Authoritative, Not Authoritarian

Jesus’ hearers are vastly impressed with our Lord’s discourse and his capacity to exorcise demons. St. Mark writes, “All were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey Him.’”

Some have tried to reduce this exorcism to a type of therapeutic remedy that Jesus employs over the man with the unclean spirit, turning our Lord into nothing more than a therapist. The reality is that our Lord maintains dominion over the universe — both the natural and supernatural orders. The unclean spirit cannot be reduced to a psychological pathology. Evil spirits are real entities and our Lord has authority over them. So potent is this authority that we later learn that Christ can even command the evil spirits not to reveal His identity as the Son of God.

Moreover, our Lord teaches with authority. This teaching authority now resides in the Church, through the ministry of the pope and bishops in communion with him. It is important to note how Catholics understand “authority.” So often, the term “authority” is construed to mean “authoritarian.” Authoritarian persons force or coerce others into doing something purely as a matter of willfulness. Furthermore, authoritarian persons give no reason for their commands and the views of the subjects of such a ruler bear no weight. In fact, the subjects are not subjects at all — they are objects of manipulation.

By contrast, the pope and bishops, as authorities of the Church, are custodians of an authoritative tradition. Thus, the pope and bishops do not invent doctrine. Rather, popes and bishops are servants, not the masters, of the tradition — the truths — that define the Church. For this reason, we refer to the pope and bishops as authoritative teachers, not authoritarian strongmen. The authoritative teachings of the Church only restrict us to the degree that we see the teachings as limits on our unfettered capacity to choose merely what we want, without reference to what God desires. In this model of “freedom” our freedom is reduced to caprice. True freedom, then, is not merely the capacity to do what we want. Rather, it is the capacity to do what we ought.

In His own life, our Lord reveals that true authority is based in service. It is the service or ministry that the pope and bishops render to the Church when they faithfully transmit the deposit of faith down through the ages. Their authority is not rooted in sheer force or coercion. Rather, their authority is rooted in Christ, Who maintains dominion over all creation by virtue of His divinity and shows us that service to Him Who is the Truth lies at the heart of all authority.

Fr. Magat is parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach, Virginia, and St. Anthony of Padua Mission in King George, Virginia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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