Why Does Apostolic Authority Matter?

Jun 29, 2023 | Apologetics, Articles, Theology & Tradition

By Vir Christi

On the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, the Catholic Church honors two seminal leadership figures in the history of the Church.  St. Peter as the first pope laid the foundation for the authority of the modern Church.  But the authority of the pope, and by extension all of the bishops in communion with Rome, is a topic of confusion for many.  So how do we explain it?

Understanding Stewardship

The concept of stewardship is a theme that crops up continually throughout the Gospels.  Jesus tells the parable of the talents given to those minding the Master’s property, as well as the parable of the dishonest manager (Matthew 25:14-30, Matthew 24:45-51). He also regales His listeners with the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13).

Jews in the time of Jesus understood a steward to be someone who managed the household affairs of the master while the master was away or indisposed.  In the royal household, the steward would have been the prime minister.  He would have ruled with the voice and authority of the king in affairs of state, and all subjects of the kingdom would have been expected to obey the steward as though he were the king.  The steward was not the king, but ruled in the king’s stead until the king returned again.

The Conferral of Stewardship on the Disciples

At one point, Jesus asks His disciples Who people claimed that He was (Matthew 16:13-20).  When He asks them for their belief on that matter, Peter answers without hesitation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus acknowledges Peter’s faith by declaring, “You are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build My Church.” Impatient, impulsive Peter did not stop to think or measure his words: he blurted out what was on his heart!  He responded boldly to the truth, and Our Lord credits that to him as righteousness.

But Jesus does not stop there.  He goes on further to tell the other apostles collectively, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.”  Earlier when Jesus used “you” in referring to Peter as the rock, that is rendered in the singular from the Greek; it shifts to the plural when Jesus talks about the power of the keys, showing He is addressing the disciples as a collective group at that point.

The power of the keys was understood by the Jews in the Davidic context (Isaiah 22:20-24).  It was a power given to the prime minister of the Kingdom of Israel, to act on the king’s behalf while the king was indisposed.  The prime minister could not claim to be the king or utilize any of the king’s rights or privileges, but in administration he spoke with the king’s voice. A good king chose a prime minister whose views coincided with his own, and so the king would seldom have to override decisions made by a prime minister governing in his stead.

So one can see that stewardship was a legitimately understood concept, and from the language of Christ it is clear that He meant to make the apostles stewards over the household of God.  How does that have meaning for the clergy today?

Modern Episcopal Authority

Jesus, who prayed so powerfully for unity in the Body of Christ in an intimate way, surely would not have wanted His Church to devolve into chaos.  Some Protestants make the argument that the authority that Jesus conferred on His disciples would have died with them, because it was only a necessary measure to get the Faith off the ground and spreading.  Not only does that contradict our God being a God of order and unity, it also directly contradicts the evidence from the Scriptures.

In the Acts of the Apostles, after the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, one of the first things Peter as leader of the apostles does is stand up and address the faithful.  He reminds them that originally the apostles were twelve in number, before Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and hanged himself.  Pointing to the fact that Our Lord had originally chosen twelve in number as the leaders of the faithful, he declared it was necessary to fill the seat that Judas had vacated, and ordered the faithful to put forward worthy candidates as Judas’s replacement (Acts 1:15-26).  Through this process Matthias was chosen and elevated to the status of apostle with the Eleven: the first ordination!  Peter describes the role into which Matthias is stepping as an “overseer”.  Overseers and stewards served the same function!  So the role into which Matthias is being anointed is not merely as a fill-in, but to take up a share in the ministry of the apostles.

Another example of this continuing organization in the Church comes from St. Paul.  On his travels with Barnabas, Paul goes to Antioch with Barnabas.  There, he elevates men to be elders of each faith community in the area (Acts 14:23). This includes the bishops Timothy and Titus.  Paul urges them in three epistles written to them to exercise their authority, and counsels them on the proper way to do that.  No one stands up and objects that only Jesus could appoint men to such positions.  The only reason why they would not have made such a complaint would be because they recognized St. Paul’s authority was distinct from other members of the faith.

What does this mean?  That the authority of the apostles in leading and teaching was not meant to expire upon their deaths, but to live on in the Church in perpetuity.

Obedience to the Pope and Bishops

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out three particular criteria for papal infallibility: the pope must be exercising his specific authority from the Chair of Peter, it must be pertaining to faith and morals, and it must be explicitly declared as infallible (CCC 891).  Since the doctrine of papal infallibility was specifically defined by the Church, it has only been invoked twice: once in 1854, to define the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus), and again in 1950, to define Mary’s Assumption into Heaven (Munificentissimus Deus).

Those who express their disgruntlement with the pope are correct when they say that not every word that comes from the pope’s mouth is infallible, and therefore is not binding on the faithful in the same way.  However, to suggest that lack of infallibility permits a lack of obedience is wrong.  As the successor to Peter and the Apostles, the pope and the college of bishops must be treated with the respect due their offices.  Since bishop is the highest of the three degrees of Holy Orders (bishop, priest, deacon), they have the full graces of the sacrament conferred on them.  This means that when they are in the state of grace and are living their lives in accordance with their station, they have a unique relationship with God by virtue of their office.

This does not mean that one can never disagree with anything the pope or the bishops say.  What it means is that when the bishops make a decision within their specific ecclesiastical authority, that decision should be respected as though it were coming from Christ Himself, because they stand in for Christ the Head of the Church.*  It further means that one should avoid slandering anyone in ecclesiastical office, because such slander diminishes respect for the office and that in turn diminishes respect for the authority that Christ wields on Earth through the Church.

We must choose our words carefully when talking about the authority of the Church.  The guidance of the pope with the communion of bishops have preserved the deposit of faith given to the Church.  That same authority which entrusts us in the modern Church with the faith of the first apostles and disciples must always be respected, even if the instrument by which that authority is wielded is not to our liking.  Refrain from publicly slamming the pope and bishops on things you dislike.  Train yourself to see the cleric both as the man and as in the person of Christ: fallen, broken, and imperfect, but in the full exercise of his office bringing Jesus to His people.

*JS will be publishing an article expanding on this theme in the future.

Vir Christi

Vir Christi

Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.


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