Problems of Authority

‘What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?’ That question from today’s gospel (Matt. 21.23) is one that runs through the whole of the New Testament and, indeed, life in general. What right has anyone to tell us what to do or to act in a way that impinges on us, especially if it limits our freedom in any way? When directed at ourselves, we are inclined to side-step the question. ‘I don’t need any authority for what I do. I decide for myself.’ We have become little monsters of egotism and self-sufficiency, without even realising it.

In case you think I exaggerate, consider for a moment. In the Catholic Church the amount of vitriolic abuse hurled at Pope Francis by those who are convinced they are right and he is wrong about everything is symptomatic of what I have described. Rudeness does not come from a pure heart nor from a desire to ‘win back an erring brother’ (assuming he is such). If the target were not the pope, it would be someone else because what is really going on is much more akin to the lust for destruction we see in IS than the zeal for religion it purports to be. At this point, I expect some of my readers to explode. How dare I compare their noble-hearted attempts to preserve the Catholic faith unsullied with the murderous behaviour of Wahabist fanatics? I dare because, judging by the arguments put forward, many of the pope’s critics are less well-informed about the faith they seek to defend than they imagine. They are, in fact, undermining the very thing they want to support by ignoring some of its fundamental principles, including charity and a concern for truth and justice. There is more than one way of destroying others.

We find something very similar in our public discourse about politics, law, ethics, or what you will. We have carried the principle of aseity to its illogical conclusion. A subjective ‘what’s right for me’ quickly becomes a narrow ‘what’s good for me’, so that individualism and self-interest rule the day. Advent, with its call to return to a life of integrity, knocks all this on its head. Like it or not, we are not free to behave just as we please; or rather, we are, but if we do, we shall quickly find that everything turns to dust and ashes. It is only by following the guidance of the gospel, by walking in the footsteps of the Lord, that we shall attain true freedom, true joy. That is easy to say, hard to do because, of course, it requires a real change of heart, a huge humility and a readiness to start again every time we fail. Of one thing we can be sure: the grace we need is always being offered to us. May we be big enough, and wise enough, to accept it.

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6 thoughts on “Problems of Authority”

  1. I sometimes think that authority is a much maligned word. It should perhaps be used to describe those who have been given the responsibility to make things happen, either elected or appointed (in some cases) to carry out a role, which might be unpopular but is necessary to assure good order and right living in our communities.

    In the Army, as a Commissioned Officer I had authority, and responsibility for others, both military and civilian. I always put their welfare before my own, often to my own personal cost. And this was in the days, before I returned to faith. But that grounding in Christian principles as a Catholic, had obviously affected me in ways, that I had forgotten or ignored, as had my formation and training in leadership as a soldier and officer.

    We were taught that our most important asset, wasn’t the guns and tanks we possessed, but the people we had – as without them, we had nothing.

    This becomes intuitive, a gift that is central to how we function. we put aside selfish self-interest and put others first. In fact, a sacrificial aspect of Christian faith as well.

    I think that Pope Francis is a gift from God to the Catholic Church, he isn’t trying to change the doctrine or to lower standards, but is putting people first in all things, pastoral care at it’s ultimate. He’d have made a great General 🙂

  2. There’s a lot of it about. Part of the problem is the tendency to assume that if I am right, then anyone who takes the opposite view to mine is a knave or a fool or both. And it’s even worse when you add religion to the mix, because proponents of view A sometimes assume that the author of view A is God; therefore, opponents of view A must be doing the work of the Devil.

    If people could get into their heads that it is perfectly possible to hold a view contrary to one’s own in good faith and for cogent, respectable reasons, there might be rather less of it.

  3. Even Our Lord wasn’t the first to find himself on the wrong side of this ancient tendency among his flock. My possible distant ancestor Moses (my grandmother was a Levi too) also got it in the neck when he tried to mediate disputes among the Jews, and there had doubtless been examples before him which have not come down to us through historical record. At the heart of it IMO lies our all too frequent failure or refusal to see ourselves as part of something greater, which is not just the modern phenomenon we can sometimes think it is, though society’s turning away from God has perhaps exacerbated it. All of us are, jointly and severally, works in progress.

  4. “judging by the arguments put forward, many of the pope’s critics are less well-informed about the faith they seek to defend than they imagine.”

    Wow. Don’t worry, no intention of exploding 🙂 I would simply suggest that you compare the arguments being made by his critics – particularly those being made by members of the hierarchy and by theologians of different stripes – to those being made by those defending the Pope’s position, both in terms of content and tone. Its all there in the open. In terms of general commentary (views expressed in comboxes etc) that’s another story but the bag is certainly mixed. I suppose there are quite a few faithful who have become so used to being derided by Pope Francis that they’ve assumed it’s OK to adopt a similar approach. But perhaps it would be helpful if you qualified your observation a little more as perhaps i have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. God bless.

  5. We use the word “author” for those who produce creative works. I wonder if this tinge of meaning can be helpful. Creativity can be lost in the rush to be right.

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