November 2017 Print

The Good of Authority

by Brian M. McCall

This article is based upon Brian M. McCall, Why it is Good to Stop at a Red Light: The Basis of Legal Authority, 55 Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 83 (2016)

It is heart the Liberal Revolution of the past three centuries is an assault on the principle of authority. The stated goal of the French Revolution was the overthrow of altar and throne, two symbols of the totality of authority, religious and secular. We have lived so long under the tyranny of the Liberal Revolution that errors concerning the true nature (and good) of authority are part of our intellectual DNA. Almost from our birth we live in constant revolt against not only the individuals holding a position of authority but against the concept of authority itself.

Liberalism Against Authority

Liberalism in its most extreme form understands authority as an evil that must be eradicated. At the heart of the Libertarian error is the false idea that less authority is always better. More moderate Liberals understand authority as at best a necessary evil. Like Libertarians, they dislike authority but they are more practical and realize that without at least some authority, life would be impractical. The ideal for the pure Libertarian is anarchy, for the moderate Liberal is constrained and minimalist authority. Both are based on the error of Rousseau that Man was born free and all authority or restrain is a corruption. The natural state of Man is understood as a state of radical freedom (natural, psychological, and moral). The moderate Liberal at most tolerates authority as unfortunately necessary. The delusional hope of the moderate Liberal is a world without authority.

Catholicism is diametrically opposed to all forms of Liberalism. Authority is not an evil, necessary or otherwise. It is a positive aspect of the good since it is an attribute of God. Authority existed and was a good even before the Fall. Authority is woven into our created nature.

St. Thomas begins his consideration of authority in De Regno by considering Man’s end. By doing such, he begins with the Eternal and Natural Law. The Eternal Law establishes the ends of Man’s nature. The Natural Law provides general precepts guiding Men toward the attainment of their last end. For example, the Natural Law requires us to seek to preserve life, procreate and educate children and love and seek the truth. Contrary to Rousseau’s false idea that Man is born free, Man is by nature a social and political animal born under the authority of the Eternal law. God decreed that Man must live within society to realize the perfection of his nature. Aristotle recognized that Man was uniquely a social and political animal. He noted that a being that did not live in society was either a beast (below human nature) or God (above human nature). The ideal according the Eternal Law is not individuals living their own lives and making their own decisions (the rugged individualist of Liberal mythology) but Men living peacefully under authority.

The Proper Ordering of Authority

God as Creator has the only authority to tell us what we should do. As our creator he can establish our purpose, our end. He has done this in the precepts of the Eternal and Natural Law. Yet, he chose to delegate some of his authority to us. He chose to allow some Men to participate in His authority not be allowing us to chose our own end (which is fixed by the Eternal Law) but by allowing us to choose among possible means to reach our end. For example, a father could tell a son to clean out the garage or he could give detailed instructions on every step of the process. If he chooses the general direction, the son is invited to participate in the decision making by determining how to clean the garage; but the son is not permitted to swim instead of cleaning the garage.

The precepts of Natural Law are general in nature. They require more particular determinations of how we should pursue these goods. Individuals can make some of those elections, but others must be left temporal or spiritual superiors. An aspect of Man’s ends is living in society. The existence of communities is therefore commensurate with human nature. Man is meant to live in a society. Not only is society natural but due to the indeterminacy of Natural Law, a principle of authority participating in God’s ultimate authority is also natural. The need for authoritative determinations within the framework of Natural and Divine Law is also natural. God chose to leave this task, in a sense, unfinished and thus intended the need that authority satisfies. A shared participation by some in the authority of God is legislated into the universe by God through the Eternal Law. Because it is willed by God, human cooperation with His authority is not only useful or necessary but good because God, the author of law, wishes some Men to participate in the making of laws that govern their communal activity. Authority ultimately resides in God but is delegated and shared with human agents, both secular and ecclesiastical.

Liberalism’s Instrumental Use of Authority

Moderate Liberalism may accept authority as instrumentally necessary to overcome coordination problems but it is only instrumental. A duty to obey an authority is likewise only instrumentally good. Ideally it would be better, according to the Liberal, if we could live without obeying authority. Yet, Catholic teaching holds that obeying the law is not only necessary but an authentic good commensurate with human nature. Leo Strauss, in Natural Right and History, argues that since Man is naturally social, the restraint of freedom is natural to and therefore good for Man. Man cannot associate without restraint on freedom involved in a duty to obey. He explains:

“Man is so built that he cannot achieve the perfection of his humanity except by keeping down his lower impulses. He cannot rule his body by persuasion. . . . What is true of self-restraint, self-coercion, and power over one’s self applies in principle to the restraint and coercion of others and to power over others. . . . To say that power as such is evil or corrupting would therefore amount to saying that virtue is evil or corrupting.”

The dim view of restraint as unnatural and evil is evident in Enlightenment authors such as Rousseau. For this false view, restraint (and therefore every virtue is corrupting of freedom. Law involves restraint and this restrain is unnatural, at best conventional. For the Catholic tradition, however, restraint of action is on the contrary good and natural.

Aristotle and Aquinas on Obedience

The conforming of our individual actions to the determinations of those, secular and ecclesiastical, charged by the Eternal Law with this responsibility of making determinations is thus a fulfillment of an aspect of human nature. Due to the social aspect of our nature, we have a natural inclination to obey the law. Aristotle in his Politics argues that good government consists in two essential elements: good laws and the obedience of citizens to the laws. St. Thomas treats the virtue of obedience as a species of the virtue of justice in the Summa. Obedience is the virtue whereby individuals allow their free determination of actions to be directed by the command of another. Aquinas explains the naturalness of obedience to authority thus: “Wherefore just as in virtue of the divinely established natural order the lower natural things need to be subject to the movement of the higher, so too in human affairs, in virtue of the order of natural and divine law, inferiors are bound to obey their superiors.” Not only is the power to make determinations affecting the common good derived from the Eternal Law, but the obligation to obey is also found in the Eternal Law through the Natural Law which contains a secondary precept that superiors ought to be obeyed within the scope of their authority. Obedience to the law is thus a good in and of itself because one who obeys participates in the end of good government of society. All laws which are just and ordained to the common good are binding in conscience. Obedience to legitimate commands is thus a moral act. There is no such thing as purely penal laws (laws which do not bind in conscience but for which one must pay the price if caught) as some modern theorists have suggested.

Because we have been born and bred in a Liberal world we tend even if only subconsciously to share the Liberal distrust and mere toleration of authority. We tend to expand the circumstances (that sadly in our world do exits) in which the abuse of authority in commanding what is contrary to our end justifies our disobedience. We become too accustomed to at first justifiably resisting an unjust exercise of authority and slip into disobeying when the determination of a legitimate is simply not to our liking or what we would have decided. Because of the influence of Liberalism on our psyche we come to despise authority itself not only its abuse. When we do this we become fellow travelers with Liberalism whose ultimate goal is the destruction of all authority, both altar and throne.