Faced with the inevitableness of relativity without an agreed infallible authority, what are the traits of an infallible authority that we would look for? Notice how I am developing this argument: I am not talking at this point about the authority of the Pope or even the authority of the Catholic Church. Instead, I am trying to determine first the need for an infallible authority, and now the qualities such an authority might have.
These qualities can be seen as set of paired and balanced traits. First, such an authority would need to be historical. What I mean by this, is that it is rooted in history. It wasn’t invented yesterday or even a hundred years ago or five hundred years ago. Not only is it rooted in history, but it is deeply part of history. It is interwoven with historical events and therefore locked into the human experience. It is anchored in the past, and uses this historical grounding to exercise it’s authority in the present.
Balancing the fact that this authority is historical is the need for this authority to be relevant and up to date. It cannot be so rooted and grounded in history that it is unchangeable. While it is anchored in the past it has to have the facility to weigh present concerns and speak to the needs of every generation.
Another pair links with the first one. This authority needs to be both universal and local. If it is universal, it will transcend any one particular pressure group, philosophy or political agenda. If it is universal philosophically, it must also be universal geographically. In other words, it cannot be determined by the viewpoint, history and demands of one particular culture or ethnic group, tribe or national identity.
However, if it is universal, it also needs to be local. In other words, you have to be able to identify and connect with this universal authority. It needs to transcend culture, and yet be available on your local street corner. This authority needs a universal voice, but it also needs a local face. It needs to transcend all communities and ethnic groups, and yet be at the heart of all communities and nations and ethnic groups.
There are four more pairs of qualities which I will discuss in future posts, but I was asked to mention the Eastern Orthodox in my analysis. If these first two pairs of traits are, indeed, what we would look for in an infallible authority we can see that some religions have some of the traits, but not all. So the Protestant groups are very relevant and adaptable to the world they live in, but they lack the historical gravitas necessary to anchor their authority. Likewise, they are very good in the local situation, but they do not have the universal dimension which would give their authority credibility.
The Eastern Orthodox have the opposite problem. They have historical gravitas, but they are (generally speaking) ossified in their views. They find it very difficult to adapt to new cultures, and have no authority system that helps them declare a position on thorny modern moral questions that arise. Because of their ethnicity they are very good on the local, ethnic relevance, but they lack the over-arching ‘big view’ that can transcend their national and ethnic identities and agendas.
To put it in very general terms, the Protestants speak well to ‘the needs of today’ but do so without any real historical reference points. The Eastern Orthodox are wonderfully rooted in the timeless traditions of the faith, but find it difficult to adapt to the needs of the modern world. Protestants and EO speak well to their local communities and ethnic groups, but lack the capacity to universalize their authority and transcend their particular viewpoints, assumptions and needs.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is the only religious grouping which can claim to be both historical and relevant, universal and local. She is historical because her claims (rooted in historical facts) extend through the apostles to Christ and through him back through the history of the Hebrew people. At the same time, the Catholic Church proclaims authoritatively on stem cell research, climate change, the economic crisis, the moral malaise etc.
The Catholic Church exercises a universal authority because her viewpoint considers the needs of a billion Catholics worldwide from every tribe and nation. At the same time, that universal perspective transcends philosophical viewpoints as well. He voice is not conditioned by one particular philosophy or set of assumptions. While exercising this universal voice of authority, she also speaks locally. The voice of the Church is heard in your local diocese and parish.
Stay tuned for the next installment…