Moral authority is a phrase that some have used to describe Pope Francis’ recent public appearances. For instance, the always insightful historian, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, writes:
The longest and presumably most consequential of those addresses was delivered to the joint meeting of Congress. The pope spoke slowly, in heavily accented English, and with an air of humility. (He did not use the papal “we.”) But his moral authority was palpable.
When you think about any authority the papacy might have upon citizens and residents of the United States, you begin to scratch your head. Wasn’t the point of anti-Catholicism that Roman Catholics would not be good Americans since they were subject to a foreign prince? But now we learn that the pope has moral authority. Doesn’t this raise the stakes? Not only does he have authority over Roman Catholic officials and citizens, but since morality of some kind is binding on all people, now Pope Francis even has authority over President Obama. Which is odd because Woodcock Tentler includes in her essay a frank acknowledgment that the papacy lost authority at Vatican 2:
The Church itself has changed. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) made official Catholic peace with religious liberty and the religiously neutral state, liberating popes from what had become a pointless ritual battle against nineteenth-century liberalism. Catholic immigrants to the United States saw their children and, more frequently, their grandchildren become socially mobile. Especially after 1945, a rapidly growing Catholic population—fully one-quarter of the nation’s total by 1960—moved in large numbers into the ranks of the middle and upper-middle class. Newly affluent Catholics were less reliably Democratic in their voting behavior than their immigrant forebears, emerging in recent decades as a crucial swing vote in national elections.
Not to worry about papal supremacy in a more conciliar church. Even more than temporal or spiritual authority, the papacy has moral authority. Or is it a function of the man who is holds the papal office? Does the pope have moral authority or does Jorge Bergoglio by virtue of his manner and conduct? Did Ratzinger have moral authority? (And why does a pope need a new name when a bishop doesn’t? Rowan Williams was still Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury? Fancy shoes and funny hats. . . )
So if a pope has moral authority which gives him license to address climate change, economics, international affairs, what does a Protestant minister have? Does a Protestant minister even have authority? The traditional answer was always that by virtue of ministering God’s word, the minister has authority. His office implies some authority, but even more the authority whose word he ministers, adds even greater weight to his authority.
But Andrew Wilson thinks that pastors have as much scope in their jurisdiction as the papacy:
A pastor, by contrast, is a generalist and does not have the luxury of specializing. The people that pastors serve do not restrict their concerns according to their areas of expertise, so neither can pastors. No pastor collared by an anxious congregant who wants the Christian take on divorce, the state of Israel, spiritual gifts, or same-sex marriage can deflect by muttering, “It’s not my field.” They can do their best in the moment and then promise to learn more. But they cannot duck an issue because they don’t know much about it. Their people look to them for theological guidance, and since all of life is theological, they have to know something about everything.
Wow. So much for the sufficiency of Scripture.
That understanding of a pastor’s scope of concern may explain why the press, Roman Catholics — observant and non-observant, and onlookers were so overwhelmed by Pope Francis. If an ordinary pastor gets to speak on everything that his church members bring him, how much more a pastor with universal and moral authority?
The funny thing is that of the oldest legal professions, attorneys and physicians have much more leverage when telling your average Christian what to do either about legal affairs or health. Generally speaking, when my professional advisers tell me what to do, I follow their counsel. The reason has a lot to do with their speaking on the basis of their professional authority and competency.
So why do pastors think they have the competency to talk about everything in the world? Might they not be in danger of compromising their real authority? Maybe pastors should go back to ministering God’s word and priests should go back to liturgy and canon law and let the rest of us lay people figure out the material (as opposed to the spiritual) world.