Power vs. Authority

News: Commentary
by Ron Gaudio  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  February 8, 2021   

Suppressing truth

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I remember that, as children playing in the pool, we liked to see who could hold a beach ball under water the longest. It was not an easy task. We tried to push the beach ball further down thinking that it would be less likely to pop back up. Of course, we discovered that the more we tried to keep the ball under water, the more difficult it became to hold it there. It always popped back up after only a few seconds.

St. Paul writing his epistle to the Romans

This image reminds me of a verse from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans: "For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth."

The Nature of Truth

If truth is to be opposed, it can only be suppressed. The more that it is suppressed, the more difficult it becomes to do so. This leads to a philosophical consideration of the nature of truth. Prior to Descartes in the West, it was a given that absolute truth existed. From a metaphysical perspective, truth was pursued as if it could be discovered and comprehended. Even Descartes did not deny the existence of absolute truth. But by shifting the conversation from the metaphysical to the epistemological, he put skepticism front and center in philosophy. The operative question used to be "What do you know to be true," while today, truth claims are almost always met with some form of, "Well, how do you know that to be true?"

After the emergence of extreme skepticism, the concept of absolute truth, as it had been previously understood, was eventually abandoned and replaced by relativism. But this is not completely accurate. The excursion into relativism was not really an abandonment of the concept of absolute truth, but simply a transition where the idea of absolute truth based on divine authority was replaced by the concept of absolute truth based on human power. (The former is absolute truth in se whereas the latter is absolute truth de facto.) Since the Enlightenment, we have been moving from authority-based truth to power-based truth. Authority-based truth is transcendent since it comes from God, while power-based truth is immanent since it originates from man.

Authority-based truth is transcendent since it comes from God, while power-based truth is immanent since it originates from man.

Introducing relativism into the equation made it possible to uncouple the concept of truth from God and to couple it to human agency. Once human authority has severed itself from the truth, then it becomes illegitimate. (In another sense, however, it retains a semblance of legitimacy because governmental structures themselves are established by God as stated in Romans 13.)

Legitimate and Illegitimate Authority

An illegitimate authority must rely on force since it has separated itself from the authority of God. We can recognize an illegitimate authority because it governs by power, using force to accomplish its will. We see this in the past in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Mao Tse Tung's China. Mao famously said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." We see this today in countries like Venezuela and North Korea. Sadly, we are starting to witness this in the West.

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Doctor Jeff Mirus, in his article "On Power and Authority," states the following:

Authority differs from power in that the term "authority" suggests a right to or fittingness for the power that goes with it. True authority is justified by what a person is, by what he has received from a higher authority ... (by which) he is connected to the "authorship" or origination of the power he will exercise ... When things are well-ordered, power derives neither from the will to exercise it nor from the strength to enforce that will.

To use a practical example, a police officer's authority does not derive from their gun, but from the governmental entity that commissioned them. Their power is an outworking of the authority that has been vested in them and not vice versa. 

The power that comes from divine authority is harmonious and ordered, whereas the power that comes from an autonomous human agency is disordered and oftentimes despotic. A legitimate government does not have to be overtly Christian. On the contrary, a non-Christian government can be legitimate as long as it governs in accordance with natural law. An illegitimate government must resort to force because it has no real authority on which to base its claims.

The Tyranny of Relativism

A modern relativist will profess that there are many "truths," but in the end, it is his truth that he wishes to apply in an absolute and unconditional manner, not only to himself but to others as well. A purely relativistic culture is impossible. Sooner or later one group's "truth" must prevail over the others. Whose truth prevails? The answer is whoever can wield the most power. A relativistic society is one in which various groups vie to control the levers of power in order to impose their version of truth on the others.

An illegitimate government must resort to force because it has no real authority on which to base its claims.

What is anathema at one time can become accepted practice depending on who has power. Ideas that were only recently considered "a matter of personal choice" have now become the law of the land. This carries severe social and legal penalties for those who disagree. The relativist remains a relativist when he has little power, but once he comes to power, he strangely metamorphoses into an absolutist, persecuting those who disagree with him. His "tolerance" disappears under a cloak of despotism.

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The weakness of this method is that it is impossible to hold a society together by mere force. After the bloodshed and the purging, an authoritarian society eventually burns itself out after it runs out of victims and collapses in on itself due to the moral rot within. As Aristotle said, all evil eventually collapses in upon itself. After the dust settles, the only thing remaining is the truth.

The West's Descent Into Tyranny

I think of nations such as Russia and Poland, under the grip of the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century, whose people were forced to teach atheism in schools and forbidden to practice religion. Both countries today, although far from perfect, are once again free nations that are able to practice the Christian faith. History is full of such examples. The Romans threw the entire weight of their empire against the fledgling Church. Rather than destroying the Church, the Church converted the empire. The Roman Empire had all of the military might and the Church had none. Christians prevailed because they had truth on their side, truth embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Raw human power can never prevail over divine authority. The truth cannot be conquered. It always prevails precisely because it is the truth.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn Gulag Archipelago

During the dark days of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government churned out volumes of propaganda now relegated to the ash heap of history. But works like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago are still read because they are true. Also, back then in the Soviet Union, Russian grandmothers kept the Christian faith alive by teaching the faith to their grandchildren. Consider that it was the faith of the Russian grandmothers, resting on the authority of God, which helped defeat the domineering power of the Soviet Union.

In the West, we are in a period of deep darkness. This darkness may last several more years, decades, or even several centuries. It may be similar to the darkness that prevailed in Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century. During that time, the truth was preserved by monks in the monasteries.

Truth Shall Prevail

This present darkness will pass as well. The truth cannot be destroyed. It is like gravity. We can deny its existence, but we cannot negate its effects. This does not mean that it will be easy for Catholics and people of goodwill. But it is the rule, not the exception, that the Church prevails through suffering. The paradox is that the indestructible truth prevails through human weakness and frailty. Try as they might, "cancel culture" will never be able to cancel the truth. It is a fool's errand. They may succeed for a short time, but power alone is not enough to prevail. Jesus said that all authority on Heaven and earth had been given to him. The weapons that we use are heavenly, rooted in the authority of Christ. We need not be afraid of or intimidated by any earthly power.

In the past, the heroes who preserved the truth were people like medieval monks and Russian grandmothers, people who had little power in the eyes of the world. As Christians, we may have little earthly power, but we have all of the authority of Jesus Christ. The question is, as we face the same foe, albeit in a different disguise, who will be the heroes in this present darkness?

As St. Augustine famously noted, "The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth."

Ron Gaudio is a practicing eye doctor and a part-time blogger. His blog, found at socratesjourney.org, explores the relationship between theology and philosophy in light of current events.
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