Authority is at the heart of divisions between Christians

David Quinn tackles the concept of Christian unity

This is Christian Unity Week which is marked every year at this time. Beyond any shadow of a doubt relations between the various branches of Christianity on this island and elsewhere are much better than they once were. That is progress.

Relations between Catholics and Protestants have become much more cordial and bit by bit the ice is thawing between the Catholic Church and the Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

At the heart of practically all discussions about the divisions between the various and many parts of Christianity lies the question of authority.


The division between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy seems to be a dispute over the nature of the Holy Trinity but it is really a dispute about authority.

The division between Rome and Protestantism seems to be a dispute about the proper understanding of Church, Scripture, tradition, but it is also really a dispute about authority.

The division between liberal and orthodox Christians today might seem to be about issues like women priests and sex, but it too is a dispute about authority.

In each case, the problem might appear to be the authority the Pope claims for himself. If the Pope was prepared to give up some of  his authority and to be more like one of the Patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy (the Metropolitan of Moscow, say), or the Archbishop of Canterbury perhaps there would be far fewer disputes and far fewer splits.

But this is an illusion. Protestantism keeps on splitting precisely because there is no central authority. The number of Protestant denominations that exists today is almost literally countless and we are all too well aware of the tensions and divisions within the Anglican Communion over issues like women priests, women bishops, human sexuality and the authority of scripture and tradition.


At one level, in fact, the problem of Christian disunity appears almost insoluble. For example, what ecclesial structure could we all agree upon? Some Churches (or ‘ecclesial communities’ as both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have called them) don’t have bishops at all.

How would we interpret Scripture? There are two extremes here and lots of points on the spectrum in between. At one extreme is the view that every word of the Bible is literally true. At the other is the view that every word of the Bible is culturally conditioned.

What is the role of tradition? In the Catholic Church it plays a big role and in some of the Protestant Churches almost no role at all.

What does ‘tradition’ even mean? It can at one level be understood as equivalent to jurisprudence in law, which is to say, a certain interpretation of law builds up over time out of the practice of law and the decisions of judges.


In the Catholic Church, the ‘judges’, which is to say the Pope and the bishops, cannot simply radically alter what has gone before at a whim. They cannot overturn the ‘jurisprudence’, which is to say, the tradition of the Church as some radicals seem to wish.

Indeed, there seems to be a view in the media that Pope Francis can change any doctrine of the Church anytime he likes.

At one point during the sessions of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI wanted to add a sentence to Lumen Gentium saying that the Pope is “accountable to the Lord alone”.

However, the council’s Theological Commission rejected this, saying that “the Roman Pontiff is . . . bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and (to) other obligations too numerous to mention”.

This is key. The Pope is not free to do anything he likes. And if the Pope is “bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and (to) other obligations too numerous to mention”, so are all Catholics.


It should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to these things that the big division within Irish and Western Christianity more generally these days is not between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between liberal Christianity and orthodox Christianity.

As usual, there is a spectrum of opinion here. On the one hand are ultra-liberals who say every teaching can be changed and on the other are ultra-conservatives who saying nothing can be changed.

In between there are huge disagreements about what can be changed and what can’t be changed.

The view of many in the likes of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), and certainly at the leadership level (the ACP too has a ‘hierarchy’!) believe that a great deal is open to change including time immemorial teachings that are attested to by Scripture and have a huge weight of tradition and magisterial authority behind them, such as those on human sexuality or women priests.


The aim of the ACP and likeminded organisations elsewhere in the world seems to be to make the teachings of the Church subject to something called the ‘sensus fidelium’ or ‘sense of the faithful’. By this they seem to mean that a teaching can be changed if enough of the ‘faithful’ at a given point in time want to change it.

I hope they are not this simplistic because if they are, then they would shrink the authority of the Church to almost nothing and if they were somehow to get their way in the matter would simply cause another massive split within Christianity.

There would likely be formal schisms within Catholicism as distinct from the informal one that exists at present.

This would be no way to heal the divisions that already exist between Christians.