Authority: The Most Misunderstood Idea in America

by Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles

(The Free Press, 1997, 244 pp., $24.50)

ISSUES SURROUNDING authority are not new—either to the governance of nations or to the management of households and the rearing of children. The classical questions, however, concern not so much the definition of authority as the source of its legitimacy and the requirements of exercising it well. Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles approach the classic questions by redefining the nature of authority, and from there they go on to consider more carefully when it may be legitimate, and how it ought best to be exercised.

The authors advance the thesis, partly based on the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, that society is presently undergoing a dramatic change. The advent of the “Space-Information Age” has made the hierarchical, authoritarian structures that have previously dominated society unworkable. They believe that such structures will eventually be replaced by genuine authority, but that we are now living in an interim period characterized both by the disintegration of the old ways and by the absence of healthy authority. This volume is an attempt to describe what that healthy authority should be in such areas of life as marriage, the family, education, work, government and religion.

Kennedy and Charles never clearly define what they understand authority to be, but they do describe it in various ways. It is “a positive dynamic force ordered to growth,” “leadership,” “a living quality that helps people to become themselves,” “a moral human energy,” and “a function of personality.” They also frequently say that some persons possess a natural authority.

From all of their references, we might be able to infer that they understand authority to be an ability to stimulate human growth and development, in oneself or in another. It is opposed to authoritarianism, commonly manifested through hierarchy, which is merely self-serving power that seeks control and domination.

From this foundation, they proceed to examine the ills to which society has fallen prey, many of which are attributed to authoritarianism and hierarchy.

Two things deserve to be noted here. The first is that Kennedy, a psychologist, and Charles, a psychiatrist, are both trained in fields whose focus is therapy. They are not political scientists or philosophers. The second point is that, perhaps because of their professional training, they seem unaware of the larger context of questions of authority.

Curiously, while maintaining that the modern world, and Americans in particular, have lost sight of the proper meaning of authority, they themselves give little evidence that they are aware of the millennium-old discussion of the topic in philosophy. Instead, they reinvent a wheel—and a wobbly one at that.

Kennedy and Charles make two major mistakes. The first is their failure to recognize adequately that human persons are both individuals and integral members of communities. The second mistake is their failure to differentiate between a nurturing, or parental, authority and a common-good, or political, authority.

A nurturing authority makes choices on behalf of those who are unable to make them well on their own. All of us, at one time or another, benefit from the care of parents, teachers, physicians, and others. They help us to grow, and when we have grown sufficiently, we no longer have need of them to perform that role. On the other hand, a common-good authority resolves disagreements about practical matters in a community, whether it as small as a family or as large as a nation.

The consequence of this is a sort of one-size-fits-all discussion of authority, where the person is almost always considered in her individuality, and properly exercised authority is always nurturing. Not surprisingly, in those contexts in which the proper authority is usually a nurturing sort—marriage, family, education, health care—their remarks can be quite sensible. However, when they turn to other contexts, ones that frequently demand common-good authority—government, law, religion, the workplace—their comments are much less insightful, and can even be quite dreadful.

In their chapters on child rearing and on education, for example, they skewer the common notions that children are “little grown-ups” and that students and teachers are both co-learners in the classroom as failures of authority. Parents cannot nurture their children and assist them to become competent adults unless the parents themselves are willing and able to accept their own adult responsibilities.

They rightly observe that parents and immature children are “never realistically equal,” and that well-exercised, nurturing authority is essential for development. This is obvious enough, but Kennedy and Charles must be commended for saying it forcefully in a society that too often undermines parental authority in favor of adolescent autonomy.

Similarly, they find that healthy authority is frequently absent in educational institutions, from elementary grades through college. Teachers focus on therapeutic goals, such as self-esteem, rather than upon properly educational goals. As a result, instead of drawing the best out of students, which would be the proper ambition of nurturing authority, schools aim at producing a kind of contented mediocrity. They rightly conclude that this is not so much a misuse of authority as an abandonment of it.

By contrast, their treatment of authority in religion is very weak. The Catholic Church is selected for special criticism, but unfairly so. Throughout the book, they insist uncritically and without argument that hierarchical structures are authoritarian and abusive. Their failure to recognize the need for, and legitimacy of, common-good authority compels them to evaluate faith communities simply in terms of nurturing authority.

Furthermore, their reluctance to acknowledge the integral social dimension of human life blinds them to the need for common-good authority in the Church and even in the moral life—where they falsely claim that the primacy of personal conscience is a “perennial Catholic teaching.” They tritely criticize Pope John Paul II as attempting to oppose the Second Vatican Council and “reestablish hierarchy” in place of the Council's preference for collegiality. And sadly, seduced by Joseph Campbell, they even dismiss the virgin birth and other dogmas as metaphors, and predict the demise of a Magisterium that can be so immune to their spiritual significance as to insist that they are realities.

Elements of this book are well done, despite a sound-bite quality to the writing. Nevertheless, its flaws are deep and it falls seriously short of its goal to correct our misunderstanding of authority.

Robert Kennedy heads the department of management at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.