On Authority - A Catholic Essay
As I have studied philosophy and theology, discussing those topics with many different kinds of believers, I came to realize that one of the key elements in discerning issues of ultimate truth and priority in life, such as the existence and nature of God, morality, and similar topics, is authority. It is possibly the least discussed topic in these fields, even by Catholics, but it is crucial to a proper understanding of spirituality, truth, God, and human nature.
In order to adequately appropriate the topic of authority in it’s relevance to truth, it must first be defined. Though like all things it’s definition is debated, I have come to define it as the qualification and earned right of someone that affords their opinions greater influence and certainty. This is relevant to many areas of life, particularly in fields such as philosophy, religion, science, politics and power, and also daily life, from the authority of parents over their children, to government leaders over their followers, to God over His Creation. Beliefs regarding authority have taken many different forms over history, even as informal discussions between those who were not academics or clergy, and modern times are an illustration of that development.
In every field, there are different degrees of authority that people can have. For example, in astronomy, a trained astronomer who has a college doctorate, has published works on the topic, has made important discoveries, and has worked on large-scale astronomical projects such as the Hubble telescope, would be more readily approached than someone who has a basic telescope in their backyard, has no formal training, and only looks at the stars for fun rather than systematic study for their view on a particular problem in astronomy. These more qualified people are often called “an authority” in their field, especially in the most important areas. This means that they are more qualified, and thus their opinions are more likely to be accurate to reality than the opinion of someone less qualified, which gives the former person more authority on a given subject than the latter person.
This applies to every area of academic study, but also in daily life. If a grocery store was trying to hire someone to be a manager, they would be much more likely to hire someone with twenty years management experience in a grocery store and a college degree than someone who has worked as a cashier for a year and is under eighteen. Of course, in the human arena, the normal secular world, it is impossible for people to know exactly who is most qualified for a position in each person’s mind, skills and talent. They must go by signs, such as their experience and previous success, knowledge of the subject, and other factors. People will also sometimes allow preference to muddle their recognition of someone’s authority, whether intentionally or unintentionally, such as by hiring someone for a management position because they think they are attractive, or they’re a family member, or because they could pay them less, rather than if they are more qualified. This makes determining who is truly a higher authority in secular affairs often very difficult.
This method of determining authority based on qualification also applies to matters of truth and spirituality. As in secular pursuits, spiritual affairs have different factors for determining qualification and level of authority.. Again, these factors are debated, and with spiritual matters it is much more complex - and important - to assure that the designation of authority is accurate, than in secular matters.
This standard also applies to morality. Although every single mentally healthy, and often even psychologically disordered, person has some sense of morality and conscience, determining what moral system is the best and most true to reality is just as difficult to determine as what is spiritually true. However, authority is crucial in this matter, perhaps even more so than in spiritual matters. Determining what is good and what is bad, and indeed discerning if that process is itself a valid one, must be done by properly qualified people; but who is qualified for such a thing? Again this is based on certain qualifications which should be determined by rational, philosophical study, with a bit of common sense and much prayer.
The Highest Authority
As I said in the previous section, each area of life, such as truth, morality and politics, has different factors to determine who is properly qualified to have authority in their particular area to make their opinions more likely to correspond to reality than someone less qualified. Although the factors are different in each field, there is one set of qualifications that, if met, give the person who meets them ultimate, perfect authority in all areas of life. Namely, these factors, among others, signify that someone who meets them is divine and God. These factors are:
2. Ultimate originality (I.e. no beginning)
3. Unending nature
4. Unchanging nature
7. Independence from existence
8. Creator of existence
If someone meets these factors, they are perfect and divine, which are the qualifications for being essentially God. By being God, their pronouncements in all areas of human life are perfect, just as they are, and cannot be wrong or superseded by a higher authority, as none exists. God is the highest authority in existence.
Usually, however, God primarily makes statements in areas of truth and morality, and leaves other fields up to human judgment. But God is perfectly loving, and because of this, He did not wish to leave people alone in their limitation and imperfection to inaccurately determine parts of their lives, and especially to interpret what He told them about Himself and matters of truth and morality. And so He became incarnate in the world as Jesus Christ, who has the full authority of God because He is God Himself, and He lived the perfect human life by which all should model their own lives. The Lord also gave to His Church, which is His assembly of believers who are united in the Holy Spirit by Christ’s Body, the authority of God in infallibility by the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of dogma, presided over by the Pope, who as the pontiff is the mediator between Christ and His Church.
This gift of authority the Lord gave to His Church gives it fundamental authority by the Spirit who guides it, making all of it’s dogmatic proclamations infallibly true. Only by being guided by God directly could the Church have true authority in matters of truth and morality. Without this guidance, humans are the only authorities, and so all spiritual teachings would be susceptible to error in truth and thus unreliable.
Because humans are inherently imperfect, as they do not meet the qualifications of divinity listed above except in a limited fashion, their judgments on truth and morality will always be uncertain. Regardless of how well thought-out, well-reasoned, or how long they have existed, they will always be unreliable fundamentally. Furthermore, because of their permanent imperfection, human judgments will always remain opinions, not truths. Even when members of the Church make personal teachings, such as their own book, a statement in a magazine, or a homily, it is not certainly infallible. Though human opinions may be true in matters of spirituality and morality, it is not because they themselves give the statement certainty, but rather because their opinion corresponds with the pronouncements of God and the dogma of His Church. And because humans inherently have reason and a conscience, we are sometimes capable of discerning a truth in life by ourselves, but not from ourselves. We only identify it in life and in ourselves; we do not create the truth, or make the statement true by any inherent authority we may imagine we have. Only a divine being, which must be God, has the authority to make a statement, especially regarding truth or morality, certainly and infallibly true. The only reason the dogma of the Church is infallibly true is because the determination of dogma is guided by the Holy Spirit, who is Himself God and thus infallible, not because of the people involved therein. The interpretation and application of dogma by the Church, called Tradition, is also infallible, as Jesus Christ transmitted the authority to establish Tradition from the Jewish priests to His Church, certified by the seal of Peter's successor, the Pope.
God is the ultimate authority on all matters, because He is perfect and divine, which is why His judgments should be followed in all possible situations, or the Church’s judgments in more particular situations. Within the Church, Christ established a hierarchy of authorities to govern the it in all ways. Because these offices were established by Christ, they are apart of the fundamental structure of the Church, which is infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit, not merely political positions; particularly the priest and Pope, from which all other clerical offices derive, with lay-offices being appointed by the clergy.
Originally, there were three offices in the Church: Pope, apostolic bishop, and layman. The Pope, as the supreme pontiff, was a bishop himself, St. Peter, as an apostle, but was also appointed by Christ to preside over, lead, and be the head of the Church with the Keys of Heaven, which are essentially symbols of papal authority. The apostles were also chosen and appointed by Christ personally, and they were given authority to determine dogma, Tradition, and other Church functions with the authority of the Holy Spirit. From the apostles, their descendants and appointees, the priesthood, took many different forms within the Church, based both on practical necessity and hierarchical authority, such as the parish priest, the diocesan bishop, etc., the Pope being himself a priest just as St. Peter was both Pope and apostle. And the laymen of the Church are those not given Holy Orders, but who believe in the Church and it’s teachings and who follow it religiously, who also constantly strive for a complete spiritual relationship with God in the clarity of purity and the intensity of contrite and charitable love, implemented by the sacraments and by the good works and faith of the individual layman and collective Body together.
Outside the Church, in matters of secular human affairs, God usually allows humans to determine the specifics for themselves, primarily because they do not relate directly to God and morality, but rather to human society. The secular is important, though, and so the Church offers it’s helpful insights, more based on the qualification certain members of the Church have based on their own merit and their affinity as a spiritually-guided Catholic, but otherwise humans must rely on their innate, God-given reason and conscience to devise political, economic, justice and social systems. These should be guided by the insights of the Church, with her teachings in mind, and love for God and all His Creation, including the environment, as a guiding force in intention and act.
In politics, humans are guided by the Church to develop political systems that uphold the sanctity of life, dignity, freedom, justice, charity and privacy, and that allows them to pursue religion freely. Governments should also work to assist in the development and protection of other nations, working with them in harmonious community for mutual benefit, and also guarding them from the tyrannical attempts often made by other nations or within themselves. The authority to determine the nature of a nation’s political system is of course based on the qualifications of the individual to varying degrees, but because of the diverse nature of politics, these qualifications often differ by nation, the prevailing group and it’s philosophy therein, which can be based on an endless range of sources, including religion, the specific needs of the citizens, or the intentions of the rulers in power. But, because the power and authority that national leaders acquire is given to them by God alone, political leaders must be respected, especially by those with less political authority than that individual. This is not something to be ashamed of or to rebel against, because it is not who the person is that gives them authority; it is their office that has authority, which comes from God alone. Thus, being respectful to a political leader is merely being respectful to the authority given to them by God, though this certainly does not make the person him/herself infallible to any degree.
In every area of secular life, as I have said, there are qualifications that determine the degree of authority one has in that area, and these qualifications, below God’s divinity, often differ by area. In some systems, such as democracy, authority is based on majority rule and popular vote between different candidates, which makes the specific qualifications depend entirely on the preferences of the general populace at the time and on which politicians running for the office most possesses their desired sentiments, as well as any pre-determined requirements for candidacy, such as age. In science, authority is based on their knowledge, aptitude, experience and recognition within the scientific community, beginning with college and continuing in the aknowledgement of that person’s contributions to science by other scientists, and fundamentally in the accuracy of their hypotheses.
Economics and the business world has a somewhat different way of determining authority than politics or science. With business, authority is the power and influence one has in the general economy of a nation, and more specifically, in the particular business they work in. For example, Bill Gates, being a billionaire computer program designer and seller, has a lot of authority in the business world, and especially in the computer industry, because of his accomplishments therein, giving him considerable input and recognition in major economic decisions, projects, etc. Because of his incredible economic success, businessmen look to him for guidance, as a model of success, and in recognition of his influence and power in the economy. In economics, the authority of opinion is also relevant, as those with higher economic authority (as defined above) are more likely to have accurate economic predictions, advice, endeavors, etc., than those with less authority.
However, success in a field is not always the best measure of authority in it. In, say, art and music, one can become wealthy but not be considered very skilled or creative in their work, and vise versa; someone can make very little money or be unpopular with their work, but still be very skilled at it. This explains the frequent phenomenon of musicians and artists often not being popular until after they die, because perhaps during their lifetime they did not fit the particular styles and fads that made some artists famous, even if they possessed greater skill than the more famous artist. If someone is a qualified, skilled artist, the form of authority they have is not so much in their opinions being considered more certain than those with less qualification; rather, their art itself is considered better, and they are thought of as a better artist than someone with less authority.
Subjectivity can often play a part in the role of authority in secular society. This occurs when the specific qualifications for authority are prescribed in a field. Sometimes, what exactly these factors are is up to individual preference more so than objective factors. This is rare, however, because many things considered subjective in nature, such as something being beautiful or not and even sometimes truth (in relativism) in fact have objective, real natures and definitions. This usually only applies to things such as one’s favourite sports team, favourite style of art or music, favourite food, etc.
Rebelliousness Against Authority
Humans are often susceptible to the temptation to rebel against any authority over themselves. This is very common in children, and often carries over to immaturity in adults. Some people think that they are the perfect authority in existence, even above God. This often leads them to prefer to follow themselves and be wrong, than to follow God and be correct, unfortunately. This temptation to rebel comes from the original rebel, Satan, and some people give in to the temptation more readily than others, though it comes to everyone at times in their lives.
This is pride, the belief that oneself is better than others, even God, when no one truly is, and being unwilling to waver in that conviction. Everyone has pride to some degree, though some have it more than others. Hopefully, pride will come only occasionally in one’s life, and one should always strive to limit it’s presence. To do this, however, is a very unsettling process. Once one has rebelled as a teenager against their parents and teachers, rebelled against society as an adult, and rebelled against God as a person, and done so for years, they become comfortable in their habitual pride. They construct an entire lifestyle based around their pride, and sometimes even dream up imaginary possibilities of how they could in fact really be the center of all authority in the universe, even if they know they are not. To get a person like this to change is impossible, because you cannot do it to them; only they can change themselves, by the cleansing help of the Holy Spirit, who unceasingly invites them to purity, if they will accept it with a contrite, genuine, and diligently persistent heart, through the difficulty such a change naturally involves. But many people are not willing to make this change, and so continue living in their comfortable, prideful error, from which sinfulness derives.
This does not mean that all authorities should be followed with complete blindness, or that all authorities are equal in their authority. But there is a difference between rebelling against an authority, and disagreeing with an authority. Rebelling means that you are acting disrespectfully, absorbing their authority into yourself, and making yourself the center and ultimate end of everything. But disagreeing merely means that while you respect the authority of the person, which as I said before can only be given by God truly or else the authority is invalid, you disagree with the person himself/herself, in the interest of making the authority pure, rather than replacing the authority with yourself. And of course the way one should go about disagreeing with people in each different type of authority varies based on the field.
Rebelliousness against authority as I have described it naturally leads away from truth and goodness, towards sinfulness and error. This is why things such as evil political regimes, sinful lifestyles, and erroneous beliefs while knowing the truth come about. By placing oneself at the center of all authority, one offends God and taints one’s soul with individualism. This can lead to things such as relativism, hedonism, and indifferentism.
A Life of Authority
By living a life of authority, these errors and problems can be avoided, and a more harmonious, natural and ultimately happier and more satisfactory life can be led. Authority in all but God's affairs is earned, and one of the purest human pursuits is the attaining of authority in one's chosen field, striving to better oneself towards the qualifying ideals of what one's field considers authoritative. This makes us better people, in mind and body, as the parallel pursuit of spiritual purity grants our soul the same sort of character as any striving for betterment, though it's effects are eternal - if done with selfless intent in simple love of one's field.