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Chapter 7: Equal Dignity, Communication, Interpersonal Relationships, and Resitution

Question E: How Should One Exercise Authority and Practice Obedience?

The kingdom is the common object of hope, the common good, for which all Christians should cooperate with God and with one another. Each Christian has a unique vocation; each, as a particular member of Jesus’ one body, can make an irreplaceable personal contribution. But since all vocations are parts of the Church’s single mission, all must work together. Moreover, in the pursuit of human goods, Christians must cooperate with others insofar as possible.

Common action depends on unity in decision and in execution. The unity in decision of a cooperating group is the exercise of authority; its unity in execution is the practice of obedience. Therefore, Christians must rightly exercise authority and practice obedience. Human authority comes from God, and obedience to it should be religiously motivated, as the New Testament teaches: “There is no authority except from God” (Rom 13.1), and “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5.21). In pointing to authority’s moral foundation, this teaching illuminates both its moral force and its moral limits.

1. Authority and Obedience Are Essential to All Communal Actions

While authority and obedience often are misunderstood as dominance and submission, authority is the capacity to make decisions on behalf of a community and obedience is the cooperation of members of a community in carrying out its acts. Thus, the functions of authority and obedience to it are present even in a community without a leader. For example, one day at lunch four students plan to go camping together on the weekend. They settle everything by unanimous consensus: Charlie will arrange for transportation, George will purchase food, John will rent equipment, and Phil will obtain permits and maps. In agreeing to these plans, the four students form a community and exercise authority on its behalf. As each carries out his task, whether he finds it enjoyable or onerous (so that he wishes he had not agreed to do it), he obeys the group’s decisions. Without authority, Charlie, George, John, and Phil could not have their plan to do what is necessary to go camping together; without obedience, they will not cooperate effectively in carrying out their plan. This example makes it clear that authority and obedience are necessary if there is to be any community and cooperation whatsoever.

2. Authority and Obedience Do Not Preclude Equal Personal Dignity

Authority and obedience have bad connotations, partly due to abuses of authority, which give even its right use a bad name. Another reason, however, is that authority and obedience necessarily limit people’s freedom to do as they please, and this freedom is overvalued by contemporary Western culture. While most people realize that some authority and obedience are inevitable, many, cherishing the ideal of autonomy, think authority and obedience are at best necessary evils, so that the less, the better.

a) Some conceptions of obedience preclude personal dignity. Some religions and philosophies maintain, contrary to Christian faith, that the destiny of human persons is to lose their individual identity and selfhood, to be swallowed up in one ultimate reality. Obedience seems good precisely insofar as it negates the self in order to overcome diversity and the plurality of responsible agents. Again, some philosophical and religious anthropologies hold that some human individuals are naturally inferior to others—there are natural slaves, women are inferior to men, and so on—and inferiors can share in moral responsibility only by submitting to superiors. On this view, the obedience of some reflects their personal inferiority and incapacity for full human responsibility. Moreover, some take the obedience of small children as their model for all obedience, but small children really are incapable of shaping their own lives, and so their obedience substitutes for more mature responsibility.

Such conceptions conflict with personal dignity. Obedience as self-negation entirely excludes the dignity of persons, and obedience based on slavish or childish submission structures relationships among responsible adults at the expense of equality in personal dignity. Nevertheless, elements of such conceptions sometimes color Christian thought and discourse about authority and obedience, so that they are badly misunderstood and, in some ways, wrongly valued.

b) The ideal of autonomy makes obedience seem a necessary evil. While false evaluations of authority and obedience are one factor which, by way of reaction, provokes the utopian ideal of entirely eliminating them from human association, other factors also nurture the ideal of absolute autonomy (complete self-rule). These include concupiscence, which inclines fallen men and women to resent having to conform to reality and to wish instead that reality could be made to conform to them; and a false paradigm of perfect personhood as absolute self-sufficiency, based on a misunderstanding of divine unity and perfection, and contrary to the Christian conception of God as a Trinity of persons whose fullness of life is their communion with one another.

The ideal of personal autonomy is taken for granted in contemporary, liberal societies, as if it were a self-evident truth. While accepting authority and obedience to limit social conflict, people think that, ideally, individuals should be free to do as they please. In exercising such liberty, it is supposed, people will adopt various styles of life and will fulfill themselves by their individualistic creativity. Authority and obedience appear to be only necessary evils which are to be minimized as much as possible.

c) Usually, some must exercise authority on behalf of a group. Sometimes it is right for certain people to impose their judgment on others without appealing to their freedom but simply by constraining them, for example, parents who stop babies from harming themselves, those who restrain the insane, police who lock up criminals. While parents and the rest do have authority, it is not exercised by these justified impositions; those subjected to them have no opportunity to obey or disobey, and so the duty to obey does not come into play.

The authority-obedience relationship is different: those involved are cooperating, and so they necessarily share moral responsibility. This sharing, which requires the authority of unified decisions, is necessary for the fulfillment of human persons. One might suppose that the necessary authority always should be by consensus. However, God gives different powers and gifts to different individuals so that they complement one another, make up social wholes, and realize most human goods by cooperatively carrying out their different roles (see GS 24–25; A, above). Not all the members in most communities are equally capable of exercising authority, and so it is necessary that some take the initiative in action while others freely follow their leadership (see S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 1).53 Thus, authority must be exercised by some, and others must obey them. Except in cases in which authority is exercised by consensus, this need, together with the requirement of fairness, provides the specific moral basis of authority and the duty to obey it (see CMP, 11.B).

d) This providential plan for human cooperation has positive value. Human persons are ennobled by being empowered to share not only in God’s being but in his intelligence, freedom, causality—and authority. Still, this relationship does not ennoble those in authority at the expense of those who obey. Rather, both are ennobled, since no true authority-obedience relationship exists without free choices on both sides to sustain it and carry out what it requires.

Then too, all who are able to act with mature responsibility exercise authority in respect to those matters in which their initiative is appropriate for effective cooperation. In a democratic society, for example, legislators decide about laws which all (including themselves) must obey, but citizens at large decide who will hold elective offices. Also, the same persons can exchange initiative in different relationships: the Catholic woman who also is a judge obeys her pastor in parish affairs, but he obeys her when he serves on the jury in a case tried in her court.

e) God’s authority respects human dignity. The dignity of human persons depends on God: his initiative in creating humankind in his image, redeeming disobedient humankind, and calling each human person not only to fulfillment in human goods but to a share in the divine nature (see 2 Pt 1.4; GS 14–17, 22). God reveals himself and offers his covenant, but he forces no one to accept it; rather, he makes it clear that in doing so human beings will be enabled to cooperate in carrying out his plan, which includes their own true fulfillment. Thus, God appeals to people’s freedom for the obedience of faith, which consists in accepting and doing his word (see Gn 22.15–18, 1 Sm 15.22, Heb 11.8). Mary illustrates the point: God does not use this most excellent of created persons in a merely passive way. He makes his will known to her, and she cooperates in his work through her free acts of faith and obedience (see LG 56). Thus, the Christian conception of divine authority is that of an initiative that appeals to freedom and respects the dignity of those who obey, while the Christian conception of obedience is that of reasonable and free submission.

f) Obedience ought to be given through human authorities to God. The ideal of autonomy is a distorted shadow of a Christian conviction about personal dignity: it is not fitting that those redeemed by Jesus—and sharing in the freedom of God’s children, the dignity of his kingly people—should be servile to other human persons.54 However, authority-obedience relationships do not have this result.

In the perspective of faith, the moral order, grounded in God’s wisdom and goodness, undergirds authentic authority and obedience, which shape cooperation toward true human fulfillment. Thus, human authorities should be obeyed insofar as their commands make a moral claim, which can be accepted out of love for God. Because authority’s legitimate commands make a moral claim, however, it does not follow that every human authority is God’s personally authorized agent.55 In practice, the most important consequence of authority’s source in the moral order (and ultimately in God) is that those exercising it must respect others’ dignity and those subject to it can obey without compromising their own dignity.

g) Jesus is the model and ultimate motive for Christians’ obedience. Jesus’ whole life and death were shaped by obedience to the Father (see Heb 5.8, 10.5–7). “Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2.6); so he was obedient even unto death, and therefore is exalted in the divine glory that is rightly his (see Phil 2.8–11).56 St. Paul points this out precisely to explain to Christians how they should relate to one another: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2.4–5). Thus, subordination need not mean inferiority: even at the end of time, when God’s plan reaches its completion, the Son, without derogating from his own lordship, will subject himself to the Father. That God may be all in all, however, everything must first be subjected to the Lord Jesus (see 1 Cor 15.24–28). This requirement of the kingdom’s coming is the ultimate theological reason for obedience: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5.21; cf. 1 Pt 2.13).

3. The Moral Ground of Authority Determines Its Force and Limits

The fact that human authority comes from God sometimes is misinterpreted in a way that tends to absolutize certain authorities, especially public officials. Properly understood, however, the origin in God of human authority as such means only that every true authority is morally grounded. Although this does give it a force beyond what society can confer, whether by the power to compel compliance, by the weight of public opinion, or by the desires and interests of those who obey, the moral ground of authority also establishes authority’s limits.

a) Obedience should be ready and generous, not minimalistic. A mini~malistic attitude regards authority’s prescriptions as a mere set of rules, to be satisfied only as necessary and evaded if possible. Some people comply with authority only insofar as they think it in their own interests to do so, but since authentic human authority is morally grounded, this is not true obedience. Thus, compliance merely to avoid punishment is not really obedience—submission to the moral claim of authority—nor is complying only in proportion to the authority’s personal appeal and psychological persuasiveness.

Christians who rightly appreciate authority’s moral grounding obey legitimate authorities, including those who cannot enforce their commands and those who make compliance psychologically difficult by their irritating or inept style of leadership. Truly obedient, such Christians are ready to comply, not waiting until the authority spends extra time and effort exhorting and admonishing them. They often go beyond the letter of what is prescribed in order to fulfill its evident purpose, while never using the letter to thwart authority’s intent.

b) Human authorities are subject to God and called to serve. Since all human authority is morally grounded, none is unlimited. Before those in authority command anything, they first must be submissive to God’s plan and will (see Wis 6.1–8). They must obey their own legitimate superiors and the just law governing their exercise of authority. Moreover, they must be careful, for their responsibility is greater than that of those who obey them: authorities are responsible not only for the actions they command but for the action of commanding as well. Then too, since there are many human authorities in diverse relationships and for different matters, authorities must recognize and remain within their proper limits.

Christian hope should operate in the shaping of Christians’ cooperation in authority-obedience relationships. Then both the exercise of authority and the practice of obedience are subordinated to the responsibility which Christians have to contribute to fulfilling the Church’s mission. Just as Jesus is the model of obedience, so he is the model of authority; he regarded it as an element of his mission as servant, and he calls Christians to exercise authority as a service (see Mt 20.25–28, Mk 10.42–45, Lk 22.25–27, Jn 13.12–15). Thus, those in authority sin if they take advantage of their leadership role to practice favoritism or otherwise abuse their position, whether on their own behalf or on behalf of others.

c) Authority extends only to morally acceptable courses of action. Since all human authority is from God, who does no evil, there is no authority to command anything wrong. True human authority, being morally grounded, extends only to what is morally right. When people in authority command something wrong, faithful Christians do not obey them but do what is morally right: they obey God (see 1 Mc 2.19–22, Acts 5.29). Withholding obedience in such a case is not disobedience: the command has no authority, and obedience is not due it (see S.t., 2–2, q. 104, a. 5).

In practice, it follows that someone exercising authority should require only what he or she is sure is right, while someone called on to obey a command about whose rightness he or she is in doubt must try to resolve the doubt. Sometimes one’s own reflection or the advice of others will accomplish that. Authorities should be prepared to help, and should not regard reasonable requests for such help as resistance. If reflection does not lead to the judgment that the command certainly or more probably should not be obeyed, the presumption is on the side of the authority: one should obey, since otherwise one would fail to cooperate responsibly for the good at stake (see CMP, 12.C).

d) Compliance sometimes should extend beyond the duty to obey. One sometimes has a responsibility to conform to orders or precepts even though they are not rightly made by legitimate authorities. (Such conformity, strictly speaking, is not obedience, since obedience is given only to what morally deserves it: rightly made decisions of legitimate authorities.) There are several sorts of cases. Sometimes an authority makes an unreasonable demand, but compliance is in one’s own true interests (including one’s interests in fulfilling various responsibilities). In such cases, compliance is in order if this can be done without doing something wrong. Again, those in authority sometimes violate the rights of some members of the community, yet certain aspects of the common good of some other community call for docile compliance. Again, sometimes one should comply with directives which promote both good and bad purposes, doing so for the sake of the good even though such precepts are not truly authoritative insofar as they fall short of justice. Finally, one sometimes should comply with precepts which are unjust in allocating burdens and benefits, because not doing so will intensify rather than mitigate injustice. (The proper response of citizens to unjust laws is treated in 11.D.3.)

4. The End of Authority and Obedience Should Shape Their Use

Authority and obedience have as their end the common good: human fulfillment in and through cooperative action. Just as authority’s moral grounding determines its force and limits in general, the common end of authority and obedience determines the right manner of exercising authority and practicing obedience.

a) Authorities should conform to their own directives. Those who think of authority as power over others in effect deny that authorities are bound by their own directives; as they see it, authorities are above the law because no one can force them to observe it. However, the moral basis of any genuine use of authority is that the one in authority reasonably decides what is required to attain the common good and justly commands it. Thus, authorities who do not willingly conform to their own directives, when these bear on their actions, manifest either unreasonableness in their directives, unfairness in setting requirements, or both. St. Thomas applies to such authorities Jesus’ reproof of hypocrites who pronounce but do not perform (see Mt 23.3, 23–28; S.t., 1–2, q. 96, a. 5, ad 3).

Even if they cannot be held to obedience, those who exercise authority should set an example of conformity to their own directives, whenever these are relevant to their personal actions. They are truly obedient in doing so, for they submit to the same moral requirement that binds others and are subject to God who is its source.

Moreover, when authorities give directions which do not apply to their own activity, they should not command what they would regard as unreasonable if they were among those asked to obey. It also is a sign of a right attitude in those in authority that they readily and generously obey others to whom they are themselves subject.

b) Authorities should listen to those whose action they direct. The purpose of authority is not served unless those exercising it make reasonable choices among morally acceptable ways of acting for the common good. Since authorities must be certain to command nothing wrong, they should listen carefully to moral misgivings, whether their own or others’, about any of the possibilities they are considering, and should try either to resolve such concerns or to avoid the option which provokes them.

Moreover, to make a reasonable choice, an authority must be aware of the possibilities, and generally some possibilities will only emerge in listening to those whose action is directed. For in acting, people often hear or think of some new possibility or, at least, of a significant variation on a familiar way of doing things. Further, no authority can make a reasonable choice without considering the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility, and usually those who will have to carry out what is commanded are uniquely able to predict some advantages and disadvantages. Finally, an authoritative decision is similar to an individual’s discernment in that rational reflection can leave two or more possibilities for choice (see 5.J). Then those in authority rightly take the feelings of the members of the social body as one sign of which option will best shape cooperation.57

c) Those subject to authority should truly submit to it. In some communities, such as democratic political societies, many participate in various ways in the exercise of authority. Even then, though, not all who must obey participate directly in making decisions. It would not be good if they did, for then either the whole society would spend all its time making decisions, or decisions would be poorly made by those whose gifts and responsibilities lay elsewhere. Also, while those who do not make decisions can play an important part in the work of authority by contributing to the deliberative process, they should not suppose themselves always entitled to know everything on which the authority’s decision is based. Sometimes the common good or the rights of individuals require keeping relevant information secret.

Having made their appropriate contribution, those not in authority should not try in other ways to influence a decision, and should submit to every rightly made decision of any legitimate authority. The first step toward rebellion is to put pressure on a legitimate authority properly engaged in making a decision by suggesting that it will be obeyed reluctantly if it is unpopular. If people next attack unwelcome but rightly made decisions—for example, by saying the authority failed to listen to them—they foment rebellion; and they engage in it if they seek to nullify a rightly made decision which they dislike by encouraging disobedience.

d) Rebellion against rightful use of authority has two main sources. Among the reasons why people rebel against decisions that deserve obedience, two stand out. First, some simply do not recognize and accept authority’s moral foundation; either they are not committed to the common good or they are not fair-minded or both. Second, while accepting authority’s moral foundation, some in particular situations reduce the common good to some more limited good they desire to see achieved. Having their own conception of what should be done, they are not open to the possibility that some other course of action may be as good or even better. And so they think the authority’s decision is less good than it should be, judge it unreasonable, and are likely to say it is against their conscience. While presuming to judge the authority’s decision erroneous, they cannot know it to be so, and they should realize that the authority simply has made a decision different from the one they would have made. Instead they act disloyally and thereby impede members of the community, including themselves, from fulfilling their personal vocations. The remedy is hope, which enables one to obey legitimate authority just as it motivates the fulfillment of one’s personal vocation: with creativity, without giving in to discouragement, with active self-surrender, and without counting costs.

e) The responsibility to obey has limits. Obedience should be given only to genuine authority, and authority is limited in two ways. First, authority extends only to morally acceptable courses of action. Second, it extends only to what serves the common good of the community whose cooperative action it directs. So, for instance, civic authority has nothing to say about the Church’s liturgy except insofar as liturgical actions could disturb the peace, disrupt traffic, or something of the sort. Similarly, the Church’s pastoral authority does not extend to political matters, such as selecting public officials. Still, because the Church has the right and duty to teach the moral truth about political actions as about others, her pastors can rightly teach that public office should not be entrusted to those who support patently unjust laws and public policies.

The moral obligation to obey has other limitations. Even when a genuine authority operates within its proper limits, conflicts of duties can require an individual not to obey some precept which otherwise would call for obedience. Also, within the narrow limits of its legitimate use, epikeia applies to every kind of human law (see CMP, 11.E.10, 11.G.6). Still, a person should begin with a presumption in favor of obedience: one obeys unless one judges that doing so would more probably or certainly be wrong.58

f) Disobedience can be a grave sin. Within the limits of the responsibility to obey, disobedience can be, but is not always, a grave matter. Sometimes disobedience is grave because it directly and seriously damages or impedes the common good and sometimes because it concerns a matter already grave by divine or natural law, for example, a liturgical requirement for the validity of a sacrament or a criminal law forbidding doing what would gravely harm someone. But obedience also is a grave matter if the authorized policy settles questions which otherwise will lead to contention, discord, and conflict among various groups or factions in the community, thus seriously impairing its solidarity in pursuing its common good. Suppose a just statute is enacted to regulate labor-management relations and eliminate disruptive disputes: all parties have a grave obligation to comply with the law and cooperate in making it work. In such questions, law often indicates the gravity of obedience by assigning a significant penalty for disobedience. Moreover, even apart from the matter at stake, disobedience is grave if it expresses deliberate contempt for authority, for example, the disobedience of those who make it a policy to obey only when they either fear the consequences of disobeying or find what authority commands to be agreeable.

g) Abuse and abdication of authority can be equally grave sins. Authorities can abuse their proper role in several ways. They can knowingly command something wrong or something beyond their proper sphere; in making their decisions and issuing commands, they can violate authority to which they themselves are subject; they can unfairly shape their decisions by personal preferences; they can make hasty and ill-considered decisions; they can fail to listen as they should to those whose action they direct.

Authorities also can abdicate their responsibility: by postponing difficult decisions which need to be made, by shaping decisions in ways that give unfair advantage to the resistant and rebellious, and by omitting to exercise authority for fear of expected bad consequences which they could rightly accept.

Abuses of authority often are felt to be a more serious matter than its abdication, which generally is less noticeable and less obnoxious to those jealous of their personal liberty. However, both not only adversely affect the common good toward which the authority should direct cooperative action, but damage the bonds of community and make loyalty and obedience more difficult. Thus, abuse and abdication of authority can be equally grave matters.

53. See Leo XIII, Quod Apostolici muneris, ASS 11 (1878) 372–74, PE, 79.5–8.

54. See Pius XI, Quas primas, AAS 17 (1925) 601–2, PE, 197.19.

55. See John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 269–72, PE, 270.46–54. Of course, genuine prophets, priests, and rulers of God’s people of the old covenant and the ordained when acting in persona Christi under the new covenant are God’s authorized agents; but other human authorities receive power from God through the natural law, not through divine positive law; for an explanation of this point, see 11.B.3.a.

56. A helpful essay on obedience in Scripture: Alois Stöger, “Obedience,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 616–20. Jesus’ obedience to the Father expresses his love as Son: Peter McDonald, “Obedience: The Supreme Image of Divine Love Itself Appearing,” Priests and People 3 (Feb. 1989): 41–46.

57. The responsibilities stated here underlie provisions of the Church’s law that make clear the importance of distinguishing between deliberation and decision, and the responsibility of authorities to take seriously others’ participation in deliberation: see CIC, c. 127. Also see The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1975), 51 (ch. 3).

58. The judgment that one should not obey is an act of conscience, which is altogether different from an individualistic assertion of a personal preference, all too easily rationalized as “letting my conscience be my guide.”