Authenticity, Authority, and Obedience, Part I

The espousal of authenticity as a moral ideal is a very modern phenomenon. Charles Taylor has identified its origin in the Romantic period (beginning in the late 18th century), but notes that “it has utterly penetrated popular culture only in recent decades, in the time since the Second World War, if not even closer to the present.”1

At present it competes with not only other modern ideals, but with premodern ones as well. Generally speaking, the dominant premodern ideal, particularly in the Christian West, was obedience to one or another external authority. In religious matters these external authorities would be things like the magisterium of the Church, scripture, etc.

Much of the present division in the Church results from the conflict between those who hold to the older ideal of obedience to external authority and those, who hold to various other ideals, such as the ideal of authenticity. For convenience I’ll sometimes use the term “conventional” to describe the ideal of obedience to an external authority and “post-conventional” to describe the ideal of authenticity. (I recognise, of course, that there are other ideals that might deserve the label “conventional” or “post-conventional,” but I’m not discussing those at present.)

The use of the terms “conventional” and “post-conventional” perhaps needs to be justified. It would seem to suggest that one can hold to the ideal of obedience to external authority before adopting the ideal of authenticity, but not the other way around. I imagine there could be exceptions, but generally this is the way it happens. Generally the ideal of authenticity can only be accepted when one has grasped the fallibility of authority. One can believe in the infallibility of authority and then discover that one was wrong. But one cannot very easily know the fallibility of authority and then forget what one knows. The movement from conventional to post-conventional is properly one of development. Movement in the other direction would be a regression.

It seems to me, then, that the conflict over these two ideals will not be overcome until a lot of people make the transition from conventional to post-conventional. There are powerful forces that make this exceedingly difficult, some within individuals, others that come from without. But part of this, I’m convinced, is that post-conventional approaches have not been articulated and made visible enough to have the kind of effect they ought to have. This is a pressing issue, because disillusionment with authority in the Church has never been higher.

One approach to authority that I think is quite straightforward and compelling is that articulated by Bernard Lonergan, which will be the subject of my next post.


[1] A Secular Age, 299.

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