The authority of the truth

            The relationship between conscience and authority is one of the most important and delicate of current questions. It cannot be separated from the relationship between conscience and truth.

            The man who acknowledges that, though his mind is the only means by which he can come to the truth, the truth is greater than his mind, acknowledges the authority of the truth. The truth, so understood, clearly possesses absolute authority. It demands total submission on the part of the mind. The mind may find the truth hard to accept, it may wrestle with it, be tempted to resist it. But if it sees it as the truth, then it has no alternative - if it is to remain sincere - but to surrender to it, to accept it.

            In this sense the truth teaches by its own authority, and the sincere mind cannot escape its sway. As Vatican II says, "The only way truth can impose itself is by the force of its own gentle but powerful influence on the mind of man." (Declaration on Religious Liberty, par. 1).

            'Two plus two equals four' is an authoritative truth. It demands acceptance from my mind. A moment's reflection tells me that a truth such as this - 'two plus two equals four' - is not a product of my mind. Even if I didn't exist, it would still be true. It really is antecedent to my mind; it is above my mind. The mind is capable of rising to it, of seeing it. Once it does see it, once it becomes convinced of its truth, it accepts it. In fact, as we have said, it cannot refuse to accept the truth once it has seen it - not, at least, without losing its own sincerity and lying to itself.

            One can say that the truth commands allegiance, has authority; that it has power over man's mind, that it rules from above... Or one can express this in a different way. One can say that man's mind is capable of rising to the truth, grasping it, making it its own... This is perhaps the more important, just as it is the more appealing, way of putting it. We will return to this point later.

Trusting only oneself?

            The surrender of the mind to the truth is not in any case a defeat. It is a victory. The mind that has been seeking the truth, and now at last discovers it, accepts it with an experience of relief and joy. One could illustrate this with the experience of the examinee who has been struggling with a mathematics problem, and suddenly sees the solution. He had been stuck, paralyzed. Now he sees the truth, he can go forward. How many people, who have been struggling with the problem of life have had similar experiences! They saw no explanations, no answers, or the answers they saw did not satisfy. They did not feel at peace with this or that solution; it did not fit all the points, it did not ring quite true. Now they have seen an answer that really seem to cover everything, that really seems true. They joyfully accept it.

            There is a current impression - at the root of many disgruntled attitudes - that the mature man trusts only what he can verify for himself, and that to let oneself be guided by the word or authority of others is the mark of mental immaturity and betrays an insecure personality.

            This of course is not necessarily true. If there is a clear sign of mental or emotional immaturity, it is precisely in the inability to distinguish between an authority or influence that can be trusted and one that cannot. The man who doesn't know who or what he can trust in life is an isolated and unhappy person. This seems to be the sad lot of many people today.

Trust and maturity

            The mature personality accepts the advice or indications of others, insofar as he has reason to trust them. And if he has enough reason for trusting them, he follows their advice even in matters which are beyond his own powers of checking personally. In fact, it is precisely when he is not in a position to check for himself some matter he regards as important, that he will feel happiest to have and be able to follow the indications of some authority he can really trust. A man is glad to have a doctor or lawyer to consult, and readily follows their advice, in areas where he himself may be ignorant, because he trusts their professional competence and integrity.

            The motorist who wants to get to Birmingham and consults a map, or asks an A.A. man, or follows a signpost, is trusting authority and is very glad to be able to do so. He regards it as no humiliation - unless he is a fool - to have to rely on maps and signs and guides to get to his destination. Indeed, if he has been a bit uncertain about his way or feeling somewhat lost, it is with a sense of relief - even of gratitude - that he reads the signpost he comes across or listens to the A.A. man who offers to advise him.

            Most people will in fact trust the map or signpost more than their own unaided sense of direction. It is logical. The map or signpost, they feel, is based on greater knowledge than they possess. It is only reasonable to trust it more.

            In accepting the truth (the authority) of the signpost, the traveller has no sense of something being imposed on him from the outside. His position is rather that of someone who has been offered a piece of information he didn't possess before, who has freely sized it up, freely accepted it, and freely acts upon it.

            One feels that the difficulties of many Catholics regarding the authoritative guidance of the Church would disappear if only they could see their position in this light.

            The authority of the Church, in her teaching on faith and morals, is a service. It is a signposting of the way to heaven. It is trustworthy, for it is divinely guaranteed. [1]. It is not forced on anyone. It is simply offered to men. And each one can, if he wishes, make it his own.

Making the truth one's own

            He makes it his own - this is the idea that needs to be emphasized. The Catholic undoubtedly puts his trust in the guidance of the Church (as does the traveller in the signposting of the local authority). But it is not really correct to say that he surrenders his mind to that guidance. What happens is rather the opposite. In accepting that guidance or teaching, he incorporates it, as a further point of knowledge, into his own grasp of the truth. It becomes part of the breadth and scope of his mind, an enlargement of his patrimony of truth, of the knowledge he possesses.

            This is clear in purely human matters. Once you have grasped, for instance, the theorem of Pythagoras or the notion of Evolution, it becomes yours: part of your mind, a possession no one can take from you... You can only lose it by getting it wrong, by falling into error about it...

            Yet you haven't invented this truth. This may be humbling to your pride (how the refusal to be so humbled has so often held up the progress of truth and science!). But though you haven't invented it, you have now found it. You haven't discovered it - and yet you have. You have not the merit of the original discoverer (and yet he too did no more than discover it, he did not create it). But you have the enrichment of discovery.

            One does not really surrender one's mind to the truth. If there is any question of surrender, it is the truth that surrenders - that lets itself be caught by the human mind. Truth, after all, is the quarry of science. And all truly scientific research is based on the supposition, and sustained by the hope, that the truth can be caught.

            And so with the revelation of Christ. The Catholic faith is not an obligation so much as a privilege: a new opportunity. It offers one the freedom to take up a system of thought that is divinely guaranteed, and to make it one's own.

Faith is a free thing

            No one would say that a local authority in putting up a signpost at a crossroads is in any way imposing on people or limiting their personal freedom. It is rather facilitating their choice in a way they appreciate. How absurd then is the suggestion - and, though absurd, it is often made - that in the Catholic Church there is no real freedom because Catholics are forced to submit to a set body of teaching. The Catholic Church indeed claims to teach the truth about the way to heaven. But no one is forced to believe in the teaching of the Church, or indeed forced to do anything in the Catholic Church. The Church is not a police state or a concentration camp or a prison. It is a voluntary system. Faith is a free thing. The Church cannot make me believe. I believe because I want to. Because I choose to. [2].

            Each one of us is free to believe what he wants, or, more accurately, to believe what his mind approves as credible. I have always felt that freedom and have freely wanted to believe the Catholic Church's teaching - because I have considered the evidence and have come to the conclusion that its teaching is guaranteed by our Lord and is true. Presumably all Catholics have done the same. I cannot imagine any other rational way of being a Catholic.

Authority serves freedom

            The authority of revelation - of Jesus Christ who, as he promised, is present with us still in the teaching of his Church - is something to be approached not with reluctance and constraint, but gladly and with gratitude. It is hard to understand why a person should complain at having a divine way opened and signposted before him. We would say it was a very old-fashioned and unintelligent motorist who objected to the opening of the M1. He is not forced to take the motorway. He can go to Birmingham by another route if he thinks it is better, or he can go somewhere else if he is not interested in getting to Birmingham. But the average man who does want to get to Birmingham is glad to have the motorway, and freely follows it. Yet all the time he travels he is trusting authority: that the signs are true and that the road really does lead to Birmingham.

            Seen in this light, the authority of the Church, far from restricting man's freedom, facilitates the choice of personal conscience. It signposts the way, and so gives an assurance (that those who understand life as the problem of getting to heaven, badly want) that one's choices place one on the right road.

            Freedom of conscience is a precious thing - however often improperly understood. But freedom of conscience is not best exercised at unmarked crossroads. At an unmarked crossroads, the man who wishes to get somewhere - the man who thinks his choices really matter - wants a compass, a map, a guide. He wants information. He needs to inform his conscience. And that, in matters of salvation, is the marvellous function of the Church. The Church's authoritative teaching does not force conscience; it informs it. It provides conscience with vital information. It removes doubts. It gives certainty. In doing so it does not take away our personal freedom. It simply makes it easier for us to exercise it, if we wish, in choosing roads that are divinely guaranteed to lead to Heaven.


[1] Those who do not believe in the divine guarantee are not of course likely to regard it as trustworthy. But this is the whole crux of the matter.

[2] Two important points should be noted here:

            (A) The more theologically-minded reader will remind me - quite rightly - that faith is not just one's own choice... Faith is first of all a grace; a free gift from God; TNo one can come to me unless my Father draws himU (Jn 6:44). The text above naturally presupposes this grace. Then, of course, it is I who choose to correspond - or not. It is I who freely accept or freely reject, this grace of faith. This is closely connected with a second point:

            (B) Modern man does well to prize his personal freedom. But he should not forget (or be allowed to forget) that freedom always carries with it certain consequences; that therefore one cannot reasonably act freely and at the same time ignore or think one can escape what are in fact inescapable consequences of one's own free actions. I am free to step out of a fifth-floor window, but, if I do, I am not free to escape the consequence of having my brains bashed out on the pavement.

            The author of these essays would like to see Catholics in general more conscious of both the freedom and the reasonableness of the faith in the Church that being a Catholic implies. But insofar as there are some Catholics who choose to exercise the freedom (which, God help us, all of us possess) not to place their faith in the Church's teaching (or not to obey her discipline), then he would also wish to draw their attention to the inescapable consequences of such a free refusal to believe or obey.

            And let us not be afraid of the word obedience. Faith means to put one's trust in the word of Christ, and therefore to be prepared to obey him. Faith implies obedience. Scripture speaks of the obedience of faith (cf. Acts 6:7; Heb 11:8); our Lord makes obedience the test and proof of love for him: "Whoever receives my commandments and obeys them, he it is who loves me" (Jn 14:21.) The Catholic whose faith makes him see Christ in the authority of the Church ["Anyone who listens to you listens to me" (Lk 10:16)], and therefore obeys that authority, is conscious of obeying Christ. And of course he is conscious of obeying freely; there lies the dignity and the merit of his obedience - it is freely given. The person who refuses to obey, who rejects the authority of the Church, also rejects it freely. He must weigh the responsibility of his free act of rejection. And he must certainly accept the main and inevitable consequence of this free act emphasized by our Lord himself: "Anyone who rejects you rejects me; and anyone who rejects me, rejects him that sent me" (Lk ibid.).

            In short, if one is free to reject the authority of the Church, one is not free to regard oneself as a Catholic or a faithful follower of Christ, after such a rejection.