Authority with Credibility

(From Human Development, vol. 12, number 4,; Winter, 1991, 38-41)

Some heavy thinkers opine that our church faces an authority crisis. You'll hear them referring to "pick-and-choose" Catholics. This put-down label is used to cast persons who are seriously searching to respond to the Lord as selfish or individualistic simply because they do not uncritically buy everything presented to them by people in positions of responsibility within the church community. We need to examine the mentality that undergirds such labels. Accepting a distorted assessment of our situation could lead us to focus our energies in the wrong places. In short, we could come up with the right answer to the wrong question.

Apparently, the first thing we need to do is to explore what people are talking about when they speak of authority. They could mean one of two quite different things. The first is a form of power residing in one person or corporate body as a result of the codified norms of a community. In this case authority is an ability to create specific consequences in the life of another. One party has the right to demand compliance from another with respect to some prescription. In the church it could be the power to restrict a person's access to the sacraments, or the power to allow one to become a registered member of a church congregation, or the power to appoint the leader of a parish or a diocese. Whether or not the other party agrees with, much less likes, the prescription of the authority figures(s) is irrelevant. The power is there and affects the public order of the church. Authority in this context is impersonal; it operates quite apart from the relationships among affected parties. The power of the subjects is restricted largely to choices to be made after the authority figure has acted.

The second version of authority is a power that one party possesses by virtue of the other party's trust. It is quite different from an impersonal power that functions regardless of the interpersonal dynamic among the parties involved. It is a power granted by one party because the behavior of the other party has earned it. As such, it is always in the process of being created and conferred. It is not a static quantity; it can be nurtured or allowed to wither. Though one might think that such an authority would be tenuous, the relationship is actually incredibly strong when it prevails, because it is always being freely offered and received. Because it is an interpersonal reality, both parties are mutually responsible for its nurturance and growth.

For the sake of simplicity, let us call the first reality normative or legal authority and the second operative or relational authority. The former is pretty cut-and-dried. It is the latter that calls for exploration.


It should be evident that once we approach authority as an operative relationship freely undertaken between persons, we enter into the realm of human trust. Consequently, we must reflect on credibility, which grounds trust. If operative authority is dependent on the performance of the two parties, we must ask ourselves: What behavior do we look for in those on whom we will confer the power to influence our personal decision making? And what behavior might they appropriately look for in us?

Perhaps the best way to uncover the criteria people use to answer the first question is to examine the language they use when they do not confer this power. People say things like: "I've given up on our director of religious education because you can't even talk with her. It's a monologue; she just doesn't listen to you." Or: "The bishops are hopelessly out of touch with the reality of married sex; I just ignore what they say on the subject." Or: "Our pastor talks a great game on things like social justice, but I'd sure like to be able to afford the kind of vacations he takes every year." Or: "I wish they'd stop worrying about altar girls and lead us in translating the gospel into reality in our lives." Each of these comments indicates that a person with some degree of normative authority proves to have little or no relational authority because she or he is not credible to the other(s) in the relationship. Of course, the establishment of credibility is a complicated matter. The comments cited suggest at least four of the many elements that affect credibility.

Genuine Listening. Perhaps the most significant is evidence that those who claim authority are genuinely listening to those they wish to lead. To sense that one is not being listened to is to feel like a non-person in the presence of the authority figure. This experience destroys any possibility of conferring power or influence. A healthy self will respond with the God-given coping mechanism that protects it from such depersonalization: withholding the empowerment being claimed. This is what happened when Jesus recognized that Pilate was not really listening; he simply fell silent and denied Pilate the satisfaction of his claim.

In considering this element that affects credibility, the reflection questions for any person in leadership are quite obvious: Do I really make an effort to hear what my people are trying to communicate to me? Do I even know how to listen? Perhaps less obvious are the questions for the person being called to confer power on the leader: What behavior will satisfy my expectation of genuinely being listened to? Is the condition only verified when the leader agrees with me? Is my response framed in an adversarial, zero-sum game (i.e., either I get my way or I withdraw from the relationship with a claim of no dialogue)? Am / listening? The questions make it clear that the healthy conferral and acceptance of personal authority require continual soul-searching and struggle for maturity and integrity in both parties. What grounds credibility is not pious exhortations by either party but evidence that the authority's listening has some effect on the way in which decisions are made, if not on the actual determination.

Contact with Reality. The second factor on which people base their assessments of an authority's credibility is contact with reality. Sincerity in one's effort to listen is not enough. Potential conferrers of authority judge the other party's realism and appreciation of what's going on. A negative assessment will provoke remarks like: "This guy's off the wall." "They're living in the sixteenth century." "His denial of reality is just monumental." In some cases the appraisal is quite general, touching on a total world view. In others it is particularized: "I wonder if he can possibly imagine what it's like to try to live on $14,000. He's so protected economically that he doesn't even know all the hidden benefits he's enjoying." Of course, similar assessments are made by the one in authority: "They haven't the foggiest idea of what it's like trying to accommodate the conflicting expectations of all the parishioners as well as my boss, the bishop." We touch here on the need for empathy, or active imagination, in the nurturing of a constructive authority relationship. The question is, Can I really say I appreciate what it's like to walk in the other person's sandals? Or is the complexity of reality so terrifying that I have to wall myself off from the perspective of the other? The parallel monologues that characterize so much of the abortion debate are prime examples of the lack of empathy. The need for empathy is evident in any genuine interpersonal relationship, and it is required in anyone who would ask another for authority.

Credibility arises from the subject's sense that the leader really understands the situation and his or her perspective on it. Thus, leaders need to ask themselves whether they know their subjects' world. Also, however, subjects must ask themselves how well they comprehend all the forces converging on their leader, who must make complex decisions for the good of the total social system.

Consonance of Word and Deed. Credibility may not be gained, even by empathetic listening, unless the subject perceives that the leader genuinely lives out the values that the subject is expected to embrace. In other words, the subject must perceive a consonance between the leader's proclamations and his or her actions. Many leaders in both civil and religious society possess no operative authority because their behavior shows that their rhetoric is mere ideological posturing.

This point is evident in many contexts. A clarion call to solidarity with the poor loses some of its clarity when the bugler is wearing French cuffs --- regardless of whether the bugler is a superior or a subject. People familiar with twelve-step spirituality alert us to those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. (Eliza Doolittle puts it directly to Professor Higgins: "Don't talk of love lasting through time; show me --- now!"). The-one who understood best what genuine authority-through-credibility is all about, Jesus of Nazareth, saved his harshest barbs for those leaders who heaped burdens on others but did not lift a finger themselves. Lest we forget, however, he was no less demanding when he held the mirror up to the passive-aggressive conduct of those never satisfied by anyone else's claim to leadership.

The subject who wants to be sure before conferring authority is confronted with the same disturbing question that is asked of the authority figure: How many of my proclaimed values are genuine, and how many are simply disguised self-interest? An inordinate focus on keeping the outside of the cup shiny seems to characterize many persons --- normative authorities as well as those called to work with them.

Focus on the Center. A fourth factor affecting the dynamics of relational authority is the question around which it is exercised. Subjects find authority figures non-credible when they lose focus on what is central to the mission of the community and instead attempt to direct energies toward what is felt to be at best peripheral and possibly not even on the gospel map. When Captain Queeg on the good ship Caine wants to know who has taken the strawberries, we may not be able to predict a mutiny, but we know that the captain is off course and that he and his crew are headed for foul weather. Closer to what some people would call real life, Jimmy Carter apparently devoted precious presidential energies to refereeing tiffs about who had access to the White House tennis courts.

The issue of focus becomes critical when those in authority not only use their valuable energies on peripheral details but also use their normative authority to dictate how others should behave with respect to central questions. When authority figures try to codify expected behaviors on matters that would more effectively be left for those involved to struggle with, they lower the probability that they will be listened to when the real wolf rounds the corner. The determination of whether or not to have altar girls at masses is symbolic of such eccentric uses of authority in matters of church life. A little regulating goes a long way. Even the old code recognized this as a foundational principle:

odiosa sunt restringenda. It is one thing for a pastor to be concerned about sexual morality, but quite another to forbid Communion to a woman wearing attire that wouldn't titillate even the most prurient adolescent. Rather than strengthen a leader's authority, such actions simply disclose his or her own hang-ups.

The questions for any authority figure who wants to be able to lead are simple: Over what issues is it worthwhile to risk the precious commodity of credibility? For what matters will I save the valuable currency of authority so that I will be genuinely heeded when I decide that those matters call for action? Which of the behaviors that raise some healthy tensions within the Lord's people are at best merely the outside of the cup? Does the bishop use leadership energies to keep tabs on the priest who wears tennis shoes at mass or to focus on the priest whose caustic high-handedness has destroyed the community life of the last three parishes he has pastored? As far as we can tell from the gospel accounts, Jesus apparently paid far less attention to sexual morality than he did to the risks attendant to worldly wealth. What's more important to the mission?

Like the other three components of credibility, focus forces a question on the subject who confers authority: When I critique authority figures' misguided sense of priorities, am I always absolutely sure that I am right about what is central and what is peripheral to the gospel and the mission of the church? Like the authority figure, the subject is faced with the same demanding task of discerning between good and evil, and apparently prone to the same distortions caused by disordered self-interest. Paradoxically, subjects are capable of laying burdens on superiors and not lifting a finger to help.


Our reflections may seem to have taken us far from our original question: Is there a crisis of authority in our church? It is time to draw some implications from these wanderings.

One conclusion might be that the crisis has been misnamed. Normative authority is still pretty well in place and not much at risk. The crisis is one of interpersonal authority, and that translates into a crisis of credibility. Many authority figures have little impact because they simply are not credible to their people.

A second conclusion might be that all of us in the church share responsibility for the situation. Authority figures are partly responsible because they have taken their authority for granted on the basis of legal title; they have not worked at earning credibility by listening and entering into the real life of their people, have not modeled continued conversion in their own lives, and have focused on nonessentials while avoiding the central demands of the gospel. The subjects who grant authority are partly responsible for most of the same reasons.

A third implication would seem to be that a focus on the rights of church subjects is not a very productive strategy for the healing and growth of our church. Concentrating on rights assumes that great abuses of normative authority are going on. It's quite possible, however, that church authorities, rather than abusing their legitimate authority, are squandering their potential for leading a community. Authority is not abused when Rome decides to readmit two married priests in Brazil to active ministry, as long as they refrain from sexual relations with their wives, yet holds the line for mandatory celibacy as a general policy; it is simply wasted on foolishness and hypocrisy. Authority is not abused but simply wasted when bishops pillory an elected public official who comes to a different prudential judgment on public policy in the area of abortion but blithely look the other way when Catholic legislators vote billions of dollars to arm the world's bullies at the expense of the poor. It is also wasted when church leaders write off protestations about women's exclusion and marginalization by the church as feminist rhetoric so they won't have to listen and perhaps be converted.

The primary issue is not rights in the church. Concentrating on rights is only buying into the ideology of those whom one has cast as adversaries. It only reinforces the notion that law is the central focus of church life and will be its salvation. We may need people to speak out about genuine abuses of authority in the church, but the real issue is deeper than that. Now, as always, it is an issue of spirituality, of painful personal and interpersonal conversion, of the uprooting of self-deceptive attitudes on the part of superiors and subjects alike.

The issue, to put it in other terms, is really the internal evangelization of all of us. Not evangelization in the sense of securing new church members; that's just churchification. Nor even evangelization in the sense of becoming a more cohesive body as church; that's meatier, but it's still ecclesialization at best. Evangelization is about something at once more rich and more penetrating. It's about being transformed by the Good News that challenges all vested self-interest and causes us to die --- and confers on us a freedom and joy that lies beyond rights because it is a supremely free gift.

Father George Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio.