The Authority of the Church in the World:  A Catholic Perspective

Dr. Elaine Catherine MacMillan, Ph.D.
University of San Diego

Questions regarding the relationship of the Church to the world, and the authority of the Church in the world, are as old as the Church itself. Biblical and extra-biblical writers grappled with these questions 2000 years ago and these longstanding questions continue to confront the Church and the world today. Questions regarding the authority of the Church in the world are abiding – at times the world longs to hear the voice of the Church – at others it doesn’t. The papacy, official teachings from the magisterium and the lives of holy women and men have all exercised, at one time or another, an authority that the world has received or rejected.  History shows that there is never any guarantee that the sources of authority that the Church receives as such will be the sources that the world receives. Still, throughout the millennia, the Church has been acutely aware of its relationship to the world and has sought ways to exercise, as part of its mission in and to the world, an authority in the world. This paper will explore some of the ways in which various forms of Church authority have been exercised in, and received by, the world during the past two thousand years.

Authority of the Church in the World: First Centuries

According to John’s gospel, (c. A.D. 90) Jesus recognizes that his followers “do not belong to the world any more than [he, Jesus, belongs] to the world.”(Jn 17:16) Yet Jesus must send his followers into the world just as he was sent into the world.[1](Jn 17:18) Extra-biblical sources such as the Epistle to Diognetus, (c. A.D. 100-200) illustrate that the early Christians struggled with the paradox of being in the world but not of the world and even non-Christians recognized the paradox facing Christians. The Epistle to Diognetus explains it in the following way:

.  .  .  They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are ‘in the flesh,’ but do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.[2]

Though often persecuted, their counter-cultural witness, their missionary zeal and the blood of the martyrs like the slave Blandina in Gaul, the laywoman Perpetua, her slave Felicitas, and their companions in Carthage and Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, to mention just a few, enabled the Church to provide an unparalleled spiritual authority in the world, one that perdures. The lives of these holy women and men and other saints and martyrs are remembered and celebrated, even today, by the Catholic Church, on their respective feast days throughout the liturgical year.[3]

Authority of the Church in the World: Post-Constantine

As Christianity accommodated to the world of the Roman Empire it gradually changed the religious face of Western Europe. The paradox of being in the world but not of the world was no longer a defining characteristic for Christians because the world was increasingly Christian, at least nominally. Sources of authority within the Church, like the Papacy, the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds, Councils and the Magisterium developed but so did alternative sources of authority including different ways to live out the Christian vocation. Monasticism stands out as one such example.

The spiritual authority of the desert mothers and fathers provided a model of Christian living but it was the rule of St. Pachomius c. A.D. 290-346,[4]  which influenced the development of the coenebitic lifestyle in the Churches of the East and the West. By the fifth century in the West the coenebitic lifestyle had evolved into an effective gospel witness thanks to St. Benedict of Nursia and the rule of life he developed. Benedict’s Rule offered women and men in the West an opportunity to live communal lives of  prayer and work (ora et labora). Their communal witness and lifestyle provided yet another type of spiritual authority for the Church in the world.

The first monk to become a pope, Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604), combined personal holiness with administrative aptitude and enhanced the spiritual and temporal authority of the papacy. His exceptional abilities in both realms garnered him recognition as “the father of the medieval Papacy.”[5] It also placed him in the company of the three great Latin Doctors of the Church who preceded him: Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome.[6] Yet Gregory, by eschewing titles such as Oecumenical Patriarch, and describing himself as “servus servorum Dei,” actually increased his authority in the Church and in the World. Subsequent Popes would not always exhibit this holiness or humility, nor would they exercise, in such a balanced way, the spiritual authority and temporal authority for which Gregory the Great is remembered in the Catholic Church and in the world.[7]

The Authority of the Church in the World: The Second Millennium

As the papacy grew in Western Europe during the second Christian millennium to become what R.W. Southern describes as “the dominant institution in western Europe”[8] the ways in which popes arrogated temporal authority to their spiritual authority had far-reaching, and some might say, disastrous results. For much of this period, few, if any, popes after Gregory the Great exhibited the same balance between the spiritual and temporal authority that he had modeled. Though the zenith of the papacy in terms of spiritual and temporal authority is often considered the pontificate of Innocent III, tensions had been developing between the Sacerdotum and the Imperium for years and reached a climax with the pontificate of Pope Boniface VIII.  Whereas Innocent III (1198-1216) was able to excommunicate King John of England in 1209, thereby exerting his spiritual authority over the temporal realm, Boniface VIII was woefully unsuccessful when he attempted something similar with his famous bull Unam Sanctam. Here he declared “for every human creature to be submissive to the Roman Pontiff is absolutely necessary for salvation.”[9]  Phillip the Fair, the King of France, took umbrage at this and other positions of Boniface and responded by simply arresting and imprisoning Boniface VIII. One month after being imprisoned, Boniface died. After the death of Boniface, it became clear that the papacy would have difficulty exercising the kind of authority in both the Church and the World that Innocent III once had.

As the popes struggled with the relation between their authority in the temporal and spiritual realms, the mendicant orders such as the Franciscans founded in 1209 and the Dominicans founded in 1216, like monasticism in the fifth century, provided an alternative way to live out the Christian vocation, one that gained great popularity, spread rapidly and often met the pressing spiritual needs of the people in a world yearning for spiritual guidance. Lay movements such as the Beguines and Beghards (c. A.D. 1100), founded in the Netherlands were yet another way of living out the Christian vocation. These women and men lived communal lives of service and prayer but were not vowed religious. They were, nonetheless, able to offer the world a spiritual authority, exemplified by their counter-cultural lifestyle and their life of prayer and service. They anticipated by about 300 years the apostolic and missionary communities of women and men which would later develop and the social service agencies which are so familiar to us today.

The rise of nation-states further heightened the rivalries between temporal leaders and successive popes and the scandals caused by the Great Western Schism only served to reduce the papacy’s spiritual and temporal authority in the world and to create a spiritual vacuum in both. This vacuum was filled by the exemplary lives of service and contemplation of holy women and men. Sometimes their authority was more than spiritual and was also exercised within the temporal realm. The lives of  Sts. Catherine of Siena (c. 1347-1380) and Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) are cases in point.  Remembered for their extraordinary personal sanctity,[10] these two women were also instrumental in the return of the papacy to Rome after its thirty-seven year “Babylonian Captivity” in Avignon. These exceptional women were able to exercise authority in both the Church and world.

Married laywomen like Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) who continued to live a life of contemplation while ministering to plague victims unwittingly became a spiritual authority in a world that hungered for one.[11] As lay people like Catherine of Genoa, embraced the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,[12] their lives provided a model for other lay women and men who never joined religious communities but sought to live their vocations in the world as the early Christians did. They anticipate by many hundreds of years lay movements like Action Catholique / Catholic Action that would flourish in the early twentieth century.

The Authority of the Church in the World: Separation

Cries for Church reform echoed throughout the Church beginning in the mid-1300s. These were not answered for about 200 years until the Council of Trent. By then the Church felt, rightly, that it was under siege from the Reformation and later the Enlightenment. The siege mentality only worsened in the subsequent centuries. Increasingly, the response of the European Church after Trent to the world outside of Europe that marked the period up to Vatican II is described by Karl Rahner in the following quote:

The actual concrete activity of the Church in its relation to the world outside of Europe was in fact (if you will pardon the expression) the activity of an export firm which exported a European religion as a commodity it did not really want to change but sent throughout the world together with the rest of the culture and civilization it considered superior. [13]

Within Europe, the Church of Rome felt increasingly under siege especially from the intellectual movements of its age and it gradually began to separate itself from the new world that was emerging. The loss of the papal states in the nineteenth century, though the final blow in terms of the pope’s temporal powers, was in fact a blessing for the spiritual authority of the Church. For the first time since the fourth century, the papacy would not be involved in the kinds of temporal affairs that had compromised its spiritual authority for so many centuries.

In the aftermath of the chaos wrought by the French Revolution, the Church provided for Catholics a safe haven from the rapidly changing world. The Catholic Church in Europe, in many ways, created a parallel society for its members, separating itself from much of what was happening in the post-revolutionary world. The term “societas perfecta” continued to gain currency in the restoration period as a description of the Church as distinguished from the world. According to Congar, the phrase “never meant that the Church was without fault.”[14] Nonetheless, as it was actualized in the everyday lives of Roman Catholics during that time period, it did mean that Catholics separated themselves from the emerging world and created a “parallel world” for themselves in Europe and in North America. Even so, many women’s and men’s communities, like the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers were founded at this time to live out the Gospel values. They embraced the works of mercy, and ministered to those most in need: the poor, uneducated, sick and dying; children, women and men.

The siege mentality continued well into the twentieth century. The great ecclesiologist Yves Congar describes it thus:  “[Roman] Catholics had a defensive, siege mentality. They thought that the world was conspiring against them and were therefore closed to everything that came from [the world] outside.  .  .  .” [15]

The Authority of the Church in the World and the Transition to a World Church: The Twentieth Century

Rerum novarum, Leo XIII’s now famous encyclical, was not received by either the Church or the world when it was first promulgated in 1891. Today it is used to mark the beginning of the body of Church teaching called Catholic Social Teaching. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World,),[16] became the charter for this development and began the transition of the Church to a world Church. It helped shed the Church’s paternalistic attitude toward the world which had prevailed since the nineteenth century and was exemplified in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864). Rather than shunning or condemning the world the Council unabashedly addressed “the whole of humanity” (G et S 2) and “[yearned] to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”(G et S 2) The world watched with interest during four years as the media of the day (print, television and radio) brought the Church into so many homes around the world. Dialogue and reading the signs of the times, key themes of the Council, were embraced by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II and their encyclicals such as Mater et Magistra and Pacem in terris (John XXIII) Populorum progressio and Octogesima adveniens (Paul VI) and Centisimus annum  and  Laborem exercens (John Paul II)  contributed to the growing body of papal and conciliar teachings known as Catholic Social Teaching.

During his 1965 visit to the United States Pope Paul VI began this dialogue with the world in earnest during his address to the United Nations. His pontificate is also noteworthy for the many contributions the magisterium made to Catholic Social Teaching and the dialogue with the world upon which the Church embarked. Among these can be included the two volumes entitled The Church in the Present-Day transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council prepared by the Latin-American Bishops Conference (CELAM) meeting in Medellin in 1968. Here the Latin-American hierarchy committed itself to the preferential option for the poor. The short but very important text Justitia in Mundo  (Justice in the World) prepared by the first international Synod of Bishops followed in 1971. At this synod, the bishops from the southern hemisphere were very vocal and their voice is heard throughout the text. Lay experts such as Barbara Ward (Lady Jackson), who was the first woman to address a Synod, talked with the bishops about issues of development, justice and peace. The bishops reflected upon these from a theological perspective and in the final document they state:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and the liberation from every oppressive situation.[17]

Justitia in Mundo (J in M) also acknowledges that the Church’s credibility as an authoritative voice in the world is determined by the justice that she herself exemplifies: “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes.”(J in M 40)

During the post-conciliar era, regional Episcopal Conferences have also sought to exercise their authority in the world, with varied results. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a case in point. Whereas their 1975 statement, The Economy: Human Dimensions, barely raised an eyebrow in either the Church or the world, their subsequent text Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (1986) created a stir on many fronts, within the Church and beyond. More recent documents like Nuclear Arms Control, Land Mines, Arms Trades (2002) and Statement on War with Iraq (2003) continue to be debated in the Church and society at large.

While the reception of texts like those mentioned above is ongoing, it is the lives of modern day women and men, martyrs and saints who have embraced the Gospel imperatives and the Corporal and Spiritual works of Mercy and who continue to provide an  authoritative voice of the Church in the World. Clerics like Archbishop Romero and lay women like Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clark are only six among the many modern martyrs. They are remembered for reading the signs of the times in El Salvador, putting their faith into action and being murdered for doing so. Their witness, like the witness of martyrs and saints in the early Church has inspired many to embrace a preferential option for the poor and to seek justice and peace for all, just as the papal, conciliar, synodical and encyclical texts since Vatican II have requested. Sometimes the world recognizes those who work on behalf of the poor, as it did in 1979 by conferring upon Mother Teresa the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poorest of the poor in India. More recently, in April 2005, the world watched and wept during the last days of the pontificate Pope John Paul II. Dare one say that the greatest authority of the Church in the world remains those women and men who have lived, and continue to live, exemplary lives of holiness and virtue and who work tirelessly for justice and peace in the world?


[1] Biblical citations are from the New American Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[2] The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papia, The Epistle to Diognetus. Newly tr. and annotated by James A. Kleist. (Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1948).

[3]Their feast days are: Blandina (June 2),  Polycarp (February  23),  Perpetua & Felicitas (March 7).

According to tradition, St. Augustine complained that the story of  Perpetua’s martyrdom, the earliest extant literature we have written by a Christian woman, risked having more authority than Sacred Scripture within the Christian community because her witness was so powerful.

[4] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. Pachomius, St. His feast day is celebrated on May 14 in the West and May 15 in the East.

[5] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Gregory I, St.”

[6] Since this practice of naming Doctors of the Church began in the mid-16th century about  30 men and only 3 women have been given this title. The three women are Sts. Teresa of Avila (1970),  Catherine of Siena (1970) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1997). This title is reserved only to those women and men who are recognized for their sanctity and their contributions to the Church and whose authority extends far beyond their age.

[7] The Feast Day of Gregory the Great is September 3.

[8] R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, Pelican History of the Church, vol. 2 (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 24 quoted in T. Howland Sanks,  Salt, Leaven and Light: The Community Called Church  (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 66.

[9] Richard McBrien writes “[Unam Sanctam] has been described as the most absolute theocratic doctrine ever formulated.” Catholicism: New Edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), 628.

[10] The feast day of Birgitta of Sweden is July 23.

[11] Catherine of Genoa ministered to plague victims while leading a life of contemplation. Her feast day coincides with the feast of our Lady of Sorrows, September 15.

[12] Cf. Matthew 25: 35. Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; minister to prisoners; bury the dead.  Spiritual works of Mercy: admonish the sinner; instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; comfort the sorrowful; bear wrongs patiently; forgive injuries; pray for the living and the dead.

[13]Karl Rahner, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II,” Theological Studies 40 (1979): 717.

[14]Herbert Vorgrimler, gen. ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II  (vol. 1), trans. by   Lalit Adolphus, Kevin Smyth and Richard Strachan (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), 138.

[15] Yves Congar, “Moving Towards a Pilgrim Church,” in Vatican II by those who were there, ed. A. Stacpoole (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1986), 138-139.

[16] Gaudium et spes is the only document that resulted from an intervention in the Aula. It began as Schema 13 and has since become the charter for Catholic Social Teaching after the Council.

[17] Justitia in Mundo, 6.

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