Last week, I discussed the ecclesiastical reason we need to safeguard our authority jealously. Today, I focus on the sociological reason. The sociological dimension of authority concerns how authority is perceived and exercised in society.
The German sociologist Max Weber, in his essay titled “Politics as a Vocation”, identifies three categories of authority in political organisations. The first is traditional authority, which is the exercise of power based on the long-standing beliefs and customs of a society. The second, charismatic authority, entails the exercise of power based on the charisma or extraordinary personal qualities of the leader, with which the individual controls his or her followers. The third, rational-legal authority, means the form of authority based on the laws established in the society, which empowers an individual to exercise that authority validly.
We can also distinguish between two forms of authority—physical and moral. Physical authority entails the use of coercion in exercising authority. In fact, it is this physical force or the fear of it that makes people obey. For instance, people keep some laws for fear of being fined or sent to jail. Moral authority is a form of authority based on the trustworthiness and moral standard of the one exercising the authority.
The categorisations above are necessary to understand the exercise of Church authority in society. Ecclesiastical authority as a concept is traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. The Church has always had moral authority, the form of authority that Christ exercised during his time on earth. However, with Christianity becoming the state religion in the fourth century AD, the Church obtained the means of coercion. This was when popes had a standing army and controlled kings who helped to force people to accept Catholic beliefs or get punished. The Inquisition is an example of this.
Nevertheless, with the separation of Church from State in most countries of the world, the Church no longer controls physical authority. Moreover, such a form of authority contradicts the style of Christ, who rejected any form of physical force in evangelisation, even when his disciples encouraged him to do so (Luke 9:54). Today, the Church enjoys only moral authority. Therefore, no penalty in canon law restricts one’s fundamental human rights or causes physical pain.
The sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by Church personnel is an example, which undermined the Church’s moral authority. How? If you (the Church) cannot safeguard our children; if you are an abuser, you have no moral standing to preach morality to us.
Today, the traditional authority has been largely disintermediated by people who exercise charismatic authority. Sadly, social media has further deepened this disintermediation as charismatic leaders have more followers than constituted authority.
Therefore, let us be cautious of how we exercise our authority in our place of the apostolate. We should jettison the mentality that we are priests and religious and can get over anything. Let’s avoid making people distrust us. Let’s watch our behaviour, our words, and our actions. Let’s respect people and our boundaries even as we evangelise.
The recent spate of insults meted on our dear brother Fr Ejike Mbaka is a vivid example of why we should safeguard our authority jealously.
Ka Chineke mezie okwu🙏🏾