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In an earlier work we distinguished genuine authority from any merely functional authority (Die Menschheit am Scheideweg). There is a certain relation between a superior and a subordinate which results from a contract. This is a practical, technical authority which is indispensable for the functioning of a factory, a hospital, or any organization in which a number of people work together. This authority is legitimate only when the subordinate binds himself to his superior; thus it was certainly wrong when in earlier times men were forced to work for others. But as I showed in this earlier writing of mine, we must clearly distinguish this functional authority from real and genuine authority, which derives its right to command from the fact that it is a partial representation of God. Such is the authority of parents or of the state. Whether we are speaking of the authority of a king, or of a president or a parliament chosen in a general election, this authority always comes from “above” and involves a partial representation of God; this is in contrast to any merely functional authority. It would be contrary to the nature of true authority if its sphere of competence were now broader, now narrower. The decrees and laws of true authority are not binding simply because the individual has explicitly committed himself to them. As I tried to show in my earlier work, real authority is one of the genuine sources of moral obligation, and it is something quite striking that a decree is binding for an individual simply because it has been issued by a legitimate authority.
We refer to these facts here because Karl Rahner, in a lecture at the Catholic Academy in Munich, has spoken of a reinterpretation of authority. This lecture contains elementary philosophical errors, which betray a surprising blindness to the difference between sacred and profane authority.
It is more than regrettable that Rahner remarked that the previous notion of authority in the Church was “feudalistic.” or rather suitable only for a feudalistic society and no longer for “modern” man. The same man who twenty years ago wrote significant theological works has now fallen prey to a distinctly mediocre “sociologization,” an unfortunate fashion of the times. There is an analogy between Rahner's position and the position expressed by the slogan, “We have to liberate ourselves from the Greek mentality, from the Platonic error that there is an objective truth.” It is a childish error to think that ultimate fundamental realities — which one unavoidably reintroduces as soon as one tries to deny them — are nothing but expressions of a nation, an era, or a sociological structure. And the research of a scientific sociology presupposes all these fundamental realities such as objective truth. There is an analogy to this attempt to make truth a function of the Greek mentality, in Rahner's assertion that so basic a reality as genuine authority is nothing but the product of a particular sociological structure such as feudalism. This is an unfortunate and self-contradictory error. And this error is all the more astonishing coming from a theologian, for it betrays a blindness to the fundamental reality of the authority of God, which is the causa exemplaris (ideal model) of all authority.
If this lecture of Rahner is conspicuous for lapsing into mediocre “sociologizing,” it is also conspicuous for its confusion regarding the nature of authority. The nature of a datum so central and fundamental as authority is crudely misunderstood. What is in reality true authority should according to Rahner be “abolished,” and replaced by a purely functional authority. But the worst of Rahner's lecture is yet a third point: the failure to distinguish between sacred and profane authority. In trying to eliminate everything “paternalistic” in Church authority, he is trying to desacralize Church authority and to eliminate the essential difference between sacred and profane authority. Indeed. he would thereby reduce sacred authority to” profane authority, and not just to true” profane authority, but to neutral, purely technical functional authority —— to authority without strength and dignity. Is he aware of the consequences which this has for that obedience which we owe to sacred authority?
Why this fear of fatherhood, when God again and again in the Gospel calls Himself our Heavenly Father? In the prayer which Christ taught us, almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the infinitely holy, unapproachable God is addressed as our Father; why then does Rahner protest that the vicar of Christ on earth, the successor of the prince of the Apostles, should no longer call us his beloved sons and daughters?
This reinterpretation of the authority of the holy Church is not a new interpretation of authority, but rather simply a misunderstanding of the basic reality of sacred authority. It is as if someone were to fail to see the difference between a college professor and a doctor of the Church. Rahner would eliminate the greatness and dignity of the authority of a bishop or a superior, as well as the holy, fatherly love which permeates it; he would replace the glory of the unique direct bond with God through Christ, with a dull, flat, purely earthly relation which lacks real supernatural love. He fails to distinguish the different kinds of authority as well as the different categories of love, such as fatherly love, love of neighbor, love for an exemplary person, etc.
All authority attaches to an office and not to the person who holds the office. But the love which goes with sacred authority and which is grounded in the office of this sacred authority necessarily has a paternal character, just as obedience to sacred authority includes an element of filial love. We should never sacrifice all these timeless basic realities and basic truths to the mythical modern man — who lives only in the phantasy of sociologists. Soon we will hear that it is intolerable for “modem” man to be born of parents.
This reinterpretation of authority represents, unfortunately, not a private opinion of Karl Rahner, but a widespread tendency. It is also a result of this-worldliness, of a loss of the sense for the supernatural, and of that desacralization or secularization which goes hand in hand with this. And this-worldliness is not only incompatible with the teaching of the holy Church and the Revelation of Christ. but with any kind of religion.