In praise of authority

R. R. Reno at First Things has a good article on Yves Simon’s A General Theory of Authority.  I’ve always meant to review this book myself, which has long impressed me even though my general theory of authority is somewhat different.  Just a few points:

  1. I know there’s some neoconnery going on at First Things, but Reno and Hart are genuine conservatives–two of the wisest and most articulate on the web.  From time to time, you’ll see First Things publish an article questioning some central tenet of the liberal order:  that democracy is superior to monarchy, that newspapers make us informed, the Lockean individualism of the Founders, etc.  I’m not sure that any of this really sinks in with the organization and its readership as a whole.  The next day, they’re just as likely to publish something saying that we’ve gotta defend democracy by smacking up some “anti-semites” somewhere.
  2. Simon’s book was published in 1962, before the Vatican II bombshell really dropped.  It makes one wonder about the standard history of American Catholicism we’ve been told:  that before V II, we American Catholics were a bunch of idiots with nothing but poorly thought-out prejudices.  Then V II liberated us to “think for ourselves”, and all of the sudden we became so darned smart that we realized that conventional liberal wisdom was right about everything.  Even the orthodox lament that American Catholics weren’t intellectually prepared to meet the challenge of the sixties.  But really, anybody who had read Simon’s book should have had no problem brushing off the idiot slogans that ruled that decade and decimated the Church.  Intellectually speaking, the Church had more than enough firepower to defeat the moronic New Left and modernists.  And yet, look who won.
  3. I think this is a quirk about Catholics.  I think we’re the only ones who get a thrill out of saying that we want to defend “authority”.  I just love typing the words “authority is good”.  Protestants defend authority too, of course, but I get the feeling that they’re a little embarrassed about it, and they much prefer to defend freedom.  Well, to each his own.

6 Responses

  1. It makes one wonder about the standard history of American Catholicism we’ve been told: that before V II, we American Catholics were a bunch of idiots with nothing but poorly thought-out prejudices.

    Would that it were so! Was there ever a point at which the American hierarchy was not composed of a bunch of gonzo liberals? Hows come the heresy “Americanism” has that name? Our Bishops were firmly on the bad guys’ side at and after VII.

    And, I think the subset of us Catholics who like to defend authority are mostly about defending it in theory. If you are in the Archdiocese of LA, what, exactly, is your relationship to authority supposed to be? Is it like
    “my local ordinary (who, by the way, is a Cardinal Archbishop) is a total clown, but I obey him in those narrow circumstances when I can’t think of a good loophole?” The traditionalist position on authority is very difficult to get right given that the authoritative institutions are all completely controlled by modernists.

    Here is a concrete example. What are we supposed to think about this? Are we supposed to be scandalized that a Bishop was booed and borderline threatened by parishioners in his diocese? Are we supposed to say “three cheers for the rebellion against the rainbow-vested freak?” What? I think the answer is the former, but it ain’t clear to me.

  2. Just a couple random thoughts about authority in the modern world:

    Authority is, of course, a huge concept, but I think nowadays we have to distinguish more clearly between traditional/hierarchical authority and technical/bureaucratic authority. Nowadays when people think of authority and hierarchy, if they’re not thinking of the Church, they’re thinking of the “chain of command” in the army. But, that’s not really how authority originally worked.

    Of course, the Church has to share a large part of the blame with the development of bureaucracy. The early modern monarchs (Tudors, etc.) used bureaucracy to centralize their kingdoms, often opposed to the Church’s interests, but they learned about bureaucracy from the Church.

  3. “the subset of us Catholics who like to defend authority are mostly about defending it in theory”.

    Perhaps, but even that is something notable. For most people, it’s “authority is bad, but here are some exceptions”. For us, it’s “authority is good, but here are some exceptions”.

    The situation of authoritarian Catholics in the modernist Church is certainly painful. One blessing we have is that the modernists, by their own (anti-)dogmas, seldom invoke the authority that is legitimately theirs. They can’t call us heretics and invoke the Church’s infallibility to call us into line, because that would concede our entire case. Likewise, they can’t invoke their apostolic authority, because they don’t believe in it. If a modernist were ever elected Pope, we can be sure that he would make no infallible heretical statements, because it would be impossible given his beliefs for him to intend such a thing. Even if he were to say “I declare abortion to be a great good. Let anyone who disagrees be anathema.”, he couldn’t mean the anathema part, so it wouldn’t count. Before, when we were fighting Arians and Monophysites, it took the influence of the Holy Spirit to keep the Church from authoritatively speaking heresy. Now simple logic protects us. Instead, modernist bishops invoke the authority of experts. They defer to lawyers, psychologists, and bible scholars. So long as they do so, their authority is not in play, and we are free to defy them.

  4. Hello Stephen,

    You’re right there. I know we say that experts have “authority”, but I think there really should be a different word, because this is something different. A man who ignores the advice of an expert is foolish, not disobedient.

    I’m not sure that founding the West’s first bureaucracy was a bad thing for the Church to do. Bureaucracy has its legitimate functions. It has, however, proved to be difficult to keep it in those places.

  5. “Expertise” is the word.

  6. The origins of the word “Authority” are interesting. It comes, of course, from the Latin “Auctoritas,” which, in turn comes from “Auctor” = “Source.” We still have this meaning, when law-books have a Table of Authorities.

    Later, it came to mean something like personal influence, in contrast to “Imperium” = Command (in the military sense) or “Potestas” = power. It is quite close to the modern (not the Greek or theological) sense of “Charisma.” One can find many references to Augustus’s “auctoritas.”

    The bishop’s authority, as the one who “hands on” (tradition in the active sense of a delivery) the Faith, comes very close to the original etymological sense.

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