Edward Yarnold comments on The Gift of Authority

ARCIC I published two Agreed Statements (Authority I and II – here referred to as A1 and A2) plus an Elucidation on Authority which are included in the Final Report of 1982. What then is the reason for Authority III (A3)?

Both Churches – the Anglican at Lambeth `88, and the Roman Catholic in the Official Response – though acknowledging that the statements on Authority provided a firm basis for future discussion, gave them a less complete endorsement than they gave to those on Eucharist and Ministry, and asked for further work on:

– the relationship between Scripture and tradition,
– collegiality, conciliarity and the role of the laity,
– the Petrine ministry of universal primacy.

Authority III meets this request.

I shall try to make a synthesis of the three statements, indicating the advances made in the latest document.

A. The General Theory of Authority in the Church

In examining the documents it is well to keep in mind the different uses of the word `authority’. In secular contexts we apply the term to:

a) the power to coerce, enforce, or demand obedience, as when an official has `authority’ to inspect your gas-meter;
b) the ability to elicit free consent, often as an office-holder who is respected for the institution which delegates him;
c) charismatic authority, which derives from the personal qualities of the individual;
d) the authority of a document, such as the constitution of a state.

All of these types of authoritative exist in the Church. Scripture possesses d) (A3 n.2). Most typical is b), for God made us to give him service based on love rather than fear; nevertheless bishops need to be able to enforce their wishes (a)), at least as a last resort – not, to be sure, with racks and thumb-screws, but at least by declaring that someone can no longer be considered a member of the Church. A1 takes c), the qualities given by the Holy Spirit, as its starting-point, and sees the authority of the ordained minister as a particular case of this (cf A1 n.4-5).

A1 derives authority in the Church from the Lordship of Jesus Christ (n.1). A3 sees it more positively as a gift, and quotes 1 Jn 5.3: `his commandments are not burdensome’. More systematically A3 links its exposition with 2 Cor 1.19-20, seeing the authority of the Church as God’s `Yes’ to humanity, and obedience as the `Amen’ spoken by human beings to God’s Yes.

A1 had already given a compendious but very brief explanation of the authority of Scripture and its relation to Tradition in n.2, setting out the following stages:

– the words and deeds of Jesus Christ;
– the apostolic community’s recognition in them of God’s saving activity and the basis of Christian proclamation and mission;
– the preaching of Jesus as God’s definitive word to mankind;
– the interpretation of Jesus’ words and deeds;
– the committing of the record and the interpretation to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;
– the acceptance of a canon of these inspired documents – the recognition of these canonical scriptures as normative for its teaching and practice, as an inspiration for the Church’s life and mission, and the means by which the authority of God’s Word is conveyed;
– the recognition that it is through these writings that the Holy Spirit leads the Church into all truth; – shared commitment leads to a common mind in interpreting Scripture;
– thus a standard is set by which a person can judge the truth of his or her belief.

A3 presents a similar analysis within its chosen framework. Scripture expresses both God’s Yes to mankind and the human Amen spoken in response. Going beyond A1, A3 states that only the Bible is the inspired Word of God (n.19).

Both A1 and A3 saw the purpose of authority in the Church as the fostering of koinonia, fellowship or communion, the relationship between people who have something in common. This exists not only among human beings who are united in faith in Christ, but between humanity and God through `deification’. A3 explains that the Amen is spoken not only by each believer, but by the whole company of believers which receives Scripture according to the sensus fidelium.

The authority of the ordained ministry should be seen not only as a gift, but also as a service, and one which is `intrinsic to the Church’s structure’ (A1 n.5). This service is to be exercised accord to the principle of subsidiarity (although ARCIC does not employ the term). This term originated in political philosophy, but is also applied to the Church; its meaning is that the duty of office-holders is to respect and support the free initiatives of those in their charge and not to take away from the latter’s responsibilities. Thus the bishop can require the obedience `necessary to maintain faith and charity’ (A1 n.5); the universal primate has responsibility `to guard and promote the faithfulness of all the churches to Christ and to one another’ (A1 n.12).

One sphere of the exercise of authority in the Church is that of the faith of its members. Consequently a principal responsibility of ministers in the Church is the maintenance of the truth. We are reminded that this truth is deeper than a collection of propositional statements (A3 n.14). All three documents see this preservation, interpretation and handing on of the truth as the service of memory, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who Christ promised will `bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (Jn 14.26).

An essential element in this process of tradition is reception. This concept applies in different ways: – to the faith by which we speak our ‘Amen’ to the ‘Yes’ of revelation;

– to the community’s recognition of the truth of the Gospel in the teaching of authority (A2 n.25); however this recognition is not the source of the authority of the teaching but a criterion for discerning it; – to the Church’s interpretation of earlier definitions, a process which A3 calls re-reception.

This process of re-reception involves, not the simple repetition of earlier statements, but their reformulation for the needs of every age and circumstance, and in terms which will be significant to every cultural situation.

In this process the Holy Spirit enables general councils to `exclude what is erroneous’, and protects them from error (A1 n.19). A1 and 2 hesitated to use the term `infallibility’ because of the negative reaction it was likely to provoke; A3 however boldly described the process by which `the Church is maintained in the truth so that it may offer its “Amen” to the glory of God’ as `infallible teaching … at the service of the Church’s indefectibility’ (n.42).

A1 and 2 were often criticised for neglecting the role of the laity in this process. The criticism is not justified, however, as A1 n.6 gives an account of the dialectical process by which ordained ministers `discern the insights’ of the faithful and `give authoritative expression to them’, and then react to the faithful’s response. A3 n.3 in this context refers to the sensus fidelium as a `symphony’ of the whole people of God. Thus A1 speaks of `complementary primatial and conciliar aspects of episcope serving the koinonia of the churches (n.23); A3 adds the term ‘synodality’.

A3 gives greater emphasis on two points than the earlier documents. First, `the ministers God gives to his Church are marked by fragility; we possess the `treasure’ of ministry in earthen vessels (n.48; 2 Cor 4.1-7). Secondly, `the exercise of authority must always respect conscience’, which is nevertheless balanced by the discipline required by membership of the Body of Christ (n.49).

A3 n.52 summarises the ways in which the third statement `deepened and extended’ the agreement expressed in A1 and 2.

B. Universal Primacy

A1 in a highly nuanced, but very bold, paragraph sets out an argument for universal primacy in three steps:
1. The Church needs a universal primacy balanced by conciliarity if God’s will for unity is to be fulfilled;
2. As a matter of historical fact the see of Rome is the only see to claim and exercise such a primacy;
3. It is appropriate the see of Rome should exercise such a primacy in any future union (n.23).

Nevertheless A1 saw it necessary in the next paragraph to set out 4 problems which remain in the understanding of this primacy. They concern:

a) The application of the NT Petrine texts to Bishops of Rome as Peter’s successors;
b) The claim of `divine right’ for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. (Actually `divine law’ would be a better translation.);
c) Infallibility;
d) The lack of defined limits to the jurisdiction claimed for the universal primate.

A2 is entirely given over to the attempt to solving these problems.

We have time to deal only with c) and d). In answer to d) A2 appeals (without naming) to the principle of subsidiarity. We might add that an Anglican Church united to Rome need not be subject to all the disciplinary measures issuing from the Vatican, many of which apply only to the Church of the West. In this connection A2 quotes Paul VI’s 1970 statement that in a united Church `there will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and the worthy patrimony of piety and usage proper to the Anglican Church’ (n.22). With regard to c) A2 does not hesitate to refer to `the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgement of the universal primate’ (n.47). This is seen not as an imposition but as `a gift to be received by all the churches’.

Finally A3 makes a remarkable suggestion: `The Commission’s work has resulted in sufficient agreement on universal primacy as a gift to be shared, for us to propose that such a primacy could be offered and received even before our churches are in full communion’ (n. 60).

How will this stunning proposal be accepted. Was it a bridge too far?

We should read this paragraph in conjunction with Pope John Paul’s search for `a new way of exercising the primacy’ in the light of the `ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities’, and his consequent invitation to leaders of other Churches to `engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17.21).’ (Ut Unum Sint, nn.95-96)

Edward Yarnold, SJ is a former Roman Catholic member of ARCIC . This paper is a summary of two lectures given to the Cost of Conscience