The Seat of Authority

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

“Observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”

Mt 23:3

In this Sunday’s gospel (Mt 23:1-12), Jesus instructs his hearers to obey the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees because they “have taken their seat on the chair of Moses” (Mt 23:2), but not to follow their hypocritical example.

What is this “chair of Moses?” It’s not a physical piece of furniture, but a metaphorical way of speaking of the real religious authority that the scribes and Pharisees had as teachers of the faith — an authority that Jesus said should be respected.

As Americans, we have a natural understanding of what it means to respect the office, even though we may have greater or lesser respect for the person holding it. We have a new president every four or eight years, so we know very well that our leaders come and go. And while we hope that whoever holds such an important office would be a wise, prudent and virtuous person, we know that isn’t always the case. Even when the person who occupies the Oval Office is a scoundrel, that doesn’t diminish the respect we ought to have for the office itself, nor the duty to recognize the legitimate authority that resides in that office.

In Jesus’ day, the governing authority in Judea was held by the Romans, ruling through puppet-kings like Herod. But the religious authority resided in the scribes and Pharisees who taught the Jewish faith to the people. Teachers in that culture would teach sitting down, from a chair. The chair, therefore, became a recognized symbol of teaching authority. The scribes and Pharisees were said to “sit in the chair of Moses” because they had the authority to teach the Law of Moses. 

We still use the chair as a symbol of teaching authority in the Catholic Church today. The primary church of a bishop in his diocese is called a “cathedral” from the Latin word cathedra, meaning “chair.” Dioceses themselves are referred to as “Sees” from the Latin word sede or “seat.” Rome is called the Holy See because it is the sede or seat of St. Peter, Peter being the head of the Church of Rome when he was martyred.

Among all of the Apostles, Jesus established Peter in a special office of authority, giving him the keys to the kingdom — another symbol representing the office of prime minister or chief steward — one who had the authority to govern on behalf of the king.

The successor of St. Peter — whoever currently holds the position of bishop of Rome — exercises the most authority when he teaches something ex cathedra, which is Latin for “from the chair,” referring specifically to his teaching office. When the pope “proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” he is protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error. This is called the doctrine of papal infallibility (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 891). This is only true when he acts ex cathedra as the successor of St. Peter, and not as a private theologian. 

There have been 266 occupants of the chair of St. Peter in the history of the Church. Many of them have been saints who exercised their leadership with great humility and wisdom. Some of them have been scoundrels who served their own interests (some of the truly horrible popes of the Renaissance come to mind).

Whether they were great leaders or poor leaders, their authority to teach and govern the Church derived not from their personal character, but from the office that was established by Christ upon which he built his Church (see Matthew 16:18). 

Sometimes people look at scandalous actions of authority figures in the Church as reason to doubt the faith. But Jesus didn’t see things that way. His instructions to the Jews of his day remain true for us. We should respect the office and obey the teachings of those who have authority over us in the faith — our pastors and bishops, including the pope. But to the extent that they fail to live by the teachings they profess, we should follow their words and not their example.