It is sometimes said that if you have to insist on your authority, you don’t have it. We hear much, as we should, of the importance of love. I say, “as we should” because God is love. If His love does not warm our hearts to inspire love then something somewhere has gone very wrong and we may need to find the human equivalent of the “reset” button. But while we may, nay must, for He commands it, love our enemies, lines need to be drawn. While we may love our enemy, we cannot agree with him that the line of conduct he wishes to take is correct if it runs contrary to sound doctrine. We may do our best to reason with him, but love commands the opposite of our approving of any such conduct.
However it might concern us, we cannot deny the individual the freedom to make his or her own decision; but taken to extremes, that is without some degree of reasonableness on both sides, you can end by annihiating all real unity. Any religion which operates on the basis of unlimited pick and mix is a well-being philosophy pretending to be a religious one. Equally, on the other side of the question, an assertion of Church authority can result in the annihilation of the individual – historically, quite literally. Any religion which can only maintain a hold on its adherents by the use of force is a political system pretending to be a religious one, and has nothing to do with Christ and His teaching.
What Christianity has aimed at is a situation in which the authority of the Church nurtures the spiritual judgment of each individual to grow in conformity with God’s will, but in practice this via media has seldom been achieved, and a survey of the current situation suggests that mankind’s tendency to prefer extremes continues to prevail. Even within the Catholic Church there is a range from those who condemn Vatican II and long for the days of Encyclicals which condemned “modernism”, through to those who feel free to reject the idea of miracles and the bodily resurrection. I still recall the shock of a fellow parishioner when he realised that, as he put it, I believed “that stuff in the Creed literally.”
The life of the soul is meant to be nourished by cooperation between external gifts of Grace to which the Sacraments give us access, and the internal action of our faith. The former are not magic charms, neither are they substitutes for our own efforts; faith without works is, after all, in vain. But equally, the idea that our own efforts and our own reason can, by themselves supply what the Sacraments are there to give is equally vain, if not a sign of vanity. Grace works with and on our own faith.
There are boundaries, and one of the functions of a Church is to patrol those boundaries. In an age of relativism this is difficult, not least because some of those whose job it is to police them do not believe in the necessity for their existence. But without them, what remains of bonds of unity?