So, on Wednesday, we posted a podcast conversation trying to explain what the role of authority in the Catholic Church is and why it’s necessary. I think authority is one of those words that is commonly misunderstood in our modern culture. It has attained a really negative connotation, and to a certain extent it’s understandable. After all, we’ve all seen plenty of examples of authority abused and the people under authority being manipulated and taken advantage of, and the Church hasn’t been free of that stain either. A lot of times, people seem to be either independent, free thinking rebels, or mindless, unthinking lemmings subject to the whims of another.
Obviously, as is so often the case, this is far too simplistic a view of reality. Resisting everything, automatically, on principal, requires no more thought than blindly following everything that is said by someone in a position over you. Likewise, following what a trusted person says is often the thoughtful, rational way to make decisions. During the podcast, I made a brief, and probably too brief, mention of being called to an assent of faith. Let’s take a minute to hash out what that is and see how that demonstrates the proper role of authority in our lives.
First of all, an assent of faith is when, especially in the realms of faith and morals, a person is uncertain about a Church teaching. In these cases, a faithful Catholic is to adhere to the Church’s teaching as an act of faith. At first glance, people often take this to be a blind faith and a prime example the irrationality of religion. Is it, though? After all, this faith is rooted in a history of earned confidence. Scripturally speaking, we have the promise of Christ that He would send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to ensure that the gates of Hell should never prevail against His Church. On a human level, we have 2000 plus years of some of the greatest minds of western civilization dedicating their whole beings to wrestling with these questions.
Is it foolish to give an institution with all this backing your confidence? No, it’s the most rational thing in the world. In fact, to ignore it is, instead, the very height of arrogance. When I give my assent of faith, I am not turning off my mind. I’m acknowledging that I don’t have the answers. When we don’t know something, we turn to people we trust to help us figure it out.
Beyond that, as I mentioned in the podcast, authority is merely the starting point, not the finishing line. In other words, I have acknowledged that I don’t know, and so I entrust my ignorance to the wisdom of the Church. Then, and this is critical, I continue to seek understanding. I look to the Church’s explanations of why it teaches what it does. I look to the reasoning behind the dissenting opinion. I engage my intellect in an occasionally brutal wrestling match with things which I can’t fully comprehend. The role of the authority, in this case the Church, is to continue providing me guidance so that my own thoughts can find their context in the thoughts of others without fear of getting lost in my own purely subjective realities.
In short(thought it may be a bit late into the post to claim brevity), authority gives us the freedom to actually engage the topics which would be too big to grapple with entirely on our own.