The recent Vatican directive that parishes can’t advertise their scheduled traditional Latin Masses was met with widespread mockery on social media. For anyone who has worked in a parish, the idea of a curial bureaucrat in Rome trying to tell Mrs. Jones at St. Joseph parish in Des Moines what she can put in the bulletin is laughable and ridiculous. Heck, some pastors can’t even control what goes in the bulletin!

But behind the mockery is a deep insight into the differences between power and authority, even though in today’s world these two distinct ideas are often muddled. This confusion has led to profound misunderstandings among Catholics as to the nature of authority in the Church.

Unfortunately today, many Church leaders have power behind their commands, but not authority. They know that they can command obedience from most Catholics to their directives, and so they exercise power for their own sakes or for the sake of their ideology, instead of for the common good.

We must always keep in mind this distinction between power and authority. Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for decades had the support of high-ranking Church officials, even though many knew of his monstrous misdeeds. Why? Because he had immense power in the Church, even after he was retired and had little to no authority. If Cardinal Cupich bans ad orientem worship, he might not have that authority under Church (or divine) law, but he can make life miserable to any priest who dares disobey. That’s power.

Power comes from below—it is only possible if it has consent (whether forced or given freely) from the people under control. Joseph Stalin had power in the Soviet Union because no one below him dared resist him. Mikhail Gorbachev also had power, until the people of the Soviet Union no longer gave it to him.

Authority, on the other hand, comes from above, ultimately from God. A father or a bishop or even a Catholic monarch has authority in certain spheres given to him by God for the common good of his family, diocese, or kingdom, respectively. Those under authority are obliged to follow the superior’s commands, not because of their consent, but because the authority ultimately comes from the One who has true authority over all.

Due to the Fall, power can become virtually unlimited in this world, through force or influence. What could Stalin not do during his reign? A person with power also usually wants to acquire more power. As Lord Acton noted, “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Being able to tell people what to do can be intoxicating.

Authority, on the other hand, is always limited in scope. Only God has unlimited authority, and He only delegates aspects of his authority to individuals as needed to bring people closer to Him.

And it’s important to note that this limitation applies to everyone with earthly—including ecclesial—authority, for only God Himself has full authority over man, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, “Man is subject to God simply as regards all things, both internal and external, wherefore he is bound to obey Him in all things. On the other hand, inferiors are not subject to their superiors in all things, but only in certain things and in a particular way” (ST Pt. II-II, Q 105, Art. 5).

Vatican I recognized these limitations in office of the papacy as well. It states,

For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Legitimate papal authority, in other words, is exercised when the pope “religiously guards and faithfully expounds the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.” But it’s an illegitimate exercise of power when he tries to “make known some new doctrine.” Even a pope has limited authority in the Church, although in modern practice he has almost unlimited power. And if a pope has only limited authority, then surely so do bishops and priests as well.

Problems arise when leaders mistake their God-given authority for power. They abuse their authority because they have the power to get away with it. So the abusive father is able to command his children far beyond his authority, because his children are unable to resist him. He has power over them. A bishop decides he can do whatever he wants—reassign priests he doesn’t like, use diocesan funds for private jet trips—because he has the power to do so….

The above comes from a Dec. 30 posting by Eric Sammons in Crisis magazine.