Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme explored the idea of the moral authority of the Church in the light of what we can all recognise to be scandals. At this time when we are praying for the election of a new Pope, such a topic will indeed be in the mind of the Cardinal-Electors, as much as those who look to the Church – from within and without – for moral guidance. Do these scandals undermine the moral authority of the Church? Can the Church proclaim truth despite, and even through, her failed members and leaders?
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, whose parish I was covering this weekend, spoke on the programme. He ably described moral authority as ‘the ability to speak on moral issues, it’s the ability to pronounce on right and wrong, it’s the ability to mediate to people what is not just the opinion of the Church, but what is the authoritative teaching of the Church – that which must be obeyed, as Canon Law says, with religious obedience of the will’. He went on, ‘In other words it’s not just another of the things offered in the great marketplace of humanity, it’s something which can be taken as true and believed as true. That’s what moral authority is: it’s the ability to speak truth’. That is important. Moral authority is the revelation of truth which, as the Catechism says, is always from God: ‘The authority required by the moral order derives from God’. (CCC §1899).
Fr Lucie-Smith was responding to the news that Archbishop Tartaglia of Glasgow recently stated that the moral authority of the Church in Scotland has been damaged by the events surrounding the resignation of Cardinal O’Brien. Unfortunately I can’t find the full text of the Archbishop’s sermon, but what excerpts I have found makes close reference to both moral authority and moral credibility. Fr Alexander later makes this distinction – between authority and prestige – and it is the latter which I believe is severely damaged by these and similar events, whilst the former – in strictly theological terms – remains unscarred because, essentially, it is from God and does not rely on man for reliability, only for communication.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor makes this point later in the programme, referring to the intrinsic authority in the teaching of the Church, something which remains true despite the sinfulness of us – her members. This is something which those of us brought up in the Anglican tradition remember with the phrase ‘the unworthiness of the ministers hinders not the effect of the sacraments’ (Article XXVI) – but it’s there in the Fathers too, in response to the Donatist controversy.
Obviously the distinction between moral authority and moral credibility or prestige is going to be lost on the majority of those who either look to the Church for moral guidance, or who wish to undermine the teaching of the Church to suit their own ends. We can think particularly of those who would say that these scandals render the voice of the Church impotent in the dialogue surrounding, say, same-sex marriage. And so the contribution of Professor John Haldane is useful: ‘Moral authority is a bit like the standing of a family. Somebody in a family might act in way which brings disgrace upon it, but in time that member and other members of the family have to work hard to restore the integrity of the family’.
That is the task that is before us now. Not to look to alter or even redefine the teaching of the Church, the teaching of Jesus Christ, but to restore the integrity of the Church’s ability to communicate such a message. That doesn’t mean tweaking doctrine, but living it in a radical way which, in the eyes of the world, will restore it to the divine dignity given by the Lord, who is after all, the source of it and of all truth. In other words, this isn’t the time to lose faith, but to live it more faithfully, more passionately, and with more humility.