The multifarious changes in the Catholic Church from Vatican II to the present can be understood through different approaches. Pope Benedict famously chose the opposing hermeneutics of discontinuity and reform. This was fertile and enlightening. But a new and substantial book, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (OUP), suggests its own eponymous paradigm. I am not going to review the book here, beyond thoroughly recommending it to those who are prepared to study the issues with the gravity they deserve. But I will return to its essays from time to time.
First, I must declare an interest. My own Authority and Obedience in the Catholic Church, published by T & T Clark in 2002, indicates my commitment to this theme and, although my book carries neither the weight nor scope of the present volume, its fundamental analysis coincides. Expressed in one sentence, authority in the Church no longer commands automatic obedience; it must now be earned. Understood in the right way, this is potentially beneficial.
Authority does not mean simple power to command. Its etymology is auctor, or author: one who originates or who gives complete form. Its force comes not arbitrarily but from entitlement. St Matthew tells us that the crowd were astounded at Jesus’s teaching for “he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes”. In other contexts we are all familiar with this. We find that we can recognise authority in others. We see a depth, an entitlement, a wisdom, a knowledge, a bearing – indeed, a whole range of indicators which lead us to listen and accept.
In a secular context we are wary because we know that some non-verbal indicators of authority can be manipulated, so our provisional judgment may need to be confirmed over a period of time. But we are as well suited to recognising, and so trusting, authority as we are to recognising the goodness of the Natural Law.
The essential point is that authority is a dynamic between the authoritative person, or system, and the acceptance of that authority by the “subject”. Of course Jesus’ entitlement to authority is based on his mission from the Father. But he still had to communicate it to the crowd. There are always two sides.
In this sense of the word, the authority of the Magisterium is in decline. There is no doubt that in a swathe of moral areas, and indeed in some doctrinal areas, the Church as a body no longer accepts that the Magisterium will have the last word. The doubters include the majority of the parish clergy. On the face of it the bishops stand firm but since, as I understand it, they are selected for their orthodoxy on current issues, the value of their collective witness as a mark of the Church’s true teaching has been neutered.
It is not for me to give a verdict on these disputed areas, but I ask whether this is a body which has recognised the need to behave as a true authority does, or to recognise the need to listen and to teach as a true authority must.
Naturally it will be argued that several passages in Scripture evidence the authority which Christ gave to his Church. I will review these on another occasion. At this point I need to do no more than suggest that they do not always carry the interpretation which is commonly given to them. But I have suggested that the loss of the medieval model of traditional authority can lead to real benefits. Here I can do no more than adumbrate the main features of modern successful management practice (I can supply a reading list for anyone who requires it).
A secular business is not a democracy; within the law, the directors have governing power. They will be crystal clear about the non-negotiable principles of the mission statement and the core values. The security of these (usually very few) fundamentals allow them to be liberal in other respects.
The managing director does not have a kitchen cabinet. In a large organisation he will need a support office, but this is never allowed to interfere with the channels of authority, which lead directly to senior management.
Staff are regarded not as servants but as effective contributors to the business. The principles of free communication – upwards, downwards and laterally – are a characteristic of the business. In addition, there are formal routes through which staff can communicate to a receptive senior management. Members of the business, no matter how junior, see themselves as taking personal responsibility for the success of the enterprise.
A cardinal principle of management is subsidiarity, that is, a policy of allowing initiatives and decisions to be taken at the lowest practicable level. The managing director, knowing how easily subsidiarity can be subverted, regards its preservation as one of his high priorities.
You may say, and rightly too, that barring some changes in technical vocabulary this is just how the Church would describe itself. Yes, indeed. And if the shocks of this time are sufficient to turn this theoretical picture into reality, the benefits will be enormous. There is in fact no conflict between good management practice and the traditions of the Church. The hermeneutics of continuity will be fully preserved. But the Church will command far more authority in the genuine rather than the medieval form. And that authority will propose demanding lessons which the world may want to hear.
The links below will give you more background.