Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Authority: The Church, the classroom, and the Camino

Continuing the thread on "Rebellion Against Church Leadership" (here, here, and here) and a post from the Camino (here), I offer some thoughts on the question of" authority," a word that has gotten a bad rap for a generation or two. 

Each of us voluntarily submits to numerous authorities in our lives. 

  • When I fly, I voluntarily submit to the authority of the airline, the FAA, and the TSA..  If I am not entitled to check-in in the line for elite travelers, I can be told to go to the back of the regular persons line.  I must submit a proper form of identification to proceed past security, and I can't take my water bottle with me at this point.  Airlines have been known to make unscheduled landings to deplane passengers who rebel against the airline's rules.  In short, the airline proposes rules (doesn't mandate them for anyone), but once you decide to fly, you are bound by the rules, and the authorities have the right and the means to enforce the rules. 

Individuals choose to submit to our authority when they enroll in law school and register for our classes.  In my class, I reserve the right to count tardy students absent, decrease grades for excessive absences, and call on students with the expectation that they will be prepared.  In short, the law school proposes rules (doesn't mandate them for anyone), but once you decide to attend the law school, you are bound by the rules, and the authorities within the law school have the right and the means to enforce the rules. 

  • On the Camino, I voluntarily submitted myself to the authority of yellow arrows and blue/yellow concha shells for 500 miles, trusting that they would lead me to my destination.  Although I was free to desregard the signs, ignoring them (ignorance?) came at a cost.  Unlike the airline situation or my classroom, there was little in the way of an external authority enforcing the rules.  This really only came about in two instances.  First, the albergues (the pilgrim's hostels) turned away people who had arrived by motorized vehicle, reserving the valuable bed spaces for walker's first,followed by those on bicycle or horseback if there was room.  Second, in Santiago, a pilgrim could apply for a Compostela (a certificate indicating that the person had completed a religious pilgrimage).  Those who were walking for purely non-religious reasons got a piece of paper acknowledging their walk in lieu of a Compostela.  (more on this later)

    The Catholic Church, it seems to me, is similar to the Camino in the exercise of its authority.  It provides signs (like the yellow arrows and blue/yellow concha shells) that point those who are following the path to greater love and holiness.  It proposes that if you partake in the Sacraments regularly with an open heart, if you spend time in prayer with an open and broken heart, if you perform works of charity and love with an open heart, if you live a chaste life and follow the commandments (the moral law) with an open heart, you will be on the path to wholeness and happiness in this life and the next. 

    • No one (at least in our day) is requred to be on the  path proposed by the Church. 
    • Most if not all of us who choose this path, proceed imperfectly, failing in multiple ways more often than we succeed.
    • Like the Camino (and unlike flying and law schools), the Church rarely uses external authority to enforce its rules.  In short, unlike the TSA, it isn't normally checking credentials in the communion line. And, unlike my classroom, it isn't calling on its members to answer for themselves.  For the rank and file Catholic, it is only when someone wants something from the Church (the sacrament of marriage, for instance), that the Church checks the credentials of its members. 

    Most of the people on the Camino would describe themselves as spiritual and not religious.  Like so many others today, they are leary of commiting themselves to an authority outside of themselves.  Yet, when questioned (by me in casual conversation), they saw some profound power in following this ancient pilgrimage tradition.  They were seeking answers to life's ultimate questions (which is a religious quest) and chose this path because of its tradition.  Upon arriving in Santiago, they received the Compostela from the issuing authority because their's had a religious/spiritual journey. 

    I met two people who were refused the Compostela by the issuing authority because, when questioned, they responded that they had walked the Camino solely for non-religious reasons.  Their very different responses highlighted their notions of authority.  One person was completely fine with not receiving the Compostela.  He understood that the issuing authority had a right to set its own rules, and even though it had set a fairly low bar, he couldn't in good conscience meet it.  The other person was irate.  She had walked the 500 miles and was, in her words, entitled to the Compostela.  She wanted to define the rules by which the issuing authority had to live.

    How do we respond to the authorities in our lives?  How should we respond?  How is Church authority similar or different to other authorities?  And, when we feel that an authority, especially the Church authority, is abusing its power, how should we respond?  Like Martin Luther or Matthew Fox?  Or, like Dorothy Day, Francis of Asissi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila?


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    Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink

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