Participation in Social Life - Authority

St Clement of Rome, Pope, Theologian, Martyr
In discussing the issue of authority in social life let us begin with a prayer. This prayer was written by one of the very early successors of St Peter, and the first one we know anything about. He is called Pope St Clement I (called Clemens Romanus to distinguish him from the Alexandrian) and he is the first of the "Apostolic Fathers". His feast is celebrated on 23 November. He has left one genuine writing, a letter to the Church of Corinth, and many others have been attributed to him. He provides the Church’s most ancient prayer for political authorities:

Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, concord, and stability, so that they may exercise without offence the sovereignty that you have given them. Master, heavenly King of the ages, you give glory, honour, and power over the things of earth to the sons of men.   Direct, Lord, their counsel, following what is pleasing and acceptable in your sight, so that by exercising with devotion and in peace and gentleness the power that you have given to them, they may find favour with you.  St Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, 61.

Those who exercise authority in social life need our prayer so that they exercise their authority "without offence". It also reminds us that the authority exercised by human beings is an authority which is possessed by our sovereign Lord and is given to human beings to exercise according to their gifts and capacities. For all in authority this is worth constantly remembering, in order that they remain humble.

St Pope John XXIII said, in his encyclical Pacem in Terra,

Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all. (Para 46)

It is the church's teaching that every human society needs an authority to govern it. This is founded on the nature of human beings. Such authority is necessary for unity of the state, and its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society. Christians must therefore be subject to such authorities.

These quotations from Holy Scripture make it clear:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.  Romans 13: 1-2

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.  1 Peter 2 : 13-17

The authority required by the moral order derives from God. The duty of obedience requires all to give due honour to authority. Those charged with exercising authority are to be given respect, and as far as it is deserved, gratitude and good-will.

Diversity in political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that accept them. So regimes whose nature is contrary to natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.

Finally, here are examples of when authority goes wrong:

Despotism: This is a distortion of authority. Authority doesn’t derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must act for the common good. Its moral legitimacy should be based on freedom and a sense of responsibility. A despot misuses authority for his own gain and for his own reasons. He forgets about the rights of subjects/citizens for whom in reality all authority is given.

Unjust law: It is a misuse of authority by a legislature to pass unjust laws. St Thomas Aquinas recognised the possibility of unjust human law to the extent it does not accord with right reason, and thus does not derive from divine law. This type of law is a kind of violence to social life.

Illegitimate authority: authority is legitimate only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it uses morally licit means to attain it. Unjust laws or actions by authorities that promote that which is contrary to the moral order are not binding in conscience. This break down in authority results in abuse.

The next blog will be on "The Common Good".

Fr Ian

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