A Crisis of Authority: A Q&A With Theologian Joseph Capizzi

‘Very much unlike our forebears, we’re habituated to thinking that everything is controllable.’

What do current events tell us about governance? A Catholic University of America professor weighs in.
What do current events tell us about governance? A Catholic University of America professor weighs in. (photo: Unsplash)

COVID-19 has been on the shores of the U.S. since January 2020 — and now, 20 months later, cases are peaking once more.

The pandemic itself is a crisis, but the inability of the American public to, at the very least, muster a unified response to the virus itself points to a deeper predicament: a crisis of authority. 

This crisis certainly didn’t begin with the coronavirus. Public trust in government has been historically low for more than a decade. In 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. Today, that figure hovers in the low 20s, after an all-time low of 17% in 2019. The level of trust in the government hasn’t surpassed 30% since 2007.

With the lack of trust comes a lack of respect, and therefore compliance. Calls to “resist” political authority characterized the posture of many progressives during former President Donald Trump’s time in office. Now, with Trump out and Joe Biden in, the shoe is on the other foot. Many of Trump’s backers not only oppose the policy initiatives of the current administration, but openly defy its dictates and decisions. This was on full display in the widespread Republican calls to resist President Biden’s vaccine mandate, announced this month. 

What are the reasons for this crisis of authority? And what does a proper relationship between citizens and the state look like? The Register spoke with Joseph Capizzi, a theologian at The Catholic University of America who specializes in the Church’s social and political teaching, for his perspective on these challenging issues. Capizzi also directs the Institute for Human Ecology at CUA.

Joseph Capizzi CUA
Joseph Capizzi

So many issues of the day — from resistance to COVID-related mandates to pursuing cryptocurrency as an alternative to state-regulated wealth — seem deeply intertwined with questions of public authority and the relationship between the state and its citizens. So, to start us off, where do we as Catholics look to understand how the Church thinks about these questions of civic authority and obedience? 

To be quite blunt, there’s no single place to turn to find an answer. And so this is one of the deepest challenges the Church faces: How do we help people form appropriate, obedient relationships with both political and Church authorities that are, on the one hand, critically engaged and have respect for human agency, but, on the other hand, recognize that relationships of authority in community are good for human beings?

What we find are piecemeal efforts to try to articulate this kind of harmony between persons and authority, which is something that our grandparents and previous generations were kind of naturally formed in. You can find elements of it in, for instance, a given encyclical, where the Church is speaking on a particular social issue and draws upon some description of the person’s relationship to the Church and to society. Or, when the USCCB provides guidance during election season, it will often speak about the goods of politics and how the government serves them.

In another example, Pope Leo XIII writes in one of the founding documents of The Catholic University of America that the purpose of this university is to produce the United States’ “best citizens” — which is incredible, because, as we know, even though Leo XIII was ambivalent about what he saw in the United States [and its form of government], he saw that the role of a Catholic Christian in the United States was to be the best citizen the republic could have. And that was meant sincerely, not tongue in cheek.

So this is a very old idea, and it traces all the way back to the earliest letters of the Christian community. And, of course, there’s St. Augustine’s articulation of his relationship with Rome and his relationship to friends who were Christians but who were also serving as Roman governors. He would often begin his letters to them by expressing his love for them and his love for Rome, even though it was a critical love.


You said previous generations kind of intuitively appreciated this role of authority in social life. So how exactly have we lost this? And what exactly have we lost?

At a general level, there has been a collapse of traditional sources of authority, which we’ve seen the consequences of over the past five decades. Twentieth-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote on this, but it was also anticipated by thinkers in the 1800s. Gaudium et Spes, written in 1965, speaks about how changes in attitudes towards authority lead young people to become “rebels in their distress,” and Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti [Paragraph 13] about something similar, “a kind of ‘deconstructionism’” of traditional sources of identity and authority that leaves the young “shallow, uprooted and distrustful.”

The Church, in agreement with Aristotle, argues that authority needs to be present because we’re made to live in community, and authority is a part of the structure of community. When traditional authority is supplanted, you get other forms of authority, or even the notion of authority itself gets challenged more generally.

For previous generations, authority was something that was really locatable in society. You could say, “Well, who’s authoritative?” and point to teachers, the police, the Church, the government. But now, each of us — as individuals — are the authorities. To be a mature individual is precisely to be an authority for yourself and to subject all ostensible authorities to a private critique — my critique. Why am I listening to you? Well, I’ll only listen to you if I agree to listen to you. A lot of generations before just did not share this approach to authority.

And I think we’re seeing this, for example, with COVID-19. The scientific community, because of its wild successes over the centuries, has long had a kind of authoritativeness. But right now, science itself is no longer authoritative for many people. It’s being undermined or its authority is being corroded in the same way as other sources.

So the question is why? Is it merely an Enlightenment idea playing itself out, Kant’s famous description of enlightenment as shrugging off traditional sources of authority and to be an authority for yourself? That would certainly be one way of explaining what has happened. Another explanation might be the advances of science — the idea that science has supplanted previous sources of authority, like religion. 

So there are a lot of challenges to authority. And, in a way, it’s understandable that the field is kind of narrowed — that people place less legitimacy in those sources that used to be authoritative. 


The Enlightenment also stressed that a kind of pure reason could perfect human life and institutions, like the government. Has this created false expectations about what we can and should expect from our authorities? And, if so, has this dynamic contributed to the kind of cynicism about authority that you identify?

Yes, this is a big contributor. For us, progress has come to be seen as just the expansion of knowledge, and even more crudely, the expansion of information. We have this idea that just having enough information will lead to a kind of enlightenment that can express itself in all areas of life, including politics. So we have this expectation that we’ll be able to solve political problems that people in the past had to deal with. For instance, if we have the right kind of information and expertise, we’ll never have to experience something like a financial crisis, which is a function of a certain kind of ignorance. 

But this has led to a perception of progress where we anticipate that certain organs — the state being one of them — should be able to stall and forestall any problems that might present themselves to us. So when we experience these problems, we conclude that the authorities are not doing their jobs right. There’s no space for uncertainty. There’s no space for an absence of control. 

Very much unlike our forebears, we’re habituated to thinking that everything is controllable. And if the government is not controlling some situation or some challenge, either it’s failed, or maybe we think it has hidden, secret reasons for why it isn’t controlling things, like advancing the good of some other people at our own expense. 


So there’s a connection between this Enlightenment-inspired expectation of control and then accusations of government conspiracy or nefarious motives?

That’s right. COVID is the great clarifier of these dynamics. We don’t allow for any uncertainty, right? Whereas I think it has just become clear that, to some extent, we just have no idea what we’re doing. Way before you can start pointing fingers at people, you have to realize it’s a pretty novel virus — it spread globally very quickly, and it’s mutating before our eyes. We know a lot about it, but there’s a lot of space for uncertainty here and, therefore, a lot of space for human judgment, which is always accompanied by error or the possibility of misjudgment.

Long before we get to conspiracies, we might just want see this as a good lesson in how little we know, even though we think we know everything about the transmission of illness, how to treat it, and so many other factors. But, of course, it’s easier to just assume we know everything about it and could control it if we wanted to. And since we’re not controlling it, then, therefore, somebody doesn’t want it to be controlled, and then you proliferate conspiracy theories about who that is and why they’re doing what they’re doing.


We as citizens might be habituated to think that the government should be able to control everything, but it also seems like the government also embraces this myth and portrays itself as a perfectly competent, error-free authority. But the Church has never rooted the basis for civic authority in this way. You previously wrote that “governments are at best semi-competent (partially competent, in other words) and somewhat corrupt. Christians know that. Nonetheless, governments serve and are meant to serve the common good.” That seems like a straightforward statement. But, in another sense, it seems radical: to acknowledge that the government is, at best, semi-competent, yet that it still has authority for the sake of the common good. Why does the Church believe that those two seemingly disparate facts can be held together?

Let’s start with semi-competence first. We need to remind ourselves that when we’re speaking about governing authorities, whether they’re kings and emperors or presidents and prime ministers, what we’re ultimately talking about are human beings who are occupying certain roles. They are not divine. We know they’re not divine, right? We know they are men. 

And the wonderful thing about the Scriptures of our tradition, especially the Old Testament, is the lesson that corrupt political leaders are leaders nonetheless. King David is a great example of this. These are men who are occupying positions of authority by virtue of God’s designation. God is essentially permitting these people to rule; he’s authorizing their rule.

And even so, they rule as men do. They are corrupt, imperfect and sometimes just flat-out dumb. Nonetheless, the people understood these people as divinely authorized in these roles. So our tradition has a deep understanding of the failures and imperfections of human beings, and the fact that human beings [are authorized to] rule doesn’t change that. And we shouldn’t expect that more human beings participating in ruling [as in a democracy] overcomes imperfection. 

So perfection is not the model of human rule. We know there’s only one perfect ruler, and that is Christ. Again, that’s another thing that our Scriptures tell us. He rules in a different way than these people who occupy these roles. And he rules perfectly. But, of course, his rule is not of this world and his Kingdom is not of this world.

So the recognition of the semi-competence of human rule echoes from the earliest moments of our tradition. But, nonetheless, that rule does serve real goods. It orders conflicting human wills toward goods that can only be obtained by people living in community. We follow those traditions of political thought — which aren’t only Christian — that view life in community with authority as organic, and comparable to life in small communities like the family, or even to the rule of one’s self. Plato, for instance, uses the ordering of our soul as a kind of model for the ordering of the community. 

And we know that our own self-ordering — this is what Augustine is so great on — is always imperfect. I mean, we’re kind of a mess. If you’re a really self-reflective person and you look at yourself, you see on the one hand a kind of order, on the other hand a kind of disorder. But you’re still real, and you’re still valuable, and you still try to live your life, and this is what political community is like. It’s imperfect, but it’s real, and it’s good. And it’s aspiring toward something that it understands by analogy to be more perfect than it is. And that, of course, is God — the communion that is the Trinity.

Of course, the reason that we’re having this conversation is that so many people seem not to recognize this. We’ve been habituated into expecting more [than we should] from our government. If we just know more and get more experience, we will solve these problems. And I guess I’m Augustinian enough, or even just Christian enough, to think that we’re not going to solve all of these problems. These are problems of a fallen human nature.


In terms of our ability to order our soul, it seems only tenable if we can order ourselves toward a good beyond us, something transcendent — ultimately God. The same seems true for the state and its ability to be ordered towards perfect community, while at the same time humbly accepting its imperfection. So if the state isn’t oriented toward a transcendent good — and people would argue this characterizes the United States — what challenges does this create for authority and its ability to order society?

Well, it certainly creates challenges for people. If the state swears off any relationship to something transcendent — and does so not merely juridically, as it could be argued U.S. constitutional law does — but if the state does more than merely that and sort of actively acts against religion, it’s going to have great difficulty in maintaining political order. And this is because the human being is essentially a religious being, not merely material or empirical, but actually a being that is ordered towards the transcendent. [This kind of state] is going to frustrate those ends of human beings.

But in terms of the question about the relationship of religion to American society, I think there’s a lot more that can be said than is often said by people who are weighing in on this, in terms of just juridical questions. And among the things that I think we have to say is that the United States, as a state, is a different kind of thing than states were as recently as the 18th or even 19th century. That is, the U.S., and other modern states like it are such enormous things that they really aren’t political communities. They’ve surpassed what a political community really can be. 

And so you could argue that the genius of the American founding was to recognize that something like that republic couldn’t be a political community like New Hampshire could be or Delaware could be, or the colonies could be, where you could actually have a church-state relationship. So there’s one possibility that it’s just a different kind of beast than we were familiar with and certainly than [Catholic] political tradition was familiar with.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that the juridical separation of church and state is not the same thing as the separation of religion from the social. Human beings, in their communities, can still and do still embrace the good of religion in ordering people and integrating people’s broken lives. And that’s an important fact: that the American arrangement still permits that we can order ourselves according to our religious convictions and embrace the fullness of ourselves as human beings, recognizing the challenges involved in doing so amongst people who order them different or who don’t even order them at all.

Finally — and this is Augustine’s point about trying to be the people of the City of God — we are pilgrims among other human beings whose good we care about. Even though they disagree fundamentally with us and perhaps even don’t occupy the same city as we aspire to occupy, we still care about them, and we still benefit from the peace that we are given by their city. 

So this, for me, is where I always end up. If I think of myself as aspiring to be a good Christian, I have to recognize that the order of the community that we all share — even though far from being the City of God — is nonetheless a good that permits me great good, and it compels me also to care for my neighbors. And that’s really my first charge, my first responsibility — it’s not reordering politics. It’s really about meeting my neighbor and trying to help her or him live good lives, limit suffering, and bring relief to them. The Church’s teaching on immigration, for instance, begins this way, in terms of who’s in front of me now. Not “What is immigration law?” — but “What am I supposed to do with the person who shows up at my doorstep?”


You talked about how the U.S. may be a “different beast” than what the Church’s political tradition was familiar with. Some argue that there’s therefore an incompatibility between the Church’s vision of politics and contemporary American political life. In fact, both Catholic integralists and progressives seem to share this perspective, though they have radically different conclusions: The former say we need to fundamentally transform our politics, while the latter argue that we need to transform our teaching. So do you think these traditional sources you point to — Augustine, Thomas, and so on — are readily applicable to our contemporary situation, or are they just talking about a different political world?

I think they are still valuable, and with the appropriate nuance, we can still apply them. I particularly find Augustine meaningful. Among the things that are interesting about Augustine is that, like social encyclicals, Augustine is generally speaking topically when he’s talking about politics. He’s responding to certain issues and questions that come up. Somebody is asking him, “Can I execute this prisoner?” Or, “How should we think about what’s happening in Rome?” He’s responding topically to these questions.

And this is largely what Catholic social tradition is doing today. The Church responds to challenges as they arise. So, even though these responses are attached to a moment, the Church is providing ways of thinking about these questions that are useful in our context. They’re not, generally speaking, abstract. They’re not advancing theories about government as much as trying to understand what Christians should make of the situation they find themselves in. And, generally speaking, the focus is on how we help our neighbor, or on how we make use of social peace or even hardship. 

Faithful people have a way of understanding what’s going on around them, even in situations of great travail, not as “Oh, the world is collapsing!” and so we can be hopeless, but as a test of our faith and the genuineness of what we believe. I don’t want to judge anyone, but when we see such extreme responses to political and social challenges, it could be an indication of the loss of faith — that God is actually in control of the situation, and that he’s bringing fruit out of this situation that we’re not even able to anticipate. 

Our job right now is to live in accordance with the notion that God’s will is being done, even in situations of great hardship or of challenge. And that’s difficult, because we want control. We want to be able to diagnose our situation, we want to be able to say, “Oh, this is where it’s headed.” And I don’t think that’s — except for the prophetic among us — really our task or duty.


Is there a connection between Augustine’s sort of topical treatment of social and political questions and perhaps how we’re supposed to imitate the saints? Less so by trying to copy their external actions and more so in terms of applying Christian justice and Christian charity to the unique political and social challenges we face today?

Absolutely. A great example for me is St. Teresa of Avila. My job is not to go around reforming convents in Europe and standing up to kings and princes like she did. But she is an example of somebody who, with real hope — which is really the lost virtue of today — is investing herself in the construction and reform of things that she could only hope would last. And that’s exactly what we’re called to do. Not to replicate her work, but to live in hope and to allow God to move us in these moments, not to become people of despair and cynicism.


There’s a significant degree of defiance of government decrees and mandates presently, including by many Catholics. Given how you’ve described the Church’s understanding of political authority, how would you advise Catholics to proceed when it comes to civil disobedience?

As was pointed out before, the state has contributed to the false conception that it can solve everything. And the fact that it’s trying to act as though it can, when it can’t, is actually undermining its own authority. Because we’re all just watching as it fails. There’s no question that the past year and a half has shown the citizens of the U.S. that certain of our offices of governance are in a real state of crisis. The CDC, for instance — I think it has failed us. It has contributed to the citizenry’s disillusionment with the notion that the government’s judgment is a prudential judgment that should have some bearing on our own reflection.

Now, all of that said, the government’s judgments should be received by citizens as exercises in governmental prudence and as having a certain kind of bearing on us — questioning its judgments bears a burden of proof in a way that questioning our own judgement does not.

And the same is true in the Church. Catholics — even assuming good faith on all sides — we’re kind of a mess right now. We’ve got bishops arguing with each other, theologians arguing with each other — and social media perpetuates these arguments. A person acting out of good faith, who is trying to do the right thing, is rightly confused about who is authoritative: “Who am I supposed to follow?” The short answer for Catholics is the Pope. His judgments on issues like these are supposed to be met with religious assent. We’re supposed to receive them in a manner that involves a faithful openness to his judgment, a recognition that, again, my own private judgment is suspect in a way that he is not.

And all of the features that we’ve been talking about — the proliferation of information through social media, the non-equivalence of information with wisdom or knowledge, the collapse of traditional sources of authority — have licensed us to think that we are the authorities. We’re seeing individuals acting as their own authorities and a real splintering of things.

So how do we get out of this? I don’t know. But the Catholic community does not get out of this without, in some way, the rehabilitation of episcopal authority. This is something that has to happen. How it happens, who knows. But that’s an essential feature of what it means to be Catholic, and I just don’t even think people know it. And, rightly, many people are suspicious of the bishops’ authoritativeness, and there are different catechetical and historical reasons why.

But a lot of people make what you might call the “Donatist mistake” [Donatism was a fourth-century heresy that said the sacraments of priests in mortal sin were not valid]. Because a bishop is flawed, you think he can no longer be a teacher. And that seems reasonable, right? That’s the way we would judge a lot of people in our lives. But the conception of episcopal authority and the teaching authority of the Church is different, and it’s hard for us to understand that. And it’s a deep, deep problem for us.


So if we’ve become habituated to have a false expectation of control, and therefore a faulty basis for accepting or not accepting authority, how do we break the habit? Especially in a political and social climate that reinforces it? In the most practical way possible, how do we habituate ourselves to look at these questions with the mind of the Church?

My caveat is that you’re just asking one guy for his view of these things. But I will say that I think “detox” is a piece of this. I think social media is something that Catholics should try to remove themselves from as much as possible. I think it’s damaging and corrupting. It habituates us into precisely the kinds of dysfunction we’re describing.

I like the language of starting at home, because, in a way, that’s where everything starts. And one of the features of this sort of global demise of authority is the demise of even parental authority. And one way to begin to habituate ourselves into a proper understanding of authority, and also to train young people for whom one might have some responsibility, is just by living as a genuine community in the home. 

That means there’s a kind of principle of order to it. You share a good as members of that community, and all judgements ought to be made in terms of the good of the whole. And, generally speaking, those judgments are done by parental authority, and they’re also ordered toward the greatest good, communion with the Divine. And that’s all Christians or any other people of goodwill could ever really do. And we have to continue to do that, and do that better than we’ve been doing it, and do it also, hopefully, in groups of these kinds of communities — parishes, as members of churches.

So, in a way, it starts small. It’s not that you wouldn’t welcome a larger, positive intervention. But what we’re responsible for is starting at home and building from there. 

This interview was edited for length and style.


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