Readings on Authority in the Church: Cajetan Responds


Chuck Shunk


October 15, 2022

Preface: The Purpose of this Series

I have suspected for a while that some hard rethinking needs to happen in Catholic theology regarding the nature of ecclesial authority. Here are some factors motivating this thought, in no particular order:

  1. The Holy See recently has been promoting the notion of “synodality”: a different take on exercising authority in the Church. It’s therefore a good time to get clear on the basics of fundamental Catholic teaching here so as to adapt to this new reality.

  2. Vatican II also entailed a certain feeling of pivoting to the bishops and possibly somewhat de-emphasizing the Roman Pontiff. As with all things Vatican II, this tendency is real but poorly defined, and I don’t think there is yet consensus about what exactly the Council should be taken to say on this subject.

  3. Some of our Eastern separated brethren are actually very close to union with Rome . . . at least, theoretically. I have a hunch that there are more ways to reconcile Eastern ideas about the Roman Pontiff with orthodox Catholicism than is sometimes appreciated. However, there are certain expressions and phrases that have become entrenched in controversy and are, to a certain extent, themselves barriers to union. Being able to restate Catholic orthodoxy in different ways would be highly useful to this ecumenical process.

  4. At the same time, some of our united Easter brethren have different notions about the correct way to talk about Papal authority that are not in sync with Western thought. It would be good to get on the same page here, I think.

  5. I genuinely feel that the conventional Catholic explanation of the relationship between Papal authority and other ecclesial authority in the Church is flawed. 19th and 20th century counter-reformation theology may not have described traditional Catholic teaching on the Pope in such a way as to correctly capture both the authority of the role and its collegiality among the other bishops.

  6. Historically, the Pope used to have a much smaller role in the Church, and this mostly comes down to technology. Simply put, as the world got smaller, it became practical to appeal to the Holy See on more and more issues. At this point, I think it is worth stepping back and asking the question, has the Church adapted to this practical change of affairs in a correct manner? For example, has the Church’s response to the priestly abuse scandals been aided by this modern centralization of government in the Church?

  7. The phrase “Ordinary Magisterium” remains very poorly defined in theology. Likewise, the exact role of the Holy See in theological debates on open questions remains a very poorly defined question. Likewise, the degree to which the Holy See ought to participate in positive advances in theology–as opposed to definitional judgments setting bounds on orthodoxy–is (I would say) an open question.

So, for all these reasons, I think it is appropriate to look carefully at the Church’s teaching on its own authority. I would like to build up my own knowledge of the foundational works on this topic, building up to the conventional teachings by looking at their necessary presuppositions. And I would like to do all of this with an eye to the issues listed above.

To that end, I am starting a series of posts where I read through some of these important works and take note of things I think need better explanation and things which are relevant in view of my “motivating factors”. Please keep in mind, throughout this series, that I am giving first reactions to these works here. I do not yet have a firmly considered thesis to defend here; I am exploring and thinking out loud.

Cajetan Responds

The first work I am looking at is a collection of works by Cardinal Cajetan which have been translated and edited by Jared Wicks in his Cajetan Responds: A Reader in Reformation Controversy (Cajetan 2011). All of the works in this collection respond in one way or another to Luther, and need to be read in this context: this is one side of a specific controversy, not a treatise dedicated to the topic ecclesial authority in the abstract. Nevertheless, the topic did come up a lot, as you might expect.

I have collected some quotes from this work that I feel are relevant; I am putting them in this document, which I will be building up over time with each of the works I am reading for this series.

I have just a few things to say about what I read in Cajetan right now:

I came away with the strong impression that Cajetan’s view of authority is excessively hierarchical–“that which is above you has authority over you.” Here is a quote that is particularly relevant to this point:

“Right reason demands that the power ordered to the ultimate end is able to command all others in relation to that ultimate end, as is evident in the crafts and in the cases of men holding offices of commander, general, or prince. Every artisan, commander, general, or prince assigned a higher end is able to order other artisans, commanders, generals, and princes to his end and thus give them commands in so far as they are directed to his end. Clearly the kingdom of heaven is the supreme end, the one corresponding to the power of the keys promised to Peter. All other matters of a temporal character must at some time be ordered to this end. Consequently, this power given Peter entails the power of commanding all kings and princes with reference to the kingdom of heaven.” (Cajetan 2011, 114)

I think this view of authority is particularly jarring to an American such as myself, given that the American view of “authority” would be better characterized as, “the person who is over you in the government is your servant, and therefore your inferior in many respects, because the government exists for the people.” To the extent someone in authority can tell me what to do, it is because he is exercising some role that I gave him, in some sense.

Interestingly, I prefer the “American” notion of government to Cajetan’s, in several respects, not the least of which is that it seems to me to comport better with Scholastic notions of end and purpose. The end of government is the common good, and the end is superior to that which is directed towards the end, is it not?

Fascinatingly, I think that Cajetan also sees this. He has a lot to say about the purpose of authority and power which actually would lead to a rather non-hierarchical viewpoint, I believe, if he had maybe thought it through in more detail. Here is a great example of this type of thought:

“One could ask why Our Lord entrusted the pontifical office to Peter by referring to feeding his sheep and not by words referring to prelacy, authority, or dignity. The answer lies near at hand in the matter itself, because one is a prelate or has authority in order to feed the sheep of Christ, and not vice versa. Another purpose was to check ambition, since what one seeks in pontifical office is not a high position, not dignity or authority, but the feeding of the sheep of Christ. As the Apostle later said,”If one aspires to be a bishop, he desires an excellent task.” [1 Timothy 3:1]. Another reason was the fulfillment of Scripture, since he had said before his passion, “the kings of the gentiles hold rule over them, and those exercising authority are called benefactors; but not so with you, since the greater among you should become like the lesser” [Luke 22:25f]. Consequently in the ministerial act of feeding the sheep of Christ there is a tacit reference to the pontifical office as to an added element which is to be valued only for the benefit of the sheep of Christ, in contrast to gentile kings and lords who regulate all things to promote their own rule and lordship.” (Cajetan 2011, 119–20)

Going forward, I am going to pay more attention to this tension between strict hierarchical principals and a more nuanced role-based view of authority. I think that maybe closely examining the complexity of the role which Papal authority has, might lead to a slightly less rigid picture of superiority vs. inferiority than Cajetan tends to paint at times.


Cajetan, Tommaso de Vio. 2011. Cajetan Responds: A Reader in Reformation Controversy. Edited and translated by Jared Wicks.