11. Authority, Power, Service

           The Church, therefore, is not just a spiritual society; it is also juridical, with its institutions and its laws. Where there is law, there must be authority. We would expect that, in God's Church, authority should show distinctive features. If this is so, what are these distinctive features? In what spirit should church authority be exercised by those holding it? How should it be regarded and accepted by those under it? Does its possession imply privilege and domination over others? Is it, in particular, akin to political power as found in purely human societies? Or is it fundamentally different?

            Imprecise or incorrect answers to these questions are bound to lead to confusion. This happens particularly when church power is viewed in terms of political domination. Such a view reflects deep misunderstandings not only about church authority itself; but also about the relationship between clergy and laity, about their respective roles, and even about the whole mission of the Church in the world.

            As we set about trying to answer these questions, it is good to recall once more that the age we live in is very suspicious of any kind of authority. Authority to many people simply implies power. And power - they feel - has consistently appeared through history as a means of domination and exploitation. Indeed it could be tempting, after a quick glance at the centuries, to sum up human affairs in just one terse expression: a power-struggle. Men struggling for power, or struggling against power; few ready to relinquish power; few using power except for personal advantage.

The power-pyramid

            "Authority means power". In the Church too this concept of authority has been, and still is, widespread. If we start from the principle that all authority comes from God (cf. Rom 13:1; Jn 19:11), it is easy to form a mental picture of how authority and power descend from God through the different ranks of the hierarchy and finally reach the people. This could be depicted graphically in the form of a "structure-pyramid" or a "power-pyramid":


            God is at the top of the pyramid. Under him, we are presented with the visible authorities (the "power-structures") of the Church: the hierarchy, the clergy; and under them - in the lowest place, as the ultimate subjects - the Christian laity.

            Since most people will probably accept this as reflecting their mental picture of how the Church is organized, we will leave for later the question of whether or not it is an adequate graphic representation of the matter. For the moment let us just develop a few thoughts suggested by this power pyramid.

            Everyone agrees that the advancement of the laity was a main aim of Vatican II. For those who conceive the Church in terms of the pyramid just drawn, advancement of the laity can appear as a straightforward matter, a goal whose pursuit takes an obvious direction. It simply means raising the laity "upwards" into the structural level of the hierarchy, promoting them into the ranks or at least into the functions of the clergy.

            For moderate thinkers along these lines, a major step in this promotion of the laity was the post-conciliar establishment of "lay ministries", which may be conferred not only on candidates for the priesthood, but also on persons who intend to remain in the lay state. A further broadening of the concept of this sort of lay ministry is being urged.

            The role of the laity, in this view, has been greatly enhanced by the fact that it is now commonplace not only to have lay readers at Mass and lay people acting as distributors of Holy Communion, but to find lay persons active on parish or diocesan pastoral councils or finance committees; according to the new Code of Canon Law, lay people can even be chancellors of diocesan curias[1].

            It is of course quite clear that Vatican II warranted this sharing by the laity in certain roles or functions formerly reserved to the clergy. It is not at all clear, however, that the Council regarded this as sharing in "power"; or that this, in the thinking of Vatican II, was meant to be but the first step in a power-sharing process that the Council wished to initiate and encourage.

            Nevertheless, "power-sharing" has become a sort of slogan in certain ecclesiastical quarters to describe what is considered to be an essential condition for renewal. And Vatican II is still claimed as a warrant for how the power-sharing mentality has developed its own particular logic. Developments in this sense have been rapid. Some of them have been extreme.

Politicizing power

            Some more recent writers - still obviously thinking in terms of the pyramid we have drawn - have taken the idea of power-sharing farther, very much farther; they have in fact radically politicized it.

            That the laity should share in certain liturgical functions formerly reserved to the clergy retains scarcely any interest for them. That the laity can have a certain part or say in how parishes or dioceses are run seems peanuts to what is really involved.

            A mere share in power is no longer seen to be the laity's right. Power itself is the goal! Power in the Church is the issue; and here - according to this way of thinking - the laity and the hierarchy are related as exploited to exploiters. The laity must therefore be awakened so as to confront the hierarchy (the most extreme presentation would say: to overthrow the hierarchy) and to wrest power from them.

            This is the way of thinking that characterizes certain liberation theologies, which could also be called "theologies of power" or "theologies of exploitation". They maintain that power in the Church has for far too long been the exclusive domain of the clergy. The hierarchy, according to them, long ago appropriated power to themselves, i.e. took it unjustifiably from the faithful. They continue to expropriate it from the laity, who are thus exploited and deprived of their rightful share in power and decision-making in the Church. In this view, advancement of the laity means promotion into the power-echelons within the Church, so that the laity can at last recover the power which was wrongfully taken from them. The laity will then be no longer under the domination of the hierarchy. Then the Church will truly be the People's Church.

            It is not to my purpose to point out the deficient soteriology of this type of liberation theology; i.e. its failure to understand that the fundamental evil for men is personal sin, and that the radical liberation wrought by Jesus Christ and mediated through the Church is liberation from sin[2]. Where I would fault it - in the points just mentioned - is for its ecclesiology, for its concept of the Church: concretely for its concept of "power" in the Church; and, just as concretely, for its concept of the roles of both hierarchy and laity, within the Church and in relation to the world. Leaving the question of ecclesial roles for the next chapter, let us try to elucidate the distinctive nature of power and authority in the Catholic Church.

Moral - not political and sacred

            Of course there is authority in the Church, as there must be in every society. But that authority is very far removed from any type of political power. It will help to explain this if we distinguish between the two terms in question - "authority" and "power" - for while they may at times be used indifferently, a look at their etymology or root meaning will show that they suggest distinct things.

            Authority comes from the Latin "auctor", i.e. author or source of something. It implies above all a creative and guiding function: that of directing the proper development of the affairs of a society. The holder of authority, if he duly fulfills his office, has a right to a response in those he is guiding. Authority speaks in moral terms; it calls for free acceptance. It should be accepted. As we shall see later, it is essential for the well-being of a community that the authority guiding it be exercised effectively. But the effectiveness of its exercises depends on the free and voluntary response of those making up the community.

            Power comes from the Latin "posse", to be able. It implies the simple ability to do things. In the case of power over persons, it easily suggests being in a position to exercise physical coercion that cannot be resisted. Power, as such, does not speak in moral terms but in physical terms. It is something that makes itself accepted. It does not call for a free response; it compels its own acceptance.

            Now we have just said that in the Church, as in every society, there is authority. It is moral authority to guide us. It is not political power to dominate us, or physical power to coerce us. And, clearly, those who choose freely to belong to this society of the Church are morally bound to obey church authority.

            All authority comes from above. This is uniquely so in the Church since church authority comes directly from Christ himself (Mt 28:18-19).

            Christ made his Church hierarchical (cf. LG 18-29). He conferred his authority on the first hierarchy, the Apostles, and through them on their successors, the Popes and the Bishops (and, in a participatory though more limited way, on other clerics).

            Hierarchical authority in the Church shows certain features that distinguish it radically from secular authority. The very etymology of the word 'hierarchy" reveals one main distinctive character. The word is made up of a combination of the Greek roots: "ieros" (sacred) and "arkhein" (rule). So hierarchy means sacred rule. Sacredness is the first distinguishing feature of church authority or rule. Because it is sacred it should be given the special respect due to sacred things, without forgetting that its holy or sacred character depends ultimately not on the wisdom or goodness or merits of the men who exercise it, but on the fact that it derives from Christ and is an expression of his saving will for his people.

            But the mission that the rulers of the Church have received from our Lord shows another very peculiar feature that Lumen gentium brings out in the following phrase from its third chapter (precisely entitled "The Church is Hierarchical"): "That office which the Lord committed to the pastors of his people is, in the strict sense of the term, a service, which is called very expressively in sacred scriptures a 'diakonia' or ministry" (LG 24).

The service-pyramid

            So, authority in the Church does not imply privilege, much less domination. It implies mission; it implies service. It is the authority of Christ who came not to be served but to serve (Mt 20:28). He came to serve - to save - all men, to teach them and lead them to salvation. He continues to serve and save and lead the world through his Church: through all those in the Church, lay persons as well as clergy, each in his or her own proper way carrying on the saving work of the servant Christ.

            Maybe we can make this clearer if we draw another pyramid, built on the premise: Christ is the servant of all; he serves the Church, ministers and laity, and through them he serves the world, in a serving mission of salvation. On this basis we build not a "power-pyramid" but a service-pyramid:

            Christ, in order to save the world, became a servant (Phil 2:7). He serves (saves) all men; but he does so in and through his Church. By his guiding and sanctifying presence in the Church he ministers to all his faithful. Through his ministerial priesthood he especially ministers to lay Christians so that they, fulfilling their proper role, carry the sanctifying work of the Church to the world.

            Through the clergy, then, Christ works to serve and vivify the laity. Through clergy and laity together he works to serve and save the world, and raise it to God.

            Church authority, therefore, is clearly to be seen as service. Jesus taught the lesson explicitly to his Apostles: "You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mt 20:25-28).

            The "higher one is in the church's hierarchy, the more one is obliged to serve. A deep sense of this truth lies behind the traditional title attached to the papal office: "servus servorum Dei"; servant of the servants of God.

            The hierarchy serves the people in fulfilling the three-fold office of Christ which he entrusted in fullness to the Apostles and their successors: his priestly, prophetic and kingly office, the ministry of sanctifying, teaching and ruling (cf LG 1 9ff).

            It is not difficult to see a work of service in the hierarchical ministry of sanctifying; specifically through the priest's role in worship and the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist and Penance.

            That the ministry of teaching is similarly a work of service should also be easy to see; although, we might add, this depends on one's readiness or desire to be taught (to be taught by Christ!). Those who don't want to be taught won't see it.

            Where there can be most difficulty in seeing the work of the Hierarchy as service is undoubtedly in relation to the office or ministry of ruling. Obviously the same comment applies here: those who do want to be ruled, to be led (again: by Christ!), will see this readily enough; those who do not want to be led, will not. Here in any case there are some finer points that merit further Reflection.

            Understanding hierarchical authority as service undoubtedly makes authority more appealing. But, we must add, it does not make it less authoritative. We must add this right away, lest our graphic representation be misinterpreted. In our service-pyramid we have placed the whole hierarchy, from Pope down, among the ministers. They appear as "under" the laity; and so, in a true sense, they are, for as ministers they are servants. Nevertheless, though under the laity, they rule the laity.

            Our pyramid is not intended to suggest that the laity have authority over the clergy. The point is simply that the real ecclesial authority which the clergy have over the laity constitutes a mission of service. This should not seem too strange. One can indeed be in a serving position, and so "under" someone, and yet to be there in that position with the mission - the responsibility and the authority - to rule and to lead.

            So, at the Last Supper, Jesus, despite Peter's protests, takes the servant's role and washes his Apostles' feet. But in explaining the lesson to them, he emphasizes that it is precisely as Master that he serves them; "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other's feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you" (Jn 13:13-14).

            The imitation of Christ is always filled with challenge and difficulty. Given our human pride there is perhaps no more difficult point, for those endowed with the sacred authority of Christ, than to rule as their Master and to serve as their Master.

            "Serving through ruling" may at first sight seem a paradox. It is certainly no easy thing to accomplish in practice. Yet the theoretical difficulties about whether one can truly serve by ruling are more apparent than real. A little thought dispels them.

            A desert-guide or a mountain-guide is a servant. He is paid to serve. But his service consists in leading; that is precisely what he is supposed to do. That is what those following him expect.

            If he refused to lead ("Now you people do What you like; go where you like"), he would be abandoning his service mission and failing those who are entitled to look to his lead.

            The guide's authority is moral. But the people "under" him (his masters!) expect him to exercise that moral authority so as to rule them: to rule their straying tendencies, their laziness about climbing over necessary ridges, their squabbles if not about who should go first (who but the guide!), then about who should go next, their carelessness about unknown dangers, their lack of knowledge of avalanches or precipices or swamps or quicksands, their attraction towards showy but poisonous insects or plants....

            They expect their guide to lead and to rule. They expect him to command, they expect him to reprimand, to shout even, if the situation calls for it. That is why he is their servant; a "ruling" servant.

            So, the hierarchy truly serve the laity by ruling them: in the spirit of Christ and within the terms and limits of the ruling mission Christ has entrusted to them.

            Authority, in our pyramid, flows upwards from Christ. It is an elevating authority. It marks out a direction of ascent. But it must be obeyed.


            Service is one key to the understanding of Christian authority, just as it is a key to harmonizing Christian authority and Christian obedience. One serves by exercising authority; Christ served by exercising it. And one serves by obeying; Christ served by obeying. All in the Church have to obey the authority of Christ (the Pope more than anyone). And all have to exercise that authority, though each in his own proper way, by bringing that same saving authority to the world; and all do so by obeying, by freely obeying.

            These reflections may complement what we tried to show earlier: that there is no necessary conflict, there is rather harmony, between law, authority, freedom, personal responsibility, personal dignity, private conscience.

            Service is one key to this harmony. Community is another. It is only in the context of a true sense of community that suspicions of power fade, that respect for authority grows. It is only in the context of a true community that the proper roles of authority, on the one hand, and of personal freedom and conscience, on the other, are easily understood and are seen to be in natural harmony, not in enmity or opposition.

            A community is a group of persons united for common and shared ends. It is a voluntary association. It is based on a coincidence of wills.

            A community of people realize that the cannot achieve their common goals except under the guidance and coordination of some authority. Authority itself is regarded as a task of service. People look to authority. If it is lacking they set it up. The tendency to accept authority within the community is not the product of a servile or a collectivized mentality. It is precisely the natural tendency of each individual reflective conscience. Each one, because he wants to belong to that particular community with its concrete goals, freely and personally looks to the common authority. His tendency is to accept it. He would only resist authority if he felt it was no longer serving the common good. To resist it simply because it seems to be contrary to his personal interests would show a loss of sense of community; an individualistic and selfish approach that would estrange him from the community, putting what he regards as his own personal good above the common good.

            Individualism and a true sense of community are in mutual opposition. Community or communion means union with one another; and union with a common or central principle of authority. Individualism - each determined to do his own thing and to give priority to his own way - undermines community[3].

            Ordinary life provides countless examples of this tendency of community to seek authority: from social or sports clubs to trades- unions, to professional associations; down to the spontaneous on the spot organization that emerges once a group of boys comes together for a football game.

            The first thing they do is choose captains, and divide into teams. Along with the captains, a referee is chosen, and perhaps linesmen. Both captains and referees are chosen because the boys realize that without someone "in charge" - some authority - there will not be any proper game. They accept that the game has rules, i.e. laws, that it has to be played according to the rules; and that someone - the referee - has to be judge of when the rules apply. If a new boy turns up who wants to play (to take part in that community action), he has to be taught the rules; and he is keen to learn them. And if some player simply will not abide by the rules or if he defies the referee's authority, he is sent off the field. It is by his own action that he separates himself- he "excommunicates" himself - from the community. Games - and life; life in society and life in the Church - are like that.

            In a true community - where people are one in common goals and ideals - authority is not feared by those under it. It is looked up to. Personal conscience feels no natural suspicion of authority and no instinct to rebel against it, but rather welcomes it and backs it.

            In the Christian community - the community Christ set up - the harmony between concepts is clearer still. Authority, which comes from Christ, means service: service and guidance of the common good; and service and guidance also of individual conscience.

            Authority seeks the free response of personal conscience (Christ inviting each person to follow him); and individual conscience looks for guidance in trustworthy authority (each person wanting to be led by Christ).

            Authority in the Christian community derives from Christ. That is what makes it so trustworthy. And so attractive! I want to be led by Christ!

            We have said above that if authority is lacking in a human community, its need is felt and it is set up; normally by the people. Some say this is how it should be in the Church: authority coming from the people. But they miss the point. Authority is not lacking in the Church. It does not have to come from the people. It is already there, coming from Someone whom the people themselves trust much more than they trust themselves. Nevertheless, the idea that "authority comes from underneath" has of course a true application in reference to the Church; not in a democratic sense that authority is conferred by the people, but in the sense suggested by our "service-pyramid": that it comes from Christ, who is under" us all, supporting us all, raising us all, ruling us all, serving us all.

            The Church is a community of free and voluntary persons. It is not a concentration camp or a police state. It has no closed frontiers, although it has moral limits. One is not forced to belong to the community that Jesus Christ set up; but neither can one belong to it on one's own terms, one has to belong on Christ's terms. Just as no one can play soccer according to his own personal rules; he must keep to the set rules of the game. If someone insists on handling the ball, he will be sent off the field. He remains free to go and play rugby, or invent roller-ball. But he can't play soccer.

            In the Church there are no geographical borders, no passports, no visas. You move freely - but always within a spiritual domain. It is your attitude - your way of thinking - not your physical movement, that can take you out of the Church boundaries.

Resistance to authority

            If authority means guiding and serving in the spirit of Christ, why is it we still find today such resistance to authority in the Church?

            Mainly, I believe, because we have not properly understood and assimilated the thinking of Vatican II about authority, about the ruling-serving mission that pertains to all Christians, and the challenge that this way of thinking puts to each of us.

            For pastors, the challenge presents a double aspect:

            a) to understand that authority is to be exercised in a spirit of service - serving the truth, serving justice, serving others - and that therefore they must avoid serving just themselves, their pride, their comfort, their preferences, their self-assertiveness.

            b) to understand that, in exercising authority, they are serving; in other words, that their mission of service requires precisely that they exercise authority (and therefore they must not be afraid to exercise it) for the sake of truth, of justice, of the common good.

            Some pastors today would seem not to understand or to accept the first aspect of the challenge. They see privilege in their authority; and authority seen as privilege can easily become power used as domination. These pastors do not truly reflect Christ's way of exercising authority. They remain overbearing, dictatorial, personalistic, imposing their views on those under their care without respecting people's rights and without any real concern for the common good. This, it may be added, can happen also among those who consider themselves progressive, especially when the basis on which they are determined to progress is their own ideas.

            Other pastors (and perhaps there are more of these) seem not to understand the second point: that they are required and expected (by their people as well) to lead; that their service consists in leading; and that if they do not lead, they are not serving. Leading and teaching - serving - in the spirit of Christ, also means guiding authoritatively, just as Christ did (Mt 7:29), with pastoral compassion but without diminishing the demands that the following of Christ so often makes.

            It is worth recalling the words of Jesus about the shepherds who do not care enough for the flock to lead and defend them (In 10: 12ff) whom he declares not to be true pastors but hirelings or mercenaries; i.e. false shepherds whose concern for their flock is subordinated to more self-centered interests (not necessarily just a concern for money; it could equally be a concern for a quiet life, for popularity, a good press or a favorable public image).

            Vatican II likewise poses an immense challenge to the Christian laity: not only to obey authority - to follow the lawful lead of their pastors - but also to exercise authority. Pastors and laity have to serve, to obey, to rule; each in his own way. On this, moreover, depends the evangelization of the world. But before we go into that, the idea of serving, obeying and ruling, each in his or her proper sphere and way, calls for deeper comment.


[1] c. 482; cf also cc. 228, 230, 231, 492, 537, 910.

[2] Cf. Instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on Liberation Theology, of 6 August 1984 and of 22 March 1986.

[3] This of course has its application within the contemporary Church. Can those modern theologians who not only lack union with the Magisterium, but are not even at one among themselves, inspire a new sense of community among Christians? Or do they not rather run the danger of forming a series of splinter groups disconnected from the mainstream of Catholic thinking?.