Healy, Nicholas M. “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches. Anglican Theological Review 88:5-24. 2006.
After reviewing the nature of authority in the church, Healy concludes that the current “crisis of authority,” as exemplified in the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion, arises from the relatively recent separation of legitimate authority from coercive power. Drawing on the pneumatology of Aquinas, he argues that the only sure source of authority in the church is the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit’s prevenient constitutive working within the church and the individual precludes the privileging of either communal or individual judgment. This implies that church leaders must lead by example and persuasion after listening carefully, prayerfully, and patiently to the church.
Healy distinguishes between authority exercised by institutionally-authorized individuals, and authority derived from cogent arguments based on valid (normatively accepted) sources of authority. The omission of any discussion of moral authority based on trust and credibility significantly weakens this otherwise strong examination of authority and power in the church, especially when discussing the Roman Catholic church in 2006, in light of the sex abuse scandal.
Particular churches have different sources and processes of authoritative discernment of the Spirit; this in large part is why there are differences among Christian churches at all. When different churches make differing judgements, those judgments are accepted as authoritative only by their members. But the factors that determine whether an individual is a member of a particular church are themselves by no means authoritative: “truth is not assured by means of choice or inculturation; it is had only by gift of the Spirit of truth, whose working cannot be discerned authoritatively in this case.” (15)
Following Aquinas, Healy addresses this insoluble problem of authority by appealing to the prevenient workings of the Spirit in both the structures of the church, to which She has been promised, and the interior life of the baptized believer, on whom She has been poured; noting as well that the Spirit works where the Spirit wills and is not bound within the structures, rites, or members of the church. If the Spirit is prior to both the church and the individual, then there is no way to consistently rule that one of them is prior to the other. As Healy puts it,
Since the Holy Spirit is the foundation both of the church and of each and every one of its members, its working overcomes any dichotomy between the Christian individual and the Christian community. The church works to help the Christian and the world become more Christian; the Christian is to help the church become more the church. Neither can truly help the other without the working of the Spirit. (20)
If this is true, it has serious implications for the structures, style, and method of leadership that should be exercised within the church. It absolutely requires that church leaders “must first listen carefully to the church” (22): not because the church is, or should be, a democracy, but because the Holy Spirit works within the hearts of all the baptized, not only within the episcopally ordained. It likewise requires that it must be safe to openly discuss questions, concerns, and differences of opinion without fear of “rejection or expulsion on that account alone.” (21)
This argues against an enforcement model, and towards a persuasive model, of the teaching magisterium, which Healy notes would be a return to the apostolic style of leadership, as anyone who has read Paul’s exhortative, persuasive, rhetorical letters would surely agree. This touches on a point I’ve been making for some time: the Roman Catholic bishops appear to conflate their teaching and governing roles, decreeing instead of actually teaching. Healy also suggests leadership “by saintly example … by attraction to ‘the obedience of faith’ through Christian kindness, hospitality, and – something so often lacking – simple joy.” (22)
I was interested in his assessment of Aquinas’ theological method, because Thomas Aquinas, the “angelic doctor,” is in some sense the Roman Catholic theologian par excellence. Healy argues that Thomas “appeal[s] to multiple and diverse authorities, each with its own distinctive role” (17), and that he and his colleagues further
did not hesitate to point out where earlier judgments [including those of bishops and popes] seemed to be inadequate, badly put, or wrong. They did so with immense respect, “loyally explaining” or “reverently expounding” such teachings, as they usually put it. But in fact they would change them when necessary to conform them more closely to Scripture. (18)
This reminds me of the observation that women theologians such as Teresa of Avila used a particular register of discourse in their theological writings that signalled the humility and self-deprecation consistent with, and expected of, women as the socio-culturally constructed inferiors of men; and of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s observation that while the issue for Luther was theology, the issue for Rome was authority. Our twenty-first century socio-cultural norms of theological discourse, especially in the West, and especially in the academy, do not easily accommodate such discursive markers of submission as accompaniment to substantive challenge. Not only do they seem hypocritical; they also raise the pointed question of whether the institutional authority of church leaders has become an idol which must be appeased before any serious work can be accomplished.
A mimetic analysis suggests, firstly, that church leaders are easily scandalized by blunt challenges to their authority; as are those of the faithful for whom church, authority, faithfulness, and truth are related in a particular way. Once they are scandalized, the character of their response frequently proceeds to scandalize the remainder of the faithful in their turn, which leads to further division and divisive discourse among the faithful who polarize around the issue as the conflict escalates.
Secondly, it suggests that the traditional practice of using such discursive markers of submission was in fact the practical wisdom of the church at work to avoid giving scandal to church leaders in the first place. Despite our twenty-first century sensibilities, we should give careful consideration to the revival or retention of this practice, in light of the anthropological realities in play.
A better solution would be the development of church structures which could neutralize the scandal-giving potential of question, challenge, and dissent. If there were real meaningful functioning mechanisms for open communication about controverted questions in the church, that would go a long way toward neutralizing scandal on all sides. But, as Healy admits he has “no real idea” of what “new apostolic forms of leadership . . . might be,” (22) I have no real ideas for what those structures might be. Although I would suggest looking to our sisters and brothers in the Society of Friends for inspiration, as their practice of the “threshing session” provides a model for the open, discerning discussion of difficult issues that incorporates contemplative prayerful listening to all voices at the table.