What Kind of Thing is Authority?

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them…”

So quoted Malvolio in Shakespseare’s Twelfth Night (albeit as he read from a letter written by Maria, so, ironically, the great lines on greatness were not even his).

History, along with current events, which will comprise much of future history, is much-ado about such “great” personages, those who wield that coveted thing we call “authority,” against which Our Lord warns us. Sure enough, greatness and authority are not quite the same thing. Not every “great” person has what we normally think of as “authority,” at least as the world has it. There are and have been many hidden saints of great soul, who lived and died in relative obscurity, seeking not to “lord it over others.” At the same time, we would hope those who are called to wield authority have some measure of greatness, so that they wield it well.

When I ask students “what kind of thing is authority?,” most struggle for an answer, for upon immediate reflection, it seems something vague and inchoate. Who has authority often seems obvious; what kind of thing it is, and why they have it, less so.

The Catechism defines authority as “the quality by which men make laws and expect obedience from others” (CCC, #1897), a quality which is therefore always exercised within a society, a group of individuals gathered together for a purpose, a purpose or end achieved by the making of laws.

Without authority, the end of a society can never be achieved, which is why anarchy is inconsistent with any society. An-arche literally means no rule, no principle, no laws, no authority, without which a society not only cannot thrive, but cannot even exist in the first place. Such a grouping would be akin to what Pope Leo I called the Second pseudo-Council of Ephesus in 449 (before the real Council, two years later in Chalcedon) a latrocinium, a chaotic “band of robbers,” each seeking his own end or purpose.

Wherefore Art Thou, Authority?
Following Malvolio, we may wonder whence authority derives. Are people born with it? Given it? Authority as a “quality,” may derive from any number of sources, and we may distinguish two basic levels: There is what might be called “natural” authority, deriving from those gifts and dispositions with which we are born, which we in turn elevate and perfect by practice and discipline. People have authority due to their charisma, their looks, their age, intelligence, even humor; acting or musical ability provides authority of a sort, which is why people listen to singers and athletes, and why they are given such large paychecks to endorse everything from t-shirts to cars. Authority may also derive from strength and force, as anyone who has been held up, or held captive, by gunpoint can tell you. On that note, Saint Thomas states that every law must be backed up by “ force and fear,” in case people are not disposed to obey authority, which so often happens, either because the laws are bad, or the subjects recalcitrant.

Even within our small, transient social units, observe who dominates, the one to whom people listen. Christ had a good deal of natural authority (of course, perfected by the fact that united with his human nature was a Divine Person), without the need of weapons or coercion, and the Gospel writers remark that he spoke with authority and the people hung upon his words. I imagine that people sat up a little straighter when Christ walked into a room. We have all met people who are “born with” and, to a greater or lesser extent, “achieve” such greatness: Pope John Paul had many charismatic gifts, which he developed to a high degree, and evoked a kind of Christ-like authority, evident even from those of us who only saw him from a distance. So too, to a lesser extent, do various authority figures in our lives, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors.

Besides such natural authority, there is also what we might term “formal” or “legal” authority, wherein people are given the power to “make laws and expect obedience” by the laws of the society itself, whether by voting procedure, as in a republic, or by birthright, as in a monarchy, or by their wealth and privilege, as in an oligarchy or plutocracy. One may also achieve such authority by being hired or promoted within any society, such as a workplace.

The key here is that although we would hope that the one given legal authority is also the one with the most fitting sort of natural authority, there is no necessary or absolute connection between natural and formal-legal authority. Teachers should know their subject, and coaches their sport, but there are many incompetent ones; our civil leaders should be well-steeped in the nature of law and the common good, sacrificing their own good to attain such, and the hierarchy of our priests and bishops should, as Church law requires, have their souls and intellects sharpened and perfected by a life of prayer, study and discipline. I need not point out that the lack of such prerequisites is all too obvious.

Certainly, those who seek authority over others usually claim that they are the best man for the job, and that their experience, knowledge and prudence make them as though born to lead. Given the results, one has to wonder if it would not be best to seek for leaders amongst those who do not make such claims, who seek only to govern themselves. Karol Wojtyla bowed his head in sorrow when he heard he had been chosen as Pope, even though all knew, likely except himself, that he was the most qualified.

There is a third element in authority, and that is, after natural and legal authority have been bestowed, there is using authority well, seeking the welfare of those under one’s charge, governing justly, prudently in accord with the common good of the society over which they are put, in light of the will of the good God. This requires a good deal of sacrifice and courage, especially in standing up for the truth, what Saint Paul calls parrhesia, without which any authority is ineffectual, the society will wither, and one’s subjects becomes lost and confused.

More Or Less Perfect Authority
Rare is the case where all three of these aspects coalesce perfectly. They did so in Christ, and, in an analogous way, in the saints. Some were given overt authority, like King Louis IX over the French, Benedict over his monks, and every father and mother over their families. Yet all of us, even those with little or no authority over others, are bound to govern over our own bodies and souls, our passions and desires, so that we are led by reason and grace, and do not become slaves of sin. In fact, this authority over oneself, the kingly governance of one’s own life, is fundamental to all other authority, for one who has not learned first to obey will never govern rightly. Only a humble and virtuous man, faithful to his conscience, aware of his own weaknesses as well as his strengths, can govern well.

Ponder some few historical examples: The patriarch Joseph, the warrior Gideon and the prophet Samuel all professed their unworthiness of the authority given them, which made them better leaders, for they relied upon God. Saul, chosen as king in part because he seemed a good fighter, standing quite literally head and shoulders above other men, began auspiciously, but allowed his soul and his kingship to be corrupted by envy and a lack of trust in God. David, his successor, at first seemed to have a lesser natural gift of authority, the runt of Jesse’s litter, out keeping the sheep, but behind his apparently unassuming demeanor was a deep courage and faith. His “ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes,” along with his power and military might, made him a little too irresistible to women, and they to him, and he cultivated too great an attachment to his numerous brood. But his humility saved him, ending on the right note of repentance and faith.

And so history goes. The “great ones” of this world were all followed because of some natural charismatic gifts, whether of warfare, grandiose, passionate speeches, a capacity to read and appeal to the desires of the people and, of course, the ubiquitous use of force for the recalcitrant, or for those who saw through the façade.

Authority, New and Old
In our current milieu, we have here in Canada Justin Trudeau as prime minister, whose “natural authority” consists more or less in the name he inherited from his father, akin in some ways to the Kennedy’s, who trade more or less on their own patronymic, derived from the millionaire patriarch, Joseph Sr., who was determined to use his own considerable money, influence and authority to have one of his boys president. I suppose Trudeau and the early Kennedys also derived some authority from the fact that some members of the fairer sex find them attractive, made more relevant since women were given the franchise in 1918 (in Canada) and 1920 (in the U.S., with the 19th amendment). This is something G.K. Chesterton deplored, not because he was anti-woman (he most definitely was not), but because he was pro-family, and thought that the choice over who governed belonged not to individuals, but to that most sacred and fundamental society, the family, who should vote as a unit. Curiously, French women had to wait until the end of the Second World War in 1945 to win the right to vote, perhaps connected to France’s own tradition of Salic law, that a woman could never be queen in France, but I am not sure this was due to the Gauls being more pro-family.

Then there are also the Clintons, and we may thank the good God that Slick Willie was not able to begin such a potential presidential dynasty.  His wife was defeated handily in the Electoral College, although there is always Chelsea, now that Hillary’s own ambitions seem to have waned. Perhaps the U.S. should instantiate its own version of Salic law, before it’s too late. (However, it should be noted in all fairness and in a spirit of nonpartisanship that many U.S. voters wished the Bush family dynasty good riddance last go-around.)

This notion of a “name” bestowing authority has its roots in royal governance, noble blood and the divine right of kings, something the United States republic, as far as my own knowledge goes, warred against and wanted to avoid, that one should somehow earn leadership. More than half (26 of 44) U.S. presidents served in the military, a custom following ancient Greece and Rome, which generally required their leaders to be tested in warfare, a requirement that continued even through the waning days of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Plato, on the other hand, wanted philosopher-kings for his republic, those formed well in the eternal and universal principles of truth and the art of governance, and left the fighting to the lesser, but still noble, guardians.

The point in all of this is that the path to legal-formal authority now requires not some “real” greatness, like Alexander who could actually lay siege to a city, or Dwight Eisenhower overseeing the European theatre of World War II, but rather in maneuvering one’s way through a rather fake, enclaved and byzantine system of political influence and strategy. The usual advice is to get a law degree, hopefully from some place covered in ivy, make friends in high places, gain influence in secret societies and frat houses, glad-hand and be complaisant, never, ever saying anything offensive, except perhaps about Christians and intolerant “fundamentalists” of any stripe, and make a whole lot of obfuscatory, ambiguous, carefully crafted, lighter-than-air speeches wafting into the ether, with one’s nose finely tuned to the wind of whatever current zeitgeist is blowing.

Most recently, Barack Obama, who has yet to start his own name-brand political dynasty, seemed rather adept at this, helped along his own road to authority by people in high places, and I don’t mean heaven, although his own “cool” factor and capacity to read the signs of the millennial times (Hope! Change!) did him favors, and he read his teleprompter well with a resonant baritone voice.

But the game may be up, for the common people are beginning to see through the Potemkin façade of such leaders. Hence, the recent shift towards more natural authority, and bestowing legal authority only upon those who deserve it and can use it well, and not those out to pad their own egos and bank accounts and earn a gold-plated pension. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, who as far as I know has never been in the military, he at least does not need to be president for financial reasons. Is he seeking glory and a place in history? Perhaps, but he also seems to have the good of America at heart, and he purports to disdain the fake, calcified, elitist political process with all of its enforced correctness. Although he just turned 71 on June 14th, he is still appears a vigorous man, and his presidency is still young. Time will tell how he exercises his own authority, and we may wish him God’s help.

A Final Word On Supernatural Authority
The Church has her own means of bestowing authority, which resides primarily in the hierarchical priesthood, whose power is handed on by the laying on of hands by the bishops, a power derived from the Apostles and ultimately Christ himself. As Saint Paul warns the young bishop Timothy “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins” (1 Tim 5:22), for the exercise of the priesthood is a grave and noble authority, which should be bestowed upon men well formed in virtue and grace; hence the Tridentine decree that seminaries were to be founded, offering years of spiritual and intellectual formation. Alas, things have not always worked out as one might have hope, as the many scandals suggest, but there is hope, and things have improved of late.

The highest office in the Church, the papacy, is bestowed via the choice of the cardinals in conclave after prayer, discussion and counsel, a procedure followed since its instantiation by Pope Nicholas II in 1059 (prior to that, popes were chosen by the aristocracy, which often became rather incestuous). Until 1996, when it was disallowed by John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, popes could also be chosen, albeit rarely, via “acclamation,” by some sign from God or from the people, as occurred to poor Fabian, a layman out to witness the election of the new pontiff in the year 236 after the brief reign of Pope Anterus, when a dove alighted upon his Italian brow, a sign which caused the people to acclaim “Fabian as Pope!” It seemed propitious, for he governed well, initiating work on the catacombs, and died a holy martyr under Emperor Decian.

Although we may hope that his fellow cardinals choose the man amongst their number best naturally and supernaturally suited for this greatest of authorities this side of heaven, Pope Emeritus Benedict once commented that this need not always be the case, and the Holy Spirit may be blocked in getting his man elected. Not all popes, to put the case mildly, are saints, and some have been rather imperfect. Yet we must always still respect their authority. Although we may, and sometimes should, analyze and even critique the words of the Holy Father, we should not lampoon, caricature or disrespect him, a principle that holds, with less gravity, for any authority figure. As the military adage has it, one salutes the rank, not the person, which the Catechism puts this way: “The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect” but goes on to add “and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will” (CCC, #1900).

Presently, there does not seem to be a whole lot of “gratitude and good will” for our authority figures. Rather, we are likely more given to righteous anger at their widespread incompetence, venality and irritating sense of entitlement, so far beyond what their limited natural gifts might warrant.

We should recall, however, that in this fallen world still journeying towards perfection, all of us will to some degree misuse the authority given him, some more than others, and more so as more authority is given, but we must not allow that to lead us to undermine authority itself, which is always a reflection, however dim, of God’s own, which is why the first pope urged the early Christians to “[b]e subject to every human creature for God’s sake whether to the king as supreme, or to governors as sent through him … for such is the will of God” (1 Peter 2:13). Saint Paul advised his fellow bishop Timothy that “supplications, prayers, intercession and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” In the end, as Pope Benedict makes clear in Spe Salvi commenting on the Last Judgement, the Almighty, from whom all power in heaven and earth is derived, will ensure justice is done, and that all are given the recompense owed. For from those to whom much is given, much will be demanded.

John Paul Meenan

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John Paul Meenan is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Ontario, Canada. He edits and writes at Catholic Insight.

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