Some Thoughts on Authority

Lately my thoughts have been focused largely on the subject of authority, which I think is one of, if not the chief blindspot of the modern mind. As such, tackling it adequately would require a much larger post than I have time for tonight, but I wanted to present a few of the conclusions I’ve reached.

-Authority is the capacity to create a moral obligation in its subjects. If I own a lawn, I can order you to get off it, and thereby create in you the obligation to do so. If you choose not to, you will be committing the sin of trespassing. This holds true whether or not I have the actual power to remove you from my lawn. (HT: The late Zippy Catholic)

-Authority stems from relation and is a natural consequence of it. A father has authority over his children because he is their father; to be a father means, in part, to hold authority. A President’s authority comes from the fact that he stands to the citizen in the relation of President.

-This means that authority is not based on merit. It doesn’t matter whether a lord is the smartest, most virtuous man in the neighborhood or whether he is a fool; his authority stems from the fact of his standing in that particular relation to the people around him, not from his abilities.

-Consequently, absolute authority only exists in God, and more specifically in God the Father. No human authority could ever be absolute.

-Even apart from the relational nature precluding absolute authority, the fact that authority means the capacity to create moral obligations makes it impossible to legitimately order anyone to sin; you cannot morally compel someone to do what is immoral, as that is a flat contradiction.

-To be in a relation of responsibility to someone means to be in authority over them. Responsibility implies the ability to direct the subject of responsibility (as in, again, a father’s authority over his children), since in what way could a man be responsible for something he has no control over? If I am responsible for a given task at work, I must have decision making powers over it, or else there is no meaning in saying I am responsible for it. Thus, to say a husband is responsible for his wife is synonymous with saying he has authority over her, and to say a king has authority over his subjects is synonymous with his being responsible for them.

-What this means, of course, is an added burden of an account to be made to God; the higher one’s earthly authority, the greater one’s eternal danger. A bishop, it is said, is damned or saved according to the fate of his flock. “To whom much is given, much is required.” “Who is the wise servant whom the Lord will place in charge of His goods?”

-Mercy is a consequence of authority, as is judgment. I am not subject to the courts of Mexico, because I am an American citizen and under the authority of the United States government. For that reason, if I were accused of a crime in the United States, it would be absurd for a Mexican court to issue an acquittal. In order to show mercy, one must stand in a position of authority, to the point that one has the capacity and right to execute judgment, even if that authority is only that of creditor to debtor, or of “I have a gun and you are at the wrong end of it.”

This is the reason, or one reason, why there is still damnation. God is the supreme judge and supreme authority. He is supremely merciful and willing to forgive all things of those who come to Him. However, it is impossible to have mercy on someone who stands outside of your authority, or who refuses to acknowledge your authority. Particularly for God, who cannot lie. For if a man claims to be outside of God’s authority, then the only options are to enact judgment or to confirm his claims. But to do the latter would be a lie and denial by God of His very self.  

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