The Good of Authority

Is truth above authority or authority above truth? What are the relations between both?

Even at the natural level, man first needs authority to learn the truth: all children first learn upon the authority of their parents and teachers, and later will be able to know by themselves what they had first learnt by way of authority. Even then in adulthood, there remain many truths which most people know upon authority (e.g. how many adults know how to prove that the surface of a disk is pr2. Most people know it upon the authority of their school teachers). Yet at that natural level, man can reach some knowledge of reality (truth) without authority.

But at the supernatural level, man cannot reach the knowledge of supernatural realities (such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity) without revelation. Thus St Thomas Aquinas teaches: “This [sacred] doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, because its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.” (Ia q.1 a.8 ad2m).

When God speaks, man must believe. This is the “principle of Dogma” which was so important in Cardinal Newman’s life: “First was the principle of dogma: my battle was with liberalism; by liberalism I mean the anti-dogmatic principle and its developments... From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery” (Apologia, ch.2).

Revealed truth must be proposed with authority; hence the “bible alone” is not sufficient! If one relies on one’s own interpretation, one cannot have the Catholic Faith, the true Faith. Indeed where does the authority of the bible come from, if not from the fact that the Church teaches it? St Augustine said: "I would not believe the Gospels unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me thereto" (Contra Ep. Fund., 5.6). Without that authority, faith is a mere opinion. Hence St Paul says: “how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be sent,” (Rom. 10:14-15). Our Lord Jesus Christ preached with authority (Mt 7:29), and sent His apostles endowing them with His own authority: “He that heareth you, heareth me” (Lk. 10:16). A preacher without that “mission” has no authority, and cannot preach the true Faith! This is how essential authority is to the knowledge of revealed truth.

Now the rejection of authority is the mark of liberalism, the heart of modern philosophy: one finds it both in those endowed with authority, who do not know how to use it (e.g. Paul VI’s 1968 Credo is simply his profession of Faith: he did not impose it), and those subject to authority who resent orders. Hence the drama of Vatican II, when they wanted to propose the faith to modern man in the language of modern man, without using solemn judgements, without definition, thus without using supreme authority.

In the subsequent confusion, how could the faithful discern what to believe? Faith is not in response to human authority, but to divine authority: hence there is need that the human person endowed with authority in the Church be transparent to our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the faithful can see Jesus speaking in him. Now that transparency essentially consists in the fidelity to transmit that which he had received: indeed a window is transparent when the image seen through it does not come from it (as from a TV screen), but comes from behind and “passes through” the window without deformation. Then it is clear that what he teaches is not his own personal opinion, but that which came from Christ himself, through the centuries of Faith. Hence novelty is the sure sign of heresy, and fidelity to Tradition the sure sign of orthodoxy.

But what if a faithful is deceived in that discernment and without fault is led to believe certain errors because they are taught by someone endowed with authority in the Church today? If the object of his faith is “that which the Catholic Church believes and teaches” for the motive that God has revealed it and entrusted it to the Church, even if he is in error as to the content of it, he has the true faith. Even Saints had been in error as the content of the faith, even St Thomas whose notion of the Immaculate Conception was inaccurate, or St Cyprian as to rebaptism. But as St Augustine teaches, it was his love of the unity of the Church (=the fact he put the Faith of the Church above his personal thinking) that saved him (de Baptismo, 6:1,2-2,3).

However, if someone repels the authority of the Catholic Church, even if he continues to hold certain truths that the Church teaches, he no longer holds them “because they are taught by the authority of God through the Church”: he has lost the very motive of the Faith, he has lost the virtue of Faith. This is how essential authority is to the true Faith.

Not only is authority necessary for Faith, it is also necessary for evangelical perfection. Indeed St Thomas Aquinas – with the whole Tradition of the Church – teaches that religious perfection consists chiefly in the imitation of Christ, especially of His obedience (IIa IIae q.186 a.5); now obedience requires a superior with authority. And indeed it is a great blessing: it is often very difficult to discern what is the Will of God for us in concrete circumstances; in the daily life of devout faithful, how can they know whether they are doing God’s will or their own personal will? Within the boundaries of God’s commandments, how can one discern between personal will and the Will of God? That is where authority comes in: when one obeys legitimate authority, especially religious authority, then one knows he is doing God’s will. Even if there may be fault on the part of the superior, so long as the command is not intrinsically wrong, then one is still right to obey: the typical example is assignments in a religious order; or to take the example of Archbishop Lefebvre: when he was sent as Bishop of Tulle, perhaps there may have been fault in those who relegated him in this small diocese (since being an archbishop he should have been given an archbishopric), but he did right in obeying, which he did with great humility and without any complaint.

Take away the authority and you take away religious obedience, you take away religious perfection, Christian perfection.

Even with regard to secular authority, the Church always upheld the principle of authority. Cardinal Pie said: “for the enlightened conscience of a minister of the Church, hostility against governments is not possible, because it would be against the very spirit of the Church, which is a spirit eminently patient and conservative, and which, at the very time it does not approve and accept certain acts and tendencies of (civil) power [e.g. abortion laws, etc.], does not go to the point of ignoring the good that can still be done through existing authority.” And his commentator notes: “the soul of Mgr Pie is there. He has such respect for authority that he respects it in all those endowed with it, and, even when his duty obliges him to stand against them, there are some means of defence that he will not take, because while hurting the men, they would wound the authority.” (Card. Pie, Pages Choisies, p. cii).

In our times, with such a crisis of authority, one ought not to reject authority itself because it is abused or despised. One ought to discern when it is still doing its duty (to provide for common good: Rom. 13:1-5) while resisting its abuse (when it goes against God’s Law: Act. 5:29). Those endowed with authority (a father in a family, a superior in religious orders, etc.) ought to strive “to be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Those who are blessed to have good superiors – though not perfect – should thank God for that and strive to practice even better the virtue of obedience. To calumniate those in authority (e.g. saying that they “prefer erring Popes to inerrant Tradition”, which is certainly not true) do great harm in undermining that great principle of authority, so necessary for faith and virtue.

Fr François Laisney

Home | Newsletters | Library | Vocations | History | Links | Search | Contact