When the late Cardinal Heenan was asked what was distinctive about the Catholic Church, he answered quite simply with one word: authority. Cardinal Heenan's reply ruffled not a few feathers. Many expected him to say something like love or compassion. But frankly, the cardinal could not have said either love or compassion, because those are values or characteristics the Church shares with peoples of other faiths and none. They are not distinctively Catholic.
In the gospels the crowds are not amazed by Jesus' love or compassion. Instead they are impressed because he taught them as one with authority. They remark,
'No one ever spoke as this man does!' (John 7.46)
And the crowds ask themselves,
'What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands' (Mark 1.27).
Authority is what is distinctive about Jesus and it is also what is distinctive about the Church which Jesus established.
The distinctiveness of authority is most clearly seen contrasted with the weakness of tradition on its own. Many Christians can claim to be traditional, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. Some claim to be faithful to Christ's commission, but by following their own interpretations of the gospel. Some even claim the name 'Catholic' without submitting to all that it implies. It is not enough to be traditional in this sense, unless the tradition is grounded in the authority of the Son of God.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More were seen as avant garde. They were humanists, learning Greek and not simply relying on the Latin Vulgate; enthusiastic for the new learning of the Renaissance. In contrast, many others saw themselves as traditional. And yet in the difficult years of the Reformation, many of the so-called traditionalists were swept away by apathy, conformity, avarice, sycophancy. The traditional people did the traditional thing and followed their monarchs into schism and heresy.
But John Fisher and Thomas More adhered to the only thing that genuinely makes a difference: to the authority of the Church founded by Christ, manifest in particular in the person of Christ's vicar, the successor of Peter -- that is, in the Pope. For this, they paid the price of martyrdom.
It is not enough to tell the world about love, compassion, mercy, peace and justice. All of these things are meaningless and empty unless they are grounded in Him who is love, compassion, mercy, peace and justice. Unless all these things are founded on the authority of Christ, they are empty and vain, and will fail.
The authority of the Church is grounded in the Incarnation of the Son, the Word made flesh, for us -- his brothers and sisters -- and for our salvation. His saving humanity is what makes us his brothers and sisters, and makes us children of the Father. Jesus, true God and true man, saves us as we are, as human beings. Many of the disagreements with authority are founded, perhaps not consciously, on the rejection of humanity: our humanity and Christ's.
Authority is not an appealing term for humans ears. We must set aside our legalistic images of authority, as laws alone. The laws define that beyond which we cannot go and still maintain communion with the Son of God. Rather, Christ's authority is more properly understood as liturgical, because He is our Great High Priest (cf. Hebrews 5.9). That means His authority is life-giving. The Catholic Church is the life-giving authority of Christ, transforming all creation with Jesus as Head. We are the Temple that Christ is raising, the members of His body.
Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Basilica of St John Lateran, or to give it its proper name, the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour. It is this church in Rome and not St Peter's which is the Pope's cathedral. The inscription on its façade proclaims it to be:
MOTHER AND HEAD OF ALL CHURCHES OF THE CITY AND THE WORLD
By our communion with this See, we share fully in the life-giving authority of Christ, because we are established on the foundation Christ gave and built on Peter the Rock. Within this communion of love with Peter's successor, we are empowered with the authority of Christ to give life to the world even as leaven in dough, to evangelise the world, to proclaim the saving humanity of the eternal Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to the ends of the earth.