Authority and authoritarianism

18 December 2012, 09:39 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew SOROKOWSKI

In our last column we discussed Myroslav Marynovych’s portrait of the free, uncoerced Christian, who may fall into sin but is able to reconsider and change his ways. Such an individual has no need of an authoritarian Church or state. Marynovych believes that in a genuinely Christian society, there should be no authoritarianism.

Marynovych describes this free Christian as a “properly formed human spirit.” If this is a condition of true freedom, it is also true that freedom is a condition of such a proper formation. This is true in two senses: that the individual must be inwardly free in order to be “properly formed,” and that the surrounding society must be free in order to permit this formation to take place. Specifically, the society must have freedom of religion, so that the Church can teach and give individuals the proper formation that they need in order to become free Christians. This freedom is never absolute; even in the United States, the constitutional right of “free exercise” is limited.

Assuming a free individual in a free society, how does hegain a “proper formation”? Who or what is to provide it? And if this free individual lacks such a formation, or chooses to ignore it, who or what can induce him to see his error and repent? It is difficult to imagine how either task could be fulfilled without some kind of religious authority. 

Of course, authority is not the same thing as authoritarianism. Once upon a time, the Church could coerce obedience through various penalties. But in today’s free societies, no one is required to belong to a church. And even those who choose to belong to the Catholic Church, for example, cannot be compelled to live Catholic lives. In the United States, public figures who claim to be Catholics can defy Catholic teaching with impunity, and millions of ordinary Catholics openly do so in both word and deed. As José Casanova has written, “the Catholic hierarchy does not control the consciences of American Catholics” (José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, 1994, p. 205). In today’s world, religious authoritarianism is futile. Indeed, the more churchmen try to behave in an authoritarian manner, the more their ineffectuality is exposed. In Poland, for example, the attempts of the Catholic hierarchy to regain its dominant position in society have backfired.

But one should not confuse authoritarianism with the clear declaration of doctrine. Authoritarianism coerces; authority teaches, but it teaches clearly. And doctrinal declarations must be made by someone with authority. One area of confusion has been precisely the source of authority in the Catholic Church.

The Second Vatican Council states that bishops, as successors to the Apostles,  receive from the Lord the mission to teach all nations and preach the gospel. (Lumen Gentium No. 24. See CCEO canon 596.) They are “preachers of the faith,” “authentic teachers” “endowed with the authority of Christ.” “Teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff,” they “are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth.” In matters of faith and morals, the faithful are to accept this teaching with a “submission of mind and will.” This submission must be shown in a special way to “the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.” (Lumen Gentium No. 25.)“The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” (Lumen Gentium No. 22).

At the same time, one of the most noted achievements of the Second Vatican Council was to emphasize the role of the laity, the “people of God,” in the infallible teaching of the Church. In the words of Lumen Gentium,

“the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God.” (Lumen Gentium No. 12)

With regard to the interpretation of sacred tradition and Scripture, “the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers, so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.” (Dei Verbum No. 10.) “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Ibid.)

Thus, the laity share in the maintenance, practice, and proclamation of divinetruth as interpreted by the Church’s teaching office.

In the United States, however, the very idea of the Church’s teaching authority has been resisted. This is likely due in part to the anti-authoritarian tradition of that nation, born of rebellion against abuse of political authority. It may also be a result of politicization, by which democratic principles and habits of thought enter the Church. For to the democratic mind, sovereignty lies in the people, and authority in their elected representatives. Transferred to the Church, this principle would situate sovereignty and authority in the “people of God,” rather than in Jesus Christ and the successors of His Apostles. This makes the idea of a “teaching authority,” and more broadly of any hierarchical church authority, untenable. This idea is further undermined by recent theories of secular education, by which teachers merely guide students in teaching themselves and each other (though the efficacy of this method remains controversial). Applied to the Church, this would make every man and woman his or her own theologian, with the clergy serving at most as spiritual advisors. This is surely a far cry from the intent of Jesus, who entrusted his teaching authority to the Apostles, not to a wandering tribe of autodidacts.

Because America’s influence is world-wide, and also because western Ukraine has close contact with the North American diaspora, the experience of the United States is worth noting. Since the 1960s, American Catholics’ rebellion against the Church’s teaching authority has been most noticeable in the area of sexual morality – perhaps because the Second Vatican Council coincided with the beginning of the so-called “sexual revolution.”According to sociologist José Casanova, American Catholics’ general rejection of the Church’s teachings in this area, particularly those of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, “made clear not only that Catholics were ready to disobey church commandments, something which as sinners Catholics have always done, but that they were consciously dissenting from church doctrines, in good conscience, without thinking that they were acting immorally and without believing that they were unfaithful to the Catholic church.”(Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, 1994, p.205.) As Casanova delicately puts it, “Implicitly at least… Catholics are saying that they have internalized the teachings of the [sic] Vatican II in a way the council fathers had not anticipated when they proclaimed the doctrine of freedom of conscience and when they defined the Church as the people of God.” (Id., pp. 205-206). They are saying that  “irrespective of what the hierarchy says, they will not feel excommunicated [sic!]” if they take the interpretation of church doctrine into their own hands – something that Andrew Greeley has called “do it yourself” or “selective Catholicism.” In Casanova’s view, this is “another way of saying that American Catholics have reached the level of modern reflexive religion or the stage of postconventional morality.” (Id. p. 206).That this process spills over from the private to the public sphere (where Catholics are in fact more inclined to agree with their bishops), and that in describing their probable future demands Casanova uses terms like “participation,” “equal access,” and “faithful dissent,” suggests that American Catholicism has become highly politicized. (Id., pp. 206-207) However American Catholics may justify it, and however sociologists may describe it, this constitutes a rebellion against the Magisterium as defined by the Second Vatican Council.

And it is a peculiarly American rebellion. According to conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, in the 1960s Americans, under thepersistent influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, created a new moral order based on private revelation of truth rather than external authority, with the inner self as the source of moral truth. (Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great about America,” pp. 146-50) This new moral order was combined with traditional American individualism and autonomy. “Cultural conservatives must recognize,” writes D’Souza, “that the new morality is now entrenched and pervasive, so that there is no way to go back to the shared moral hierarchy of the past, however fondly that era may live on in their memories.” (Id. p. 158).

This is the same process that Casanova describes from a sociological and religious perspective.Both authors seem to viewhistory as an inevitable progression, in which America’s moral subjectivism and rejection of authority arethe irrevocable and inevitable way of the future. But the “American way” (judgmental souls might call it the “American heresy”) is not the only way.

True, the breakdown of Church authority is not limited to the United States , or to the recent past. Similar trends have long been noted in Western Europe, though the causes are different. For example, long-standing anti-hierarchical traditions in Rhenish Catholicism have contributed to bringing the Church there to a crisis in which, according to historian Michael Klöcker, it must choose between a new anti-modernism and a new aggiornamento. (Martin Menke, review of Michael Klöcker, Religionen und Katholizismus, Catholic Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 588-89).A decline in Catholic authority can also be detected in countries like Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. The situation in Western Europe is worth noting because Ukrainian intellectuals, including Catholics, tend to see it as a model society.

An observer focusing solely on Western Europe and North America might conclude that the Church’s authority is in decline altogether. There are two problems with such an interpretation. First, these areas no longer represent Catholicism’s center of gravity, in terms of either numbers or commitment. They may not even represent the trend of its future thinking. Africa and Asia, whose Catholics tend to be more orthodox, are likely to take the lead. Second, the nature of “modernity” is far from clear. Secularization may turn out to be only a temporary phase of modernity rather than an indelible characteristic.

 José Casanova understands modernity as an ongoing project. And in fact, he has argued that even though the Church has had to accept the new secular, democratic order, the “deprivatization” of religion means that it is still capable of participating in civil society as an independent alternative voice (Casanova, op. cit., pp. 65-66). Indeed, religious traditions may help to define modernity (Id. p. 234).

If religious traditions can help define modernity, then modernity need not follow the American or West European pattern.This is all the more true in Ukraine, which is very different not only from America, but from Western Europe as well. Moreover, Ukraine’s Greek-Catholics are markedlydifferent from both American and European Roman Catholics. Like the Catholics of Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world where the Church is growing rather than shrinking, Ukrainian Catholics may have a different vision of modernity than the moribund Catholicism of the West. It can be a modernity in which the voice of the Church sounds clearly amidst the cacophony of public discourse, and in which the faithful perceive this voice as being endowed with authority.

It may well be that in the Kievo-Byzantine tradition of the Ukrainian Church, authority is understood differently than it is in the Latin tradition. This would raise the question of whether, and how, such a different understanding of authority, applied on the patriarchal and episcopal levels, could be accommodated within the overall structure of authority in the Church as outlined above. Inasmuch as the fundamental problem of church authority cuts across rites, churches and traditions, however, it is unlikely that such an understanding would clash with the general principles set out by Vatican II, assuming that a patriarchal or quasi-patriarchal church is left to define and exercise its own authority in accord with its tradition.

Naturally, the basis of Church authority must be effectively communicated to the people, and freely accepted by them. This communication is part of the proper formation of Marynovych's free Christian. The Church can effectively provide such a formation only if it is willing and able to participate in the public discourse of civil society. Of course its authority, once accepted by the believer, must be exercised wisely -- not with authoritarianism, but with the passion and conviction befitting the successors of the Apostles.

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