Thoughts on Healy’s “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches

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.

Sculpture of a white dove surrounded by gold rays emerging from white clouds, with a white angel on either side

Decorations above the baptismal font at Ottobeuren Abbey, Germany


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.

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7 Responses to Thoughts on Healy’s “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches

  1. Might it not be that women using such “discursive markers of submission” in the 21st century would give scandal of a different sort, especially to women looking to function as partners in the Church?

    • Indeed, it might be. It’s all very well for me to talk of setting aside our 21st century sensibilities, but the fact is that our sensibilities are precisely the mechanism through which we are scandalized.

      I don’t think this is primarily about women’s discourse, though, for the same reason that I don’t think this cartoon, true as it may be, tells the whole truth. The relevant division here is clergy/lay (counting vowed religious as lay, since they are not ordained), or even more pointedly, bishops/non-bishops. If such markers of submission were adopted, there would be plenty of men using them too.

      But, if one construes feminism in relation to kyriarchy generally rather than patriarchy particularly, this would still be a feminist issue.

    • mirabilis says:

      With respect to the “weak woman” topos specifically–yes, explicitly. You do still see it being expressed implicitly, though. In some evangelical circle, women “share” their thoughts with a group; men “preach.” And so forth.

      But that’s just one, gender-specific manifestation of a larger culture of affected-humility that just soaks all medieval/early early modern-era writing. Medieval and humanist letter writing in particular is a good place to look to see the most prominent intellectual and political figures of an age expressing their unworthiness at the same time they’re, like, excommunicating people and launching crusades.

      Historically speaking, the avowed proclamations of deepest humility (affected or not) were about avoiding the appearance of the sin of pride. So it might be interesting to trace historically the interaction of pride as the deadliest sin and scandal.

      It would also be interesting to study how the culture of humility is still in place today. The use of “just” (“we just want to say, Lord, that we just thank you for…”), the use of lol in situations where no one is laughing, “I feel” instead of “I think” or just making your point straight out, etc. Avoiding scandal is an interesting way to think of it–especially when you wonder whose scandal you’re trying to avoid, your own or the person you’re criticizing!

      • Mary Aquin O'Neill, RSM says:

        Very interesting reflections here. I would point out, however, that a “culture of humble language” is not the same as a “culture of humility.” The former can involve traditional usage that, in fact, masks a great deal of pride or even plain old insecurity (as in making demurs before making one’s point, a besetting failing of many women).

        • mirabilis says:

          First of all, I want to apologize for sounding like a pompous jerk, which I totally did. (The basic point of all that I said should be prefaced by “…and isn’t it cool that…”, if it helps at all.) Second, I’m intrigued by the distinction you make and would love to hear further thoughts? I’m totally conflating the two mentally and I’m not sure how to separate them, so help would be great! (And again, I’m really sorry!)

          • Mary Aquin O'Neill, RSM says:

            Oh, dear. In no way did you sound like a pompous jerk to me. I really meant that your reflections were interesting. In fact, they sparked my own thoughts. If that is out of the way, let me try to respond to your question.

            In my mind (and experience) the truly humble person is in touch with the truth. If she has an important point to make, she says, “I have a point to make that I think is important.” She does not say, “I don’t have any degrees or anything, but I just want to say….” Yet, the latter way of interacting can become a habit on the part of the person speaking and an expectation on the part of a group. I’ve been in groups where a woman speaking with confidence, without the usual “demurs,” is looked upon as something of an oddity.

            If, in our prayers, we are really telling God what to do, prefacing it with “we just….” won’t make it anything less than a rather prideful act. Same goes when our “demurs” are really a way of getting someone else to praise us, as in “You might not have degrees, but your are lots smarter than many who do….”

            See what I mean?

  2. Pingback: Discursive Markers of Submission, continued | Gaudete Theology

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