AT the height of the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, a writer friend of mine told me that the whole sorry situation had her in a “white rage.” I knew exactly what she meant: like most people who have lived through these interminable revelations, I have found myself speechless with fury against those who would wantonly destroy innocence and trust.
But rage is an unwieldy thing. The public reaction to the scandals has unleashed not only informed debate and righteous indignation, but also torrents of verbal abuse and even outright bigotry. A number of prominent writers and artists have piled in, and not just those who have made a living attacking the church. The distinguished Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally, wrote a long essay in the New Yorker about his traumatic departure from Catholic seminary on the eve of his ordination. His conclusion: that the church is “a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.”
This is where we need to exercise caution. Keneally’s use of the corporate metaphor is typical of contemporary confusion over the difference between authority and power. For many people, there is essentially no distinction between the two words. The Catholic Church’s teaching authority, for example, is seen as a quantum of power held by a few shadowy figures in the Vatican. Of course, the same argument is routinely applied to institutional religion of any sort.
But this is to misperceive the nature of authority, and to reduce it to mere fiat, a simple deprivation of freedom. But according to the great twentieth-century sociologist Robert Nisbet, the conflict is not between authority and freedom. “Apart from authority,” he once wrote, “there can be no freedom, no individuality.” The rise of centralized power—both in church and state—is the result of a crisis in authority. Nisbet writes: “We are prone to see the advance of power in the modern world as a consequence…of the diminution of individual freedom. But a more useful way would be to see it in terms of the retreat of authority in many of the areas of society within which human beings commonly find roots and a sense of the larger whole.”
Authority as a place of communal shelter and grounding? It is difficult for Americans, schooled as we are in the tradition of individualism, to think in such terms. But as many social theorists have pointed out, individualism reduces us to social atoms, making us more prey to power. Power is based on external constraint whereas authority is based on consent.
In theological terms, true authority is not force, but persuasion; the truest response to authority is not fear but awe. “And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.” For a Christian, the authority of Christ is derived not just from his divinity, but from his compelling teaching and witness; the two things are inseparable.
The root of the word means “to nurture something in its growth, to bring increase.” Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the nature of his authority is not to rule, but to serve. The central paradox of the faith, then, is that authority involves kenosis, self-emptying.
Of course, as theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it: “In Christ, nature and behavior coincide.” But in human beings the relationship between imitating the divine nature and day-to-day behavior is much more tenuous. And there’s the rub. If the proper emotion before authority is awe, it is easy for that openness and trust to be abused. Some of the best writers and filmmakers have produced chilling tales of that sort of abuse.
That such horror stories should be told unflinchingly is beyond question. One of the real advantages to modern individualism is that our skeptical, psychologically informed sensibilities are more alert to those who use their religious office, and the awe that surrounds it, for their own ends—those, in short, who have sacrificed authority for power.
But here is a question that isn’t asked often enough these days: which artists and writers today are conveying a vision of true spiritual authority? The ancient aesthetic conundrum—why is evil so much easier to depict, and so much more convincing, than good?—applies here, too. How common to see dramas of corrupt authority, how rare to experience through art the elusive, emotional tug of true authority.
It can be done. In the twentieth century, a surprising number of novels and stories explored the paradox of fallible human beings attempting to mediate divine authority: Georges Bernanos’s introverted, tubercular country cleric, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Walker Percy’s eccentric Father Smith in his fire tower, and Frederick Buechner’s tragi-comic figures of Bebb and Godric, to name just a few.
Then there’s the gruff priest in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Enduring Chill.” The protagonist, Asbury, is an alienated intellectual and hypochondriac who summons a Catholic priest to his sickbed in a fit of postmodern playfulness.
“I wonder what you think of Joyce, Father?”
The priest lifted his chair and pushed closer. “You’ll have to shout,” he said. “Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.”
“What do you think of Joyce?” Asbury said louder.
“Joyce? Joyce who?” asked the priest.
“James Joyce,” Asbury said and laughed.
The priest brushed his huge hand in the air as if he were bothered by gnats. “I haven’t met him,” he said. “Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers?”
Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear: are these defects merely symbolic of the flaws we inevitably find in our ministers? Perhaps. But perhaps O’Connor is also suggesting that the loss of these worldly senses may be balanced by an inner eye and ear attuned to otherworldly stimuli. What these fictional clerics share in common is that by the end of their stories they speak with the voice of authority to the extent that they have become true servants. O’Connor’s busy, ill-educated priest comes out to a remote country house to respond to what is, in essence, a prank call. Irritating as he might feel the situation to be, he sticks to his basic duty: challenging Asbury, in true apostolic fashion, to move beyond intellectual posturing to making an act of faith in something beyond himself.
The selfless heroism the characters in these stories achieve comes not in spite of their brokenness, but in and through it. Mysteriously, they become more than they are: they take on the image of the one they have faithfully followed.
If there is an imaginative challenge for our time, it is to hear and transmit the still small voice of divine authority amidst the cacophony of individualism and consumerism, and to show that the astonishment we feel in the presence of that voice will lead not toward oppression, but toward true community.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.