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With respect: authority in the Catholic Church

30 November, 1999

Lay theologian and lecturer at the Marino Institute of Education, Tony Hanna, explores the thorny problem of authority in the Church. He says himself: “The book is offered to all men and women who exercise, endure, rail against, submit to or grapple with authority. It is offered humbly and with respect.”

99 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online go to www.columba.ie



  1. A personal shaping 
  2. Authority in the secular 
  3. The vexed question of subsidiarity 
  4. Church and papacy 
  5. Universal pre-eminence 
  6. Magisterium
  7. Sensus fidelium 
  8. Leadership and the God who lies in wait 
  9. Bringing it all back home 


The title of this book With Respect was suggested to me by my good friend, Ned Prendergast. Over the years of our friendship Ned noticed that I had the habit of prefacing some of my most aggressive remarks with the words,’with respect’. The use of the phrase was an early warning indicator to him that a passionate onslaught of some kind was about to be launched and invariably it would include a severe critique of an issue or position that had been raised. In retrospect, I can chuckle and even chide myself about how easily I could reveal my convictions. Today I am much more alert about the use of the term and I am aware of the territory I enter when I choose to use it.

The same friend reminded me that authority is closely linked to respect which has its origins in the Latin respicere which means to see again or to see with new eyes. As I begin this examination of this subject, I have no doubt that my passionate convictions about some of the defects in authoritative structures within the Catholic Church will be evident. There is much that needs to be addressed. However, with equal conviction, I want to proclaim with deep gratitude the splendour of an informed and spiritual magisterium. The Holy Spirit has given me the grace to see with new eyes and to treasure the gift of authority which is one of God’s perennial graces to his church.

This is a book about authority, especially authority as exercised in the Roman Catholic Church. I write as a practising Catholic who loves my church and feels called to serve in that church as fully as I can with whatever gifts that God has given to me. I write as someone privileged to have had access to academic training and ongoing formation throughout my life. I hold degrees in education and theology and have managed to acquire a wide and enriching portfolio of ministry, ranging from teacher in Africa, to school chaplain, from community founder to teacher of theology, from father of four wonderful young women to counsellor of many broken spirits, from husband with a devoted wife to writer on religious issues.

I write today because I struggle with authority as I believe many fellow church members, both cleric and lay, do. I have become mature enough to recognise that this is part of my own human weakness, the persistent need to soothe and mollify my own ego, not to bow the knee to another. Humility does not come easily to this particular soul! What I have learned from my own life experience is that authority comes not from titles or books or positions but from the quality of relationship. One may acquire titles and positions, they may have status in the local or global context but these are empty if the pursuant relationships with the subjects of that authority are not rich and respectful.

Authority spawns a number of associated terms or ideas and they are all part of the cultural mix which impacts on the discussions within this book. Some words that might spring readily to mind would be obedience, hierarchy, leadership, governance, dissent and conscience. Others that might not be so explicit could include words such as subsidiarity, charism, local and universal. In the course of this book, these are terms that I will seek to explicate because they all have a bearing on the outworkings of this term authority.

I see the church today, with all its difficulties, still throbbing with life. She is alive because God’s Spirit continues to breathe life into her. Jesus promised the gift of the Spirit who would not leave us orphaned and the life force that beats gently or pulsates widely in so many facets of this wonderful mystery proclaims this vibrant presence.

The book is offered to all men and women who exercise, endure, rail against, submit to or grapple with authority. It is offered humbly and with respect.




Authority is a term I have been pondering for some time. For me it is a difficult word because I know instinctively my own hackles are aroused. I sense in it not something benign or helpful or pastoral but something of the tyrant, of the boss, of the know your place kind of put down. I know intellectually that there is another reality where authority is life-enhancing and freeing and this core dimension will be given due attention as this book unfolds. However, I must acknowledge from the outset a certain prickly irritation that surfaces in my gut as I begin this work.

Perhaps that unease has something to do with my Catholic upbringing in Northern Ireland where evidence of bigotry and sectarianism was a constant backdrop. My childhood was experienced and lived in a society where civic and political authority was seen as abusive and persistent. I had a nagging sense throughout those years that I didn’t really belong within this part of the ‘United Kingdom’, that I was tolerated but not fully welcomed, that I lived here under sufferance, that the authority which watched over me and, more accurately, watched me, did not really trust me. I had the gnawing sense that I was under suspicion, that I was somehow beyond the pale, outside the inner circle, always on the edge, not really belonging. I sought another kind of authority, freer and more benign, idealistically conferred to the land across the border known as the ‘Free State’.

Later, the formative years of my adolesence in the late 1960s were shaped in the context of a civil rights movement that was railing against injustice, gerrymandering and the abuse of authority by those who clung to political power to protect the unequal status quo. This experience of an abusive authority which hovered insistently over the political and civic expressions of life in Northern Ireland undoubtedly coloured my take on authority.

My irritation has also has something to do with the church of the 1960s which was attempting to escape from the ecclesiastical prison that had been created over the previous centuries. The church that existed pre-Vatican II was governed in a rigidly authoritarian manner where there was a definitive pecking order and the laity knew their place, which was effectively at the bottom of the heap, best captured by Pope Leo who spoke for a dominant clerical mindset when he unashamedly declared that the role of the laity was ‘to pay, pray and obey’. The assumed authoritative position of the clerical caste in all matters of religious life and in many aspects of civic life created a claustrophobic environment which choked freedom of enquiry and freedom to imagine. One incident in my final year of secondary school brought this reality home to me forcibly.

I was studying A level English and had the joy to have a wonderful gem of an English teacher, a layman who was passionate, imaginative and absolutley inspiring. Under his tutelage, I began to devour books and, with his permission, I was allowed to choose a book to study by myself (on the syllabus but not being taught formally in class by him).

One day in the senior study hall in 1969 I was immersed in the book, reading and making notes when the priest monitor hovered over me, lifted the book, read the title, looked at me with undisguised contempt and promptly confiscated the novel. It was Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, then a formal part of the Northern Ireland English Literature A Level syllabus. Despite my vehement protestations and the full vent of my teenage ire, it was arbitrarily deemed unsuitable by this self appointed moral guardian. I was seventeen and I was raging. I fumed for weeks. I suppose I still do, some forty years later.

Notwithstanding his disapproval and the non return of the book to me, I managed to circumvent his authority, bought another copy, studied it clandestinely and duly wrote on the book in my A level exam with some degree of success. That experience of a priest censoring my legitimate study reinforced for me a negative approach to such invasive and ill informed authority. In the overall scheme of things it was a small incident, but it undoubtedly left its mark on my thinking.

Authority at home was more nuanced. At times it demanded an unquestioning obedience to my father and mother. Attendance at Mass, for example, was a non negotiable. Dissent here was not allowed. Minor acts of disobedience were dealt with by a clip around the ears, a slap, or a verbal warning. More serious misdemeanours received a more sustained physical punishment or longer spells of incarceration. However, my mother and father were sparing in their meting out of such punishment and there was always the opportunity to speak your mind, always the right to be heard, always the opportunity for atonement and ready forgiveness. Underpinning everything, there was a deep and genuine love which enabled an enduring of the corrective times and sweetened the moments of guidance when their surefooted wisdom nurtured life choices.

My recollection of this is that your own authority was allowed to grow within you and rights and responsibilities pertaining to such growth was gradually afforded to you. As you grew older more weight was given to your opinion and you were encouraged to think for yourself about most things. Authority was firm, clear and yet in some way open to other possibilities. There were times of definitive No’s, times of Maybe’s and lots of Yes’s. In retrospect, it was an enviroment that gave life, that allowed you to breathe, to challenge, to become yourself, to find your way.

In more global terms, the child of the 60s was characterised as being more rebellious because of the historical milieu that then prevailed. Post World War II there had been a palpable sense of relief from the survivors and, in the aftermath, there was much more freedom given to the offspring of the survivor generation. Freedom was a buzz word. Breaking out of sterotypes and staitjackets of all kinds became the norm. It found expression in love-ins and drop-outs, and it spawned a hippy generation that thumbed its nose at authority and went in search of its own meaning and its own misguided Holy Grail, seeking enlightenment in drugs and esoteric eastern religions. Hairstyles, colourful clothes, unconventional lifestyles and rock music became emblematic symbols of rebellion against a perception of authority that was restrictive, inflexible, irrelevant and staid.

All of that and so much more helped to shape the me who approaches the question of authority with more than a degree of scepticism and suspicion. My own subsequent life experiences as a father, teacher and at times leader of others in a host of situations has caused me to look critically at how my own authority was exercised. In my reflections I have precious moments of gladness and significant moments of regret. I believe my understanding and exercise of authority grew and changed as I myself developed and matured. Authority, both in administering it and receiving it, changed me, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.

Authority has often been understood as a possession but in a sense it cannot be owned. Authority in a real sense can only be given by others. It comes out of relationship. The misguided priest who confiscated my book did not persuade me that he was right. In fact it strengthened my resentment of his authority and it irrevocably damaged our relationship. It made me ever more likely to rebel and challenge him when the opportunity presented itself. I also found a way to avoid his imposition of authority.

My gem of an English teacher who so inspired me to read had a real authority, the kind that called me to respond with the best that I could offer. It was an authority which emanated from himself, an authority that gave him a kind of ‘calling power’. His was a light but infectious touch which made me glad to respond and my yes to him was unqualified and total.




We are all products of our society and few of us can escape the anti-authority milieu of our time. We live in a culture that is steeped in relativity, one that promotes the individual’s right to question all authority. Yet Christians are called to a different measure of authority. In Hebrew the word for a measuring rod is quaneh and it refers to a definitive measure that is not arbitrary but precise. In the words of St Paul:

For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Rom 13:1-4)

It is against this background of a divine measuring rod that Christians have been debating and negotiating their relationship to the tangled worlds of politics, economics, culture and church for nearly two millennia. The essential nature of that unavoidable entanglement, and the distinctive character of the Christian’s presence in’the world,’ came into focus early. As the Letter to Diognetus, most likely written in the second century, reminds us, Christians are always ‘resident aliens” in the world, for while Christians honour just rulers, obey just laws, and contribute to the common good of whatever society in which they find themselves, a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is given to a kingdom that is elsewhere. Christians believe that history can only be read in its fullness in the light of faith in the Risen Christ, the Lord of history. And in that perspective, history is both the arena of God’s action and the preparation room to our true home, the ‘city of the living God’ (Heb 12:22). Christians live in history in a distinctive way. We know that ‘here is no abiding city, no lasting stay’ and that reality utterly colours our perspective.

Scholars divide western philosophy into four major eras, ancient (up to Augustine 354-430), medieval (up to Descartes, 1596-1650), the modern (up to mid twentieth century) and the postmodern that is the current reality. The core rationale of modernity is that human reason should have the final say in how we structure our community and it should be the ultimate authority on how we govern all public life. Human reason is lauded and established as the final arbiter. Modernity, in essence, refuses to see in man any sort of transparent aspiration. It is the refusal of any sort of faith. It rejects mystery. From a Christian perspective, it is akin to a sort of Gnostic spirituality in that it seeks to substitute itself for the truths of Catholicism. It proposes that only doctrines acceptable to the norms of a given time can be believed. It seeks to fashion the church to the current acceptable scientific or cultural mores of the time. It refuses to recognise ‘the democracy of the dead’, a phrase attributed to G. K. Chesterton which he used to justify the church’s tradition of examining the tenets of faith and morals within the total context of the tradition of the church, including those communities of faith that have preceded us (2). Chesterton would be an expected advocate for the church’s opposition to the heresy of modernity, but a much more unlikely supporter against the grandiose claims of modernity is Albert Camus.

In one of his essays, ‘Helen’s Exile’ that appeared in Cahiers du Sud (3) Helen has come to represent for Camus the Greek sense of reason, a reason that was limited, not infinite, as modernity would have us believe. Camus argues:

History explains neither the natural universe which came before it, nor beauty which stands above it. Consequently, it has chosen to ignore them. Whereas Plato incorporated everything – nonsense, reason, and myth – our philosophers admit nothing but nonsense or reason. The mole is meditating. It was Christianity that began to replace the contemplation of the world with the tragedy of the soul (4).

In commenting on this passage, James Schall speaks of those spectres that cannot be accounted for by pure intellect: ‘they were forced to go under ground. They did not disappear but could be found still rooting about the human condition like an annoying mole disturbing the smooth surface of our own carefully planned gardens in which we allow planted only what we want there. We alone, we think, are the movers and the shakers, the planters and the planted. But the mole continues to disturb our rationalist schools’ (5).

In an interview for the Italian journal, Trenta Giorni, Henri Cardinal de Lubac characterises modernity as ‘the refusal to see in man any sort of transcendent aspiration … it is the refusal of any sort of faith. It follows on the rejection of mystery. Modernity will always ‘know’ more, will always ‘explain’ more, but in reality it will not ‘comprehend’ more, because it has refused mystery (6). Ultimately, Modernism is a representation of the old Pelagian heresy that we can redeem ourselves.

Yet the dominant imprint of modernism remains steadfastly embedded in our cultures. It is characterised most by a secularist mentality, one that lauds the here and now, the get and have mindset, the cult of the individual, the exiling of religious sensibility to a private cult, the self-authority of man as the only true quaneh or measure. Man is not judged by Truth. He alone is the ultimate judge of truth.

In Ireland in 2006 at the Humbert Summer School in Co Mayo, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin delivered a provocative speech on secularism. He contended that although Ireland had been invaded in the past by invading armies today its most dangerous invader was a cultural force, a modernist spirit, one of whose armies was secularism.

Secularity is a term coined around 1850 ‘to denote a system which sought to order and interpret life on principles taken solely from this world, without recourse to belief in God and a future world’ (7). Secularity has its origins in this era of modernity whose founding father was René Descartes. Descartes’ radical theory was a volte-face to what had gone before. The ancient and medieval eras had largely accepted that divine authority, not human rationality, was the supreme authority. Where once prefaces such as ‘God says’, ‘the church says’, ‘the king says’ would have been normative, today it is more likely to be ‘reason says’, ‘democracy says’. Secularity believes this latter way of thinking is the ultimate authority. However, even within secularity there is a wide gamut of expressions ranging from outright hostility towards the religious mindset to a positive inclusive relationship that sees religion as a major contributor to peace and harmony in our world.

Bad press
Perhaps the church has been too absolute and narrow in its analysis. Perhaps in the past the churches have been too ready to condemn secularism because it challenged their worldview and the churches saw it as the enemy of spirituality. It was too easy to caricature secularism as the antithesis of religion. Undoubtedly, secularism in its most rampant and aggressive form can be inimical to the fostering of faith and its value but it is important to remember that while it demands ‘freedom from religion it also mandates freedom for religion’ (8).

It could be argued, notwithstanding obvious exceptions, that secular culture contains much of what is best in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We could cite human dignity, equality of race and gender, equal opportunity for all, tolerance, peace making, fairness, hospitality, justice, openness to the transcendent etc. Of course, there are aberrations but no culture can be judged solely on these. We judge cultures on what is most noble within them, not on what is most deviant (9).

On the other hand it would be naïve not to acknowledge that there is a danger in the extreme secular position whereby truth becomes relative to the individual and one is caught up into a selfishness that merely feeds the ego. This can result in economic structures that benefit the rich to the detriment of the poor, in sexual irresponsibility, in a devaluation of family, in drug abuse, in pornography, in euthanasia and in a general disrespect for life.

The main thrust of this cursory overview of secularism is to suggest that it needs a better press in church circles. Yes, it has deficits and dangers, but it also has graces and strengths. Somewhat like the church itself, it can be a ‘chaste harlot’ (St Augustine), both saint and sinner. It cannot be dismissed simply as an ogre or as public enemy number one. It is in this secular world that the church has to learn to dialogue. It has to learn to speak the language of the people. It cannot operate out of a medieval or ancient paradigm of authority because no one is listening to such a voice. It can only speak out of solidarity with its people who live and move and think and act in the midst of a secular reality. The church voice and its exercise of authority can only be effective if it leads its people from where they are, concretely, in their everyday reality. It must call them to a divine perspective but it does so from the concrete lives of the people. This demands a commitment to move away from monologue to a genuine dialogue as articulated so wonderfully by John XXIII in his opening speech of the Second Vatican Council.

The civic forum
Within the civic forum, we now live in a democracy, however flawed, and the political authority figures who present themselves in various positions have to be mandated. The fact that they have been fairly elected helps their relationship with the general populace and this dynamic creates an environment of mutual dependency. We need them to be effective in order to govern and exercise authority, they need us to be sure of returning to their position. Undue abuse of their authority will wreak its own whirlwind.

Even within positions of civic responsibility such as tax offices, hospitals, schools etc., increasingly there are codes of conduct whereby those who exercise authority are themselves governed by codes of ethics and there are expectations as to how they are to meet and deal with the public. In Ireland in 2005 we witnessed uproar when it was discovered that some solicitors were overcharging victims who had applied to the Redress Board for compensation. The abuse of their authoritative position forced the Law Society to remedy this ill and to take punitive action where misdemeanours had occurred.

In civilian life we have a plethora of examples where authority is accountable. One only has to look at the advent of ombudsmen and women whose task is to oversee the exercise of authority by various state agencies and departments. In Northern Ireland, the creation of the Police Ombudsman created a whole new dynamic to protect against the abuse of authority. The Fair Employment Agency was another example of attempts to curtail the abuse of privilege afforded to the Protestant community and to create a level playing pitch for Catholics.

Static authority of Church
All of these developments stand in sharp contrast to progress in the church, which has largely remained quite static in its structures and exercise of authority. In the eyes of many critics, both inside and outside of the church, significant authority is wielded by an unelected minority and most of the church is effectively disenfranchised. The officeholders are not accountable to the rank and file membership who have little say in how the church is managed or how its resources are used. This remains the situation forty years after Vatican II which held out the promise of the People of God taking up their rightful duties and responsibilities, not as some privilege accorded to them, but as an inalienable right of their baptism. This distribution of power and effective decision making within the hands of a small cohort of the faithful prevents a real sense of engagement and belonging, and is one significant factor in the laity’s abdication of its responsibility for the welfare of the church and the spread of the gospel. ‘Believing but not belonging’ (Grace Davies) has become normative for many of the baptised. Part of the problem is in the centralisation of authority and the effective ignoring of the voice of the body. Part of the solution will be to rectify this aberration.

Some would argue that, in the secular realm, the province of government is a natural one, over which man has dominion because men and women who are human persons like ourselves govern us. It is therefore in keeping with our dignity that we should participate in some way in ordering secular affairs. They would proceed to argue that with the church the province is the supernatural order, over which we have no dominion. Jesus Christ who shares our nature governs the church, but this sharing does not exhaust his personhood. In simple terms, Christ is a superior being; therefore, it is precisely in keeping with the dignity of our nature that we recognise that superiority and permit him to govern in the church. These advocates would acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that Christ governs through his vicar, the pope, a mere man; that this man guides a hierarchy of purely human agents; and that there are precious few guarantees against the inadequacy of all that is human in the church. But despite these drawbacks, they would hold that the essential identity, purpose and domain of the church would be lost if she were governed in any other way.

Faithful Catholics are all too aware that the church is not and cannot be a democracy, but equally the church is not meant to be a monarchy or an oligarchy and, too often while decrying those who call for more democratic elements, the church ignores the regal trappings it has accrued over the centuries. It must be recognised that the dominant culture esteems freedom from more than freedom for. The church is called to be the best that she can be, both human and divine, and this should not therefore exclude democratic elements that could only enrich the life of the church. The divine life of the church is guaranteed because the Lord has promised to be with us always even to the ends of time and we know that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. However, the human element is always suspect, with the possibility of greatness and baseness present in each of us.

In 1966, shortly after the Second Vatican Council, William D’Antonio, one of the authors of a new book on the rise of the laity in the church, predicted that in the long run laypersons would do what seems rational and practical whenever a church tradition could not be sustained by what they saw as sound reasons (10). These surveys indicated that his prediction was remarkably accurate. There is clearly a gradual move from conformity to autonomy among Catholics.

In 1987 and again in 1993 D’Antonio and others constructed a questionnaire and commissioned the Gallup organisation to sample some 800 American Roman Catholics 18 years old and older. Both samples had error margins of [+ or -] 4 per cent. The responses, of course, do not present us with a clear picture of what would constitute acceptable behaviour for a Catholic today on important social/moral issues. But a majority of Catholics were prepared to allow that those practising contraceptive birth control, attending Mass less than weekly, ignoring the pope’s annual campaign for funds, and divorcing/remarrying may still be good Catholics. Even those most highly committed to the institutional church gave significant support to this new image.

Respondents were asked who should have the moral authority to decide what was right or wrong in five specific areas of social conduct, all having to do with sexual behaviour and marriage. The options were: church leaders, individuals making up their own minds, or individuals and church leaders working together to define and determine what was moral. In both polls respondants rejected the moral authority of the church leaders acting alone. By more than a two to one margin, they declared that individuals alone or acting with church leaders should decide the morality of these behaviours. In none of the five items do more than one in four Catholics say that moral authority should reside with church leaders alone. Given the effort by church leaders during the past five years to make abortion a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy, insisting that the topic was not open for discussion, the laity’s response is disturbing. Equally striking is the laity’s sense of social responsibility, manifested in their desire to share decision-making power with the hierarchy, for that was the dominant shift in responses between 1987 and 1993.

Trend data from two Gallup polls taken in 1987 and again in 1993 show that there has emerged within the American Catholic laity a pattern of attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about Roman Catholicism and being a Roman Catholic that are at variance with the traditional attitudes, beliefs and behaviours sanctioned by the Vatican. These patterns lend strong support to the contention that they constitute a form of pluralism within the church. The legitimacy of the teaching authority of the Vatican, as manifested in particular by the pope, has been called into question on a range of moral issues involving especially marriage and sexual conduct. Beyond that, the laity want more democracy in parish, diocesan and even Vatican affairs (11).

This research shows that Catholics have high levels of support for the basic dogmas (sacraments, the Resurrection and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, for example), but that they are more likely to reach their own conclusions in areas where non-theologians and non-clerics have some expertise (sexual issues, capital punishment and church governance, for example).

The laity have come to understand that all organisations run by human beings are subject to revision over time and that participatory forms of governance are useful for safeguarding against abusive relationships, especially in hierarchical systems which can sometimes be unmindful of human rights.

The call for active participation by the church in public affairs is not new. Early in the last century, Cardinal Jozef Cardijn of Belgium used the slogan ‘Observe, Judge and Act’ in founding Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students. From these initially European groups, the idea spread into the labour movement and Christian Family Movement in the United States. Prior to that, Pope Leo XIII had called for Catholic action in public affairs.

Since the sad disclosures about sex abuse in the church in Boston and elsewhere, participating in church governance by the laity has increased, particularly in the American church. For example, Voice of the Faithful, a lay organisation which seeks, among other things, to shape structural changes within the church, has grown rapidly since its founding in Boston in the spring of 2002. A commensurate engagement by laity in the Irish church has not yet occurred.

Hierarchy as charism
Catholics hold that the hierarchy is a singular charism given to the church, especially to the bishop who has been entrusted with ‘the sure charism of truth’. However, as with all charisms, this too can fade and die unless it is nurtured and revitalised. Even a cursory look at the tradition and evolution of authority within our church clearly reveals that it has evolved. Not all structures are written in stone. To query the why of something is not to be disrepectful. Children pose the question interminably as most parents know. To also ask ‘Why not?’ is equally valid and it is out of such engagements that truth finds its voice. To avoid the debate or to take refuge in stock answers that do not speak authentically to the reality of people’s lived experience is unworthy of all leaders who seek to emulate the one who came ‘to serve not to be served’.

Gregorian reforms of the 11th century
Church structure has moved a long way from the church of Gregory the Great who in many ways was the architect of the current hierarchical structure. It was because of the eleventh-century reforms of Gregory VII that the church increasingly took on a specific figure, the ‘Gregorian form’ which institutionalised ‘hierarchy’ as a principle. No longer were order and structure only necessary for the church, they became ‘constitutive’ of the church. As Gaillardetz put it, ‘What Gregory set in motion was a gradual but inexorable shift from a church whose foundation lay in theology and sacramental practice to a church whose foundation lay in canon law'(12). A European theologian, Ghislan Lafont shows how this mentality can be seen in the Catholic Church’s repeated refrain regarding the ‘hierarchical constitution of the church’ in its documents from the last hundred years – not wrong, as far as it goes, but not central or primary either (13). Thus, when the Neoplatonic, Pseudo-Dionysian thought permeated ecclesiology under Pope Gregory VII and his successors, hierarchy became synonymous with the clergy.

According to Pseudo-Dionysius, truth and value are communicated in a downward movement from above: higher beings communicate reality to lower beings and thereby act as mediators of truth and value which would not come to lower beings without this mediation from above. When the clergy are thought of in this way, they become the depositories of truth and grace. And even here, in the clerical order, the distinction between higher and lower obtains: the pope communicates to those below him, the bishops, who communicate truth to priests. Finally, priests communicate to the religious, who communicate truth to the laity. On these assumptions, the pope is higher than the bishops, bishops are higher than priests, priests are higher than vowed religious, religious are higher than married persons. Truth and holiness always come from mediators who are above in the chain of hierarchies. Nothing, by the way, can go in the inverse direction, so that the clergy cannot learn anything from the religious or the laity. Such an exaggerated emphasis on the dichotomies within Pseudo-Dionysius’ understanding of hierarchy created imbalances, discontinuities, and ruptures in the church’s understanding of authority, ministry, and the basic dignity of every baptised person. By the same token, such an understanding of hierarchy meant that the ‘church’ was superior to the ‘World,’ the pope to the secular prince.

Application to revelation
Lafont proceeds to examine how this theory of hierarchy is worked out when applied to the areas of revealed truth. Revelation is no longer a matter of the whole church, the community of believers, but the province of its clerical leaders. The faithful, lay and vowed religious, learn revealed truth from their priests, whose understanding is regulated by the bishops’ higher perception of truth. In turn, bishops must obey the teachings of the pope, himself the recipient of divine truth from Christ, whose Vicar he is. Arriving at religious truth is not a matter of adverting to one’s experience, sharing and clarifying it, not a matter of personal study or prayerful consideration, not an affair of testing and validating, but of listening to and obeying the church’s authoritative teachers, who cannot be mistaken because they are protected from error by Christ’s Spirit of truth. The principle of mediation is clear and determined: the Christian always looks to the person or office that is immediately higher. The whole structure of the ‘hierarchical church’ rests on this principle.

Whereas ‘hierarchy’ emerged from Neoplatonic thought as represented in Pseudo-Dionysius in particular, ‘modernity’ emerged from European Enlightenment efforts which were bound up with the primacy of the individual subject, the superiority of reason over physical matter, the autonomy of freedom over society’s traditions and heteronomy, and the dichotomy between object and subject making valid knowledge possible. The church rejected ‘modernity’ and Western intelligentsia rejected ‘hierarchy.’ The church in particular came to understand itself as fully independent of society, not interactive and a part of the world but ‘other than the world’ and superior to it. It had its own ‘body,’ the ecclesial one, and no longer constituted the larger, cosmic body of Christ. Like the state, it, too, was a ‘perfect society.’ The ramifications of such a separation have proven harmful not only to the church but to the world as well.

Higher calling
My late mother used to speak of the role of the clergy and religious life in terms of people who had received a ‘higher calling’. She was a product of her time and it was the dominant culture of that era which accorded such an accolade to religious personnel. It was and is a flawed theology, one which did a great disservice not only to the ultimate dignity of all the baptised but thwarted the emergence of an authentic lay voice and elevated the cleric and religious to an impossible pedestal of perfection.

The church, however, has attempted to change because it knows that it is a living reality moving within the context of history towards its final goal which is the kingdom of the Father. In the Second Vatican Council it reaffirmed the true dignity of baptism which makes us all equally the sons and daughters of the Father. Moreover, it also articulated its desire ‘to not only address the sons of the church, and all who call upon the name of Christ, but the whole of humanity as well, and it longs to set forth the way it understands the presence and the function of the church in the world today'(14). To take up that challenge it needs to look again at how authority is exercised.




  1. Letter to Diognetus cited in an article by Michael Brundell OCarm in Spirituality (March-April 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans. ‘The difference between Christians and other people is not a question of nationality, language or custom. Christians do not live apart … and while they live happily in their own countries, their behaviour is more like that of resident aliens … For them, any foreign country is home and any home can be a foreign country … they live their lives here below but their citizenship is in the heavens. They obey the laws which are laid down, but in private life transcend such laws. They show love to everyone and yet everyone will persecute them …’
  2. It comes from Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, ‘The Ethics of Elfland.’ It actually reads: ‘Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.’ Chesterton goes on to say: ‘Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.’
  3. Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, trs Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York: Vintage, 1968),148-153.
  4. Ibid.
  5. James V. Schall, Does Catholicism Still Exist? (New York: Alba House, 1994), 137.
  6. Trento Giorni 3 (1985) p 10.
  7. Ronald Rolheiser, Secularity and the Gospel (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006) 39.
  8. Ibid., 41.
  9. Ibid., 42.
  10. William V. D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge and Katherine Meyer, American Catholics: Gender, Generation, and Commitment, (AltaMira Press, 2001).
  11. see, D’Anlonio, W. V., 1992, ‘Autonomy and Community: Indicators of Change Among the American Catholic Laity’, pp 1-23 in Proceedings of the Fifty-fourth Annual Convention, Canon Law Society of America, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
  12. See Richard Gaillardetz, The Church in the Making (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006) 41.
  13. Ghislain Lafont, Imaginer l’Église Catholique (Paris, Editions du Cerf,1995).
  14. Gaudium et Spes, par 2.

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