He has invested her: "go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and know that I am with you always, even to the end of time". Our world needs to hear that voice.
Share:  Bookmark and Share
Tags: None

Powered by Bondware
News Publishing Software

The browser you are using is outdated!

You may not be getting all you can out of your browsing experience
and may be open to security risks!

Consider upgrading to the latest version of your browser or choose on below: