What is authority? Is there any real need for it? And should we obey authority? Although we will use the Catechism of the Catholic Church to investigate these questions, these are by no means exclusively Catholic conclusions, and can be a useful exploration regardless of belief.
This is what the Catechism says about authority: “By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.”
The dictionary definition is similar: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” And I think this is pretty close to the usual usage of this term.
What role does authority have in society?
1898 “Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.”
1897 “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”
The Catechism is saying: We need authority. And that it’s founded in our very human nature.
Just from common observation of human nature, we can make a good argument that the tendency to some type of authority is natural, not just invented. While we can cite abuse after abuse of authority, we can also cite legitimate, or at least beneficial uses of authority in society. A teacher, for example, is a necessary and beneficial authority figure. Without a teacher, a class full of young- or even not so young- group of students would become into playtime.
The Catechism also mentions the “unity of the state”, the “common good” and “preserving institutions”. Basically this refers to having some kind of humane order in society. Additionally, the Catechism makes use of the term “legitimate authority”. This is saying that legitimate authority exists, but by extension, so must illegitimate authority. But from where does this legitimacy come from? Let’s read on.
1899 The authority required by the moral order derives from God: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
In some ways this makes sense. The word “authority” comes from the root word “author”. And God is that ultimate “author” of the universe. While this may well sound exclusively religious, it can be presented in a slightly different fashion without directly invoking God: That of objective morality. In other words, all moral authority comes from objective morality. Still this paragraph sounds very controversial and odd to our modern sensibilities.
Was the president instituted by God? Does he rule with God’s authority? Is political and police abuse sanctioned by God’s authority? Am I resisting God if I resist an unjust law or command? It goes on to say…
1900 “The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.”
But this is balanced by:
Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.
1902 Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a “moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility”:
So authorities also have responsibilities and they’re not legitimate authorities just because they say so. So, what is considered legitimate? Let’s read on…
1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.”23
In other words, unjust laws contrary to the moral order are not binding in conscience. And since we must follow our conscience first, we do not owe obedience to such illegitimate authority and that we are not bound by such immoral laws. The text goes on to say…
“A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.”
“It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.”
So the nature of law is to be just, and if law is not just, it becomes “a kind of violence” more than it is a true law. And the “rule of law” means that law must abide by these universal principles, rather than just being at the whim of men.
So, in conclusion, should we “do what they tell us”?’
Well that depends, is it in harmony or contrary to the moral order, natural law, or the fundamental rights of persons? If it is in harmony with those things, then we should do what they tell us. Because what they’re telling us is principally and fundamentally good and necessary for society. But if it violates those principles, then no, we have no duty to obey them.
We have to obey the law written in our hearts first. As the Catechism says:
1776 “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
That doesn’t mean that we have a right to follow only those laws we feel like following. St. Paul was rather clear: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Though if those taxes are used for abortions and needless bloody wars, then that starts to change the picture.
The Catechism says…
1782 “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”
In fact, Peter and the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
We shouldn’t be robots when it comes to obeying authority. This becomes clear when you see things like the Milgam experiment (See the article by this name and Episode 3) . Obedience to authority must have a basis in moral principles.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t become “rebels without a cause”. There is a stark difference between looking for conflict and looking for truth and goodness, even though both can lead you towards lots of conflict and even danger. One is warranted and morally justified, the other is just stupid.
Both extremes are foolhardy- those who just obey, mostly without question and those who are not willing to tolerate almost any authority. Unfortunately, when we will together in communities, as humans are apt to do, inevitable conflicts, common resources and common goals unattainable by any one person require us to have some rules and ultimately some authority figures to enforce those rules. This occurs even in the basic unit of society- the family.
Technology, if used wisely, may allow us to utilize our resources more efficiently and to have a more distributed, rather than centralized, authority structure, but it will not end the need for authority figures as long as resources are finite and human beings insist on living together and doing things together.
Ultimately, we must obey and inform our consciences. Remember to Read, Think, Reflect and Pray dear reader!