Thursday, June 20, 2013

The problem of authority in the Catholic Church

By Jose María Castillo (English translation by Rebel Girl)
June 16, 2013

Unlimited power?

As drafted and promulgated (1983), the current Code of Canon Law establishes standing to ask this question: Does the Catholic Church attribute unlimited power to itself in this world? It is clear that in the Church no one thinks of such a thing. Because, among other reasons, we Catholics know that the Church has no power to kill, hate or do anything the Gospel prohibits. The problem is that -- as we know from history -- the Church has managed things such that it has often done (and still does) many things that literally contradict what the Gospel commands. Hence, the question.

A question that has its purpose in the literal text of Canon Law. It is stated there that the Roman Pontiff has a power that is "supreme, full, immediate, and universal." (CIC 331). A power, too, against which "no appeal or recourse is permitted" (CIC 333, 3). Moreover, the Pope (the "First See" [Holy See], CIC 361) can be "judged by no one" (CIC 1404). That is, the pope does not have to account to anyone for his decisions. And, what is more surprising, "it is solely the right of the Roman Pontiff himself to judge" any decision made in spiritual matters or related to them (CIC 1401). In other words, everything. Since any human decision may relate to matters affecting the spirit.

Well, what's most striking is that the Pope has such power, in such an unlimited area, that he's the one who has the "exclusive right" ("dumtaxat ius") to act as judge of those who violate the previously cited canon 1401, starting with "those who hold the highest civil office of a state" (“qui supremum tenent civitastis magistratum”) (CIC 1405, 1). So the official law of the Catholic Church arrogates to itself the power to judge (and presumably sentence) any head of state, from whatever country and having whatever religious belief. Moreover, the pope "is the supreme judge for the entire Catholic world; he renders judicial decisions personally...or through judges he has delegated." (CIC 1442).

And to leave no possible escape clause to limit papal power, CIC 1372 states that "a person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure",  which could be "excommunication" (CIC 1331), "interdiction" (CIC 1332), or "suspension a divinis" (CIC 1333). So they're trying to resolve a critical issue in ecclesiology "legally". The issue is knowing who is the subject of supreme power in the Church. A matter that is not in any way resolved "theologically". This was evident in Vatican II (LG 22) which states that the pope "has full, supreme and universal power over the Church." But it is important to know that not just the pope has this power. So does the college of bishops, as also stated  in LG 22. But then, how do you harmonize the two powers into one? Vatican II left it unresolved. The Prior Explanatory Note that Paul VI put at the end (which he didn't even sign himself), dismissed the matter by resorting to the "power of jurisdiction" which, according to CIC 129, exists in the Church "by divine institution," when in fact it is known that iurisdictio has its origin in medieval thought and was determined by the jurist Bartolus de Saxoferrato, a professor at Bologna starting in 1328 [1] [2].

But there's more. Because the pope, as well as being the successor of Peter, is head of state of Vatican City. And, according to art. 1 of the Fundamental Law of said state, "the Supreme Pontiff ... has the fullness of legislative, executive and judicial powers." The Vatican is, therefore, the last absolute monarchy in Europe. In such a state, there is no distinction of powers, which is the basis of the rule of law.

So there are reasons to wonder if the papacy arrogates unlimited power to itself. Although perhaps no one thinks such a thing, the legal language that ecclesiastical law uses leads one to suspect that, as regards the issue of authority in the Catholic Church, theology quietly supports a form of expression that produces the impression of using a truly paranoid mindset. Who would think, at this point, of stating in public official documents that he -- and only he -- has power that is supreme, full, immediate, universal, can not be judged by anyone, which is also power to judge and condemn even the heads of state around the world, a power that doesn't allow for appeal or any recourse, and that if someone seeks recourse from a Council or the bishops of the world because of the decisions that power makes, whoever does such a thing should be punished? Wouldn't a person who is in their right mind, say that it's nonsense to think oneself so important and so superior to other mortals? It's clear that behind this legal language there is a theological mindset that is what sustains a way of understanding "authority" and "power" that legally and theologically is a monstrosity and a specter. Because no such authority exists. Nor is there such power. Unless you're not talking about the Church, but about God. And in that case, we really don't know what we're talking about. Because no one has ever seen God (Jn 1:18).

But above all, the worst is that such a system of government amounts to "absolute power" in which, among other things, the acceptance and implementation of human rights is impossible. It's precisely what happens in the Catholic Church. The pope concentrates all rights to such an extent that all of us other Catholics have no rights, if we're talking about "rights" in the strict sense.

Jesus and power

The word "power" always indicates a dependency relationship. When it's a relationship between people, it's expressed by the noun exousía , which can also be understood as "authority" [3] . In any case, power or authority shows an "inequality". He who exercises power is above the one who is subject to that power. Hence the use, in the life and language of Jesus, of the word "obey" (hypakoúô). In the gospels, obedience applies only to the demons (Mk 1:27), the wind and the waves of the sea (Mk 4:41 ff), and a plant (a mulberry tree) (Lk 17:6) [4]. It is never even insinuated in the Gospels that Jesus relates to any human being from the superiority of one who commands and whom the inferior one obeys. Jesus' relationship with the disciples and the people is always expressed in the Gospels, by the experience of "following," which is born of "exemplariness", never of "submission", which is the response of the weak to the strong, the small to the great.

Jesus gave "authority" ("exousía") to the twelve disciples (Mt 10:1). But the Gospel points out that this is an authority "to cast out demons and heal the sick". It's not doctrinal, much less judicial power. It's therapeutic power to alleviate suffering and make people happy in their relationships with others and in their relationship with God.

The problem, which appears repeatedly in the Gospels, is the resistance that the disciples had to accepting Jesus' plan. From discussions among themselves about who was the most important (Mk 9:33-37ff) to the ambition of the sons of Zebedee for the top places in the Kingdom (Mk 10:35-41ff), and including Jesus' severe warnings against any attempt to be like the "rulers of nations and the great ones imposing their authority" (Mk 10:42-45ff). And we know that in this resistance to Jesus' project against the power mentality in God's plans, Peter stands out. From the time that Jesus called him "Satan" (Mt 16:23ff) through resistance to Jesus doing the slave job of washing his feet (Jn 13:6-9) to Peter's own denials during the Passion. What arose there wasn't the attitude of a coward but the reaction of a disappointed man to the messianism of exemplariness in failure -- something that didn't enter the minds of either Peter or the other apostles.

Jesus' original movement was "a phenomenon of socially deviant behavior" [5]. A movement that found in the community he gathered together a substitute for the Temple with its dignitaries and powers. Even coming to accept the lowest role a society can assign: the one of executed criminal [6]. So that, it was from such behavior that Jesus understood, lived and practiced a form of authority that would soon impose itself over all other powers. Because it's a form that isn't based on dominant imposition over conscience, but on the exemplariness of one who signaled the behavior to be followed from the weakness and the smallness of the slave and the subversive, who attracts and draws people along because of his kindness.

The first "churches"

This idea and this form of exercising authority has come down to us (and we have been able to know it) through the Gospels, which tell us how the earthly Jesus thought and acted. But it happens that, between the earthly Jesus and the text of the Gospels that we read today, are the letters of Paul. And this entails several very important facts.

1) Paul's letters were written between the years 50 and 55/56 [7], while the Gospels were drafted about 20 years later, starting in year 70.

2) Paul was the one who organized the "assemblies of the Christian people", calling them "churches" ("ekklesíai") [8].

3) Therefore, the Christian communities organized themselves as "churches" without knowing -- at least in many of them -- the Gospels, since Paul didn't know the earthly Jesus, but the "Risen One" (Gal 1:11-16, 1 Cor 9:1, 15:8, 2 Cor 4:6, cf. Acts 9:1-19, 22:3-21, 26:9-18). He even said that Christ "according to the flesh" never mattered to him (2 Cor 5:16).

4) The logical consequence that this implies, is that the Church organized itself and managed its basic structures without knowing Jesus, since, as has been rightly said, "the scope of the passive knowledge of Jesus' tradition that Paul would have possessed is basically irrelevant for understanding Pauline theology" [9]. So the ideas about the Christian community, and how to understand and exercise power in the Christian assemblies, are matters that might have had little or no influence on the nascent Church, even though this issue was capital to Jesus during his earthly life. Paul could only develop his ideas about power and its practice not from the Jesus who walked the world, but from the resurrected and glorified Son of God, Messiah and our Lord (Rom 1:4).

Paul, Apostle of Jesus Christ

Since his experience of the Risen One on the road to Damascus, Paul had an obsession. His life and his work had acquired a new direction, which wasn't just "faith in Jesus Christ", but that, besides, he had been made, directly by God, "an apostle of Jesus Christ." He knew there had been apostles in Jerusalem before him (1 Cor 15:8-11, Gal 1:17-19). Sure, there were those who claimed the title "apostle" for themselves (Phil. 2:25, 2 Cor 11:5,13, 12:11, etc.) [10]. But his apostolate depended directly and only on God. It wasn't the work and grace of man (Gal 1:1, see 1:11). His judge was only the Lord (1 Cor 4:3-5). Naturally, under such conditions, Paul had to impose himself. And also assert his authority in the assemblies, that is, in the Church.

And he did. Paul didn't know that Jesus had proceeded differently. For Paul, the apostolate involves a mandate from the risen Lord (1 Cor 15:8-9). His mission as apostle to the Gentiles was authorized by a revelation (Gal 1:15). Set apart by God (Gal 1:15, Rom 1:1), Paul saw himself as vested with special authority over the Gentiles (Rom 1:5,11-15, 11:13, 15:14-24). What this represented for Paul was that when he preached, it was as if God himself had spoken (1 Thes 2:2-4, 13, 4:15, 1 Cor 14:37, 2 Cor 5:18-20). To the extent that those who deny the gospel of Paul are rejecting God (1 Thes 4:8, Gal 1) [11] . Ultimately, Paul had no choice but to underline his apostolic authority to legitimize his radical doctrine, which, as we know, came to very strong expressions [12].

Thus, the foundations were laid for a completely singular conception of authority in the Church. An authority that God grants directly to those He chooses as apostles. An authority that identifies with the authority of God himself. And an authority that sees itself as entirely necessary and indispensable for legitimizing and maintaining a teaching, the teaching that the Church imparts. From those foundations, one can understand perfectly the evolution that wasn't long in coming. Of course, in this understanding and practice of authority, there is a series of building blocks that have little or nothing to do with what Jesus lived and taught. Moreover, some of these components seem hard to reconcile with the teachings of the Gospel. But, as has already been explained, the Gospel came late. When the communities or "churches" got to know the Gospels, the Christian assemblies had been managed for quite a few years according to criteria that were different from the teachings of Jesus. But criteria that were perfectly accepted and already assimilated as "what God wanted and had disposed."

Under these conditions, the changes that occurred (probably) during the second century were decisive.

The background of a process of perversion

Here we're not going to study the history of the process that, during the 2nd century, made the government of the Church become concentrated in the bishop of Rome. The certain facts that are known to this time about that matter, don't yield much [13] . Neither the Muratoti Fragment nor the well-known statement of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, according to which all should be in agreement with the Church of Rome, which is the one with "the most powerful principality", provide sufficient argument to deduce either the juridical or the apostolic primacy of the Roman Church. Nor is Peter alluded to to justify his privileges over the other "churches" in the world [14] .

The best specialist Catholic theology has certainly had, until now, as it relates to the history of ecclesiology, Yves Congar, left us a condensed summary that sheds lots of light on this state of affairs. Lamenting the abuses that were committed during the papacy of Pius XII, Congar wrote in his diary: "I see more and more clearly that what's underneath it all is a question of ecclesiology, and I realize which ecclesiological positions are at issue. My study of the history of ecclesiological doctrines helps me to see things clearly. It all starts from this: in Mt 16:19, the [Church] Fathers saw the institution of the priesthood and the episcopate. For them, what is founded on Peter is the ecclesia, the canonical primacy of the bishop of Rome. However Rome itself -- and this beginning perhaps in the 2nd century -- puts things together differently. It sees in Mt 16:19 its own institution. For it, the power doesn't pass from Peter to the ecclesia, but from Peter to the Roman See. So that the ecclesia isn't formed from Christ, via Peter, but from the Pope. For the Church, being built on Peter means, in the eyes of the popes, receiving stability and life from the Pope, in whom, as in the head, lies the plenitudo potestatis [full power]" [15].

It's obvious that Congar himself, years later, would better nuance this synthesized judgment. In regard to the value of the text of Mt 16:19 [16]. And as it affects the inexplicable concentration of all the power of the Church in a single man, the Pope, limiting -- and even canceling on many matters -- the power of the laity, priests and especially the college of bishops, using theologically nonexistent arguments, as was done at Vatican II, which has already been explained in this article. In any case, Congar is absolutely right in his judgment when he states that (the Roman Curia's) theology argues that the powers the papacy arrogates to itself and, in fact, exercises whenever it suits it, come directly from God, as is the case of the so-called "power of jurisdiction" to which CIC 129 grants "divine origin". It is one of many cases in which what is "legal" is elevated to the category of "theological". With no other plausible argument (it goes without saying) than that it's what's in the interest of the Roman system.

An institution -- as is the case of the Church -- that is weak in its ability to pressure through the force of judges and the police, often draws on the strength of divine threats, raising the impression of punishments to the social dignity of the individual, and the inner peace of conscience of the subject, to whom what is actually the natural "guilt" that is born in every baby as a defense mechanism, as psychologists have explained, is made to feel like "a sin".

A history of falsehoods

Among the most important things, and those that have most conditioned the growing process of concentration of the power of the Church in the papal power, should be listed, undoubtedly, the supplanting of "auctoritas" by "potestas" [17] . Pope Gelasius (492-496) assigned "authority" to the pope, while "power" was proper to the Emperor. "Authority" evokes a charismatic source of legitimacy, while "power" indicates a substantially executive power. Such was the idea of both concepts in the High Middle Ages [18]. With the passage of time, the potestas, which also has been described as sacred, has been concentrated in the pope, so that, in chapter III of LG alone, it's applied to "hierarchical power" 15 times. The movement of religious power to forms of political power is obvious. And it doesn't seem to be a merely semantic use. That is, Catholic theology has allowed and legitimized exactly what Jesus had severely forbidden in the Gospel (Mk 10:42-45ff).

Another decisive factor to consider is the fact of the False Decretals, which are usually dated at around 850, and are supposed to have been originated by Isidore Mercator. They are 313 false documents in which the origin of the ecclesiastical structures of 9th century is attributed to the authority of the popes of the time of the martyrs. So, not just the historical knowledge of the exercise of authority in the Church was ruined. Besides that, the idea that all decisions about the life of the Church had sprung from the Papacy as their source was given credence. And if that weren't enough, a purely judicial conception of the papacy was imposed [19]. Thus, the theological view took hold in the Church that its whole life depends on the head, which is the Roman Church [20]. So the way was prepared for Pope John VIII (872-882) to foment the conviction that Christianity had to live in submission not just to papal rule, but also to that of the Christian princes [21]. The theological ground was perfectly prepared for Gregory VII to launch the decisive reform that concentrated all the power of the Church in the pope (11th century). And so the theology and practice of authority in the Church has been perverted up to today.


1. Jesus wasn't thinking of the Church we have. We don't have any indications that he purported to organize an institution based on submission to one man, the pope.

2. For the movement of followers that he launched, Jesus saw as the worst temptation, the claim that any one of his followers would want to be first, justifying such behavior on maintaining unity that way.

3. It is a law of social behavior that a group that wants to perpetuate itself in history, needs some form of institutionalization. This implies the existence of a central authority to coordinate the whole. From that point of view, the existence of the papacy is reasonable.

4. No pope has the power to act against the Gospel.

5. Authority in the Church is not of a legal or political nature. It's urgent in the Church to end this movement of worldly structures that has adulterated the meaning and importance of "following" Jesus as the determining principle of Christian life.

6. Jesus didn't just choose Peter for the apostolate. Jesus chose Twelve people, whom the Church has never seen the need to perpetuate. A replacement was sought for Judas, but later, as the others died, nobody thought of choosing successors. In any case, the "episcopal succession" as an implementation of "apostolic succession", belongs to the faith of the Church. And it's the job of the College of Bishops as a whole to coordinate the diversity of ministries and duties carried out by the Church. The "head", the one who coordinates the College of Bishops, since the 3rd century has been the Bishop of Rome.

7. It is urgent that the Church change its theology, so that all human rights can fit within it and be put into practice.

 Originally published in ÉXODO, nº 118, April 2013


[1] P. Costa, Iurisdictio. Semantica del potere politico nella pubblicistica medievale (1100-1433), Università di Firenze, Milano 1969, 284; D. Quaglioni, Politica e Diritto nel Trecento italiano, Biblioteca 11, Firenze 1983, 20; E. Cortese, Il Diritto nella Storia Medievale, II, Il Cigno Galileo Galilei, Roma, 1999, 433.

[3] W. Mundle: DTNT III, 385-393.

[4] G. Schneider: DENT II, 1864.

[5] W. Schottroff – W. Stegemann, Der Gott der kleinen Leute, Keiser, München, 1979, 94-120; G. Theissen, Sociología del Movimiento de Jesús, Sígueme, Salamanca, 2005, 29.

[6] G. Theissen, Sociología del Movimiento de Jesús, 53.

[7] F. Vouga, “Cronología paulina”, in D. Marguerat (ed.), Introducción al Nuevo Testamento, Desclée, Bilbao, 2008, 136.

[8] A. Hilhorst, “Termes chrétiens issus du vocabulaire de la démocratie athénienne”: Filología Neotestamentaria I/1 (1988) 29.

[9] Jürgen Becker, Pablo. El Apóstol de los paganos, Sígueme, Salamanca, 2007, 148.

[10] J. Becker, op.cit., 104-105.

[11] M. Y. Macdonald, Las comunidades paulinas, Sígueme, Salamanca, 1994, 78-79.

[12] Ch. Rowland, Christian Origins: An Account of the Setting and Character of the most Important Messianic Sect of Judaism, London 1985, 227-228; see M. Y. Macdonald, op.cit., 79, n. 6.

[13] A good summary in Juan A. Estrada, Para comprender cómo surgió la Iglesia, Verbo Divino, Estella, 1999, 213-235.

[14] J. A. Estrada, op.cit., 233. [15] Y. Congar, Diario de un teólogo (1946-1956), Trotta, Madrid, 2004, 404.

[16] This saying may derive from Jesus. But such a perspective has fewer and fewer advocates. The best scholars see an editorial text here. See U. Luz, El evangelio según san Mateo, II, Sígueme, Salamanca, 2006, 598, with an abundant selected bibliography on pp. 591-593.

[17] PL 59, 42-43; 108-109. Y. Congar, L’Eglise de saint Augustin à l’époque moderne, Cerf, Paris, 1970, 31-32.

[18] A. Magdelain, “Auctoritas rerrum”: Rev. Intern. Des droits de l’Antiquité 5 (1950) Mélanges De Vischer =, 128 ss. W. Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Gouvernement…, London 1955, 20-23.

[19] Y. Congar, L’Eglise de saint Augustin à l’époque moderne, 62-63. With select bibliography.

[20] Y. Congar, L’ecclésiologie du Haut Moyen-Age, Cerf, Paris 1968, 230.

[21] J. Rupp, L’idée de Chretienté dans la pensée pontificale des origines à Innocence III (Tesis. Pont. Univ. Gregoriana) P. 1939, 35-52.


  1. Brilliant exposition. Archbishop Quinn in his 1999 book "The Reform of the Papacy" developed the same themes.


    Who is responsible for oversight of the church of Christ?

    First let us establish that Jesus Christ is head of His church.

    Colossians 1:13-18.....18 He is also head of the body, the church......

    Ephesians Christ also is the head of the church....

    The question remains who are the men responsible for the oversight of the Lord's church?

    Did God put a pastor, a bishop, an elder, or an overseer in charge of shepherding His church?

    Pastor, bishop, elder and overseer are the same office.

    Men were given the oversight of each, local, church of Christ.

    Acts 14:23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed.

    Elders (plural) were appointed in each church congregation.

    Titus 1:5-7 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.....7 For the overseer must be above reproach....

    Elders were appointed in every city where there was a church of Christ. Elders were also referred to as overseers (some translations use the word bishops).

    Acts 20:17-28 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.......28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

    Notice: Elders (plural), and overseers (plural). Elders and overseers are used interchangeably and are told to shepherd the church.

    1 Peter 5:1-2 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you exercising oversight...

    Note: Elders (plural), were told to shepherd the flock of God. Peter said he was one of the elders. Peter did not say he was the Pope or the Head Elder.

    Ephesians 4:11And He gave pastors.....

    The word pastor means shepherd.

    Elder, bishop, overseer and pastor are all the same office and they are to shepherd the local churches of Christ.

    The oversight of the local church is to be a plurality of ELDERS (overseers, bishops, pastors).

    There is no mention in the Bible of one pastor ruling a single church. There is no Scripture indicating one man should rule a world wide church. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us to set up a church board to oversee the local church. God never set up different denominations to be ruled by groups of men. There is no office of Pope or priest mentioned under the New Covenant church of Christ.


    (All Scripture quotes from: NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)

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