THE BIBLE, CHURCH AUTHORITY, AND CONSCIENCE
Church authority is the power to make administrative and doctrinal decisions, e.g. about the ordination of women or married men, or about the evil nature of abortion and homosexuality. Such decisions are often based on biblical interpretations.
The Bible is open to contradictory interpretations; there is no universal agreement about the interpretation of basic texts. The bible can be used in favor or against slavery, creationism, or traditional gender roles.
Conscience is said to be the voice of God deep down oneself, where “man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.” This beautiful view is generally not true empirically. Millions of people have participated in genocides and the violences of war, and millions in Eastern cultures see nothing wrong with abortion. Concretely, conscience is the product of one’s personal and one's social history; conscience is swayed by the mass media and one’s environment. Only exceptionally does conscience hear the voice of God within.
The problem: church authorities often cover themselveself with the mantle of the Bible. Since the 1960s conscience has often taken an anti-establishment posture. Dissent is often repressed in churches and society.. The technical scientific interpretations of the Bible are often of little help for spirituality. How can you balance the claims of authority, conscience, and biblical interpretations?
Here is how I see the problem in the Catholic Church.
In the Catholic Church, bishops swear obedience to the papacy and not to the gospel because the papacy is expected to be the true voice of the gospel; in case of conflict, however, they are likely to side with the papacy. The bishops are not accountable to the faithful but to the papacy; in case of conflict, they are likely to ignore the wishes and needs of their flock and side with the papacy.
As a counter-weight, Vatican II recognized the importance of conscience. Even if not “properly formed” the conscience is, as a matter of fact, the ultimate decision-maker. Vatican II also recognized that there is a hierarchy of truths. In the absence of an officially defined such hierarchy, people make their own choices, thus leading to a de facto pluralism.
Because pluralism tends to weaken a centralized authority, the hierarchy has only two options: greater centralization and control (the prevailing tendency), or an ecclesiology of dialogue and leadership – which is what Pope Francis is promoting (with not much success).
In the context of church pluralism and a weak central authority, biblical spirituality seems an advisable option. When some contentious topics are not answered successfully or avoided by church authorities, biblical spirituality seems a reasonable answer across churches.
1. By divine institution and canon law, the pope "enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church." (c. 331). What argument should the church put forward to Catholics who reject papal infallibility?
2. Protestants enjoy pluralism and the freedom of individualism and subjectivism because they have no church authority. Yet most evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. speak the same language due to a unidimensional interpretation of the bible and social pressure to conform to it. If so, what could they do to overcome unidimensionality and conformism?
3. What is the future of a bible as spirituality when only few people read the bible daily or weekly?