On the need for institutional authority

John McNeill posted a well-written and quite thought-provoking post on his blog recently, "The Theology of Fallibility Part IV," in which he asserted that "the paternalistic hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has lost contact with the Spirit of God and is no longer its instrument."

It's hard to argue with that. This loss of contact has happened repeatedly throughout the history of the Church, so this is neither unprecedented nor particularly surprising. McNeill notes a parallel in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is sent to prophesy against the leaders of Israel ("the shepherds") who have failed to take care of God's sheep:
The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34.1–6)
After yammering on for a bit, God finally announces, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep" (Ezek 34.15). The leaders, having proven themselves inadequate to the task of shepherding God's flock, are cast aside, and God himself will take on the responsibility of leading the people of Israel.

McNeill notes that "Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collasping Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and the Spirit of God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding." He points out, for example, that the destruction of both temples brought about new forms of Judaism (a "text-based" Judaism after the first temple was destroyed, and Rabbinic Judaism after the second).

Of the Church he writes, "There is no doubt in my mind that we are at present in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding." He describes Joachim of Fiore's Trinitarian conception of history, which understood the time before Christ as the Age of the Father, the next dispensation as the Age of the Son (Joachim called it the ordo clericorum), and finally the Age of the Spirit, in which ecclesiastical authority would no longer be needed. McNeill writes, "I believe that time is now."

To many reform-minded Catholics, this is indeed an appealing possibility. I have some issues with it, though, which I thought I would share.

There is a substantial segment of the Church that has developed enough intellectually and spiritually to effect "a relocation of authority within the self," as James Fowler put it.1 This doesn't mean ecclesiastical (or other) authorities play no part, but it is more of an advisory role subordinated to the individual's judgment.

A Church full of such people would have little need for ecclesiastic authority, as Joachim of Fiore imagined. Unfortunately, the Church is not full of such people. A much larger segment of the Church is comprised of individuals who, for one reason or another, have not advanced to this stage.

The fact is that everyone has to develop through a number of stages to get to the point where external authority is no longer necessary. Where conditions are favourable -- that is, where people are adequately educated and their spirituality properly nourished -- many will do so. But such conditions are pretty rare. In the global south, where Catholicism is seeing its largest growth, these conditions are nonexistent for most people. If their Catholic leaders were to stop functioning as authorities, they'd find authorities from some other church who would be only too willing to tell them what to think and how to behave. There is no escaping the fact that most Catholics are in a dependent relationship with external authorities. (This is true of most religious people, actually.)

The problem, as I see it, is that most people in authority positions in the Church don't see development beyond the need for external authority as "growth" at all. Their "leadership" is geared towards keeping people in a dependent relationship. They have no interest in empowering anyone to relocate authority within the self and take responsibility for their own choices. If anything is going to be reformed, I think it has to be this.


[1] Stages of Faith, 179.

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Blogger TheraP said...

Any dictatorial authority is "dependent" on dependent people. Right now the hierarchy cannot see its own dependency. But once hoards of Catholics wake up and refuse to be dependent any longer... the fiction of dictatorship will be revealed.

Picture any dictator - absent adoring or cowering crowds. Or absent funds. And after all, this particular dictatorship has no standing army or police force, with which to wield power. And it's moral authority is fast evaporating, upon which it depended to keep the peasants fearful and in need of "forgiveness" as a protection against the wrath of God, now seen as no longer on the side of the sacramental dole.

The collapse of the house of cards is coming...

3:32 p.m.  
Blogger Richard Demma said...

Wise words to be sure. I think of my young Catholic students -who attend the very progressive parish of St. Thomas here in Prague - and who would be left floundering without any institutional structure of leadership to aid them in their spiritual formation. McNeill's statement may seem idealistic and utopian, but he is not advocating the abolition of all leadership in the church, as we can see from this statement: "Every community should prayerfully discern spirits to select among their members the one whom God is calling to leadership." However, as with so many utopian statements, it's difficult to envision how we are to get from point A to point B in practical terms. Perhaps this is something best left up to the Holy Spirit who seems to be working overtime at the present. Let us see where it all leads.

9:00 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I certainly agree that the present crisis may wake a lot of people up to the oppressive nature of their relationship with the hierarchy, which would be a good thing.

One problem that I can foresee is that a lot of people will leave, and a lot of the people who leave will be the moderates and the less-committed liberals, leaving the more-committed progressives and the die-hard conservatives and traditionalists. The Church's centre of gravity might actually lower when it's all said and done. I don't know, we'll have to see.


You make a good point, I can see that McNeill was "not advocating the abolition of all leadership in the church."

He also makes a good point when he says that every community should choose it's own pastors. There is a lot of Vatican ideology that will have to be dismantled before that can happen, though -- including, for example, the claim that ordination effects an ontological change in the ordained, the restriction of the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments to the clergy, and so on.

Unfortunately, the people with the power to bring about the necessary reforms are among those most oblivious--and most resistant--to the need for structural change.

12:23 a.m.  
Blogger Richard Demma said...

And that is the crux of the problem - the hierarchy's self-perceived control over the sacramental system. How to wean well meaning believing Catholics away from this idolization of the priestly caste system, there is the challenge. I suspect we are about to witness some explosive splintering and fragmentation and disintegration before a renewed integration can take place. But I would agree that it would be irresponsible to take any satisfaction in this likely possibility, because a lot of very decent, vulnerable believers are going to be deeply hurt and confused by the process. Here is where we need faith and trust in the Holy Spirit, and humble supplication on our knees, together with practical efforts to both offset the most harmful consequences and offer a living, spiritual alternative.

4:59 a.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Interesting. This makes me think of a couple of groups where the members discern the spirits collectively and either have no real "leaders" or have leaders chosen from among all and constantly change them .... the Quakers and the Jesuit order.

6:06 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


How to wean well meaning believing Catholics away from this idolization of the priestly caste system, there is the challenge.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately: why do people get stuck at a certain level of development, and how can they be unstuck? I have a couple of ideas, which I'll post about soon.

I suspect we are about to witness some explosive splintering and fragmentation and disintegration before a renewed integration can take place.

I agree. Things will get much worse before they get better.

Here is where we need faith and trust in the Holy Spirit, and humble supplication on our knees, together with practical efforts to both offset the most harmful consequences and offer a living, spiritual alternative.

I agree with that, too. And I think the Catholic Church has, in its intellectual and contemplative traditions, the resources to provide such an alternative. Unfortunately the people in charge have made a habit of emphasising the very things that need to be de-emphasised, while suppressing the best theological work.

6:23 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


The idea of "constantly changing" leaders is something that might actually be a good idea. I think bishops (including the Bishop of Rome) should have term limits. And it goes without saying that the selection of bishops has to be decentralised. I doubt we'll ever see either of these things happen, though.

I'm not sure what you mean about the Jesuit order. My understanding is that their leader is elected for life, no?

6:41 p.m.  
Blogger colkoch said...

Prickliest, These are all good comments. I would only add that there is a very serious priest shortage coming and that will force change on Catholics whether they want it or not. I suspect communities who are with out priests will see their communion services evolve into full fledged Masses and communities will offer the full Sacramental array in creative ways. Perhaps with different responsibilities allocated to different people. I could easily envision a person like a professional counseling type become responsible for the sacrament of reconcilliation.

The set up I can see is far more like the descriptions of Paul's initial communities where gifts were discerned and people accepted their discerned role and the responsibility their gifts entailed. It's amazing how people can evolve and adapt when they have too.

I think the Vatican will eventually find itself with a major urban Church and a population of people who have the luxury of not changing.

The priest shortage is even more accute in Latin America and they already have the experience of the Community Based groups which could easily morph into a reformed Catholicism. The impetus for a change in celibacy could very well come from Latin America and Africa. The priest shortage is a huge factor in the success of Evangelicals. The bishops from these areas may be far more ammenable to change because they must know if the don't they will lose even larger chunks of their Catholic populations to Evangelicals.

7:28 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Yeah, I think leaders changing is a good thing. The head of the Episcopal Church, for instance, has a nine year term, I think.

About the Jesuits. Yes, you're right. The last superior retired in his 80's, just a year or two ago, I think.

I was thinking more about how the rest of the Jesuits relate. There are provincials for different geographical areas, and they change often. My spiritual director says that they are are basically equals and treat each other so because their positions are always changing - the guy who is your boss this year could be working for you next year.

4:08 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Ah, I see. That makes a lot of sense, actually.

10:38 a.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...

If the sole purpose of the Church was to promote a “Christianity of Values” then I would agree with John, but since it’s not, then, of course I don’t.

As it stands now, both inside and outside the Church, we breathe the air of the reduction of faith to a certain vision of the world and life, to a morality or a set of values that, as such, can be admired or fought against. There are those, like Christians and some from the secular world, who uphold them, and others who fight against them in the name of the principle of the radical self-determination of the individual. But they all share one trait in common: an attempt to build a “Christianity without Christ.”

It seems to me that John wants to do the same thing, the only difference being that He pits the Holy Spirit against Christ and His body. But, even if I overlooked all of that, if what he asserted is true, then Christ lied when He told the first leaders of the Chruch, leaders He choose, "I will be without you always, until the end of the world."

I assert that the Tripersonal God is always the protagonist and that He has a method.

Moreover, it does not help John's cause to cite a person whose writings were condemned and refuted by St. Thomas Aquinas and others.

3:29 p.m.  
Blogger Richard Demma said...

hmmm... best to keep in mind that Thomas Aquinas was condemned by the Bishop of Paris for heresy fifty years after his death...and the Bishop of Paris, overseer of the then most distinguished school of theology in the Catholic world, held the prime responsibility for theological judgments of this kind, this faculty not yet having been taken over by a centralized Vatican authority.

4:06 p.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...


You are correct that a condemnation "in and of itself" can change with time but as of now that hasn't happened to Joachim of Fiore and so I believe it's best not to cite him because it muddies the water. Of course if someone cited Arius I would also tell them that it's probably not a good idea to do so. However, I wasn’t asserting that John’s proposal should be dismissed because he cited him, I was merely saying that it’s not a good idea and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify that!

However, I do think there are serious problems with John’s premise and I have posted a comment on his blog so that I can have a conversation with him, if he so desires, because I’d like to understand why he promotes this unusual (and in my opinion erroneous) ecclesiology.

4:19 p.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...

Prickliest Pear,

What does “relocate authority within the self” mean? Can you give me an example of this in action?



4:49 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I'm not sure who you are referring to when you say some people are attempting to build a "Christianity without Christ." I was wondering if you might name some specific examples.

...if what he asserted is true, then Christ lied when He told the first leaders of the Chruch, leaders He choose, "I will be without you always, until the end of the world."

Henry, this is a very pre-critical argument. The line you quoted is from a pericope (Matt 28.16-20) that has every appearance of being the creation of the early Church.

Even if we imagine that Jesus really said that, and interpret the promise within the context of Matthew's Gospel, it is not to an ordained clergy that Jesus promises to be with forever (because there was no ordained clergy until many decades after Jesus's death); rather, the promise must be understood as having been made to the Church as a whole.

This is not inconsistent with either John McNeill's post, or Joachim de Fiore's prediction, although there are other things that discredit the latter, particularly the fact that he thought it was going to happen very soon (i.e., in the 13th century).

As for the meaning of "relocate authority within the self," I discussed this in this post. If that doesn't make it sufficiently clear, let me know and I'll go into more detail.

1:56 p.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...

Prickliest Pear,

I am always available for a round or two of exegetical ping-pong but, as you know, I am overwhelmed this week and so I won’t be able to reply until the weekend.

Thanks for the link to your post, I will read it by then too.

Have a good evening my friend



4:08 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I struggle with reconciling "institutional authority" with freedom of conscience. I think the Catholic Church would do well to re-emphasize the latter and stop trumpeting the "authority" of the Magisterium. It just doesn't work for thinking people. The RCC hierarchy needs to share power with the laity. I've left the RCC despite my love for many aspects of the faith. I'm a bit of a Mariologist and haven't found another church that emphasizes the role of Mary (one redeeming feature in an otherwise misogynistic church). I just found your blog, btw. Great stuff and very interesting!

8:56 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


The problem with "freedom of conscience" is that it's a very elastic idea that can be interpreted to mean very different things. I agree that the authority of the magisterium needs to be deemphasised. The magisterium is doing a fine job of bringing that about, despite themselves.

9:59 p.m.  

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