Benedict’s Challenge to American Anti-Authoritarianism

Pope Benedict XVI’s Yankee Stadium homily last Sunday was quite a celebration of American Catholicism, but the pontiff never strayed far from his theme of the unchanging need for faithful Christians, as a community rooted in the apostolic heritage, to be a sign of the gospel’s hope for mankind in the face of sin and death, through bearing witness to the unity of the truth found in the Word of God, revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

This rootedness is not something Benedict sees simply in the hierarchical form of the Church (even if he makes a point of the necessary visibility of the Church’s apostolic unity), but also in the faithful handing down of the gospel from generation to generation, and in the public presence of the fruits of our life in the Spirit, as manifested in various works of mercy and charity. He praised the “successive waves of immigrants” for the ways they have enriched American society, and called upon their descendants to faithfully follow in their footsteps, so as to “hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land.”

In a society, not unlike the one he himself hails from, that suffers from distorted understandings of freedom, it was important that he speak of what freedom truly means. For too many Americans (and other Westerners), freedom is what excuses one from being subject to authority, or bound to obedience. Even in our families, the idea that parents have, by nature, an authority over their children is coming into conflict with the sensibilities of the age. The notion that children owe their parents obedience is being eroded by the new sensibility, which maintains that parents should reason with children, of any age – that parents owe their children explanations for every decision. Furthermore, it’s a cultural expectation that children will rebel – indeed, must rebel – against their parents, in order to “come into their own.” The public schools are a mess with rampant disrespect. And in the spheres of religion or morality, the idea of the legitimacy of authority has become almost laughable.

The concept of authority is in disrepute, indeed.

In all relationships that are not governed by either the power of actual or implied violence, or the hierarchy of economic dependency in employment, authority is generally viewed as an unwanted relic of a now-overturned, oppressive order from a pre-critical age. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Authority can no more be put aside than air could be put aside – it can be polluted, but it cannot be “replaced” by freedom.

Indeed, what we see happening in Western culture is not at all the disappearance of authority into a new order of egalitarian bliss, but instead the movement of the locus of authority from relationships based on community order, to relationships based on the exercise of dominative power. Authority is being reduced to having the power to exercise one’s will: do this, or I will hurt you, jail you, fine you; this is legal because we have the votes, or we have the money. In short, might makes right. This is the predictable offspring of ideology. In fact, isn’t power the whole point of ideology?

But as the Catholic Church rightfully understands authority, it is not reducible to power. Indeed, power is itself subject to authority, because authority comes from God. Authority is ultimately nothing but the truth. Authority is that which is authoritative. It is reality. It is what is, and reflects Him who said “I am who am” (Exod 3.14).

When human exercise of authority is not in conformance with the revelation of the Author, it ceases to be genuinely reflective of the good, becomes socially dysfunctional, and leads to idolatry. But this is not a valid reason to reject authority itself; it is reason to work to ensure that authority is exercised in conformance with the truth – meaning not as a function of opinion and ideology. The rejection of authority itself is the rejection of the order established by God – it is, in other words, a rejection of reality, and every bit as much a descent into idolatry as any kind of impious authority worship.

This is why freedom cannot be coherently understood as existence outside of, or beyond, authority. Such an existence is an existence in falsehood. Any attempt to be one’s own authority, to make up, or “discover,” one’s own morality – or “reality” – is an attempt to take the place of the Author. And this is not freedom, but rebellion – which leaves one enslaved to sin, as it manipulates the passions.

Freedom, on the other hand, – true freedom – can exist only when it is aligned with reality, when it is grounded in the truth that Christ promised would make us free (Jn 8.32). Freedom must be subject to truth, or it is false. The Holy Father put this quite well in his homily:

The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves (cf. Lk 17:33). True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. “In his will is our peace”.

In this, Benedict’s penultimate address during his apostolic visit to America, he left no doubt that he thinks it is time for the Church in America to pick itself up from its recent troubles, seek the unity of faith found in the freedom of a lived fidelity to the living apostolic witness, and go about the task of bearing our own witness to the liberating truth of the gospel – in particular the truth of the Divinely defined dignity of the human person, a truth so often obscured in our day by ideologies – and religions – that would reduce the human person to a means to an end.

Hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land, and bear witness with the authority of the apostolic faith, and so honor our fathers and mothers.