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Dialogue Mass - CXXVII

Authority Supplanted by ‘Service’

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
Decades before Vatican II, Tyrrell’s recasting of the meaning of authority and its reduction to “service” entered the Church via the Liturgical Movement in the work of Fr. Romano Guardini, now acclaimed by progressivist reformers as one of the main leaders of liturgical “renewal.” Fr. Guardini, it must be added, exerted a significant influence on the documents of Vatican II as well as on the post-Conciliar Popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.


Guardini: ‘Her authority is the authority of service’

This is what Guardini said about ecclesiastical authority:

“This authority is not one of domination, so the individual is subject to it, but the Church is the great servant of the individuals, and becomes by this service that which she really is. Her authority is the authority of service.” (1)

Guardini was among the first of the 20th-century theologians to take up and develop the idea of clerical authority as a generalized, amorphous “service” in which the ordained priest is no longer seen as a mediator of the authority of God, but as the servant of the people. The implication of his words quoted above is that the faithful are not subject to the Church’s authority invested in the Hierarchy, but only directly to God and to their own conscience – a classical Lutheran position. This explains why Guardini regarded the exercise of clerical power, especially where it requires obedience from its subjects, binding under pain of sin, as a form of “domination” (in the pejorative sense).

As for the subject of the papacy as a monarchy, Guardini made his opinion known in the following roundabout way:

“At the Council, when Pope Paul VI laid aside the Tiara with its triple crown upon the altar so that it might be sold and its price might be used to feed the hungry, he intended this act as a symbol and a multiple lesson.” (2)


Paul VI sets aside the papal Tiara, a sign of his rejection of the monarchical structure of the Church

The intended symbol of this action by Paul VI, endorsed by all succeeding Popes, was that the monarchical structure of the Church, with the Pope at the apex, should become taboo, and that the doctrine of papal supremacy should be silenced. And the intended lesson to be learnt from laying aside the papal Tiara is that the universal rule of Christ the King (whose Vice-regent on earth is the Pope) is no longer to be acknowledged as supreme, either in the Church (where the distinction between ruler and subject has been blurred), or in society (where Vatican II has admitted Religious Liberty to all).

In fact, the term Christ the King is not mentioned even once in any of the Vatican II documents, despite the fact that Pope Pius XI had, earlier in the same century, instituted a Feast to celebrate the Kingship of Christ. The abandonment of the Tiara in the context of feeding the poor gives a clear message that the entirely supernatural goal of the papacy has been degraded and debased to make way for purely naturalistic, humanitarian and secular considerations.

‘We don't rule over your faith, we serve your joy’

To anyone familiar with post-Vatican II rhetoric, this subtitle may sound as if it had been written by Pope Francis. But it was, in fact, the motto that Benedict XVI, looking back over his long ecclesiastical career, said he had chosen to have printed on the invitation cards to the first Mass he celebrated after his priestly ordination in 1951.


Ratzinger, fourth from the left, at his first Mass, already states that he has a different view of authority

The year is noteworthy as it shows that the young Fr. Ratzinger had already adopted this revolutionary slogan before the sacred oil had dried on his hands; it also raises questions as to what influences had been brought to bear on his mind during his seminary training.

The notion of substituting ruling for serving has long been the leitmotif of most progressivist thinkers who aimed to subvert the Church’s Constitution, starting with early modernists such as George Tyrrell and key players in the Liturgical Movement such as Romano Guardini.

In his autobiography-by-interview with journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict explained that his youthful motto was “part of a contemporary understanding of the priesthood.” (3) But the motto does not represent the theological orthodoxy that prevailed in the mid-1950s. On the contrary, before Vatican II it would have been unintelligible to all but a certain group of rebellious theologians – a revolutionary vanguard –who eventually succeeded in changing the way the modern Church regards the priesthood.

Even in his twilight years, Pope Benedict XVI still clung on to the view that was de rigueur among progressivists that the traditional teaching of the Church on the munus regendi was a form of “Clericalism”:

“Not only were we conscious that clericalism is wrong and the priest is always a servant, but we also made great inward efforts not to put ourselves up on a high pedestal.” (4)

Even if this statement is not intended to be an example of virtue-signalling, it carries the distasteful implication that modern priests are superior to their forebears in the virtue of humility. The basic assumption that priests have put themselves up on a high pedestal is a slur on the priesthood; it fails to recognize that priests have been called and ordained to a higher destiny as mediators between God and man for the salvation of souls.

Still reminiscing on the progressivist formation he received in his seminary days, which induced him to view the ordained priesthood as something not to be looked up to, Pope Benedict XVI stated:


Paul VI, Benedict XVI & Francis - all shared the same progressivist view of authority

francis benedict
“I would not even have dared to introduce myself as ‘the Reverend.’ To be aware that we are not lords, but rather servants, was for me something not only reassuring, but also personally important as the basis on which I could receive ordination at all.” (5)

This statement seems to owe more to the ideological prejudice against the higher status of the priesthood that had always been a bone of contention among progressivists. It is in line with the thinking of Fr. Tyrrell who, as we have seen, described himself as “too democratic even to enjoy the ‘superiority’ of sacerdotal dignity.” (6)

Regrettably, Tyrrell’s modern day heirs, who also reject the higher-lower dichotomy, overthrow what the Church has taught with the greatest certainty and accuracy: that man is subject to the sovereignty of God who is the goal of all creation, and that the faithful are subordinate to the Hierarchy who represents Christ, the Head of the Church.

Moreover, a key feature of the pre-Vatican II revolutionaries is that they did not source their ideas from Catholic Tradition but from their own personal opinions. Benedict XVI, for instance, admitted that the motto printed on his invitation card expressing his view of the priesthood (to serve and not to rule) was inspired by his own private interpretation of the Bible:

“So the statement on the invitation expressed a central motivation for me. This was a motive I found in various texts in the lessons and readings of Holy Scripture, and which expressed something very important to me.” (7)

While there are numerous references in the Scriptures to the necessity of humility among rulers, there is nothing that substitutes “service” for “rule,” as the motto seems to imply. Here Benedict XVI inadvertently revealed the baseless nature of the accusation of “Clericalism” launched against the traditional Hierarchy.

But if the grounds for the accusation cannot be found in either Scripture or Tradition, we must conclude that the taunt of “Clericalism” is simply an artificial construct, an invention of the progressivists. Otherwise, why should the concept of ruling over the faithful have become such a neuralgic issue in the Church since Vatican II? Even Popes are reluctant to mention it, and insist on redefining it under the disarming titles of “service,” “gift” and “love.”

dsly of the earth

‘When priesthood, episcopacy & papacy are understood in terms of rule, things are wrong’

After Vatican II, in his previous role as Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope presented this new outlook as follows:

“The category that corresponds to the priesthood is not that of rule … When priesthood, episcopacy and papacy are understood essentially in terms of rule, then things are essentially wrong and distorted.” (8)

Here Ratzinger showed himself a master of the dark art of obfuscation and double-speak. One could easily infer from these words that ruling does not belong to the essence of the priesthood. But this conflicts with the orthodox teaching that the munus regendi is one of the sacred powers conferred on the priest at his ordination: The priest is a ruler in the supernatural sense.

Whatever he meant is not exactly clear. All we know is that his idea did not come directly from Catholic Tradition, for he described the new teaching (which, significantly, no traditional Catholic had asked for) as “an important, different way of looking at things.” (9)

Being one of the progressivist theologians of his day, Ratzinger felt uncomfortable with the idea of a Hierarchy with the right to rule, in the sense of exercising power or sovereign authority over other members of the Church. So, he constructed a plausible account of the Greek origin of the word hierarchy with the obvious intention of diverting the attention of the faithful away from its true meaning as understood in Tradition.

Hierarchy – from the Greek hieros (sacred) and archon (ruler or lord) (10) was always understood in the Church as government by ecclesiastical rulers who had received their priestly powers through Ordination. But this concept was too unpalatable for progressivists who wanted to demolish the monarchical structure of the Church and replace it with a democratic model based on Baptism alone. So, Ratzinger performed a sleight of hand by pointing to an ambiguity in the Greek word archē, (11) which can mean both origin and rule, and chose the former meaning over the latter as the correct translation. (12)

This act of misdirection provided a ready excuse for progressivists to ditch the traditional interpretation of hierarchy, while making it virtually impossible for anyone without knowledge of Greek etymology to judge the reliability of his translation.


The people’s Pope, a new concept of papacy

As it turned out, Ratzinger was unable to provide any grounds for believing that origin was a more appropriate translation than rule,(13) which was the fundamental point of his argument.

To sum up, his theological position on the Hierarchy, faithful to Vatican II, was no different from that of Fr. Tyrrell and all progressivists of neo-modernist persuasion. It can be summed up in his statement:

“Jesus’ way of governing was not through dominion, but in the humble and loving service of the washing of the feet.” (14)

All the ingredients of the modernist anti-clerical outlook are contained therein: Clerics should serve the people rather than rule over them – the message encapsulated in the Ratzinger motto.

After Pope John XXIII’s opening speech at the Council, in which he recommended the “medicine of mercy,” a new approach to governing the Church was conceived. It would be free from “inquisitorial” practices such as heresy-hunting, censorship and punitive laws, with less emphasis on the imposition of penances, fasting and abstinence, commands and sanctions, and much more on the freedom of the individual.

If Benedict still talked about ruling and governing the Church, it was only in the sense of “guiding,” “instructing,” “inspiring” and “sustaining” the “People of God”; (15) in other words with emasculated authority structures compatible with Vatican II’s “New Evangelization.”


  1. Romano Guardini, The Church of the Lord: On the Nature and Mission of the Church, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1966, p. 105.
  2. Ibid., p. 107.
  3. Benedict XVI, Peter Seewald, Last Testament: In His Own Words, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, p. 87.
  4. Ibid., p. 87.
  5. Ibid., p. 88.
  6. G. Tyrrell, ‘To Wilfrid Ward Esq.’, April 8, 1906, apud Maude Petrie (ed.), George Tyrrell’s Letters, London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., 1920, p. 102.
  7. Benedict XVI, Peter Seewald, op. cit., p. 88.
  8. Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 191.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The archon (ἄρχων) was the title of the chief magistrates in ancient Greek states.
  11. Archē (αρχη) originally had the meaning of something that was in the beginning, designating the source, origin or root of things that exist. By extension, it came to mean power, sovereignty and domination derived from a first principle.
  12. Ratzinger, ibid., p. 190.
  13. Ratzinger concentrated solely on the “sacred origin” aspect of the word hierarchy, and omitted its meaning of “sacred rule.” He clouded the issue in circumlocution, stating that the power of the sacred origin is “the ever-new beginning of every generation in the Church.” This gives the impression of a return to the sources to re-apply the original principles to each new generation to suit the outlook of contemporary man. But this digression is not an argument ad rem. It does nothing to prove that the traditional concept of the hierarchy is “essentially wrong and distorted.”
  14. Benedict, ‘Authority and hierarchy in the Church: Service lived in pure giving’, Address given in St Peter’s Square, May 26, 2010
  15. This approach features very clearly in his above-mentioned May 2010 speech.

Posted June 28, 2023


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