A day doesn’t go by without some assault leveled at the authority of the Catholic Church to teach on issues of the moral life. From concerns of justice in the workplace to the dignity of family life to procreation and euthanasia, there are many areas of life that the Church is compelled to address as a moral voice in the modern world. With the most recent concerns in Ireland and Europe, it is of paramount importance for the Church’s moral voice to be clear on ethical issues.
The first thing to appreciate about obedience to authority is that it is the opposite of Adam’s sinful desire to be “equal with God” (Phil 2:6). St. Francis warned against allowing one’s 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,” he said.
Christianity seeks to liberate the individual from self-deception and proclaims absolute authority residing in God alone. God’s 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 link between the words “authority” and “listen.”
Jesus “learnt to obey via suffering” without adding or subtracting anything from his Father’s will. “Jesus Christ became obedient even unto death” (Phil 2:8). This obedience to the divine authority brought about a revolution of new life through the Resurrection: “By one man’s obedience are many made upright” (Rom 5:19).
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 loving humility.
Authority is not unrelated to other moral truths and duties. The fact that someone has come into authority according to particular social or civil requirements doesn’t ensure that that 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. 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).
People entrusted with authority in one form or another must exercise 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 good of either the citizen or the community.
In order for the Church’s voice to clearly address society’s moral concerns, it must be seen as humbly serving the needs of others and the common good. Thus, the strength of the Church’s moral voice is born in the obedience of Christ to the Father’s will. Through Christ we glorify God, who gives the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge of his faithfulness. As a Church, we are called in Christ to witness to God’s willful purpose. In Christ, obedience is not a burden but a new life (cf. 1 Jn 5:3). Only in this way can Catholic moral teaching be fully appreciated as a legitimate authority in the modern world.
Ironic as it may seem, it is through 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. No slogans or advertising gimmicks will lend authority to the Church. In short, the Church’s 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 is the Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish and the Shrine of St. Anne for Mothers, both in Waterbury.