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With Respect: Authority in the Catholic Church

Author(s): Tony Hanna

ISBN13: 9781856076098

ISBN10: 1856076091

Publisher: CMD BOOK SOURCE

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  • This is a book about authority, especially authority as exercised in the Roman Catholic Church. I write today because I struggle with authority as I believe many fellow church members, both cleric and lay do. What I have learned from my own life experience is that authority comes not from titles or books or positions but from the quality of relationship. Authority spawns a number of associated terms or ideas and they are all part of the cultural mix which impacts on the discussions within this book. Some words that might spring readily to mind would be obedience, hierarchy, leadership, governance, dissent and conscience. Others that might be not so explicit could include words such as subsidiarity, charism, local and universal. I see the church today, with all its difficulties, still throbbing with life. She is alive because God s Spirit continues to breathe life into her. Jesus promised the gift of the Spirit who would not leave us orphaned and the life force that beats gently or pulsates widely in so many facets of this wonderful mystery proclaims this vibrant presence. The book is offered to all men and women who exercise, endure, rail against, submit to or grapple with authority. It is offered humbly and with respect.
  • Tony Hanna


    Tony Hanna, a former teacher, is the co-founder of the ecclesial movement, Family of God, and current Director of the Pastoral Plan in the Archdiocese of Armagh.


    He is married and has four children and three grandchildren.


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  • CHAPTER ONE

    A PERSONAL SHAPING

    Authority is a term I have been pondering for some time. For me it is a difficult word because I know instinctively my own hackles are aroused. I sense in it not something benign or helpful or pastoral but something of the tyrant, of the boss, of the know your place kind of put down. I know intellectually that there is another reality where authority is life-enhancing and freeing and this core dimension will be given due attention as this book unfolds. However, I must acknowledge from the outset a certain prickly irritation that surfaces in my gut as I begin this work.

    Perhaps that unease has something to do with my Catholic upbringing in Northern Ireland where evidence of bigotry and sectarianism was a constant backdrop. My childhood was experienced and lived in a society where civic and political authority was seen as abusive and persistent. I had a nagging sense throughout those years that I didnt really belong within this part of the United Kingdom, that I was tolerated but not fully welcomed, that I lived here under sufferance, that the authority which watched over me and, more accurately, watched me, did not really trust me. I had the gnawing sense that I was under suspicion, that I was somehow beyond the pale, outside the inner circle, always on the edge, not really belonging. I sought another kind of authority, freer and more benign, idealistically conferred to the land across the border known as the Free State.

    Later, the formative years of my adolesence in the late 1960s were shaped in the context of a civil rights movement that was railing against injustice, gerrymandering and the abuse of authority by those who clung to political power to protect the unequal status quo. This experience of an abusive authority which hovered insistently over the political and civic expressions of life in Northern Ireland undoubtedly coloured my take on authority.

    My irritation has also has something to do with the church of the 1960s which was attempting to escape from the ecclesiastical prison that had been created over the previous centuries. The church that existed pre-Vatican II was governed in a rigidly authoritarian manner where there was a definitive pecking order and the laity knew their place, which was effectively at the bottom of the heap, best captured by Pope Leo who spoke for a dominant clerical mindset when he unashamedly declared that the role of the laity was to pay, pray and obey. The assumed authoritative position of the clerical caste in all matters of religious life and in many aspects of civic life created a claustrophobic environment which choked freedom of enquiry and freedom to imagine. One incident in my final year of secondary school brought this reality home to me forcibly.

    I was studying A level English and had the joy to have a wonderful gem of an English teacher, a layman who was passionate, imaginative and absolutley inspiring. Under his tutelage, I began to devour books and, with his permission, I was allowed to choose a book to study by myself (on the syllabus but not being taught formally in class by him).

    One day in the senior study hall in 1969 I was immersed in the book, reading and making notes when the priest monitor hovered over me, lifted the book, read the title, looked at me with undisguised contempt and promptly confiscated the novel. It was Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, then a formal part of the Northern Ireland English Literature A Level syllabus. Despite my vehement protestations and the full vent of my teenage ire, it was arbitrarily deemed unsuitable by this self appointed moral guardian. I was seventeen and I was raging. I fumed for weeks. I suppose I still do, some forty years later.

    Notwithstanding his disapproval and the non return of the book to me, I managed to circumvent his authority, bought another copy, studied it clandestinely and duly wrote on the book in my A level exam with some degree of success. That experience of a priest censoring my legitimate study reinforced for me a negative approach to such invasive and ill informed authority. In the overall scheme of things it was a small incident, but it undoubtedly left its mark on my thinking.

    Authority at home was more nuanced. At times it demanded an unquestioning obedience to my father and mother. Attendance at Mass, for example, was a non negotiable. Dissent here was not allowed. Minor acts of disobedience were dealt with by a clip around the ears, a slap, or a verbal warning. More serious misdemeanours received a more sustained physical punishment or longer spells of incarceration. However, my mother and father were sparing in their meting out of such punishment and there was always the opportunity to speak your mind, always the right to be heard, always the opportunity for atonement and ready forgiveness. Underpinning everything, there was a deep and genuine love which enabled an enduring of the corrective times and sweetened the moments of guidance when their surefooted wisdom nurtured life choices.

    My recollection of this is that your own authority was allowed to grow within you and rights and responsibilities pertaining to such growth was gradually afforded to you. As you grew older more weight was given to your opinion and you were encouraged to think for yourself about most things. Authority was firm, clear and yet in some way open to other possibilities. There were times of definitive Nos, times of Maybes and lots of Yess. In retrospect, it was an enviroment that gave life, that allowed you to breathe, to challenge, to become yourself, to find your way.

    In more global terms, the child of the 60s was characterised as being more rebellious because of the historical milieu that then prevailed. Post World War II there had been a palpable sense of relief from the survivors and, in the aftermath, there was much more freedom given to the offspring of the survivor generation. Freedom was a buzz word. Breaking out of sterotypes and staitjackets of all kinds became the norm. It found expression in love-ins and drop-outs, and it spawned a hippy generation that thumbed its nose at authority and went in search of its own meaning and its own misguided Holy Grail, seeking enlightenment in drugs and esoteric eastern religions. Hairstyles, colourful clothes, unconventional lifestyles and rock music became emblematic symbols of rebellion against a perception of authority that was restrictive, inflexible, irrelevant and staid.

    All of that and so much more helped to shape the me who approaches the question of authority with more than a degree of scepticism and suspicion. My own subsequent life experiences as a father, teacher and at times leader of others in a host of situations has caused me to look critically at how my own authority was exercised. In my reflections I have precious moments of gladness and significant moments of regret. I believe my understanding and exercise of authority grew and changed as I myself developed and matured. Authority, both in administering it and receiving it, changed me, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.

    Authority has often been understood as a possession but in a sense it cannot be owned. Authority in a real sense can only be given by others. It comes out of relationship. The misguided priest who confiscated my book did not persuade me that he was right. In fact it strengthened my resentment of his authority and it irrevocably damaged our relationship. It made me ever more likely to rebel and challenge him when the opportunity presented itself. I also found a way to avoid his imposition of authority.

    My gem of an English teacher who so inspired me to read had a real authority, the kind that called me to respond with the best that I could offer. It was an authority which emanated from himself, an authority that gave him a kind of calling power. His was a light but infectious touch which made me glad to respond and my yes to him was unqualified and total.

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With Respect: Authority in the Catholic Church