Mark 1:21-28
Christian Authority
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat

Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.  The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are - the Holy One of God!"  Jesus rebuked him and said, "Quiet!  Come out of him!"  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.  All were amazed and asked one another, "What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."  His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus’ hearers are vastly impressed with Our Lord’s capacity to exorcise demons and His teaching authority.  St. Mark writes, “All were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey Him.’”  Unfortunately, some have tried to explain away this exorcism as a type of psychological, therapeutic remedy that Jesus employs over the man with the unclean spirit, reducing Our Lord to a therapist.  The reality of the matter, however, is that Our Lord maintains dominion over the universe – both the natural and supernatural orders.  The unclean spirit cannot be reduced to a psychological pathology.  Evil spirits are real entities and Our Lord proves His authority over them.  His authority is so potent that we learn that Christ can even command the evil spirits not to reveal His identity as the Son of God.

St. Mark associates Jesus’ power over evil spirits with teaching authority.  This teaching authority now resides in the Church, through the ministry of the pope and bishops in communion with him.  It is important to note how Catholics understand “authority.”  So often, the term “authority” is misconstrued to mean “authoritarian” or “coercive, brute force.”  Authoritarian persons force or coerce others into doing something that may be against their will.  Furthermore, authoritarian persons neither give the reasons for their commands nor consider the views of their subjects.  In fact, the subjects are not true subjects at all – they are objects of manipulation.  This association of power and authority lead many to misunderstand how the Church views her own authority, as if the Church coerces believers to faith.  Nothing could be more untrue.

By contrast, the pope and bishops, are custodians of an authoritarian tradition.  Thus, the pope and bishops do not invent doctrine.  Rather, the pope and bishops are servants, not masters, of the tradition – the truths – that define Church doctrine.  For this reason, we refer to the pope and bishops as authoritative teachers, not authoritarian strongmen.  The authoritative teachings of the Church only restrict us to the degree that we see the teachings as limits on our unfettered capacity to choose merely what we want, without reference to what God desires.  In this model of “freedom” our freedom is reduced to caprice.  True freedom, then, is not merely the capacity to do what we want.  Rather, it is the capacity to do what we ought.  In effect, the pope and the bishops, guided by the Holy Spirit, guard Christ’s teachings in service to the body of Christ, the Church, in order to assist the members of the body to live with the mind of Christ.

In His own life, Our Lord reveals that true authority is based in service.  By teaching the Faith authentically, the pope and bishops serve the Church.  Their authority is not rooted in sheer force or coercion.  Rather, their authority is rooted in Christ’s authority, who invites, but never coerces us to believe in Him.

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