Physical force can easily be abused. Power can become coercion. A police force or an army can use their strength wrongly, to blackmail, to terrorize, or to plunder.
Can moral authority be abused? Most certainly; and in a variety of ways. It can be over-exercised, i.e. in ways that do not respect the personal dignity or legitimate freedom of those subject to it, thereby placing an excessive strain on their moral duty to respond. It can even be abused, as we have seen elsewhere, to such an extent that a person is bound in conscience to resist it.
Moral authority can of course also be under-exercised, not fulfilling its function of speaking out in defence of people's rights, or not giving sufficient guidance to those whom it is meant to serve. This too is a misuse of authority.
Both extremes can be an abuse. Permissive parents can do as much harm to their children as parents who happen to be dictatorial.
Authority can be abused if it is not exercised with due regard for truth, or justice, or also for prudence or even charity. It can be abused if it does not respect or protect individual rights, and especially if it does not serve the common good. In fact the most frequent abuse of authority is probably that of its being exercised for the sake of some personal advantage to the detriment of the broader good of the community.
It is important to note that when we speak here of authority we are not speaking just about authority that comes from "above" or from "the top", i.e. from some established and recognized organ of government or management of a society or community.
In any group or society, besides the authority coming from above, many other types of authority are present and active. It helps to recall one of the definitions of the term "authority" given by the Oxford Dictionary: "personal influence, especially over opinion"; a definition that not only stresses the moral quality of authority but also brings out its breadth and its scope.
This sort of moral authority is all around us today. It does not come only or even mainly from the top. It is a sort of "lateral" authority that, so to speak, comes at us sideways, at times with great force. TV commentators, newspaper editors and columnists, experts, pundits, palm-readers, psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists .. all exercise colossal authority or influence over people's daily lives. The less a person is aware of this authority or the less he questions its credentials, the more it is likely to influence him - for good or for bad. Because of course this sort of authority can be used well and responsibly, with due regard for others and for the common good; or it can be used for selfish purposes and so misused.
Think for instance of the authority that attaches to a newspaper article written by some well-known columnist that contains what seem to be important statements of fact. The statements - so authorized - spread quickly and have an effect, even though they later turn out to be untrue.
There is a clear abuse of moral authority in such a case, as there would be in the case, say, of a pop-star who uses his popularity to promote drug-taking or hatred among his teenage fans.
Authority from above can certainly be abused. However in a truly free society this sort of abuse is rendered less likely, at least nowadays, by the fact that it will immediately be exposed to public criticism especially through the media.
Yet, just as we tend today to be very sensitive to possibilities of abuse coming from above, so we tend to be rather unaware of lateral authority or influence. The danger of abuse from this type of moral authority is therefore made all the greater in that its operation is so often unfelt; moreover it is, in so many cases, influence that derives from the media themselves.
Abuse of authority can come at us "sideways", and not just from above. It can even come from "below". A referee can abuse his authority if he unjustly sends a player off the field. But a well-known player, with a lot of prestige, can also abuse his moral authority - e.g. the influence that his popularity gives him among his team-mates - by encouraging them to back him when he protests a just sanction that the referee has imposed on him.
Legitimation of moral authority
Is there any way in which we can measure the legitimacy of moral authority? A political party elected in fair elections acquires not only governing power but also a certain measure of moral authority clearly based on a mandate to govern which has been legitimately and openly obtained.
The legitimation of the lateral authority of many modern commentators, writers, publicists and pundits, is not quite so clear. They may allege their "popularity" as a warrant for their influence and authority. But as anyone minimally acquainted with the operation of the media and the laws of modern publicity knows, popularity itself (and therefore the influence or authority that accompanies it) is often a deliberate and largely artificial creation.
Some people still seem to think that the popular media speak for the people, i.e. represent the views of the people. This more often than not is a delusion (fostered, naturally enough, by the media themselves). The media do not so much speak for the people as speak to the people. Above all they tend to think for the people and try to get the people to accept their way of thinking. Newspapers, magazines, etc. plus the other media, are almost always controlled by a small group with well-defined business or ideological interests; and the media under their control publicize what the group wants the public to hear and accept. That is why it is frequently a matter of conjecture whether a book is publicized because it is popular, or is popular because it has been publicized. In any case, from the fact that a well-publicized writer is dubbed popular, it does not follow that his ideas represent what people think. There is always a real possibility that his popularity may be due less to any intrinsic merit of what he says (though he says it very well) than to the fact that his way of thinking has been to the liking of a particular group in the media who therefore deliberately set about using the resources they dispose of to make him "popular".
Given a certain attractiveness of personality and a minimum acting ability, it is Hollywood that creates its stars. Nowadays, in fact, acting ability and personality may not be enough; a potential actor may not make it unless his or her ideological position is acceptable to the star-makers.
Abuse within the Church
Let us now turn from these general (but pertinent) reflections to consider the question of possible abuse of authority within the Church, remembering always that the Church is not a police state or a concentration camp. It is a free system; a voluntary society. Within it physical force or coercion has no place as an expression of authority. Authority in the Church is moral of its nature.
It should be stating the obvious to affirm that the hierarchy are not the only ones exercising moral authority in the Church. On the contrary, there are many levels, and especially many kinds, of "lateral" authority within the Church. Religious publishing houses, pastoral committees, missionary movements, religious institutes, theological faculties or societies, all possess moral authority in greater or less degree, as do individual preachers, writers, teachers or counsellors, whether cleric or lay. Think for instance of the immense moral authority possessed by a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. How well she deserves it and how well she exercises it!
Moral authority of this lateral type can be used well; or of course it can be misused or abused. It is important to bear this in mind since, in the current debate about authority, it seems to be taken for granted that abuse of authority can only come from the top i.e. from the Pope, the Roman Curia, the bishops....
No one will deny the possibility of such abuse coming from above. Popes and bishops can misuse their moral authority, seeking personal advantage from their position or over-taxing, with unreasonable demands, the free response of those subject to them.
This can happen although, as is pointed out elsewhere, the subject may well choose to see the Will of Christ and the Cross of Christ in those taxing demands and then summon up a greater - and therefore a freer - personal response to Christ in them. The superior will then have to answer to God for having governed badly; for having asked too much, unreasonably. But the subject will gain more merit for having obeyed well, even when he or she found obedience difficult.
In any event, the possibility of abuse of authority coming from above, within the Church, cannot be denied. The new Code of Canon Law has specific provisions assigned to avoid or remedy such abuse. Nonetheless, abuse of authority from above is today probably a lesser danger in the Church than it has been for many centuries. The very sensitivity of people to the issue largely precludes it; as indeed do the presence and power of the public media, plus the fact that they are generally hostile to church authority.
But in this matter, should we not also take a good look at the many types of lateral authority that we have just mentioned? Is this authority necessarily used well in every case? Is it always used in the true interest of the common good? Is it too not subject to the danger of abuse?
Let us take some cases of exercise of authority, and consider whether, and from what quarters, abuse can enter into the matter. A theologian is asked by Rome to clarify some point in one of his works, or to rectify some passages, or to spend a period of time in specific research; or perhaps he has the title of "Catholic" theologian officially withdrawn from him on the grounds that he no longer accepts some fundamental aspects of the Church's teaching. These are exercises from "above". Are they abusive?
Many people might instinctively say Yes, inasmuch as - they feel - such measures violate the theologian's right to think as he sees best.
But is this an adequate analysis of the issue? The issue is surely not a theologian's right to think what he likes; no one after all can stop a person thinking as he chooses. The issue is not even the theologian's right to publish his ideas. The issue is his claiming the authority of the term "Catholic" for his ideas, and claiming the right to publish them precisely as expressions of Catholic theology.
This is the substantial issue. It could be expressed somewhat differently but even more importantly by saying that the issue is the right of the people to know what theological authority - i.e. what authority in terms of the faith - attaches to the theologian's views: whether they are just his views or whether they are a legitimate reflection or interpretation of the mind of Christ.
A man may be entitled to whatever influence or authority he has as a result of his facility as a writer, his skill as a speaker, his possession of academic titles, his popularity with the media, etc. This authority gives him the power to influence others as he thinks fit; but it gives him no right to do so precisely in the name of the Catholic faith.
The fact is that extra authority accrues from the status of being a spokesman for Catholicism. His claim that his views are Catholic needs to be substantiated; if it cannot, the claim is groundless. If he nevertheless continues to buttress the authority of his position or his views with the added qualification of "Catholic theologian" or "Catholic views", then at that stage he is certainly guilty of a misuse or abuse of his authority.
One is free to think, as a Catholic, within the broad limits of the faith. One is free to think outside those limits; but then one cannot rightfully claim that one's thinking is Catholic.
It is of course the particular competence of the Magisterium to judge whether theological opinions are within the scope of the Faith, or outside it (cf. DV 8; LG 20). But if certain views of a theologian are not Catholic, then he has no right to claim that they are; and he is being deprived of no right when the public are informed that they are not.
Who seeks what?
What is behind the actions of the Magisterium in reviewing or censuring the views of this or that theologian? What is the Magisterium seeking? What is it defending?
Do the Pope and bishops wish to browbeat the theologian in question? Are they seeking to stifle theological research? Are they afraid for their own power, or afraid of an "open" church? Are they defending triumphalism, immobilism, entrenched positions, personal viewpoints (personal viewpoints are after all what the theologian is certainly defending)?
Each one can reflect on and answer these questions as he wishes. But it might be worth considering, on its merits, the possible answer that the Pope and bishops - who clearly gain no personal advantage in pursuing what is inevitably an unpopular course - are basically concerned for the People of God whom they have been appointed to serve.
Their concern is precisely to ensure that the people can know the Catholic faith, can live in a church where there is open and clear access to the Truth of Christ, which it is the hierarchy's mission, with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, to teach and protect.
Lumen gentium (no. 25), describing the hierarchy as "authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ", adds that they "preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith which is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct"; insisting that they must "watchfully ward off whatever errors threaten their flock", the Council refers to the passage in Scripture where Paul tells Timothy to "proclaim the message, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience" ... (2 Tim 4:1-4).
Nowadays if the hierarchy raises the least question concerning theological opinion, this invariably causes a hue and cry about violation of freedom and abuse of authority. Nevertheless, to expect that the hierarchy should never censure an opinion could only be justified either by supposing that men (theologians included) are incapable of error, or else by claiming that the hierarchy do not possess authority; or that, if they do, they are morally bound never to exercise it. The fact of the matter is just the opposite: the hierarchy do possess God-given authority, and are morally bound to exercise it. Non-use of authority, where its exercise is called for, is misuse. It is an abuse. Under-exercise of authority is as bad as over-exercise; perhaps it is worse.
If authority is service, as we have had occasion to repeat, one can ask; who serves the community - the common good - better: the theologian who wants his own ideas, however contrary to Scripture or Tradition, to be sanctioned (i.e. "authorized") by the Church, or the Magisterium which fulfills its duty (generally an unpleasant duty) of telling the People of God: these ideas are not in harmony with the mind of Christ; these are not Catholic ideas. The theologian remains free to hold and preach his ideas as before; but the people are no longer in danger of being led into thinking such ideas are Catholic.
Authority and popularity
The twentieth century has probably seen no more popular figure than Pope John Paul II. The media generally reflect this, with a tendency perhaps to present him simply as an outgoing warmhearted man who loves people. It is an image which already gives him immense personal moral authority.
However, Pope John Paul's unambiguous views on divorce, contraception, abortion, etc., though well known, are not so well reflected and are in fact habitually described by the media as being "unpopular".
No one seems to have considered whether his moral authority is lessened or whether it is in fact possibly increased by these clear but "unpopular" views of his. An interesting question that I leave the reader to ponder.
In any case, the media seem to find a contradiction between the Pope's liberal heart and his conservative mind - without apparently considering that his opposition to abortion or contraception may proceed not only from his faith and his love for God's law, but also precisely from his love for people, because he is convinced that these practices do grave harm to those who follow them.
The Pope's ideas are not popular (in the sense at least in which the media use the word), although he apparently cares immensely for people. The ideas of some contemporary theologians are popular, or at least they are widely publicized; and they no doubt feel that they too care for people.
The point of these remarks is this: popularity confers authority in the sense that it confers an ability to sway or influence others. But how should we analyze the worth of this authority? Popularity confers authority; but does it do so as truth does? In what way can popularity be regarded as a measure of or a pointer to the truth? What reference in fact does popularity have to truth, or to rightness or wrongness? What for that matter has it to do with love and charity?
If the history of Jesus Christ teaches us anything it is that the truth - about man's life and destiny - is not very popular; or at least that it has to go through many ups and downs before it becomes popular; that if it is popular to begin with, such popularity does not tend to last.
The truth preached by Jesus by no means got a good hearing from everyone. The simple and the sincere people - basically those who realized they were sinners - were drawn to him and his message. The powers that were - the opinion-makers of the time: the Pharisees, the Scribes, the politicians, the zealots - with very few exceptions, were not. And of course it was those same powers who in the end manoeuvred and produced a "popular" rejection of Jesus and a demand for his crucifixion.
No; the truth is not always popular and popularity is no necessary measure of truth. Nevertheless the truth holds a powerful attraction for men's minds and hearts. The truth of Christ, preached by his first followers in all its demanding impact, gradually spread and won men; and this despite calumny, organized opposition, and even bloody persecution. But it took time; and though it gradually won many, it only won those who freely opened their minds to its power.
If the truth of Christ could be preached openly today in Soviet Russia or Communist China, it would undoubtedly draw an immense response. That of course is why it is forbidden. And yet, if it were freely preached there, some no doubt would still refuse to accept it, not necessarily because it did not sound true to them but because it sounded difficult; it demands too much. That was so in Christ's time; and it remains so today. Truth is not always popular; but that does not prove that it is not true. Have the Ten Commandments ever been popular?
Indeed the very fact that the truth is so likely to prove unpopular underlines the need for some divinely instituted organ competent to teach the truth - popular or unpopular, welcome or unwelcome - in God's name and with his backing.
Popularity is a statement of fact, not a criterion of value. It speaks of how people respond to someone or his views. It gives no clue as to the real worth of the person or the truth of those views. Popularity is a surface phenomenon; it does not go to the heart of things. It appeals to something in men, but that something is much more likely to be feelings or preferences rather than mind or conscience.
Popularity speaks of an emotional attraction based on factors such as personality, appearance, coincidence of interests, and such like, rather than of inner values, or any deeper awareness of right and wrong.
The authority conferred by popularity is clearly of a much lower order than the authority that derives from natural truth, or that which derives from supernatural mission.