On the need for institutional authority
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.
 Stages of Faith, 179.