The Eclipse of Authority

Editorial FAITH Magazine November – December 2011

"These debates are now over." That was the response of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to recent arguments over how to tackle the disorder in our schools and on our streets. The words, echoing the former US Vice President Al Gore's somewhat optimistic pronouncement on the global warming discussion, are from a speech Cameron made on 9 September on the role of schools in "mending our broken society". "Because it's clear what works," he explained. "Discipline works, rigour works. Freedom for schools works. Having high expectations works. Now we've got to get on with it - and we don't have any time to lose." What he did not say, crucially, was that marriage and family work. That omission, we think, was in tension with his strongly felt need for parents to control "children [who] constantlyplay truant", and for those who fail in this duty to have their benefits cut. As with global warming, so too with the lawlessness in our society: the debates over its causes are far from finished. Blaming parents, for one thing, is a little too easy.

The context of the speech was the previous month's riots across England, largely perpetrated by groups and gangs of apparently nihilistic youth, who seemed on the whole to be enjoying themselves rather than protesting about anything -except perhaps the meaningless of the world-view bequeathed to them.

Cameron was really just riding the resultant wave in favour of a renewal of authority in our culture. For, against the fashion, the role of the police has been reinvigorated and the role of parents reaffirmed. The justice system is being praised for having gone into overdrive and new legislation and stricter sanctions are being proposed.

The heart of this discernment concerning the need for a greater command, control and direction in our society is surely good. Yet if we are to turn around the decline in the authority of police, teachers and parents it is crucial we understand how it happened. In fact the proper exercise of authority, which would seem to have been a dwindling skill for a long time, must be founded upon not mere expediency, but a belief in the good and the true concerning the heart and soul of man. From the Christian perspective it needs to be rooted in the authority of God the Father, who made the human person in His image.

On the very same day as the Prime Minister's speech his new Ambassador to the Holy See was being welcomed by the Pope with words which, "in the light of events in England this summer", similarly confirmed that this debate is not quite over:

"When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism ... tends ... to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others ... The active fostering of the essential values of a healthy society, through the defence of life and of the family, the sound moral education of the young, and a fraternal regard for the poor and the weak, will surely help to rebuild a positive sense of one's duty, in charity, towards friends and strangers alike in the local community."

The collapse of authority, parental or otherwise, is both a cause and an effect of this relativism. Yet, as we would want to draw out below, this dynamic in English secular and ecclesial culture is itself rooted in the Reformation's individualistic rejection of ecclesial magisterium.

The Absence of Moral Authority

For leaders of our society to focus upon, even to blame, parents, whilst missing the undermining of their role by relativism involves a tragic hypocrisy. In our last issue William Oddie produced convincing examples of such active undermining, from the "disastrous" affirmation of the primacy of "children's rights" by the Children Act in 1989 to the "analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (which) found that, among other factors linking the 18 areas worst hit by public disorder, is a high rate of single-parent families and broken homes."

His quote from Fr Tim Finigan's blog bears repeating in full:

"Few people have noted the irony of the appeals by the police to parents to 'contact their children'. For several decades our country has undermined marriage, the family, and the rights of parents. Agents of the state can teach your children how to have sex, give them condoms, put them on the pill, give them the morning-after pill if it doesn't work, and take them off for an abortion if that fails - and all without you having any say in the matter or necessarily even knowing about it. Now all of a sudden, we want parents to step in and tell their teenage children how to behave."

A conspiracy of silence has smothered the public teaching of any specific moral meaning concerning sex. And the range of authority figures involved in it, whatever their private beliefs, will surely amaze future generations.

It is no wonder most of us have stood back as advertisers have tried to get parents to spend money through targeting children, and as a culture has developed whereby, as a recent independent Home Office report put it, it is now not a case of if a teenager will view pornography, but of when. The fashionable sportswear company Nike, whose trainers many a child will have begged parents to buy, captures the dynamic quite well. Its slogan is "Just Do It" - and one can now see this appeal on many a youthful T-Shirt on our high streets.

It is hardly surprising that teachers are unsure of how to deal with miscreant pupils claiming their "rights" to receive warnings before punishments, and that head teachers who dare to try are largely unable to force boys to do their ties up and girls to refrain from wearing mini-skirts. It really is no surprise at all that most 3:30 pm bus passengers do nothing in the face of the unruly school pupils, even when they are in small groups, who pile into the buses that dare to stop for them at the end of the school day. Peter Whittle pointed out in the September Standpoint magazine that "If faced with a group of gang members playing music unbearably loud in the car next to them at traffic lights I personally know of nobody - nobody, from Daily Telegraph reader toGuardian reader - who would risk asking them to turn it down ... but it's not just the gang culture."

There are of course many encouraging examples of young people prepared generously to put themselves out in service of the needy, and of parents and other adult role models who foster such behaviour. It would still seem that young people who are, against their nature, dominated by vice are in the minority. Furthermore the recent World Youth Day provided a great example of many young people well formed in their faith, especially by new communities and movements. But the fact remains that the older generation has largely failed to pass on to the younger generation a clear sense of purpose beyond possessions and pleasures, let alone a vision of why duty to others comes before the rights of self, let alone a "reason for the hope within" (1 Peter 3:15). And it would certainly seem to be a smallminority of young people who are explicitly trying to swim upstream and to grow in virtue and the life of the Spirit.

The rioting was just the extreme result of the institutional and inexorable undermining of youthful respect for the authority of elders and objective values. Its reach and thoroughness might well have had the organisers of China's millions of Red Guards in Mao's Cultural Revolution looking on in envy.

Current Ecclesial Compromise

In our January 2006 editorial, "Truth, Compassion and the Secularisation of the People of God", we argued that in the Church "we have adopted a fashionable but false dichotomy between truth and compassion. A wholly legitimate concern to show gentleness in our pastoral approach has become confused with compromising the content of the faith itself." The effect upon Catholic families which we charted there is even more marked now. Today even some very strong and well formed parents are tempted to throw in the towel concerning trying to protect their children from aberrant sex education in Catholic schools. In this issue we present a piece overviewing aspects of an RE text book widely used in Catholic schools which lean towards relativism in this area. But, more fundamentally, Christianleaders have, in recent decades, failed to preach Christian morality with clarity, conviction and, crucially, authority.

A couple of recent Episcopal pronouncements serve to make the point. Paradoxically they are both basically positive developments.
First, at the time of writing, Bishop Philip Tartaglia of Paisley diocese has mounted a strident and courageous defence of the traditional family against the Scottish executive's movement toward recognising homosexual "marriage". The fact that this is such an exception "proves the rule" that there has been a long-term policy of silence concerning the redefinition of the family and sex since the 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae (see our July 2007 editorial). We would emphasise here that Humane Vitae clearly claimed the authority of Christ, obliged us to comply. As Fr Dylan James brought out for us in our last issue, the failure to resist the separation of sex from procreation has been a key moment in the modern collapse of Christian behaviour and convictionconcerning sex and the family. In this context Bishop Tartaglia's intervention seems little more than a straw in the wind.

Secondly, the Bishops of England and Wales, hot on the heels of an admirably thorough implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal, have restored the universal norm concerning not eating meat on Fridays. Yet there has been a certain semi-official reticence concerning clearly explaining the "sinful" implications of such a canonical restoration. Perhaps in the current culture it might have been better just to "recommend strongly" a return to the abstinence tradition. Yet in the light of the general drop in seriousness concerning the Sunday Mass obligation, and that for Holy Days of Obligation, there seems to be a pattern here concerning attitudes to Our Lord's words "what you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven".

The effect of failing to teach the serious obligation of obedience to ecclesial authority, and to challenge prominent dissent and disobedience, clearly has a direct effect upon Catholic families. But it has a more subtle, yet for all that more harmful, social effect.

Magisterium and the Social Fabric

Our Lord Jesus claimed to mediate the ultimate authority of His Father, that authority which is the source of all other. And the Catholic Church claims to continue this Incarnational "But I say to you," in a manner that is true to human communication - namely socially and with clarity. St. Paul said "In Him we live and move and have our being." And as the plant needs sunshine and the fish water, so the human personality needs an ultimate truth and love to complete and give meaning to his spiritual intellect and will. God in Christ is our Environer, in a personal, private and public manner. The Church is his means for clearly passing on his teaching and the powerful grace which we need. It is the ecosystem in which we can find peace and sustenance for the journey.

When its magisterial power to teach is undermined, especially by those to whom its exercise has been committed, this will seriously undermine wider society. If it is removed from the social fabric the coming of God is likely to be interpreted in a purely historical rather than sacramental manner, frustrating the reach of God into our human, social world, undermining the human hope that God can answer our deepest yearning.

Once Church teaching becomes just one opinion among many in the public square, as well as becoming an embarrassment to prominent Christian leaders, then God is being gagged. He came to bear witness to the truth and to give us life in abundance, so he must use decisive words which are relevant to each age.

Man is a being that yearns for a convincing truth upon which to base his life; our very nature is radically incomplete and incompletable without a credible claim to ultimate authority amidst the body politic. Without the ability of the fallen creature to receive infallibly the truth concerning his meaning and design, the fact that there may be objective truth at all becomes increasingly irrelevant. The history of the growth of the modern world shows an interplay between the rejection of the authoritative impact of Incarnation, traceable at least as far as the 16th century Reformation, and the post-Enlightenment development of the philosophy of relativism, which the Pope highlighted to the British ambassador on 9 September last.

Deeper Roots of Modern Breakdown

So just as we want to look for a clear-cut, specific cause for the riots beyond the easy targets of contemporary parents, so also do we need to look beyond the easy target of contemporary Bishops. And if we see the roots of the riots in the effect upon parents of the 1989 Children Act, and the roots of such legislation in the western episcopal response to the 1968 Humanae Vitae, so we would place the roots of that neo-protestant silence in the success of the Reformation. For the roots of individualistic rejection of the source of all authority go back at least as far as the removal of the role of the Petrine office from the European mindset.

In 1978 Edward Holloway wrote in this space:

"The Roman Catholic Church... is at the end of an era, that is why she finds herself in crisis. This era is the end of the Counter Reformation and the Counter Reformation is only the final development of the old philosophical and theological synthesis of Scholasticism. Scholasticism is not a dirty word in the Church. It spans the magnificent and comprehensive achievement in the Christian West, which extends from St. Augustine to St. Thomas, and continues through to the great saints, mystics, and teachers of the post Reformation period.

"This synthesis of Christian thought is not the Faith: it is the frame through which the Faith has been presented and focused in the Western Catholic Church. The last time it was an adequate frame through which to focus definitions of faith and morals was the First Vatican Council of 1870. From that Council developed the period of 'Fortress Vatican' which lasted until 1960. From that fateful date the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Pope and the Fathers of the Council (not the periti) told the Church that a new frame was needed, both to safeguard the ancient treasury of the Faith, and to draw forth from that treasury 'new' things for this age, as well as the old things.

"It has been the tragedy of the Church that men blew up the portcullis of the fortress and filled in the moat with a happy zest, before they had any new strategy or new formulation of thought through which to focus anew and to develop anew the riches of the Faith. So many of the bishops did not know that the old mould of Scholasticism would not do as the means to recast the ideas and the ideals of the Aggiornamento. Besides, any new mould had to be adequate to safeguard the old, and still objective and utterly divine, teaching of the Church.

"A large number of the theologians, and some very influential European prelates did know that the old mould would not do, but they had no alternative mould to offer, except what is technically called 'Modernism' or rationalism in theology. That is why the theology and cult of the Subjective is sweeping the Church: there have been no fruits, only increasing divisions and disintegration. Obviously the will and leading of the Holy Spirit is to be looked for elsewhere..."


Perhaps a more potent sign of the drawing towards the end point of Reformation influence might be the development of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham for Anglican converts. To date about fifty groups of Anglicans in England have joined it with their ministers, and many more across the English speaking world have made similar moves. The purpose of Ordinariate is

"to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared" (Anglicanorum Coetibus)

Up to the Reformation there had been one major breaking-off from the Church of Christ, by the Orthodox tradition. Since the Reformation the Protestant tradition has split into thousands of "denominations". Now, as authoritative teaching within the Anglican tradition gradually dissipates, significant numbers have discerned the need to return, yet hoping to bring with them traditions of prayer and practice which have some unique claim to go back even to English Catholicism as it was before the Reformation. For we do not and should not deny the ability of the Catholic tradition to gain from the ecumenical movement. Yet it has become increasingly obvious that, in the Reformed traditions, God the Father cannot and does not unequivocally utter, through his Son, his "I tell you solemnly".

Such absence of the definitive and divine authority is now manifest and manifold in the wider culture. And it is our culture's affirmation of an absentee God the Father which is a key cause of the absentee fathers which the Institute for Public Policy Research's riot report recently highlighted. A new era beckons. It will need our obedience and our humility and our openness to new works and new words from God the Father, as the Spirit gradually "leads us into all truth". Let us keep looking and listening. We owe it to future generations.

Faith Magazine