Memorial of Saints Cornelius, Pope, and Cyprian, Bishop, Martyrs
Both of today’s readings speak about authority. Authority has always been a difficult subject since it involves the complex questions as how one gets authority, how is it maintained, and what do you do with a person with authority who needs to be removed. One of the interesting consequences of “academic freedom” and fascinating page from Jesuit history occurred when one Jesuit in Rome in the 16th century hypothesized about the possibility of killing a despotic king. What was an academic question in Rome was gas on the fire in France and it took the Jesuits there several years of calming concerned royals that they were not lurking assassins…an image held any number of conspiracy theorists.
Authority touches upon the issues of power and control, sensitive areas especially for persons accustomed to a democratic system of government. At the concluding quarter of the 19th century Pope Leo XIII (1873-1903) noted that authority, whether it be from the newly emerging democracies or the traditional monarchies, had as its purpose the well-being of the people. Simply put, authority was not an end itself rather a means to bring persons to the fullness of their potential in so far as possible. Hence the authority of the state is not understood by the nature of the state, it is understood in light of the potential of the persons who comprise that state. Pope Leo XIII wisely noted that since the fullness of human potential resides in humanity’s spiritual nature, no state or government has the authority to impede upon the articulation and expression of that potential. A state cannot exercise power contrary to the ultimate goals of human nature. This idea was likewise articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
It is this reason why Christ has ultimate authority because it is Christ, by his life, death and resurrection, enables the fullness of our potential to occur. When we correctly use authority we do so in imitation of Christ when we assist men and women move towards that for which they were created. Authority used for self-aggrandizement degrades others and hence it cannot be viewed as true authority since it acts in opposition to what authority should achieve: the well-being of persons.
None of us exercise the powers of a president or monarch, but many of us exercise authority over any number of persons. What today’s readings remind us is that authority exists as means by which we bring people to God, not to ourselves.