Misusing Authority Appeals

December 05, 2014

As the parent of the a two-year-old, I understand the desire for authority-based appeals. We do not enter a discussion on equal footing. We do not have equal votes on what time bedtime should be, if he needs to ride in the carseat, or if he needs pants on before leaving the house. As he runs away or throws a temper tantrum, I mention (or shout) the importance of obeying. Appeals to authority have their place, but also their limits. Someday I will teach him to not just blindly obey what people tell him to do (except what I say, of course).

Appeals to authority can be important, but can also be misused - especially as we move beyond interactions between parents and minor children. In religious settings, authority appeals can squash healthy dialogue and drive away people. Too often religious leaders appeal to their authority rather than engaging their brothers and sisters in a manner that demonstrates we are all equal in the eyes of God. 

Several years ago, the case of Raymond Burke, then-Archbishop of St. Louis, captured my attention. In two separate disputes, he threatened those in the Catholic archdiocese he served with excommunication. I examined his rhetoric in these two cases in an academic study published in the Atlantic Journal of Communication that was titled "Sheep Without a Shepherd (But With an Archbishop): Foucault's Pastoral Power and the Denying of Communion."

In both cases, Burke insisted that to not submit to his authority was a sin worthy of excommunication (and he actually excommunicated leaders of a Polish congregation). He masked his rhetoric against one group (pro-choice Catholic politicians) in theological language but ultimately focused on his authority as their archbishop. The other case (a somewhat autonomous Polish congregation) emerged solely as a struggle for control over a local congregation as he particularly emphasized his authority as their archbishop. I criticized his rhetoric as he twisted the shepherd metaphor of leadership to justify an non-shepherd-like acts.


After Burke's actions in St. Louis, Pope Benedict XVI promoted Burke, naming the controversial leader the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. This placed Burke in an important judicial Vatican position and made him the first non-European to hold the post. Benedict also appointed Burke to the Congregation of the Bishops (the body that helps selects new bishops) and elevated him to Cardinal.

Then Benedict abdicated, setting the stage for the election of Pope Francis and the fall of Burke. Despite all his rhetoric in St. Louis about the importance of submitting to authority, Burke repeatedly challenged and criticized Francis. Offering a new tone and style to Vatican leadership, Francis last year removed Burke from the Congregations of the Bishops. Since then, Burke's public criticism of Francis increased. Disliking some of the reforms initiated by Francis, the hardliner Burke claimed that "the church is like a ship without a rudder" and "the church’s ship has lost its way." Last month, Francis demoted Burke again by removing Burke from the influential Vatican court position and instead putting him in a mostly ceremonial post of leading a charity. Francis has not, however, used authority appeals to demand Burke follow him or be excommunicated.

Burke's previous usage of authority appeals makes his criticism of Francis more significant. Either Burke's position evolved or he merely used the authority appeals in St. Louis to sidestep actually engaging in the issues. When speaking of subordinates, Burke used his metaphorical shepherd staff to beat others into submission. He focused on authority rather than open discussion of the issues. When speaking of those above him, his philosophy of submission suddenly disappeared. Apparently, he thinks the gander deserves different treatment than the goose. While that philosophy might be okay for fathering a two-year-old, it should not be employed by religious leaders.

0 comments