Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"You're not the boss of me!"


One day, listening to Catholic Connection while driving to work, I heard Teresa Tomeo make an observation that cracked me up: “There may be a shortage of vocations to the priesthood, but there’s no shortage of vocations to the papacy!”

I reflected on this mordant truth as I read Frank Weathers’ “Thoughts on Obedience and Reading Maps without Guidance” on Why I Am Catholic:

I have a friend who can’t understand why I enjoy being a Catholic.

From discussions I have had with him, it appears that he believes I am now enslaved by an organization that is run by a tyrant who bears the title of “Pope.” I reckon that his libertarian tendencies bristle at the very idea of submitting to an authority, even if that authority is ordained  and conferred by Christ Himself.

It's not that the Pope or any other form of religious leader is illegitimate. Rather, many people want to be their own pope; the fact that the job is taken is inconvenient. So let me add  a few thoughts to Frank's:


Authority is a word with several senses. On one level, it conveys the idea of having superior knowledge or expertise; on another, it gives the sense of having been vested with power by some governmental body, while a third level refers directly to the exercise of that power.

There’s a reason why military units aren’t run by committees. It’s a principle called unity of command. History is rife with examples of one army beating multiple opponent armies because the opposing armies’ generals had conflicting strategies; having benefitted from this first-hand, Napoleon wittily remarked, “Give me allies to fight against.”

But even in organizations where law or policy is set by committee, the execution of their decisions is entrusted to one person — a president or an executive officer — who can make the necessary decisions without being gainsaid. That person also has people under him to assist in enforcing the policies or legislation. As a simple fact of daily existence, we submit ourselves to the authority of governments, managers, commanders and other nabobs to reap the benefits of an ordered, stable community.

From the standpoint of knowledge, we depend for at least 90% of what we know on the word of people we recognize as authorities: teachers, scientists, weathermen (yes, I know), subject-matter experts (SMEs) at work, doctors and so forth. The total mass of information created and held by the human race is too vast for any one person to gain what Aristotle called primary knowledge of everything. And we place an amazing wealth of trust in the people we regard as authorities in this sense, to the extent that we treat even their errors as ground-truth fact until irrefutably shown otherwise.

Now, if Frank’s libertarian friend is true to his sola scriptura doctrine, he should know that obedience to secular human authority is not only a fact of life, it’s actually commanded of Christians by the Bible (Rom 13:1-7). Our only “out” is one of conscience, where obeying the law means committing evil, or rendering unto Caesar that which is properly God’s.

But not only is secular human government to be obeyed; so is religious government: “But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12-13) . Just as Jesus told his disciples in Jerusalem: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you …” (Mt 23:2-3), we are to obey religious leaders even when they’re hypocrites.

In the Greco-Roman world, there were no hired servants: to be a servant was to be a slave, and vice-versa. This reality of two thousand years ago still informs our faith today: one is either a servant of Christ or a slave of sin.

Frank’s libertarian friend may believe that freedom means “doing what I want”, which allows him to tell others (including the Pope), “You’re not the boss of me!” But to Christians, the most important freedom is from sin, which ironically means often not doing what we want … because what we want is bad for us, and often will hurt others in the process. This forces us to recognize that God is the boss of us; again, if we hold true to sola scriptura, submission to God’s authority means submission to human authority, in matters both sacred and profane.

Another way to say “You’re not the boss of me” is Non serviam (I will not serve) … Satan’s words to the Lord.

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton notes that Christ doesn’t speak directly to the morality of slavery, which is interesting because Christ had no qualms about speaking out about other public wrongs. But just as Christianity could exist alongside of slavery, it could exist without it as well. That’s because, to the Christian, the distinction between slave and master, or slave and free, is irrelevant to how we ought to treat one another: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

It doesn’t follow, from this lack of distinction or refusal to respect persons, that there’s no use for authority, or no such legitimate thing. It does mean that to rule over all is to serve all; the master or boss must act out of Christian charity and truth as much as must the slave or employee. The pope is my father in the faith, but my brother in Christ, just as my last boss could give me orders but was my equal in the eyes of the law.

It’s not that the pope is a tyrant. Rather, it’s that we’re a bunch of spoiled, willful brats all yelling, “You’re not the boss of me!”