How formal authority works

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.

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Three notes on the death penalty

Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy.  As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.

But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian.  Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:

It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.

This is a strong argument, to be sure.  I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below.  But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration: Continue reading “Three notes on the death penalty”

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