Authority in (and beyond) the Church

The issue of authority is critical to Christians, critical like an achilles tendon. If it’s broken, the pain and immobility are undeniable.
Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, and later Catholics and Protestants, divided over authority issues. Protestants have splintered into a thousand subgroups over authority issues. Authority issues – can women have it? can gay Christians have it? can “they” have it as well as “us?” – continue to divide.
My suspicion for the last few years is that one kind of authority – moral authority – is going to survive and thrive in the chaos of our ongoing paradigm shifts. My suspicion was strengthened today when I read Nicholas Kristof’s NYT piece on the Pope-vs.-Nuns conflict. Quotable:

… the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.
What Bible did that come from? Jesus in the Gospels repeatedly talks about poverty and social justice, yet never explicitly mentions either abortion or homosexuality. If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.

He says of nuns:

They were the first feminists, earning Ph.D.’s or working as surgeons long before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female C.E.O.’s.

Catholic theologian Mary Hunt says,

“How dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world? … How dare the very men who preside over a church in utter disgrace due to sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their own problems by creating new ones for women religious?”

These responses give evidence for the ways that positional authority – whether gained by degrees, tenure, apostolic succession, or it’s-who-you-know good-old-boy networks (not to mention “success,” however defined) – can’t trump the authority of a life well-lived and a character well-formed. That understanding, of course, derives from a good source … someone whose only authority was moral, and who said it was by fruit that leaders would be known.
Press on, sister nuns!
Here’s one who has set a great example for me, Sister Joan Chittister: