COMMENTARY: What is moral authority, anyway?

Print More

c. 1998 Religion News Service

(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of”My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin Press.)

UNDATED _ Americans _ especially those in the influence business _ talk a great deal about moral authority. How many of them, however, could really define it for us?

Of course, people in the influence business are less interested in definitions than the sound of words. Masters of low cunning, these are the same people who invent exotic but often meaningless names for automobiles to seduce us into buying them. To them, moral authority could just as well be the title for a hulking SUV that claims priority on the interstates.

Politicians also prefer to use these words without defining them, as in their invocation of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, the generic phrases that have been laid like an oratorical curse on so many a Fourth of July crowd. Some politicians believe this notion is magic, and they internalize it by merely reciting it aloud.

The phrase moral authority is therefore left as bland as the side of a blimp above a ballpark by aspirants to public office and their legions of spinners.

Such diluted moral authority is sewn like winter wheat into the various pronouncements, pro and con, about the crisis of behavior and intention, of deliberation and choice, moving now from simmer to boil over in our national consciousness.

Moral authority does have genuine meaning, however, and the real thing is as easy to distinguish from the false as hard truth is from easy lies.

Moral authority is never an abstraction. It inheres in and is a function of human personality. It is transmitted not through press releases or slogans but through human relationships. Moral authority cannot be generated by a hypocrite because it is ever and always linked to the integrity of the person professing to have it.

In short, character not only counts but it is absolutely and unequivocally essential to the existence and influence of moral authority.

The word authority comes from the Latin augere. That means”to increase,”or”to create.”It has nothing to do with”control,”which is the work of authoritarianism and with which it is often, unfortunately, confused.

Authority is to authoritarianism as”freeing”is to”constricting”or”love”is to”lust.”They are just not the same thing.

Moral authority is further specified by the object of its exercise. That, too, is a person, or group of persons, distinct from the one who expresses moral authority. Moral authority flows out of one person _ a parent, a teacher, a pastor _ to another person in order to help that latter person achieve a goal that is separate from both of them.

This is a natural rather than a forced response. Coercion destroys both the morality and the authority in those who set out to manipulate or force others to accept certain viewpoints or to pursue certain objectives.

Human beings cannot be forced to do even good things. Have you ever had someone try to manipulate you into being their friend, or loving them? That is what authoritarian cult leaders do as they bind followers in psychological chains to themselves. They are fascists at heart and their”authority”savagely mocks the real thing.

Genuine moral authority may touch one’s conscience but it never shames or demeans the people to whose growth it is committed and its energy directed. Authoritarians do that all the time, using every manipulative tactic to leach away the inner freedom of those against whom they use it.

True moral authority helps others grow and become themselves; false moral authority retards growth in others, freezing them in a dependent state.

The test of moral authority is found in our own reactions to it and in the healthy direction it moves us to take in life. It is not really difficult to identify a person of true moral authority _ a Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, or perhaps some teacher or coach you happily recall _ for they all urge you to find more of your real self. They don’t take anything away from you.

If there is more of you after an experience with a moral authority, there is considerably less of you after an experience with amoral authoritarians.

Now which of these, to paraphrase the scriptures, do you think have moral authority: the many operatives incessantly interpreting the current national nightmare for us, or the few who help us to achieve moral maturity and to see men and events as they truly are?


Comments are closed.