“We need authority to be ourselves.” So writes Victor Lee Austin in Up With Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings. Yes, that’s quite right, but there’s a further truth as well. We need authority so that we can become more than ourselves.
Aside from the occasional anarchist, most acknowledge the need for some form of authority to block the worst excesses of sin. As St. Paul wrote in a passage that for centuries served as a proof text to show that God sanctions the punitive power of secular authority: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3–4).
Austin, however, recognizes that we need duly authorized authorities for more than the restraint of sin. “Authority does not come upon us,” he writes, “because of some tragic flaw in human beings.” Our created finitude is reason enough.
For his analysis, Austin turns to Yves Simon, the French Catholic political philosopher who studied under Jacques Maritain and ended up teaching in America after World War II. Simon saw that freedom involves the ability to do more, not more things or activities like a trip to Paris this weekend and London the next, but instead “more” in the sense of “further” or more intensely. It’s one thing to be able to go for the weekend, but it takes a job offer or a trust fund to have the option of staying.
Put somewhat differently, freedom means the liberty to make choices. As Simon saw, we’re often limited in our choices because, without a directing authority, we lack the power or ability to realize our goals.
Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.
Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.
Simon had a technical way of describing this function of authority, which has the effect of liberating those who submit to it. A concentration of responsibility into various offices or positions (such as conductors) allows us to formally intend the common good while we materially intend a more particular good. The authority of the conductor allows me to say, “I’m going to play as well as I can so that the Beethoven symphony is ravishingly beautiful,” while in point of fact I’m concentrating on my own part, not the symphony as a whole.
We often discount the way in which authority and hierarchy contribute to our freedom to pursue the particular goods that we care about (and that give society texture and interest). In a democracy I have a duty during election season to cast an informed vote. But if I accept the legitimate authority of Congress, then after I vote I can largely concentrate on raising my family or doing my job well. I need not pore over the details of the Federal budget.
In this way, Simon’s analysis helps us see that the important Catholic principle of subsidiarity depends upon authority. Local goods can properly occupy my attention, because the society-wide common good is being looked after by those who are in positions of authority. When that’s not the case, our basic duty to serve the common good becomes imperial, and we’re no longer free to follow our more personal and private projects.
That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”
With his usual insight and wit, Oscar Wilde succinctly diagnosed the trouble with socialism: “It takes up too many evenings.” The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.
If there are good political reasons for human authority, the theological reasons for divine authority are even better. In the New Testament, as Austin points out, the Christian vision of full participation in the divine is found in the obedience of the Incarnate Son to the will of the Eternal Father: “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
In this regard Judaism differs very little. Yes, of course Judaism rejects the claims that Christians make on behalf of Jesus, which has all sorts of implications for how Jews understand the form of our obedience to God’s will. But Jews and Christians agree that divine authority—the commandments for Jews and the lordship of Christ for Christians—provides the means for finite human beings to genuinely and personally participate in the divine.
Is there an alternative? As a creature I have the potential to run quickly, and perhaps with training I can. But that’s not true when it comes to what I desire most of all: to rest in God. We’re finite human beings, and therefore we lack an intrinsic aptitude for the infinite.
But God doesn’t suffer from this or any other lack, and insofar as he exercises his authority and issues commandments, he gives us a way to go beyond ourselves. We can follow instructions that we do not write, obey commands that we do not give. Therefore, although we are creatures, and remain always limited by our finite human nature, because this nature includes the capacity to obey authority, God can engage our finitude rather than ignore or overwhelm it, directing us toward what the Catholic tradition calls a “supernatural end.”
Recognizing this rather obvious feature of our finitude—that our capacity to obey empowers us to reach goals beyond our human limits—has long caused me to chuckle when people criticize the Catholic Church (and sometimes Christianity more broadly) as “authoritarian.”
When the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that God had conscripted her into a divine plan she cannot fathom (“How shall this be, since I have no husband” [Luke 1:34]), her free participation involved a radical submission to divine authority (“Let it be with me according to your word” [Luke 1:38]). She followed instructions she could not have written, obeyed a command she could not understand, much less give to herself. Just so the Virgin is blessed, for she obeyed a call that radically exceeds what is natural. By making God’s will her own, she realizes to the fullest possible degree the created and finite power of human freedom.
When Christ says to us, “Follow me,” he extends to us the very same possibility. Protestants can argue with Catholics (and both with Eastern Orthodox) about just how and when and where the Church rightly gives authoritative expression to Christ’s call. But any clear-minded person, whatever they believe (or don’t believe), should be able to see that authority plays an indispensable role in a coherent hope that finite creatures might participate in the infinite—and do so precisely through their finitude.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.