One of the things they said about Jesus in his earthly lifetime was that He spoke with authority and not like the Scribes and Pharisees. He seemed to have the knowledge and the permission from God Himself to speak to what the will of God was. This was in contrast to the tradition in Judaism of citing the opinions of different Rabbis and then coming to a considered and perhaps temporary opinion on a religious issue which had to stand up to further scrutiny.
So if the question at the time was “Can I water my garden on the Sabbath?” Different opinions were quoted: Rabbi A says this but Rabbi B says this. Based on the accumulated wisdom of preceding teachers an answer was formulated on the question or it was left up to the individual to decide where he stood on the issue based on what had been already written. This method has many advantages: no one Rabbi has the monopoly on interpreting the Scriptures; one hears all the issues involved spoken about and evaluated etc.
Jesus was very different. You have heard it said, “Love your countrymen but hate your enemies but I say to you Love your enemies”. He speaks as though He has a personal pipeline to the Divinity (or on further historical reflection, He is the Divinity!). This is what impressed the crowd and angered the religious authorities since it preempted their interpretive role in communicating the teaching.
So the question became: “Who has the authority to speak and to decide what this all means?” Embedded in this question is the assumption that there is someone or a group who has the permission and the guidance from God to steer the community in the direction of a correct interpretation of what God is saying in His Revelation.
When a document, for instance, means a great deal to a group of people, how it is interpreted can have powerful and diverse results. Take our Constitution. It has held this country together for over 200 years. So how it is interpreted implies a person or a group that can make a decision concerning it. This is the role of the Supreme Court. Since the death of Antonin Scalia and his interpretive doctrine of “Originalism” one can see clearly that interpretation itself can be open to controversy.
So the authority of a major document and the authority of an agreed upon interpretive person or body is not a strange thing to us. For us Catholics, the arbiter of the Mysterious will of God is Jesus the Word of God and the Holy Scriptures that help to reveal the will of God through the Revelation in history of the Chosen People (Old Testament) and the chronicle of its fulfillment for the benefit of the world of the Chosen One, Jesus (New Testament). But given the multiplicity of possible ways of understanding this (just look at the proliferation of Protestant denominations!) we Catholics have been given the Magisterium of the Church to guide us and keep us unified.
Now as Americans we have an inbuilt reluctance to cede our opinions to the judgment of another external body of interpretation. What we believe as Americans is sacrosanct, even when opinions contradict one another. “That may be true for you but not for me.” This is a major intellectual fallacy. The truth is one and when two people hold divergent views, one of them may be correct and the other wrong or both may be incorrect. But both cannot be right. Hence the need for a Supreme Court who even in itself can still be wrong. But we as a country need to accept its decisions since we cannot live in a stalemate. There may be need for a later Supreme Court to reverse a decision that was erroneously decided in a past age. That happened in the Dred Scott Decision (defining slaves as property) and needs to happen in the future to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the killing of developing human life in the womb.
The Magisterium of the Church works this way except we have the assurance of Christ that God enters the equation to make sure that we are never in error. So when the Church enunciates a doctrine in either Faith or Morals, this is not just an opinion to be tossed out if I disagree. It is based on Scripture and the held interpretations of saints and sages over centuries and it is defined by the Church’s teaching and practice.
Because of the importance that we give the concept of freedom in our society this sounds like a handing over of our freedom to an external authority. Why is not my opinion as good as the Church’s teaching?
But here the demon of pride rears its ugly head. Am I saying that what I come to as my opinion is as good as the accumulated wisdom of centuries of reflection? When someone says to me that they do not agree with Church Teaching (Magisterium), I first ask where did they get their information about that teaching. Usually it is from some Media outlet (NY Times or radio or TV). The writers in these media are not professional theologians. Hence there is a problem in this immediately. So I ask the person with the opinion “Why not first read the document completely before enunciating an opinion?” But it should not stop there. We must read the different interpretations etc. Who can do all that you may ask. Exactly. That is what the Magisterium is for.
So it comes down to a matter of trust. Do I trust in the objectivity of the teaching authority of the Church? And if not, will I be able to both understand that teaching and be able also to theologically refute that opinion so that I can effectively answer the thinking of many wise persons who have already thought about this. If that seems very laborious and demanding, then it might be that I have to make an act of intellectual humility and trust that the Church is correct but I just don’t get it. One can arrive at this point even without faith in God and the Church. It could merely be an expression of trust in the accumulated wisdom of the Church and the historical development that it shows.
Authority can be tyrannical and it can be wrong. But to begin reflection on something without doing the required work is just, well, un-American!