In order to help structure my thinking about how authority works in the Catholic Church, I think of Eli the priest in the Old Testament, and the steward of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings film (I haven’t read the books).
Both examples make it easy for me to see the difference between two important concepts:
- the man
- the office held by the man
The man might be corrupt and do bad things, but the people under him still need to respect the office he holds.
In the Old Testament, Eli’s office was established by God. Samuel always showed respect for the office, even though Eli turned a blind eye to his sons’ evil behavior. Wouldn’t it have been strange for Samuel to say to himself, “Eli is being horrible. I think the Lord is telling me to go build my own temple.” That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?
In the LOTR film, the steward of Gondor was a placeholder for the king. Since the king represents Christ, I take the steward to represent the pope, and all the bishops by extension. Citizens of Gondor had a duty to respect the steward by virtue of the office he held. His own personal character was not important. Imagine a citizen of Gondor saying, “This steward is doing many things I disagree with, and the king is obviously not returning to this place. I’m moving to a different city, one where I am sure the king will eventually return to.” Does that makes sense, knowing what we know of that story? I don’t think it does.