Authority and Discipline

Author: Cardinal Pericle Felici


Cardinal Pericle Felici

The following article on "Authority and Discipline" by Cardinal Felici was prompted by the recent celebration of the feast of Christ the King.

Christ is king for many reasons through the hypostatic union, whereby the human nature of Christ is united to the divine nature in the single person of the Word: through his eternal priesthood which makes him the mediator between God and men; and finally through the love and Blood wherewith Christ redeemed and conquered the entire human race. The kingship of Christ, however, is not of this world (John 18, 36). It is often exercised, especially in the Church, by the sacred hierarchy, which mysteriously but in truth holds the power of him to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given (cfr. Mathew 28, 18). Speaking of the hierarchy the mind thinks of its unique service, of those who, by reason of such service are its servants.

The Superior, who feels and wants to carry out his duty, must reflect, first of all, on his own weakness: "he himself is beset with weakness" (Hebrews 5, 2), however holy or wise or experienced he may be. Even he must repeat before the altar: "I have sinned exceedingly... through my most grievous fault." It is an attitude of humility and wisdom which makes him understanding toward the wayward and the ignorant (Hebrews 5, 2). But this dimension of fallen humanity which characterizes him, as it does all his subjects, cannot and must not prohibit him from considering the other dimension, which does not come from his human condition but rather from the mysterious position of representative

which has been given to him for the good of the ecclesiastical society and which has its origin and centre in God and in Christ, Universal King of the centuries. On the second anniversary of his election, Leo the Great exhorted the faithful to consider and honour in the weakness of his person him who still cared for all the pastors and lambs entrusted to him, and whose dignity is not diminished in an unworthy heir.

Even if the perspective of the two dimensions sometimes places the superior, and even each priest, in tragic situations and may tempt him, sometimes with depression, and sometimes with pride, it is always necessary that, with honest intentions, he exercise his authority, not as "domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (cfr. I Peter 5, 3). This means that he must understand and follow well the art of government. He must not guide a group towards an end pre-established by his own personal character; he must guide all the individuals in his group according to their psychological, moral and supernatural needs, considered in the context and according to the purposes of the individual society to which they belong.

Having observed all this, the wise superior cannot give up his authority and must use it even when it is a matter of causing displeasure to someone. One must please God rather than men (cfr. Gal. 1, 10). Does a surgeon stop in the face of the patient's moans when the operation is necessary for the health and sometimes for the life of the whole organism?

A venerable Roman prelate, whom many of us have known and who, while having a wonderful heart and a great deal of sensitivity for human weaknesses, sometimes appeared severe and a bit harsh, once said, in reply to a friend who pointed out to him that you can catch more flies with a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar, "Yes, that's all right for the flies!''

Personally, I am convinced that a constructive dialogue is often more valuable than commands: the work of convincing rather than the drastic procedure and the threatening "Quos Ego!" (Aeneid, 1, 135); love and understanding and patience rather than punishment. But I am also convinced that where goodness, which in excess is no longer goodness, threatens the fabric of society, of the Church, and there is a danger of harmful infiltration, the superior must intervene in a decided, and if necessary, strong way, to prevent the others from suffering damage, including the patient who sometimes is not able to realize the seriousness of his own disease.

We often hear people say that one must respect the dignity of the person in the erring, and distinguish the errant from the error. This is one of the many slogans which is incorrectly attributed to Pope John. First of all, Pope John was not the first to make a similar statement, which is based on the mission itself of Christ, who came to the world to redeem it from sin, but who showed even tenderness towards sinners, in order that they should be converted and live. (cfr. Ez. 33, 15). Moreover, in what does the dignity of the human person consist? In the error which one cultivates and spreads, or in the truth which one is bound to seek and profess? Certainly the truth should be taught by proper means and it cannot be imposed by coercive means. But true human dignity will be realized in full when the mind and the will are enlightened and moved by the Spirit of God, which "will teach you all truth" (John 16, 13). On the other hand, in a social community, whose order must be extremely dear to the heart of the superior, if one is to respect the dignity of the erring person, one must also respect the dignity of those who seek and follow the truth, taught by the authentic Magisterium, and who therefore have the right not to be needlessly exposed to the risks of contamination or to what is more like an invasion of hungry wolves, who come clothed as lambs (cfr. Matthew 4, 15).

It is for this reason that we are astonished to hear, for example, that in an institute for the formation of priests, discussions were held between the students and young priests on the problem of the so-called "demythologization" of the New Testament which some felt was necessary, and thus disturbed the souls of many listeners. There comes to mind the cry of alarm: "Watchman, what of the night?" (is. 21, 11) Does this mean that the clear precepts of the Council and the Bishops' Synod are no longer valid?

* * *

Authority is, undoubtedly, a service. It was Saint Gregory who gave himself the title, humble and great servant of the servants of God. But the concept is even older. We find it in Saint Augustine, and we hear it in the words of the Lord, who said that he had come on earth to serve and not to be served (Matthew 20, 28). But be careful not to abuse that saying by giving it a meaning which it does not have. Vatican II showed us that each one must serve according to the work given him by God in the Church. And the legitimate superiors must serve by correctly exercising, according to the will of God, the duty of commanding, which is the most difficult service that can be imagined in the social community, and upon which much of the advancement of society depends.

In recent times, and more so since the Council, we are witnessing an increase in the requests that those who hold authority give up certain external forms of pomp and honour which are said to offend the more humble, the subjects etc. I confess, candidly, that simplicity and humility are always good qualities even, and especially, in superiors. But we must also consider man as he is; and certain exterior forms, even if they are not always strictly necessary, contribute to the decorum of authority and to its prestige, especially when it is a matter of sacred functions, in which even the clothes, the gestures and the solemnity of the rite can contribute to an elevation of the spirit.

But evil results when, under the pretext of evangelical simplicity, one wants to take away from authority that which is essential to it, reducing the superior to a kind of... household servant without even giving him the honour that household servants demand these days.

Is it possible that today one can say anything one wishes in print about superiors, even the most outrageous things, without any risk, but, if you were to say only part of these things about those who write them, the press itself would rise up to defend the so-called rights of the dignity of the person? And superiors, if for no other reason than that they are human beings, have they not the same dignity that must be respected and guarded? These are bitter considerations, which we would rather not make were the phenomenon not so commonplace.

The Holy Scriptures have words which make the superiors tremble: "mighty men will be mightily tested" (Wisdom 6, 6). But Saint Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, while he commands subjects to obey their superiors and to submit themselves to them, expresses the hope that the command will not be given with tears: because that would not be to the advantage of the subjects. This, in other words, means that the tears caused by the disobedience of the subjects will be for the latter a reason for criticism and condemnation by the Lord, in whose name the superior commands.

On the occasion of the publication of the Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, many things were said which, to the consternation of the faithful, were not all courteous to the Pope and his supreme authority. I don't know if the Pope has cried over them, but he had good reason to. In those days how many times my mind turned to the words of the Apostle, "Obey your leaders and submit to them: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you." (cfr. Hebrews 13, 17).

It would not be to your advantage: these are the words of the Apostle!

* * *

In conclusion, if the superior must be humble according to the standards of him whom he represents, then the subject must be humble following the example of Christ, who "humbled himself" (Phil. 2, 3). If the superior must be wise and prudent in commanding, because he has to justify himself before God for the souls entrusted to him, then the subject must know how to obey with submissiveness, like Christ, who was obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil. 2, 8). If the superior must, with a spirit of faith, see in his subject Christ himself, with the same spirit of faith the subject will see in his superior the figure of the authority of Christ who said: "Who hears you, hears me, who rejects you, rejects me and him who sent me". (Luke 10, 16). If, finally the superior must consider his subject as his son, the latter has the duty to consider the superior as his father.

With such an attitude of spirit, superior and subject will form one single family, in which serenity and peace will reign, in spite of the difficulties which come from human insufficiency, and in which dialogue, otherwise inconclusive and a source of discord, will serve to unite and cement men for that unity and strength which makes every society secure and, in the Church, brings about the supreme ideals of Christ.

In the hearth there shines a light: it is the love of Mary, who is both queen of the world and maid of the Lord. She, the Mother of all, will make the art of command easy for the superiors, and obedience easy for the subjects, enlightening all and soothing the bitterness, inviting all to have courage, to sacrifice, to have faith, in order to pave the way for the triumph of Christ the King.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 November 1968, page  7

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