Over the past two years, a lot of people have asked about whether anyone is bound to obey this or that decree by this or that authority. Sometimes it’s about the secular government, and sometimes it’s about an ecclesial figure, but the common thread has been confusion about when obedience is good or bad. In practice, I see people flee to extremes: one group acts as though the government has absolutely no authority to deal with COVID while the other group acts as though there could never be such a thing as government overreach. One group acts as though a bishop or the Pope has no authority that could practically affect them, while the other acts as though a prelate’s most casual remark overthrows all other moral considerations. Often, I see individuals vacillate between these extremes depending on the issue at hand.
At root, it appears to me that most people lack a coherent notion of what authority is. This is a strange thing, since we live with authorities all the time: parents, teachers, employers, club presidents, priests—we have a lot of concrete experience, but we seem bad at tapping into that experience to deal with new questions.
This post offers a definition of authority and an explanation of how authority works. I am not addressing any particular controversy, but offering a general account applicable to all controversies.Continue reading “How formal authority works”