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Fear of Using the Authority of the Holy Church

The desire to democratize the Church is linked with a fear of using that authority which God has given her.

Earlier in this book, in the chapter, “The Lethargy of the Custodians,” we discussed the fear of using legitimate authority. Now we have to come back to this subject in connection with the unfortunate democratization of the Church. For the present disrepute in which authority finds itself is related to the idolization of democracy. Respect for democracy has become so great that authority as such has become suspect. But the more true authority is defamed, then the more young persons fall prey to pseudo-authority, that is, the more they submit blindly to some demagogue. They are like those people who want to have nothing to do with medical doctors and then fall into the hands of quacks. But the hostility of modern youth to authority is an age-old phenomenon. Long ago Plato said, in his dialogue The Laws, that the youth of his time think that they have nothing to learn, and that they refuse to accept anything from their parents.

But this hostility of children towards the authority of their parents and of their schools, their raving for revolutions, strikes, public protests, is much less dangerous than that fear of using authority which we find in many persons to whom legitimate authority has been entrusted. This fear comes partly from a respect for the (wrongly understood) freedom of others, partly from fear of public opinion one doesn't want to appear unpopular, reactionary partly from general human respect, often from weakness and an antipathy to acting in an “unfriendly” way, and sometimes simply from cowardice, as we saw in Chapter I. Those who for one or more of these reasons fail to use their authority often try to excuse themselves by saying, “Authority no longer works today.”

Unfortunately this fear of using authority has even penetrated into the holy Church and has influenced many bishops and religious superiors. Needless to say, this fear of using authority is incomparably more irresponsible and more harmful in the Church than any place else. I was recently told by the general of a great order in the Church, who himself, at least at the time when I spoke to him, deplored some of the bad trends within the clergy and saw something of the devastation of the vineyard of the Lord: “What can I do; authority is no longer effective today. We rather have to take the attitude of a St. Monica pray, weep, and have patience.”

There are many errors contained in this statement. First of all, it is by no means true that authority has lost its effectiveness. A superior today can still suspend a member of his order, forbid him to teach, or even expel him from the order. He can use his authority just as effectively as the director of a hospital would use his in dismissing some of his doctors if they were incompetent, or were using patients for experiments. A religious superior is responsible for not using his authority, and his responsibility is much greater than that of Eli in the Old Testament. It is simply not true that the authority of a superior is no longer effective. The comparison with St. Monica can only be applied to the conversion of someone. It is totally inapplicable if it is a question of restraining someone from poisoning the souls of others, of using authority to prevent someone from inflicting this wrong on others. In this case a superior can and must intervene. He can do this today as well as in any other era; and if he does nothing, he acts like the hireling of which our Lord speaks.

The use of legitimate, God-given authority is never felt to be pleasant by one who, though under authority, is filled with a revolutionary spirit. Usually a child will inwardly rebel when his parents forbid him something, but that does not keep the child from obeying, even if unwillingly. This unwillingness to submit to authority however legitimate and God-given the authority is is rooted in fallen human nature, and is to be found in all eras. And so the assertion is false that authority is ineffective today when exercised by legitimate superiors. As far as formal intervention goes, such as suspending or expelling someone, the use of authority is thoroughly effective, especially the authority of bishops and religious superiors. We do not deny that resistance, to authority and unwillingness to obey is especially prominent today and is fostered by all kinds of demagogues (and quite often by Communist agents who are themselves slaves of a brutal and illegitimate totalitarian authority). But the failure to use the authority which has been given by God in a special way, really comes from human respect, from feeling more responsible to public opinion than to Christ, and from the fact that one fears the reputation of being reactionary more than the offense against God which lies in not using the authority which derives from Him, and fears this reputation more than harm to souls. Now this, too, is a result of this-worldliness.

Of course revolutionary propaganda and the spirit of the times can make it more difficult than in earlier times to intervene effectively with authority. But is this a reason for making cowardly compromises? On the other hand, the consequences of suspension or expulsion from an order are not nearly so bad for him who is suspended or expelled as in earlier times: he will be celebrated by the liberal world. honored, given the aura of a “martyr” for freedom.

The right use of the sacred authority of a bishop or a religious superior is much more necessary, more urgently called for by God when it is not just the deviation of an individual which is at stake, but rather the spreading of a terrible spiritual plague by one who is either malicious or ignorant. The failure to use God-given authority against such a person is a betrayal of Christ. Anyone who, from cowardice or insufficient moral courage, fails to take up a fight, brings a terrible responsibility upon himself.

This failure to use God-given authority when God is clearly calling a bishop or a superior to use it, is, as one can easily see, linked with worldliness and to the distorted idea of love of neighbor. All authoritative intervention is seen in the light of a lack of love and respect for the person of the one who is disciplined. Let us grant that authority was often misused in earlier times whether the authority of parents, of religious superiors, of priests in confession, and sometimes even of bishops nevertheless today's failure to use God-given authority in no way overcomes the earlier abuses of authority, but rather derives from the same basic attitude: from the loss of a truly supernatural spirit. There is, of course, the danger that a person who has authority will abuse it. And here we are thinking not just of that abuse which comes from exceeding the competence of a given authority and interfering with things which lie beyond the sphere of that authority. We are especially thinking of the psychological danger which a great God-given position of authority has for many persons, including noble and devout persons: starting with a sense of responsibility for the use of their authority, they run the danger of regarding their own opinion as infallible, and of losing sight of the difference between administering their office in a supernatural spirit, and simply indulging their own authoritarian dispositions. To lapse from zeal, which is subjectively noble and filled with a sense of responsibility, into servitude to an authoritarian disposition, which is simply rooted in one's nature, is a form of naturalism, a loss of the sense for the supernatural. This was the tragedy of Pope Paul IV, Carafa.

The betrayal of God-given authority, by keeping silent or by not intervening where this is a sacred duty before God, is always a very grave fault. Sometimes it comes from the ostrich-policy of burying one's head in the sand and not wanting to see the evils which authority can and should eliminate; sometimes it comes from the slogan, “Authority is no longer effective today, it belongs to the Middle Ages.” This is much more dangerous than the abuse of authority which we just discussed; it is an even worse naturalism than this abuse, it is a failure to see what is demanded by the sacred office of a bishop or a religious superior. One looks upon authority as uncharitable and harsh because one looks at it “from without,” and fails to understand that it is a deed of the greatest love, that it is true love of neighbor to use God-given authority in the spirit of Christ and with the full awareness of being responsible before God.

Thank God there are still many orthodox bishops who fight courageously against the devastation of the vineyard of the Lord. They have the real courage of a Christian confessor. They are all the more to be admired because so many other bishops do not have this courage, and because their effective intervention is made much more difficult by the new bureaucracy in the Church and its “legalism.” For by establishing national councils of bishops, individual bishops are made dependent on the majorities of these councils in a way which often hinders them from acting and intervening according to their conscience. Then there are the priests’ councils, which in the name of democracy often make it more difficult for the bishops to act, and parish councils, which often hinder orthodox pastors from carrying on their struggle against “progressivism.”

The energetic struggle against the ever-increasing work of Satan to undermine the holy Church from within demands not only holy courage it also demands a burning faith in Christ and His holy Church, a faith which is not to be shaken by any trend of the time, by any number of books by well-known theologians (some of whom were orthodox before the Council), by the press and public opinion.

It is clear what great strength of faith is required for martyrdom. To be ready to die for the true Faith reveals an immense strength of faith. There are so many degrees of faith, and doubt is not one of them, not even the lowest. No, doubt is not a weak stage of faith, but the absence of faith, as Cardinal Newman shows clearly. And it is even more an absence of faith if someone, while not denying the content of faith, thinks that it is as likely to be true as to be false, or if someone says, “Perhaps it is true that Christ is the Son of God, but how can this be known for sure.” But if someone is tormented by doubts and fights against them, he might very well have the true faith. The great Kierkegaard has said many beautiful and important things on this type of faith.

But in speaking of degrees of faith, we are here thinking of something quite different. The first degree of faith is found when one's faith is still strongly supported by the social surroundings in which one lives; it is a faith which is too dependent on tradition and almost a matter of convention. We pass through countless degrees in the strength of one's faith as we mount up from this faith to the faith which we find in Pascal's Mémorial, in Cardinal Mindszenty, who submitted to all kinds of torture rather than renounce one iota of his faith, and finally up to the faith of the martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch.

The present time demands that the bishops, the “good shepherds,” possess faith in a high degree. Here we are not thinking of holy courage, of strength and stature of personality, but rather of strength and absoluteness of faith, of the readiness to defend the true Faith opportune importune (in season and out of season) against all distortions, however hidden they might be. We are thinking of the strength and absoluteness of faith which makes one immune to the uncanny power of tendencies of the time to those ideas which fill the air and present themselves as healthy and necessary evolution, and which make all protest against them appear to be the protest of an “angry old man,” of someone who is caught up in habit and is incapable of receiving new life.

And here we encounter today an extremely curious phenomenon: there are delicate personality-types who are not at all militant by nature, but who have a deep faith and would be ready to die as martyrs in a persecution yet they are unable to oppose the bad trends of the time within the Church and the many false prophets.


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