“In episode one of this series, we justified the Church’s teaching authority by exploring scripture. Specifically, we explored the biblical basis for bishops, who were ordained by a ritual called the “Laying on of Hands,” which evolved into what Catholics today call the Sacrament of Holy Orders. However, there are some people who have expressed doubts about the role bishops are supposed to play in the Church. So, today we will be exploring a few challenges to the office of bishops that have been invoked to undermine their authority.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, pastors and pasteurizers welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part four of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”
In episode one of this series, we justified the Church’s teaching authority by exploring scripture. Specifically, we explored the biblical basis for bishops, who were ordained by a ritual called the “Laying on of Hands,” which evolved into what Catholics today call the Sacrament of Holy Orders. However, there are some people who have expressed doubts about the role bishops are supposed to play in the Church. So, today we will be exploring a few challenges to the office of bishops that have been invoked to undermine their authority. Let’s begin.
1.Territories weren’t governed by singular bishops in the earliest days of the Church.
Okay, this is true. Most historians agree that councils of bishops, not one exclusive bishop, governed territories. This doesn’t compromise the authority of bishops today, though. As we’ll learn about later in this series, there are some teachings that are allowed to change over time, and the decision that only one bishop should govern a territory was more of an administrative decision than a solemnly binding doctrinal pronouncement.
2. Bishops aren’t the only ones who can teach what the Apostles taught; the laity can too!
In episode one, I mentioned how Christ guarantees His presence in the Church regardless of how few believers there are. This means that, in theory, if a meteor struck Rome while every bishop on earth was attending Vatican III, there would still be a Catholic Church on earth. The college of bishops is, indeed, not the Church as a whole, but it is rather a governing body tasked with teaching and guiding the laity, or non clerics. The laity can teach as well, but it is abundantly clear, as we have already discussed, that Christ and His Apostles intended on establishing authorities who dedicate their whole lives to studying revelation, teaching it, and governing the Church.
3. But Jesus never used the term bishop or said he was establishing a sacrament of Holy Orders!
I mean, he never used the term “abortion” or “nuclear holocaust” either, but He gave us enough teachings to put pieces together and determine that neither of those are very good things. We have to remember that doctrine develops as the Church’s first principles are applied to an ever-changing world. In the case of bishops, it was pretty obvious that Christ elevated His Apostles to offices of authority. He didn’t give them a blueprint for what would happen after that, but He did give them enough instructions to the point at which they were confident enough to appoint successors. And over time, as the Church became increasingly wary of false teachers, She required a more formalized and systematic way to keep track of who was legit and who wasn’t. And this didn’t take very long, by the way. The letters to Titus and Timothy mention the words deacon, priest, bishop, and they were written within a few decades of Christ’s death. The existence of this three-fold hierarchy of clerics was cited by Ignatius of Antioch, an early bishop and Father of the Church who was put to death around 107 AD. That’s right. The hierarchy of deacon, priest, and bishop predates some books in the bible, themselves. There is also evidence that by the late second century, just a little over one hundred years since the death of Christ, most territories were governed by a single bishop, who was accepted as a legitimate successor of the Apostles. For that to happen with little to no pushback from Christians at the time is pretty remarkable.
4. Bishops are just pastors, though. If they were teachers, too, they would have a monopoly over the Church’s theology.
This already sounds like a statement coming from a disgruntled theologian who was mad at his or her bishop. It is, indeed, a fair critique that no group of people should be invested with a monopoly over a field of study. Obviously, this is why we have lay theologians. But treating pastoral authority as if it was entirely distinct from teaching authority leads us down a dangerous path. I mean, would you trust your politicians if they weren’t well versed in things like philosophy, economics, logic, social science, psychology, or human rights? Huh. Me neither. Furthermore, what’s the first thing the Apostles did following Pentecost? They went to the streets of Jerusalem and taught.
Okay, I think we’ve spent enough time justifying the teaching authority of bishops. Next time we will delve into precisely how bishops exercise their teaching authority. Until then, have a great day and God bless you!