First Published in ‘The Catholic Voice’, Ireland, June 2015
There is only ever one Ultimate Authority
I want to dwell a little longer on the subject of authority and to reflect briefly on the implications for the exercise of authority in Ireland that may come about as a result of the ‘Yes’ vote in the recent marriage referendum. I am speaking of authority in the sense of the power to determine, to have jurisdiction, and the right to control and command.
Now in any given situation, or place, or time, there can only be one ultimate authority. As Catholics, we of course know that God is the ultimate authority, but there are varying and different levels of authority. In the family home there can only be one ultimate authority. The Church teaches that, within marriage, this deciding authority is vested in the husband and that the wife must be subject to her husband. In today’s society of relativistic views and emotionalism, this notion of husbandly authority is very unpopular. But if we leave the man aside for a moment, we will see that in a democracy of two, where there is a fundamental disagreement on policy, there will arise a stalemate beyond which it is impossible to go unless one or other of the parties give way. It must also be noted that there are limits to this authority, that it can be abused or misused, and that a husband is called to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, laying down his life for her.
In a healthy Catholic family, centred on loving God, serious disagreements rarely arise
In a healthy Catholic family, such fundamental disagreements rarely arise and the couple usually manage to work things out through discussion. But let us now look outside of the family situation. Let us take for example an imaginary political party. Now supposing that in this imaginary political party, the leader decides that he wants to legislate for abortion despite having given assurances to the voters that he would not do so. He has also decided, on his authority as leader of the party, that all deputies of the party must support this legislation. Now again, suppose that there are some deputies in this party who decide that in conscience they cannot support their party leader in this matter. What is happening in this situation?
Dissent Challenges Authority, and must be put down
The authority of the party leader is being challenged by those who are hinting that they cannot go along with their leader’s wishes. In this situation the leader must either assert his authority and force the deputies to vote as he has decided, or else he will have to back down, thereby losing his authority and putting his leadership of the party under threat. If the dissenting deputies decide that they will not be forced to comply, then they must either make a challenge for the leadership of the party or else they must resign. The only alternative open to them is that they would continue in the party by compromising their beliefs. Now of course you will realise that just such a scenario played out recently here in Ireland with the main government party. We saw the party leader assert his authority on the abortion issue, we saw some deputies, who initially claimed to be pro-life, compromise their pro-life position and vote for abortion whilst at the same time unconvincingly maintaining that they were still pro-life. We also saw some deputies resigning from the party rather than compromise on their pro-life principles.
That is how authority works in a political party in a western democracy.
In the world dissent is crushed by force of arms, in the Church by proclaiming the Truth
But let us now look to an even bigger situation. Let us look at the USSR and at the situation under Gorbachev in the late 1980s when some of the republics within the union decided to declare their independence from the USSR. Here we see the supreme authority of the union being called into question. Here again, the leader’s authority is being challenged and the leader must either give in to the demands of those looking for independence, or he must resist them. In this case, if he decides to resist, he had better be prepared to use the force of arms to crush those who resist his authority because they will be prepared to take up arms against him. These situations will usually turn violent as each side tries to assert themselves as the supreme authority and to take command of the country in question.
All of these events come to pass because, as we noted earlier, in any given situation, or place, or time, there can be only one ultimate authority.
All Authority Ceases with Death
In the case of the state, authority is enforced through the legal system, the guards, and if necessary, through the army. The state’s ultimate weapon, whereby the legal system fails and prison is not an option, is the death penalty. The ultimate authority which one man can exercise over another, is to take the other’s life. For men, all authority ceases with death.
At this point we should take a look again at the authority of Jesus Christ. Christ, out of obedience to the Will of God the Father, submitted himself to the ultimate authority of man, was crucified, died and was buried. If Christ were just a man, this would have been the end of His authority. But Christ is not just a man, and by rising from the dead, Christ confirmed that as God, His authority is above and beyond the authority of mere creatures and that death has no power over Him.
Destroy this Temple and in Three days I will raise it up
We see this reflected in St John’s gospel after Jesus had driven out the money changers from the temple:
“The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body.” (John 2: 18-21)
Catholic Authority is maintained by living in the Truth of Christ
The civil state ultimately proclaims its authority through penalties, through the suppression of those who resist, and through the use of force as and when it deems this necessary. Christ, and subsequently His Catholic Church, proclaims His authority by proclaiming the Truth, and by living according to that Truth. Those who proclaim the Truth of Christ, maintain their authority so long as they proclaim that Truth in its fullness and entirety and seek to conform their lives to it. Once they depart from the Truth or fail to teach it in its entirety, they lose authority and they are then at the mercy and dictates of the state.
The Apostasy of England, a rejection of Authority
In the case of Henry VIII, when he wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared null by the Pope, the Pope asserted his authority by proclaiming the truth that the marriage was valid. King Henry refused submission thereby challenging the Pope’s authority and this led to a violent conflict between Church and state and the apostasy of England as Henry asserted his authority over the people of England. St Thomas More and Bishop St John Fisher, upheld the truth and were put to death. The other Catholic bishops in England compromised and chose to become protestant. They denied Christ and the truth in order to save their lives. The disastrous effects of this apostasy are still being felt in England to this day.
The Irish People have rejected God’s Authority
With the ‘Yes’ vote in the recent marriage referendum, Ireland now finds itself in a situation similar to that which prevailed at the time of Henry VIII. The Irish state, has claimed jurisdiction over marriage and has changed the definition of marriage. The Catholic Church does not accept this definition but keeps to the definition of marriage as declared by God through the Sacred Scriptures and as declared by Christ when He came on earth. Inevitably, this will lead to a clash of authorities. We will have a look at the possible outcomes of just such a clash in the next article.
© John Lacken 2015
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Author: John Lacken
Founder: Legio Sanctae Familiae – The Legion of the Holy Family