THE DIVINE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH

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All Christians agree that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority. During His earthly ministry, He was the Final Authority. His authority superseded the Old Testament, human reason, Jewish Tradition, and the power of the state. But after His ascension, He did not leave His people without direction. Before He ascended, He made provisions for a continuing doctrinal authority — He commissioned His apostles to teach with authority (cf. Matthew 28:18-20) — and this teaching authority is called the Magisterium.

The term “magisterium” generally refers to the doctrinal teaching office and authority of the bishops of the world in communion with the bishop of Rome. It simply means, “the authority of the master or teacher” (Latin, magister or magistra) to “guard what has been entrusted” (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20). The Magisterium, in service to the Word of God, authentically interprets the Word, whether in holy Scripture or in the form of sacred Tradition.

Such authority is exercised by the Pope, the successor of St. Peter as head of the universal Church, and the bishops together and in union with the Pope, as it was originally committed to St. Peter and to the whole college of apostles under his leadership. They are the official teachers of the holy Church. To provide a sure source of teaching and to maintain unity in the holy Church, Jesus Christ established the papacy by means of appointing Simon as Peter (translated in Greek as Cephas) upon whom the Church be built and to whom the full pastoral authority be given. In Matthew 16:18-19, it reads: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” But how can one be certain that Magisterium tells and does the truth?

Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church into all truth, teaching all things that Christ had taught His apostles. In John 14:26, it reads: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” This indeed very clear. How can the Church, through the Magisterium, tell lies if the Holy Spirit is with her? Because of that, Christ assured the Church that “Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). Can there be any reason not to listen to the Church? Remember, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

Indeed, there is a very strong assurance that the Church is not vulnerable to the doctrinal whims of competing leaders. First, Christ built the Church on the solid foundation of the apostles. In Ephesians 2:19-20, it reads: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Secondly, He gave the Church His Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to enable her to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Below are some of the more important Scriptural references that address Church authority:

Matthew 28:18-20 — “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

NOTE: This brief passage contains several critical points about Church authority: [a] Jesus tells the Apostles that the authority he is giving them derives from His own, divine authority (“All authority…” / “Go therefore”.); [b] the apostles’ authority and mission comes directly from Christ Himself; [c] the nature of this mission is to lead or govern (“make disciples”), sanctify (“baptizing them”), and teach (“teaching them to observe”); and, [d] Christ promises to remain present with them always in support of this mission (“I am with you always”).

John 20:21 — “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.'”

NOTE: In this passage, Jesus commissions the Apostles with continuing his own mission. Again, this mission has its source in the divine authority of the Father (CCC 859).

Matthew 10:40 — “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”

Luke 10:16 — “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”

NOTE: Here, Christ explicitly identifies Himself with the Apostles: this identification is so complete that accepting or rejecting the Apostles is the same as accepting or rejecting Christ.

Matthew 16:18-19 — “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

NOTE: This is a key passage for understanding the Catholic doctrine of Church authority: [a] Christ’s deliberate intent to establish His Church (“I will build My Church”); [b] His choice of St. Peter as the leader of His Church after His ascension; and, [c] Christ confers on St. Peter his own divine authority (“the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”) for ruling the Church (“bind” and “loose”). This power to “bind and loose”, repeated also in Matthew 18:18 to the Apostles as a whole, is understood as applying first to St. Peter and his successors (the Pope), and then to the rest of the Apostles and their successors (the other Bishops) in union with Peter.

Acts 15:28 — “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;”

NOTE: This is one of the most striking passages in Acts tells how the Apostles describe their decision about whether pagan converts should submit to the Jewish laws of circumcision. This passage shows that the apostles knew that they had the governing power necessary to decide this question, and that they are conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit who is guiding their decision, so ultimately it is God who has decided the matter. Remember, this passage in Acts would be meaningless, even blasphemous, if the Apostles did not in fact possess the authority of Christ, supported and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Timothy 2:22 — “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.”

Titus 1:7-9 — “For a bishop, as God’s steward […] He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who oppose it.”

NOTE: These texts hold the proof that the apostles never kept the authority just with them but appointed bishops whom they also entrusted the divine authority of teaching the true doctrines of Christ.

THE EARLY Christians also attested to the existence of the authority of the Church which was handed on by Christ to His Apostles, and then to their successors, and so on:

Clement I, bishop of Rome

“Christ therefore was sent forth by God and the apostles by Christ . . . [T]hey [the apostles] appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.” (1st Epistle, c.42, A.D. 70-96)

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch

“For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” (Letter to the Ephesians, A.D. 98-117)

 Tertullian, theologian

“From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed . . . Now, what that was which they preached — in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them — can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person.” (Prescription against Heretics, 21, A.D. ca. 160-ca.220)

THE HOLY Catholic Church guarantees the faithful handing on of the words of God through the teaching authority of the Pope and college of bishops, known as the Magisterium. The Magisterium ensures that no new erroneous doctrine or heresy pops up to lead the people astray. Like a three legged stool, the trinity of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium makes sure that the words of God are faithfully handed on to each succeeding generation. If any of the three legs goes away, error is certain to creep in, like it is doing in many protestant churches today, who interpret scripture based on their personal opinion of what they think it says. In 2 Peter 1:20, it reads: “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”

“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrew 13:17)

“Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15).

ABOUT THE PHOTO

The Chair of Saint Peter (Latin: Cathedra Petri), also known as the Throne of Saint Peter, is a relic conserved in St. Peter’s Basilica, enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing that was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed between 1647 and 1653. The cathedra is lofted on splayed scrolling bars that appear to be effortlessly supported by four over-lifesize bronze Doctors of the Church: Western doctors St. Ambrose and St. Augustine of Hippo on the outsides, wearing miters, and Eastern doctors St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius on the insides, both bare-headed.
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