By What Authority?

Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church, 2nd Ed.

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Richard R. Gaillardetz
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , January
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


By What Authority? presents several important topics in Catholic theology, all of which fit into the general theme of authority in the church.

Part 1 serves as an introduction. Its first chapter examines the use of power and authority in Christianity. Many people today react negatively to the words “power” and “authority,” especially in a religious context, but Gaillardetz argues persuasively that these can be exercised in ways that are not antithetical to the spirit of Christ. The second chapter briefly discusses the concept of divine revelation.

Part 2 explores some topics related to scripture and tradition: the history of the canon of scripture, different understandings of what it means to say that scripture is “inspired by God,” a variety of Catholic approaches to the concept of biblical inerrancy, the role of “tradition” in Catholic theology, the relationship between scripture and tradition, and John Thiel’s theory of “the four senses of tradition.” Gaillardetz treats each of these topics in a clear and concise manner.

The third part of By What Authority? presents the Catholic theology of the magisterium (that is, the church’s teaching authority). This topic is one of Gaillardetz’s specialties, and he deftly describes four levels of magisterial authority: dogma, definitive doctrine, authoritative doctrine, and prudential decisions with doctrinal implications. He explains why Catholics hold that the first two levels are taught infallibly, while the latter two are not.

Part 4 contains three chapters concerning the authority of the entire church. The first examines the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium). The Holy Spirit is at work in every member of the church, helping them understand the truths revealed by God for the sake of their salvation. When they unanimously agree on a certain belief, the infallibility of the Church guarantees that this belief must be true. The second chapter describes the obligation Catholics have toward each of the four levels of magisterial teachings, and under what conditions disagreement would be permitted. The final chapter discusses the role of academic theologians, and how their work connects them to the magisterium and to all the faithful.

As the reader has realized by now, By What Authority? is written entirely from a Catholic viewpoint. Some of the topics this book examines (such as the theology of the magisterium) have little relevance beyond the boundaries of Catholicism; others (such as the authorship of scripture) are of great interest to other Christians and to non-Christians—but in every case, the focus stays on Catholic perspectives. This tight focus is an asset, not a flaw: if Gaillardetz had included non-Catholic viewpoints on every topic he explores, a gigantic book would have been required! But this does not mean that non-Catholics will find this book uninteresting. Anyone who is curious about the Catholic understanding of scripture, the magisterium, and the nature of the church will find By What Authority? very accessible: it assumes no technical knowledge on the part of the reader, explaining even such basic concepts as papal encyclicals and the Second Vatican Council.

Most of the material presented in this book will be uncontroversial among conservative and liberal Catholic theologians alike. Each chapter concludes with a brief section entitled “Disputed Questions.” In these sections, Gaillardetz sometimes introduces more progressive and radical proposals: a feminist critique of the canon of scripture (48), the possibility that the scriptures of non-Judeo-Christian religions might transmit divine revelation (33) and perhaps even be divinely inspired (66), and the suggestion that “public dissent” by Catholic theologians might occasionally be “an instrument of the Spirit for necessary change” (232).

The first edition of By What Authority? was published in 2003. This second edition has been heavily revised and expanded. The new material includes an analysis of the doctrinal weight of papal interviews (145-46), which is probably the first theological examination of this question. Given Pope Francis’s penchant for “off-the-cuff” interviews and press conferences, this material is quite timely.

Not surprisingly, the most significant change in this edition is the incorporation of insights from Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Francis’s initiatives regarding synodality and decentralization of the church are discussed at length. Gaillardetz argues that a central theme of Francis’s pontificate is that doctrine must be put in the service of the church’s pastoral mission. Gaillardetz is enthusiastic about this approach: “Put simply, Pope Francis does not wish to treat adult Catholics as if they were children” (131). Overall, this book is heavily weighted toward the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis, and contemporary theologians. Probably the most significant flaw in this book is the limited attention paid to theological work prior to Vatican II. Preconciliar figures appear as important steps on the way to the present age, but the reader is left with the impression that Catholics who wish to deepen their relationship with God and the Church should rely on contemporary guides, rather than those active in the nineteen centuries before 1962.

By What Authority? is written at an undergraduate level. Little prior knowledge is assumed; there are not many footnotes, and very few references to works unavailable in English. Although the preface suggests the book might be used in undergraduate and graduate courses (xv), it is hard to see how Parts 1 and 2 would be used in a graduate context, for topics studied in depth in graduate school (the development of the canon of scripture, the relationship between scripture and tradition, different understandings of biblical inspiration) are treated here with extreme brevity. On the other hand, Parts 3 and 4 could be used at the graduate level to introduce students to the theology of the magisterium and the sense of the faithful.

The writing style is clear and enjoyable. Gaillardetz avoids getting bogged down in jargon and technicalities, yet his meaning is always clear. Any reader who wishes to understand what Catholics believe about scripture, about teachings of the magisterium (infallible and otherwise), and the forms of authority in the church will find this book to be clear, informative, and enjoyable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence J. King is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard R. Gaillardetz holds the Joseph Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College.


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