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What gives the church authority to tell us what’s right and wrong?

Dear Fr. Joe: What gives the Church the authority to determine what is right and wrong? As far as I know, there is nothing on birth control, capital punishment, genetic engineering and/or cloning in the Bible. Doesn’t it just hurt the credibility of the Church when they are wrong (i.e. Galileo)?

What a packed question! What we have here is a super-relevant question with a lot of layers, so let’s get right to it.
    First, let’s start by making sure we are on common ground. I am learning that there are, basically, two groups of people who ask questions such as these. The first group desires to learn God’s ways so that they can follow them. The second group asks the question to collect “God’s opinion.” They then decide if they agree or disagree with it. 

    My presumption is that you are in the first group. You, like holy people for thousands of years, say in the words of King David, “Teach me your ways oh Lord, so that I may walk in them.” We seek what God teaches so that we can follow it. This is the call of Catholics everywhere and at all times. So, how do we seek those ways?
    As you know, Scripture gives us clear explanation of many moral issues. For example, adultery, murder, stealing, etc. are wrong. Caring for the lowest members of society and obeying God are essential. God loves us passionately and intensely. All these things (and more) are clear.
    Scripture also gives us clear understanding of God: who He is, His love for us, and His desire that we have abundant life, and a future full of hope.
    However, seeing as though modern moral issues are, well, modern, they are not mentioned in Scripture. To tackle this problem, we look at the issues that are mentioned in Scripture, and we look at who God is, and what He desires for humanity. When we do this, a clear, consistent vision of life emerges that points us toward the answers to questions not yet asked when Scripture was written. This process is the beginning of Sacred Tradition.
    So, who articulates Sacred Tradition? What gives these “know-it-all theologians and bishops” the right to tell us what to do? Now, technically it’s not “what” gives the Church authority to determine right and wrong; it’s “Who.” As Catholics, we believe that Jesus gave the apostles authority to interpret Sacred Scripture and Tradition and guide us in our walk with Christ. Therefore, who gives them the right? Ultimately, I, you and anyone who accepts that the Church was established by Jesus Christ when He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom.  
    In the end, I hope we take the teachings of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and write them into our hearts and become people of life. I hope we see and live the words of Scripture that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (by the way, when I got dressed this morning, I noticed I seem to be adding on to my temple ... ). I pray that we see that everyone we meet is someone for whom God laid down His life. I hope we learn that the experience of life is so sacred and blessed that we want to make sure that the dignity and value of the human person is articulated and defended in all our decisions.  
    I find it excellent that you brought up our past mistakes (Galileo). We need to remember these mistakes so that we can see that these flawed vessels of God still are capable of offering us a perfect vision. Despite our past sins, the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church) has never erred in declarations of faith and doctrine. As Dr. Cooney at Sacred Heart Seminary put it “God writes straight with crooked lines.” I love that line. It reminds me that perfect performance is not a prerequisite for serving God.  
    We remember our past, not so that we can be paralyzed by guilt, but so that we can be free to accept God’s gratuitous, unearned love with pure hearts. Have we made mistakes in the past? Oh yes; we’ve made some doosies! Will we make more in the future? I would assume so. Will God still guide, protect and love us? Absolutely. Blessed be the name of God. Enjoy another day in God’s presence!


by Father Joseph Krupp

    “For God, love and life are so interlinked as to be indistinguishable. Where God gives His love, God gives His life. Where God gives His life, God gives His love.” – Alice von Hildebrand.