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Questioning the Questioning of Authority

Carl Olson

Having now lived in Eugene, Oregon, for over twenty years, I’ve long dreamed of parking next to a car with a “Question Authority” bumper sticker and asking the driver: “By what authority do you tell others to question authority?” The resulting conversation would, without doubt, be interesting; with any luck, it might also be civil.

The slogan, quite popular in university cities such as Eugene, was apparently made popular by the notorious psychologist and LSD proponent Timothy Leary, and it certainly reflects the mentality of the Sixties, which sought to question, reject, or even attack any and all authority: political, social, academic, and religious. But it wasn’t opposed to all authority because, of course, it assumes some sort of authority on the part of the person proclaiming the slogan.

The key word here is assumes, for when it comes to personal autonomy and authority, most people make significant assumptions. The recent conflicts between racist groups and Antifa (or “anti-fascist”) groups is a good, if depressing, example. The rhetoric of both is filled with strong assumptions about authority.

For example, one Antifa website states, “We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us. This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists.”

This, without doubt, is all about authority: who has it, whose authority is legitimate, how authority should be handled. The site further outlines the Antifa desire to “to build a broad, strong movement of oppressed people centered on the working class against racism, sexism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people.” This includes supporting “abortion rights and reproductive freedom.” And what is the ultimate goal? “A classless, free society.”

Never mind that such a stance never could actually result in a “classless, free society” for the simple reason that the claim to authority immediately and logically creates a class—that is, those with supposed moral and political authority—and also raises the question of what “freedom” is like in such a society. (I think Islam is a serious concern and I believe homosexual acts are immoral; would I be free to say so? It doesn’t sound like it.)

Who decides what “freedom” involves? And, to go even deeper, how does the Antifa movement decide what is oppression and discrimination? Is not the killing of unborn babies a form of oppression? As is almost always the case, such idealistic movements are heavy on passion and light on philosophical substance.

Every philosophy, institution, movement, and belief system relies upon some sort of authority. The Catholic apologist, in considering the claims of, say, an atheist or the Watch Tower Society or a Protestant, should always examine the assumptions made about authority. This is one reason I left Evangelicalism and became Catholic: I realized that the claims to authority made by the Catholic Church had a logic and substance not found in the Protestant tradition, whose claims to authority had serious defects.

A wonderful guide in this regard was Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957). The son of the Anglican bishop of Manchester, Knox became Catholic as a young man and went on to write a wide range of books and even translated the entire Bible. In his classic 1927 apologetic work, The Belief of Catholics, he addressed the growing skepticism in England about the claims of Christianity and certain arguments made against the Catholic Church by various Protestants. One of the latter is the faulty claim that a Christian is not dependent, historically or practically, upon the Catholic Church for correct doctrine—all a believer needs is the Bible.

In the chapter “Where Protestantism Goes Wrong,” Knox demonstrated that how one views the Church will either make or break the basis of one’s view of Christ, the Bible, and, yes, authority:

[A] proper notion of the Church is a necessary stage before we argue from the authority of Christ to any other theological doctrine whatever. The infallibility of the Church is, for us, the true induction from which all our theological conclusions are derived. The Protestant, stopping short of it, has to rest content with an induction of the false kind; and the vice of that false kind of induction is that all its conclusions are already contained in its premises. Perhaps formal logic is out of date; let me restate the point otherwise. We derive from our apprehension of the living Christ the apprehension of a living Church; it is from that living Church that we take our guidance. Protestantism claims to take its guidance immediately from the living Christ. But what is the guidance he gives us, and where are we to find it?

The claim of many Christians that it is the Bible that fully guides them and provides authority in matters of their faith is inconsistent; it cannot stand in the face of reason, as Knox explained with brilliant lucidity:

In fact . . . the Protestant had no conceivable right to base any arguments on the inspiration of the Bible, for the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine which had been believed, before the Reformation, on the mere authority of the Church; it rested on exactly the same basis as the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Protestantism repudiated Transubstantiation, and in doing so repudiated the authority of the Church; and then, without a shred of logic, calmly went on believing in the inspiration of the Bible, as if nothing had happened! Did they suppose that biblical inspiration was a self-evident fact, like the axioms of Euclid?

Not only does the Bible itself not teach that it is the final and sole authority in the Christian life, such a belief ignores the historical facts about how we received the Bible and by whose authority the canon of Scripture has been set. The Catholic Faith, in sum, is a seamless garment demanding “all or nothing”; if someone accepts the authority of Scripture, it is logical that he, like Ronald Knox, must also accept the authority of the Catholic Church—it is both necessary and consistent.

So, yes, feel free to question authority—but be sure to tease out the logic of your questions to their very end.

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