You cannot live without authority
Posted by Massimo Camisasca on 16 July 2009 ·
Today, the relationship with authority, or, in a wider sense, the experience of obedience to someone else, is considered by many impossible, even evil, something to be avoided. This is true not only in the field of education, in the professional environment, and in families, but also within the Church.
Why is authority necessary?
Wouldn’t it be easier to live without obeying any authority? Wouldn’t it be much nicer to follow only our instincts and spontaneously do what it seems useful and appropriate on the spot? These are far from being rhetorical questions. First and foremost, educating people about authority means helping them to discover the need for authority, not only in order to bring to light the good in their lives, but simply for life in itself. Why can’t man live without authority, and what authority do we recognize as crucial in our life? The life of man, of every man, consists in the tension between two opposite poles: on the one side, the origins from which we come, and on the other, the destination towards which we are walking. The secret of education is to help man face this tension in the present, in his relationships with things and people.
The first step is to help man disentangle himself from the self-reliance that makes him unhappy and deeply melancholic. In the magazine Traces, Father Giussani describes loneliness as an “original” experience; i.e., one that has existed since man came into being. In the catechesis on the creation of man and woman, Pope John Paul II expressed the same concept. The discovery of our loneliness, of our inability to face life on our own, leads to the revelation of our dependence. We depend, mainly but not exclusively, on other people. In each person there is a “fundamental dependence,” and through the experience of life, man comes up with the following question: “Is this dependence just the result of chance, or does it come from a benign Presence, from Somebody who wanted us to exist and who loves us?” The discovery of love as the origin of life is crucial to man’s progress towards the recognition of authority and the achievement of obedience as a fully aware and desired experience.
We constantly seem to be attracted by something outside of us, which at the same time is also found in the depths of our being. Man’s desires reveal interests that both set him in motion and are signs of his expectations. This is where authority falls. It coincides with those people God has put in our lives who accompany us in the discovery of our genuine desires, on the path towards the purification of those desires that leads to the answer. Obviously, many people could be included in this sphere of our life, although not all of them are important in the same way. The challenge is to discover among the number of potential authorities that we encounter in everyday life, the most crucial one or ones; i.e., those that allow us to take in the meaning of everything.
(Obedience to God or to men?
This authority can only be embodied by God, in the strictest sense. He is our only Saviour and Creator; He is the One we come from and the One who is waiting for us, who knows us in the deepest way possible, and who consequently coincides with our true happiness. Nonetheless, men run a big risk. How is it possible to obey a mysterious and invisible God without falling into the temptation of obeying ourselves, of obeying the idea that we have of Him, confusing our desires and His will? Original sin—original and at the same time so contemporary—makes this danger even more present. God became man and is present among us today, through the people He has chosen, in order to save us from this mistake. His decision to come among us, which He chose freely, indicates the way towards obedience. In the course of the history of Israel, and also during Jesus’ life, it was very clear that obedience to God coincided with obedience to a man. “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16).
Shall we then obey God or men? Looking at the life of the Church, we can find the answer to this apparent dilemma: strictly speaking, God is the only one to be obeyed. As a matter of fact, there is no man on earth that can claim to cover the same role as God in men’s lives. Jesus said that nobody can be called “master” but Him (Matthew 23:10). Nonetheless, if we want to obey God rather than our idea of him, we are obliged to obey men. We could summarize the concept as follows: the only one to be obeyed is God, but in order to obey to Him, we have to obey the people He has chosen.
Authority is always embodied by people who are chosen by God and who have a relationship with Him. They have to “answer” to Him, and they must lead the people in their care to Him. No authority is justified in itself; it is always justified in relation to the Saviour and Creator. This is the true meaning of the expression “authority is meant to serve.” This should not be interpreted in the sociological meaning of primus inter pares (first among peers), which is doomed to slowly disappear; but in the theological meaning: authority must first serve God in order to serve men.
Is obedience appealing, or is it only a challenge?
Man is constantly torn between the need to belong somewhere or to somebody and the temptation to be self-reliant, between the good that he experiences and the evil he ends up causing. Is obedience natural, or does it require a spiritual rebirth? How can man understand what the authorities leading to truth and the good are? How can man reconcile what his conscience perceives as good with the tempting invitations he receives from the outside world or the authorities surrounding him? I have tried to outline some of the antitheses arising from obedience and authority that man experiences, antitheses that have always been dominant and always will be. Is it possible to solve such antitheses, and how?
The only one that can help man start on the path towards obedience is the One who knows us in the deepest way possible, who created us, who constantly saves us, and who walked along the same path when He was a man. “He learned obedience by the things He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). God attracts us because He coincides with our happiness. He has created us with an innate desire for Him, with a fundamental need for goodness, truth, happiness, and justice; and to fulfil such needs, He sent His son. The path towards obedience coincides with the revelation of new and unknown dimensions, with the discovery of God as the source of happiness. He is indeed always new, always incommensurable, endless. His life coincides with ours. Thus in man arises the need for a detachment, a challenge, for a deep conversion to this new being that slowly claims more and more space in man’s life and that implies sacrifice and mortification. This is actually the most difficult side of obedience and authority; but it can indeed be faced with joy if the promises we have been made, and the fruits brought into our life so far by the realization of that promise, are clear.
The Holy Spirit leads us to face obedience with happiness, even when we do not fully understand it. St. Paul comes to mind: “In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Corinthians 7:4 and 12:10); as well as the perfect happiness of St. Francis.
Authority and friendship
If it is true, as we assumed earlier, that authority is established by God so that man can advance towards Him, how can man actually follow this path? The duty of authority is to show the way towards God and to involve man in it. This is also the reality of friendship. Those in authority create bonds with other people, first and foremost showing their relationship with the Mystery; they share their lives with other people and listen to the experiences that other people are going through. Always keeping in mind the place that God has chosen for them in the world, they live a friendship that is a sign of God, of His infinity and of His unpredictability. The relationship that blossoms between those in authority and those under it is a constant dialogue, desired and full of initiative. But at the same time, the reverse is true; one must relinquish one’s independence, offering one’s availability in constant cooperation. This has been the most meaningful experience of my life over the past twenty-five years. It is not the only kind of relationship possible between master and disciple, but it seems to me that it is the best way to tackle the apparent antitheses without any kind of compromise to integrity. In such a friendship, authority remains intact; it does not give up its responsibilities; it is not reduced to mere memories of youth or to empty company, but it risks itself in front of the other person, exactly as the Son of God did, when He was made man. He showed His face to the people, offering a dialogue to them. Christ shows people the reason for His actions and the paths behind His decisions; in this way He makes man part of His life. Paul IV wrote: “In our time we need masters, but they will only be credible if they are truthful witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi IV. 41) This clearly expresses what I am trying to describe: Having authority essentially means offering my life, providing answers that are true, and the criteria necessary for decisions. In other words, discretely entering other people’s lives, with the highest respect, with the ability to understand their own humanity, offering to their needs and desires the answers that I am able to find, in the light of my own experience and the centuries-long wisdom of the Church.
From this point of view, the authority that I have exercised so far has always been, in different measures, a matter of shared responsibilities. Jesus sent His apostles ahead of Himself. In order to let them understand who He was, He sent them to speak about Him. The most effective way to help the people entrusted to us by God live their relationship with authority in the right way, is to give them responsibilities both great and small. This is not simply a matter of receiving or giving, but everyone gives or receives as God determines.
Authority, paternity, and maternity
When God established the Church as a guided company, He was aware of the fundamental necessity of man to have a father and a mother. We all know how the absence, the lack, or the unreasonable invasion of parental figures can cause insecurity, fear, and resistance towards love and guidance. An authority that guides the person according to the qualities I have been outlining can truly become father and mother to the person and can help him discover the paternity of God and the maternity of the Church. At the same time, the person must not be allowed to deny his biological parents. They must not be forgotten, nor put aside; they must be welcomed, loved, and in some cases rediscovered. They must be seen through renewed eyes in a new relationship that includes the choice of chastity that has been embraced. In this way, each person has the chance to rediscover the value of all paternity as understood through the paternity of God, who is the only one that can truly be called “Father.”
Friend, father, mother: these are the words that I have picked to describe my experience of authority since, in a way, they also convey the fragility of this path. A paternity or a friendship cannot be imposed but only proposed. Even in a community that originates from a charisma, it is always imperative to combine the objective value of authority with the subjective relationships of friendship or paternity. We have to be constant signs of the other-ness of God that reaches people through the merciful patience of Christ. In order to be so, the one in authority must be extremely mature both as a person and as a Christian; it is necessary to exercise great discretion and patience and to be very humble in admitting one’s own mistakes. It is also necessary to be open to receiving advice from many assistants and brothers in faith. The person in authority must always be the objective sign of Christ, the one who can stand up in defence of everyone’s differences, the one who has a personal relationship with each person and is able to value every contribution.
The steps of a method
a) Education requires communication. People in authority must know that the words they use influence on the lives of the people entrusted to them. For this reason, it is always necessary to prepare carefully so that nothing is left to chance, and to be aware that each can have multiple meanings. In the past few years, I have noticed that despite growing in experience, I take longer to prepare my talks and interviews. I think it is a common experience that when we are young – about twenty or thirty years old – we tend to speak quite quickly, without thinking too much about what we are saying, while as time goes by, talking becomes more and more difficult since the things that we say come from deep inside us and acquire so profound a meaning that it seems better to remain quiet. Each time I have to break the armour around myself anew. Talking becomes an event, the repetition of certain words allows us to shed new light on their meaning.
b) In the seminary I have always tried to teach about tradition, always presented to my students the method of teaching that I received myself: music and songs, literature and poetry, beginning with the masters. Father Giussani has been a guide for me. His words have always opened my mind to higher intellects, have introduced me to Leopardi, Pascoli, Pavese, Dante, Manzoni. He understood that man cannot teach on his own; on the contrary, the best master is the one that is able to point to other masters.
c) In order to educate, it is not necessary to say everything right from the beginning. Most of time, hasty conclusions lead to rather negative consequences. True teaching is, as a matter of fact, the evidence of an accepted event, the becoming clear of something that has been previously experienced. If things are made prematurely explicit, the value of the teaching is killed. What is necessary is rather to accompany people towards the personal discovery of the truth, without replacing their freedom, without skipping steps. Jesus did not start His mission saying things like: “God exists, and He is the Father.” Rather he said, “Look at the birds of the air, look at the flowers in the countryside: they neither weave nor sew; nonetheless their beauty is greater than anything woven or sewed by man” (Matthew 6:26-29). Each word He chose vibrated – even if not explicitly – with the presence of the Father who creates and rules all things. He spoke about God while speaking about ordinary things, things everyone could see, experiences common to the people who were listening to Him. Each one of the words He pronounced went straight to the heart as a clear and fascinating proposal that required an answer. Heraclitus wrote: “The fascination of the implicit is more powerful than the fascination of the explicit.”
To resist revealing everything immediately also means looking at the other person with true respect; it implies remembering that we are in front of a person who was made according to God’s design and who remains therefore an unfathomable mystery that cannot be reduced to any scheme or plan.
In conclusion, I would like to add that possessing authority over another person means helping that person to acknowledge and to face the problems that arise along this path. Since man’s freedom is fragile, it is sometimes necessary to give proper instructions so that the other person can see what is not immediately clear to them.
Authority and guidance
A person in authority is a person who can both accompany and decide. They must know the stages through which they are guiding the person who has been entrusted to them, and they must sensibly understand the other person’s nature in relation to the path they are following. The possible friendship that might grow must never put at risk a firm guidance. The good for the other person and his happiness are at stake, as well as the fulfilment of the duties that God has given us.
Obedience or freedom
So, according to the steps outlined in this article, we have come to understood that, contrary to what many of our contemporaries think, freedom does not mean merely responding to ourselves—non-obedience is not the ideal lifestyle. On the contrary, obeying only ourselves soon becomes a trap: we become dependent on the will of the world, enslaved by a consumer mentality. Let us only think for a moment about the pervasive power of advertisement. Those who believe they do not depend on anything or anyone end up falling into the trap of the predominant mentality. St. Ambrose wrote: “How many masters do they end up obeying—those who refuse to serve the only Master?”