Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Authority of Love

By Bishop B. C. Butler

"Authority" and "conscience" are two words much used - and sometimes abused - in a Christian context. There is a story that the late Cardinal Heenan, asked to state his Catholicism in a nutshell, replied, simply, "Authority". On the other hand, Martin Luther (who was born and bred a Catholic) explained his refusal to submit to an authoritative ecclesiastical ruling by saying: "I can do no other": his conscience, he claimed, could contradict Catholic authority.

I want to make some remarks about conscience later on. But first I wish to argue that the word authority is equivocal. It is interesting that Jesus, asked by what authority he was acting, declined to give an answer. The fact is that there is an authority of constraint, and also a different kind of authority, described by M. Marcel Legaut as an authority of appeal. Though the same word is used for both, their meaning is wholly different.

Free Assent

The authority of constraint operates by the threat of punishment and by the exercise of punishment if the authority is disobeyed. This kind of authority is a governing principle in politics. Governments establish laws or issue instructions, and disobedience is punished by fines, by imprisonment, by exile or even (in some countries) by death. This type of authority creates a limitation on the freedom of individuals and groups. Thus, in Britain, I shall not drive on the right side of the road, whatever its attractions, because by so doing I should run the risk of unacceptable penalties.

The authority of appeal is different. Plato and Aristotle are outstanding "authorities" - it has been argued that everyone is at heart either a Platonist or an Aristotelian - but no one in Britain is obliged by constraining threats to be a Platonist or, for that matter, an Aristotelian. You become a disciple of one or the other by free choice, based upon a voluntary study of his arguments - a choice which may in some circumstances be dictated by conscience. Fr Bernard Lonergan tells us: Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable; he does not say: Be a Platonist (or an Aristotelian), because otherwise you will find yourself in trouble. Such advice is more likely to be given in Russia.

I was brought up as an Anglican. My decision to become a Catholic was entirely free - though perhaps influenced by some persuasion. My dear mother was deeply grieved at the prospect of my leaving the Church of England, but she agreed that I must follow my conscience.

Is the authority of Christianity based on constraint or appeal? There have been periods in church history when the authority of constraint was preached and acted upon; but was this a misrepresentation of the authority of the Christian faith?

The Church's authority is delegated to it by God, and by God incarnate in and as Jesus of Nazareth. The Church claims to be a sacramental expression of God's authority. So we have to ask: Is God's authority an authority of constraint? Or is it an authority of appeal?

The climactic affirmation about God in the New Testament is: God is love. God is love in an infinite actuality.

In a famous phrase, St Augustine addressed God as "Beauty so ancient, so new". Beauty, as we apprehend it, is conditioned by finitude and is taught us by contrast with the many finite things that are not beautiful. In this, beauty is like truth and goodness. We have direct experience of them as limited. But each points beyond itself to beauty, truth and goodness unlimited: to the Summum Bonum, the Summum Pulchrum, the Summum Verum. And pointing, as they do, to this infinity where beauty, truth and goodness find their ultimate reconciliation and unity, we are bound to admit that they face us with mystery. All we can say is that, in this transcendent unity of the three supreme values, the values of all finite goodness, truth and beauty are not cancelled but united and glorified in what St Thomas Aquinas calls the Pure Act which, above and beyond time, is the source of all temporal goods. We know that God is not ugly, not false, not unloving.

Butler 1983And there is one thing that we know with certainty about love: it cannot succeed by constraint; it can only reach its aim by appeal, by courtship, by "wooing". To tell someone that unless he loves you you will make him pay for it is not the best way to produce an answering love: indeed, it has just the opposite effect. The overwhelming "authority" of divine love can be compared with the "authority" of a great philosopher or a great artist or poet. To have caught a glimpse of absolute and infinite love is to be haunted for ever afterwards by its appeal, until the surrender is made and freely and deliberately, we begin to lean the lesson of a reciprocal love.

And such is the authority of the Church: an authority not of constraint but of appeal. People talk about the threat of hell. But hell is the foreseen and inevitable consequence, not willed but permitted by God, of love refused.

In a second article next week, I will say something about the legitimacy and limits of the authority of constraint. Let me now conclude with a word about the relation between conscience and an authority of appeal.

It is a serious, and can be a disturbing, experience to find that someone loves you profoundly and completely. It leaves you, of course, entirely free to accept and reciprocate this love. But it is unreasonable to take no account of it. It speaks to your conscience; and if I may repeat Fr Lonergan's remark, our "reasonable" appreciation of the fact of such love calls for a "responsible" response - whether of acceptance or rejection.

Appeal to Conscience

A responsible response is precisely what we mean by a response of conscience. The inescapable requirement to make a response is what we mean by the word "conscience"; and the "categorical" character of the challenge to our conscience, as stated by Immanuel Kant, means that behind the particular features of an actual appeal to our conscience there is the ultimate challenge of God himself - who is absolute and infinite love. A conscientious response to such a challenge is thus, whether one is aware of the fact or not, a response of love to the love of God.

But the response is inevitably a free response. Bishop Joseph Butler said that conscience, "if it had power as it has right, would rule the world". But the power of love, since it is wholly an appeal of love and not a constraint, leaves one completely free to accept or reject its invitation.

The appeal to our conscience is absolute; it is something to which we "ought" to respond by positive acceptance. As the moral theologians tell us, "conscience is something that we ought always to obey" - but our freedom whether or not to obey reigns supreme. If we "go to hell" by our rejection of the appeal of conscience, we go there by our own deliberate consent, and no finite creature can destroy that freedom except by destroying our ability to recognise the appeal.