In a recent article in The Stone, Notre Dame's own Gary Gutting argues that "[t]he mistake of the Obama administration [in the ruling that requires certain Catholic institutions to offer insurance covering birth control] was to accept the bishops' claim that their position on birth control expresses an authoritative 'teaching of the Church'". According to Gutting, "the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer"; so "it follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God." And, Gutting says, the members of the Catholic Church have voted decisively: "Most Catholics...now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines they do accept."
I am a Reformed Protestant; so I have no personal stake in defending the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, I deny its authority (over me). That is part of what makes me non-Catholic. But rejecting Rome's claims to authority is one thing; saying that they are wholly groundless is another. The latter I would not say.
Gutting asks "who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority," and begins to answer his own question by saying: "It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this." However, one might just as easily ask, "Who decides that individual believers can reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines they do accept?" I suppose it depends on what one means by 'decides'. Absolutely anyone can form and announce the belief that she has a certain kind of authority; absolutely anyone can form and announce the belief that she has certain kinds of rights. But, of course, these beliefs and announcements do not confer either rights or authority. I assume that Gutting's point is that ecclesial declarations of authority do not confer authority. But the point cuts both ways: declarations on the part of the laity that they have certain kinds of rights does not necessarily confer rights--at least not if the bishops' claims to authority are in fact correct, which is precisely what is at issue.
The real question, of course, is whether the bishops or anyone else has good reason for thinking that God has conferred upon Rome the authority to teach doctrine and interpret scripture. Plenty of people, of course, have considered this question and concluded (with Gutting) that we do not have good reason to believe this. Indeed, Gutting's claim that individual believers have the right to reject the doctrines of the Catholic Church and to interpret the scriptures in their own way was central to the Protestant Reformation. But, tellingly, the Reformers did not purport to establish this conclusion with the simple declaration that Church authority derives from the laity--or, at any rate, does not derive from God. Even if they believed such a thing, they could not have simply announced the conclusion, at least not sensibly, because of a wide variety of background views that have been historically central to Christianity--views to the effect that the Christian scriptures are authoritative, that they teach (among other things) that Christ intended for his followers to worship in communities that have a certain kind of institutional hierarchy with certain kinds of authority vested in the leaders, that the power to validly administer sacraments derives from the authority vested in the leaders of the Church, and so on. Gutting's assertion that ecclesial authority derives from the laity impinges upon all of these claims. I am not saying that it is not viable. (I think that it is the basic view of churches with a congregationalist structure.) But it is certainly not the sort of claim that someone who claims to stand within the Christian tradition--and especially the Roman Catholic tradition--can sensibly declare without argument as if it should be obvious to all.
UPDATE: Alex Pruss has also commented on Gutting's essay, here.