The Authority Principle Revisited: The Key to the Formation of Culture
If you look around the world today (or in any era), you’ll find that human culture expresses the dominant values of a society. For example, in the United States we have a predominately commercial culture because we have predominately commercial values. The lives of huge numbers of people in our society are more or less defined by endless getting and endless spending. A tremendous amount of our time and energy goes into the two sides of business—producing and consuming goods and services. The hallmark of our larger culture is ubiquitous advertising.
All of this is very worldly, and undoubtedly very shallow, and it ultimately falls to religion to attempt to overcome this worldly shallowness by orienting us to more permanent values. Thus religion typically acts as a brake upon the passing preoccupations of a worldly culture, pointing us to deeper truths which transcend time and which relate to our ultimate purposes and ends. The fact that religion has proven capable of such cultural transformations again and again throughout history suggests that it is a very powerful generator of human values.
But the monkey wrench in the works of religion in the modern world is its diversity. We are all exposed, at a very high level of sophistication, not only to the sad and crippling divisions of Christianity and to the great gaps among the major religions of the world, but to endless claims and counter-claims about nearly everything under the sun. We might agree philosophically that truth is the mind’s conformity to reality, but with so many conflicting truth-statements on offer, we cannot escape the conclusion that most people are wrong about most things most of the time.
Even if we think we are right, we are haunted by the possibility that we could be wrong, and also by the futility of proving anything, and even by the apparent discourtesy of pressing forward with our own understanding in the face of so much confusion and doubt. None of this helps us build culture; we are, rather, ripe for having what little culture we find comfort in washed away.
What brings these thoughts to mind is a bizarre objection to my previous On the Culture entry, Apologetics: Give Me that Old Time Authority Principle. Someone claimed that my insistence on the uniqueness of the Catholic authority principle was simply a form of “boasting”. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The Catholic authority principle is not a boast but a gift. And this gift is the key to the formation of the next Christian culture, just as it was the key to the last one.
Catholicism as a Cultural Engine
The Catholic religion has been an extraordinarily powerful engine of culture down through history precisely because of its unchanging certainty about the fundamental truths of God and the fundamental values of human life. Had Catholicism lacked an authority principle, as (for example) all forms of Protestantism do, then it would have been constantly reformed by culture rather than forming it, just as Protestantism has been over the centuries. And in fact this happens with most religions, once a society is “opened”, as it were, to powerful influences which challenge a religion’s assumptions. The religion changes in fundamental ways to accommodate new ideas. The tail very decidedly wags the dog. In response to changing fashions, people put on a new religion as they would a new suit of clothes.
Of course this same phenomenon can be observed on a personal level even within the Church. Insofar as we are weak or confused in our Catholic faith, our own lives begin to be dominated by a different sort of culture, a culture with its own prophets and celebrities. One recalls the well-known passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (24:24). Such signs and wonders are not confined to religion; we have them aplenty to fulfill our sensual and material desires, complete with philosophers to justify them.
Thus the authority principle in Catholicism is not a cause for boasting but a cause for confidence. Culture does not grow from tentative values but from confident values which compel us to reorder our lives to be consistent with them. And it seems to me that Catholics have a pressing need for greater confidence today, first because of the growing hostility of the secular world, second because of the immense divisions within Christianity, and third because of the tremendous weaknesses introduced even into the Church herself by the widespread failure of Catholics to adhere faithfully to what they really ought to be able to know to be true.
Now what ought they to be able to know to be true? It can only be that which is guaranteed by the Catholic authority principle. This remains the sole criterion by which we can sift the wheat from the chaff, both within and outside of the Church. This authority principle—represented tangibly in the succession of the vicars of Christ in the See of Peter—can alone serve as an essential source of unshakeable confidence. It is precisely this which enables us to cut through the claims and counter-claims of the world, other religions, and the various squabbling factions within the Church herself, and to leave them behind without a moment’s regret. It is precisely this which enables us to know God’s will and live it confidently.
Too often we make things more difficult than they need to be, allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by endless arguments, and to have our resolve weakened by a hundred caveats. The result is constant uncertainty. Sometimes we think we know something, but we are frighteningly aware that people are often wrong, and so we could be too, and we dare not press things too hard. It is only a fundamental grasp of the ultimate source of authority which can preserve us from this endless hesitation. This alone enables us to bypass interminable doubts and keep our eyes fastened on God:
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he have mercy upon us. (Ps 123:2)
What I am saying is simple: Only the Catholic authority principle makes this truly possible. Only the Catholic authority principle can remove all legitimate hesitation. Since its inception, it has been the best of starting points. But in an age in which truth claims are not traditionally felt—an age justly sensitive to uncertainty—it is the only starting point. If we are to build a new culture, we must start here.
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