Authority and the Logic of Revelation

by Dr. Jeff Mirus, October 19, 2007

The rejection of religious authority by Catholics never ceases to amaze me. Whenever I remark on the need for some bishop to enforce a proper understanding of Catholicism, I hear from those who detect in my comments the foul odor of authoritarianism. Such persons perceive authority as driven always by petty egocentric concerns. This is very sad.

Authority Is Everywhere

The human condition demands authority. We do not learn by instantly beholding the mind of God; we must struggle to decipher the nature of reality and to discern how to respond to it properly. For each person to figure out on his own how to fulfill even the most basic requirements of life is self-evidently impossible, and we resolve this fact of life by relying, always and continuously, on authority. This is no less true in how we approach the metaphysical secrets of the universe than in how we earn our daily bread.

Most of what we know and how we act is determined by the wisdom and example we have inherited from our culture, its institutions, or specific persons, by virtue of the superior experience, understanding and knowledge these can infuse into our lives. In the vast majority of cases, we neither dispute nor question this. We take it for granted because we regard these sources as authoritative. This is quite normal, for it is self-destructive to fear or refuse authority in the abstract. Without authority both human existence and human happiness are simply impossible.

For this reason, anyone who claims to reject authority in principle is necessarily really rejecting one or more specific authorities in favor of others. For example, the man who rejects religious authority in favor of “science” is clearly substituting one authority for another. He neither understands the limitations of science nor sees the authoritative cultural world view which causes all “men of science” to believe many things about which science has nothing to say. Similarly, the self-proclaimed free thinker has already, in every case, absorbed a worldview from the surrounding atmosphere which, unless he is mad, will be modified only very slightly by his own imagination, thoughts and desires.

For these reasons, the most sensible thing we can do with authority is to recognize clearly which authorities we accept and which we reject, and why. This exercise requires a certain degree of detachment and true reflection—which is why you can always place more confidence in someone who understands and admits his authorities than in someone who believes he has left all authority behind. It is nothing but a variation of the old shell game to sweep away authority in favor of freedom or rationalism or progress or independent thought or even love itself. All that happens in this game is that we no longer know which shell covers the real authority that dominates our lives. Such a lack of self-knowledge does nobody any good.

The Authority of the Church

The rejection of spiritual authority by Catholics is doubly sad because it betrays their failure to recognize the Church’s altogether unique and powerful claims. As with any claim to authority, we are permitted to ask the scope of the claim, where it comes from, and why we should trust it. Thus, a scholar may claim authority in a particular branch of knowledge deriving from his intensive study of that material, and we should trust him if he has shown himself a sound scholar with no particular axe to grind. A government may claim authority in ordering the public life of the citizens of a particular region based on whatever claims to legitimacy it may possess, and we should honor that claim if the legitimacy is clear and the power to govern obvious. Yet both claims to authority are relatively shallow. There are no guarantees that the scholar or the government will always be right.

Now as for the Church, her claims are both very specific and very deep. She claims to have authority to properly interpret what God has revealed for man’s life here on earth and his eternal destiny hereafter. In this connection, if a religion is truly revealed by God, then two principles become axiomatic. The first is that God must have clearly manifested Himself (or else we would be unable to recognize the revelation as divine); the second is that His revelation must depend on authority (or else we could have figured it out for ourselves). The Catholic faith claims to depend on the authority of God revealing, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. The proper interpretation of the Catholic faith, in its precise doctrines and provisions, claims to depend on a specific authority established by God to protect and preserve the accuracy of His self-revelation over time.

In theory, of course, God could have arranged such things in a variety of ways. The claim of Catholicism is that God used certain agents of Revelation (law-givers, rulers, prophets, priests, writers and even an entire people) culminating in a promised Messiah; that He confirmed these sequential revelations by signs and wonders attributable only to Himself and culminating in the Resurrection; that He established a Church to be His witness and agent to the end of time; and that he gave Peter and his successors the authority to confirm that Church in a proper understanding of all of Revelation, entrusting the papacy with the keys to heaven itself.

Now you can argue that God did not send agents of revelation; or that He did not confirm any revelation with compelling signs and wonders; or that He did not establish a Church; or that He did not give Peter and Peter’s successors authority to properly interpret the content of the Faith. But you cannot believe any part of this structure of Divine Revelation without recognizing at least a very strong case for the other parts, and you cannot claim to believe the entire package while at the same time rejecting or ignoring the claim to authority it imposes—or pretending that the successful exercise of this authority doesn’t really matter. Throughout the entire process of Revelation, God has said repeatedly that our very lives depend on it, and upon Him.

Excuses, Excuses

But this is exactly what weak-minded Catholics claim when they repeatedly dismiss the efforts of the Pope, and the bishops in union with him, to exercise their authority to teach, rule and sanctify in a way which actually demands obedience. I can recall vividly when the early dissenters against Humanae Vitae asserted that the Church may have the keys to heaven but she does not have the keys to the bedroom, so we do not need to take her moral authority seriously. This led to the counter-magisterium of the (fashionable) theologians. Unfortunately, this attitude has spread so far that people in all walks of life now claim to love and cherish the Church while exempting themselves from any teachings they find inconvenient. And when I recently expressed the hope that Bishop Robert McManus would proceed to exercise his authority in the conflict over the Catholicity of Holy Cross College, I received email lamenting my celebration of authoritarianism. Such critics either do not know or do not care to admit the authorities to whom they bow.

Personally, I am tired of all of it: the ludicrous and often shabby excuses; the fear to discipline; the high-toned dismissal of authority as self-serving; and the general refusal to recognize the inexorable logic of Revelation. All that is necessary for the proper exercise of authority in the Catholic Church is for those in authority to be able to state clearly what standards you must meet to claim the name of a full disciple of Jesus Christ, and to make it clear that you forfeit the name “Catholic” if you do not meet the standards. Sinners are always welcome, but not those who deliberately redefine Revelation and then claim to be exempt from the authority Revelation has imposed. There is no bloodshed. Nobody dies. But everybody soon learns that the word of legitimate spiritual authority, as an extension of God's word, means what it says and shall not return empty.

God has revealed Himself and His plan to us, and He did not spare the life of his only begotten Son to do so. This Revelation carries with it a principle of authority with a uniquely powerful claim. It is an authority of clarity, asking only that we call things by their right names and then choose sides. And indeed this idea of clarity completes the circle of my argument, for in the last analysis it shows again why authority is essential to human flourishing: Authority passes the time and energy test wonderfully well. It makes things simple. You know where you stand, and where you are going.