Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Freedom of Authority

The Freedom of Authority

Stevenson once said that not on bread alone doth man live, but principally on catchwords. High-sounding phrases often go rattling by like express-trains, carrying the burden of those who are too lazy to think for themselves. Among these phrases or catchwords there is none in the field of religion which has greater modern appeal than this one: The modern man wants a religion of the spirit, and not a religion of authority.” Years ago its popular expression was that “we must be free from the slavery of Rome.” Today it is more direct: “No Catholic can be free because he is bound down by law and authority.”

There is no doubting the sincerity of those who accept such catchwords: hence there can be no doubt that they will accept a sincere explanation of the teaching of the church concerning authority, law, and freedom which for the sake of clearness may be set down in these three following propositions: First, the necessity of law and authority; secondly, obedience to the highest law and authority constitutes freedom; thirdly, the obedience to the law and authority of the Church is thrilling and romantic(*).

First: It is false to say that we can be absolutely free from law and authority, for freedom from law and authority is an illusion. The real problem is not whether we will accept law and authority, but rather, which law and authority we will accept. Even though this is a free country, I find that if I do not obey the authority of my government, then I shall have to accept the authority of a warden; if I do not accept the authority of the pure-food commission, then I shall have to accept the authority of the undertaker; if I do not accept the authority of the traffic lights, I shall have to accept the authority of the jailer. In religious matters, if I do not accept the authority of the Church, then I must accept the authority of public opinion. Public opinion is the common stalk of thought and sentiment created by human society, and in the realm of religion outside the Church it is practically always a compromise.

Modern religion affirms just as much spiritual and moral truth as in a given condition will keep society together – just so much and no more. It affirms not the whole law of God, but extracts from it, and only those extracts which seem to be the most useful for social purposes, and of which society itself will approve. For example, at the present time it dilates on the Sermon on the Mount, but says absolutely nothing about the Last judgment. It quotes, “Behold the lilies of the field,” but never the text, “What exchange shall a man give for his soul?” Again, modern religion has approved on aspect of the Divine Law concerning murder, and disapproved another, concerning divorce. The reason it does this is because public opinion believes murder to be destructive of society, but does not believe that divorce can be equally destructive of it in the long run. Religion thus compromises, or strikes and average between what is good and what is bad. It approves Christ only inasmuch as Christ approves it. It accepts His teachings and His authority only inasmuch as its maxims and its opinions approve those teachings.

Hence, the problem confronting the religious man of today is not whether he will obey of disobey law and authority; but which of the two he will obey, namely, the authority of public opinion, or the authority of Christ and tradition. And all thinking men, as a celebrated English essayist has put it, want a religion which is right, not when the world is right, but is right when the world is wrong, and by this he meant authority of the Church which holds to the teachings of Christ, even thought public opinion should cry out for the liberation of Barabbas, for the Church is built solidly upon the conviction that right is right if nobody’s right, and wrong is wrong if everybody’s wrong.

Furthermore, and here we pass to the second point, only by obedience to the highest law and authority does a man become free. Let me give a few examples to prove this point. A dictionary represents a standard in the use of words. It is a court of appeal, or an authority concerning their meaning. Now it is only by submitting to authority that I ever become free to use words. I may use the word “moon” and by it mean “cabbage”; I may use the word “cow,” and by it mean “cowslip.” I soon find, however, that I am no longer free to tell my fellow-man the story that the cow jumped over the moon. It is only by submission to law and authority that we ever become free.

Or, to take an example from the realm of arts. If an artist, in a fever of broadmindedness and a desire to be free, chooses to paint a giraffe with a short neck, he will soon discover that he will not be free to paint a giraffe at all. If in a feverish love for the new art of self-expression which obeys no law, he decides to paint a zebra without stripes, and a leopard without spots, and a triangle with four sides, he will soon discover that he is not free at all to paint even zebras, leopards, or triangles. It is only by obedience to law and authority and the inherent nature of things that we ever become free. Now man has a rational nature which means that the law of his being is practical reason of conscience. Only inasmuch as man obeys the dictates of his conscience is he free to be a man. He may choose to disobey his conscience, and he is free to become an animal, but he is not free to be a man.

A final example in the field of science: imagine a railroad locomotive, endowed with consciousness, so that it is able to read, to think, to speak. And supposing that one day it picked up with its cow-catcher one of the modern books on the morality of self-expression, such as one of Mr. Bertrand Russell’s, in which he rebels against obedience to traditional moral laws, and the authority of Christian teaching. And suppose, with its great single Cyclops eye, it reads the pages of this liberal thinker, and becomes so impressed with its fine sophistic idioms that it whistles to itself, “Mr. Russell is right. What do the engineers who designed me and imposed their laws upon me know about my inner impulses? Why should I even obey the authority of an engineer who is constantly limiting my steam pressure to one hundred pounds a square inch, when I have the vital Freudian urge to make it on hundred and fifty pounds? And, furthermore, why should I submit myself to the authority of railroad officials who, fifty years back. Laid out the tracks upon which I should run? Why should I take this curve, that straightaway, this bridge, simply because they decided over two score years ago that I should? Why should I not be permitted to choose my own directions, and to make my own tracks? From now on, I am going to be self-expressive!”

Suppose the locomotive did become so self-expressive. In refusing to obey the laws concerning steam pressure, it would discover it was no longer free to be a locomotive, because in asserting its pressure beyond the normal, it would burst its entrails; secondly, by refusing to keep on the track it would no longer be free to run. And if the locomotive did jump the track, and burst its boilers, it would not hurt the engineer who designed the track; it would hurt only itself. And so, too, if a man disobeys God’s laws, and dashes his head against them, as against an eternal rock, the rock toes not suffer – it is only the head of the man that suffers.

Finally, it is only by obedience to the laws of Christ and His Church that we ever become free. And obedience to this authority is positively thrilling, for all orthodoxy is romantic. If there is any vision or mental picture to be had at all of the condition of the world a few centuries ago and now, it might be the vision of a great rocky island in the very center of a stormy and raging sea. Previous to the breakup of Christian unity three centuries ago, this island may be represented as surrounded by a great stone wall against which the waves spent their fury, but never broke it down. Inside the wall were thousand and thousands of the children of God playing games, singing songs, and enjoying life, to the utter oblivion of the great devouring sea outside. With the dawning of the day of False Freedom, there came to the island a group of men who argued with the children in some such language as this: “Why have you permitted the Church of Rome to surround you with all her laws and dogmas? Can you not see that she has encompassed you, and has not permitted you to think for yourself or to be free and captains of your own fate? Tear down the walls! Break down the barriers! Throw off the obstacles and learn to be free!” And the children tore down the walls. One day I went back and I saw all the children huddled together in the center of the island, afraid to move, afraid to play, afraid to dance, afraid of falling into the sea.

We who, by the Grace of God, have been blessed with the protection of the Church’s law and authority, can never quite understand why any one can ever think that obedience to that law and authority is enslaving. On the contrary, it is positively romantic. The laws and doctrines of the Church are not dams which stop up the river of Thought; they are levees which prevent that river from overflowing the countryside. They are not wrenches thrown into the machinery of life, but oils which make it run more smoothly. It is easy to fall into the excesses of the modern world, just as it is easy to fall off a log. It is easy to flat down stream with the popular fancies – even dead bodies can float down stream. But it is exhilarating to fight against the current.

It is easy to be an atheist, and to say the world does not require a God, just as it is easy to be a pantheist, and say that the world is God; but it is thrilling to walk between those two abysses and hold that God is in the world, but not of it – and such is the Incarnation. It would be easy to fall into the extreme of the Stoics, and say that pain is the law of life, or to fall into the equally stupid extreme of saying pleasure is the law of life, but it is romantic to escape the pitfalls and hold that pain is the prelude to life – and such is the lesson of Easter.

It would be easy to say with Gandhi that life should be a fast, just as it would be easy to say with the pagan that it should be a feast; but it is thrilling to avoid both extremes, and hold that the fast should precede the feast. Every heresy in the history of the Church has been either a truth exaggerated to an excess, or diminished to a defect. Calvinism, for example, had a very good first principle, which is a sound Catholic principle, namely, the absolute Sovereignty of God; but Calvin carried it so far as to rule out human merit. Bolshevism, too, is grounded on a very sound Catholic principle, which is the Brotherhood of Man, but it has exaggerated it so far as to leave no room for the Sovereignty of God. And so it is easy to fall into any of these extremes, and to lose one’s intellectual balance. The thrill is in keeping it.

In other words, the Church is not so much to be compared with the Niagara Falls, as it is to be compared with a great and tremendous Rock weighing ten thousand tons, which is poised on another rock by the delicate balance of no more than six inches of a base. Niagara is a falls, simply because it cannot help falling; it is the easiest thing to do; it is simply letting things go. But that great Rock, which is pitched on a base no bigger than one’s hand, has a thousand angles at which it will fall, but there is only one on which it will stand, and it is that which makes falling a far more serious thing than the falling and churning of all of Niagara’s waters. And so with the Church. All through her history she has been like that great Rock, poised on the brink of an abyss, and it is that which has made her romantic; for danger is the rood and foundation of all romance in drama.

Why do children like to play robber, walk picket fences, tramp into thick woods, play along banks of deep rivers, throw stones at vicious dogs, listen to blood-curdling ghost stories, walk on roofs? Is it not because each and every child has deep-rooted in his heart as the foundation of his manhood, and as the very condition for his enjoying life, the love of danger and the thrill of being near it, and yet never falling completely into it? Why do children, when they grow up into man’s estate, love to play games of chance, hunt wild beasts, explore the icy extremities of the earth, fly over trackless seas, speed at the rate of four mils a minute of land, five miles a minute in the air; if it is not because they, too, love the thrill that comes with danger, and love still more the glorious escape from that to which they have so often exposed themselves? And what is true of children and true of men, is true of the Church. It is extremely thrilling to belong to the Church. It is exhilarating to be orthodox. It is romantic to be poised on the Rock of Peter that could fall into a thousand pitfalls, and yet never does.

Every person has an instinctive desire to witness a storm at sea, provided he could be sure of reaching port. We who ride in Peter’s bark witness such a storm, and know we will reach port. For twenty centuries the bark of Peter has been riding, riding the seas, and for twenty centuries we who have been on board know the romance of the seas and its dangers, but also the romance of a port. Sometimes that bark has come within a hair’s breath of dashing against the rocks, of saying that Christ was man and not God, and then again it has suddenly to swerve to avoid crashing into the opposite rock and saying that Christ is God but not man. At other moments in her voyage, Peter’s bark has come within a razor’s edge of being stranded on the sands of humanism and saying that man does everything, and God does nothing. And then, by and equally dexterous move, she saves herself from the sand-bars of declaring with the oriental mystics that God does everything and man does nothing. It would have been extremely easy for Peter and his successors to have sunk their ship in the depths of determinism, just as it would have been very easy for the ship to have capsized in the shallow waters of sentimentalism in the twentieth century. But it is wonderfully thrilling to have avoided both. It would have been very easy for the bark of Peter to have been lost in the fogs of Modernism, just as it would have been easy for it to have lost its course in the mists of Fundamentalism. But to have avoided both of these snares, not by mere chance, but by intellectual direction, is thrilling. If one small blunder, concerning the doctrine of original sin, were made in her twenty centuries of charting the course of men to God, huge blunders would have been made in human happiness. A mistranslation of a single word a thousand years ago, might have smashed all the statues of Europe. A false move at the Council of the Vatican might have impoverished reason. By one single slip, the Church might have stopped all the dances, withered all the Christmas trees, and broken all the Easter eggs.

But the Church has avoided all these pitfalls and all these errors, and as the bark of Peter, with sails flying high, cuts the waters of the sea, she looks before and aft. Behind her she can see the shriveled hulks of a thousand heresies and mental fashions that were suited to their times and died because hat is all they were suited for – their times. Before her she can see the shipwrecked rafts of Masterless men looking for the Master Peter who is not for one time but for all time. And now its future will be just as thrilling as the past. Always in danger, always escaping it; always threatened, always conquering; always enjoying the romance of avoiding extremes, the bark is destined to go on through all the storms and tempests of the world, until one day it checks pace at the hid battlements of eternity, and there as the children disembark from the ship of Peter, they will understand why it avoided the snares and pitfalls – because Peter stood at the helm of his bark, there rested on his hands the invisible, eternal hands of Christ, whom the winds and the seas obey; Christ, who steers the sun and moon and stars in their courses.

-Fulton J. Sheen, “Moods and Truths”, 1932
(*) Romantic, in this context, refers to “Adventurous”

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