I just posted this comment to a blog post over at the wonderful new Biblical Horizons blog. It's not all that well written, but it's probably one of the most coherent thoughts that I've ever had on the subject of authority. It also leads into a lengthy quotation from the Ballad of the White Horse that contains some of my favorite lines of poetry.
If I'm understanding the Catholic approach to baptism correctly, then the validity of the baptism would depend on the proper words being spoken (a Trinitarian formula must be used) and the "human response of faith" being present (I think...). One joins you to to the unity of the mystical body of Christ (faith) and one joins you to the unity of historical and concrete Christian church (formula).
Are we to assume that the formula of faith (one could think of this as a Trinitarian confession) implies the presence of faith? We need to have some observable basis on which we can say that we are brothers and sisters. And since I don't have a faith-o-meter on me, I've got to go by something a little more tangible. So perhaps we're supposed to assume that the church is right, even though we know that our leaders are not perfect extensions of the Leader.
We can't assume a complete disconnection between the church and the Church, so what must be assumed? Where is the overlap between the church and the Church? If we assume that the Spirit is the source of our unity, then the place of unity is the place of overlap. If this is the case, then we should put authority at the places of unity. What unifies the church, who unifies the church? Church councils? Church leadership? Church structure? Church teachers? Church creeds?
Now, of course this isn't prescriptive. When leaders are bad, people aren't necessarily unified by that leadership, and the authority decreases. But if you are that unifier, you have to be prescriptive, just not on the basis of that authority. In other words, I think the Catholic approach is pretty much right...except for when a leader claims he's right because he has the authority. Divine authority can strengthen you, but woe to those who try to rest on it.
Also, I think is true for political authority as well. No President can have some sort of divine assurance that whatever he'll do will be right because he was voted in (even if he got 100% of the vote). Authority can be seen from below, but is invisible when you're in the chair. Authority can be trusted from below, but only hoped and prayed for from above.
You want an example of what divine authority looks like? Witness King Alfred, when worried that England would fall to the pagans:
"Mother of God," the wanderer said,
"I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.
"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.
"But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?
"When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?"
And a voice came human but high up,
Like a cottage climbed among
The clouds; or a serf of hut and croft
That sits by his hovel fire as oft,
But hears on his old bare roof aloft
A belfry burst in song.
"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.
"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.
"The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.
"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
"The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
"The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
"The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
"The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
"But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.
"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"
If you rest divine authority, you will become as to the fanatics of East, who's rationalism buries them. If you dwell on hopelessness, you are bound for the despair of the Western cynics. If you have found the "joy without a cause, yea, faith without a hope", you have found inspiration.
Update: Over at Biblical Horizons today, a new post came up quoting Lesslie Newbigin on this very topic, and seems to move in the basic direction I look towards (community centered sense of Spirit and truth). It promises to be rather clearer (and definitely better written) than whatever I've been trying to get out.
If you'd like to consider the topic, start by trying to think of authority (one that includes issues like what you should do, what you should believe, etc) as essentially tribalistic. See if you can do this without sounding like a relativist at the end of the conversation. If you succeed, let me know, for that's where I'm looking. My entire post was an attempt to do this by relying on the description I've heard of authority by Catholics (which essentially sees unity and authority as two sides to the same coin).