A day doesnt go by without some assault leveled at the authority of the Church to teach on issues of the moral life. From concerns of justice in the workplace and the dignity of family life to procreation and euthanasia, there are many areas of the moral life that the Church is compelled to address as a moral voice in the modern world. Most recently, the possible inclusion of public tax dollars in paying for abortions in the proposed national health care reform calls for the Church to stand firm for health coverage for everyone, but not at the expense of innocent life. Thus, a proper understanding of what "authority" entails is essential if the Churchs voice is to be heard among the many competing calls for various personal freedoms.
The first thing to appreciate about obedience to authority is that it is the opposite of Adams sinful desire to be "equal with God" (Phil 2:6). Saint Francis warned against allowing ones own limited view to become the authority in life: "He who appropriates to himself his own will eats from the tree of good and evil." Christian faith seeks to liberate the individual from self-deception and proclaims absolute authority resides in God alone (Ti 3:1; 1 Pt 2:13; Rom 13:10). Gods voice in the Old Testament proclaims his authority: "I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Jer 7:23). Here, we should take note of the important link between the words "authority" and "listening."
The New Testament is replete with testimony of Christs appreciation of authority, especially that of his heavenly Father.
Other forms of authority are related to the absolute authority of God; however, Christ teaches that authority must be properly administered. In Christ, all authority must be subject to virtue, particularly a loving humility.
The most fundamental aspect of authority is discovered by understanding that it is not unrelated to other moral truths and duties. Just because someone has come into authority according to particular social or civil requirements, it doesnt ensure that a certain authority is legitimate morally: "Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1902).
Authority is not an isolated or personal power, but is integrally related to the moral law found in God. Part of this truth of authority includes the central and intrinsic dignity and value of the human person. "The human person ... is and ought to be the principle, the subject, and the object of every social organization" (Gaudium et spes, 25). Individuals who are entrusted with authority of one form or another must exercise the virtue of prudence in all matters in such a way that the common good, the personal and communal fulfillment of all, is always ensured (CCC, 1906). Thus, an individual entrusted with the gift of authority must understand it as a vocational mission to serve others.
Those under authority find themselves with a particular moral obligation of obedience. The citizen finds at once a duty to accept authority and a duty to voice objections when authority overlooks the goods of either the citizen or the community. In this way, the Church teaches that those subject to authority "should regard those in authority as representatives of God" and responsibly exercise their personal and civic duty "to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of community" (CCC, 2238).
The moral character of authority is also discovered in the institution of the family. The Fourth Commandment is directed expressly to children and their relationship to their mother and father. By maintaining a respect for the authority of ones parents, the individual also finds the related obligations and duties to respect other legitimate authorities in life. Thus, this commandment of honoring mother and father, leads to graces and personal developments beyond the confines of ones particular family.
In order for the Churchs voice to clearly address the moral concerns of our society, it must be seen as humbly serving the needs of others and the common good. Thus, the strength of the Churchs moral voice is born in the obedience of Christ to the Fathers will. As a Church, we are called in Christ to witness to Gods willful purpose (cf. Lk 24: 46-49), a witness that may include obedience to the point of death. In Christ, obedience is not a burden but a new life (cf. 1 Jn 5:3). In this way, our Catholic moral teaching can be fully appreciated as a legitimate authority in the modern world.
Ironic as it may seem, it is by obedience to the authority of Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life" that the Church itself serves as a moral authority in our society. In short, the Churchs authority is best served when the Church strives to be what the Lord intended it to be, "his body" offering salvation and moral direction to all.
Father Hinkley holds degrees in spiritual theology and marriage and family studies and a doctorate in moral theology.