Individualism and Ecclesiastical Authority

Doug McManaman
Date: 2003
Reproduced with Permission

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter are of the opinion that: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State." 1 This is a remarkable statement; as Michael Pakaluk points out, it is the perfect formula for anarchy. Underlying the very idea of democracy is nothing less than a definite concept of existence, of meaning and the mystery of human life that everyone who wishes to live in a democracy must assent to, for instance, that all human persons are essentially equal before God, that there are certain rights that are natural and thus prior to the state, that the individual person does not belong to the state as a hand belongs to the body, etc. How is it, then, that this particular understanding of liberty, so adverse to the spirit of law and order, was able to make its way into the Supreme Court of the United States?

The freedom that O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter outline above is not the kind of freedom that underpins a genuine democracy, nor is there any evidence for the existence of this unique perspective on freedom in the history of American Jurisprudence prior to 1960. Rather, it is a notion rooted in the Atheistic Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and one that has dominated liberal thinking since the early 60s. And since many Catholics have uncritically appropriated certain secular habits of thinking, it is only to be expected that such a notion of freedom found its way into some Catholic theological circles as well.

The social and moral implications of this individualistic notion of freedom are many. They range from the legalization of abortion, to the increased demand for active euthanasia, the decline of marriage, the increase in the divorce rate, to a suspicious posture towards all authority, to name but a few. We don't have the time to treat every one of these, but I would like to focus briefly on the latter, namely, the roots of our current attitude towards authority, especially as it pertains to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Man as Nothing

Sartre's entire philosophical system is based on the premise that existence precedes essence. Traditionally, the word "essence" indicates the nature of something, that is, it provides an answer to the question about "what a thing is". It is the definition that expresses the essence. For example, the essence of a triangle is "a plane figure with three sides". But only that which belongs to the essence will be found in the definition. For example, one does not find "yellow" in the definition of triangle because even though the triangular sign down the street is yellow, not all triangles are yellow. If "yellow" were a part of the essence of triangle, then any triangle that is not yellow would not be a triangle.

Turning now to man, Sartre claims that existence precedes his essence. This means that man is originally nothing, just an unintelligible existent. In other words, he does not come into this world as a specific kind of being. "What he is", that is, his essence, will be determined entirely by his choices. Sartre writes:

If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.2

Consequently, according to Sartre, there is no such thing as a common human nature. We are not all the same "kind" of being. Each person is not merely unique, but radically and totally individual, with an entirely unique nature.

Now, Sartre is aware that a morally good action is one that promotes the fullness of our nature, while a morally bad action depletes that nature. But since each person determines his own nature by the choices that he makes, it follows that each person determines his own morality. In fact, it is impossible for me to choose evil since I do not have a pre-established nature that I must live in accordance with. Whatever I choose is good insofar as I choose it. Sartre writes:

To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.3

In other words, it is no longer God who is the measure of what is good and evil, rather each person is the measure of the good. Hence, it is impossible to speak of a common good. This is simply another way of saying that there is no objective good and evil and that anything is permissible. Sartre writes:

The existentialist...thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky said, "If God didn't exist, everything would be possible." That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can't start making excuses for himself.4

And so within this individualist frame of mind, authority becomes a threat to my freedom. Should another person take it upon himself to instruct me on what is good and what is evil, he only imposes the values he has determined for himself on me. His values stem from the nature that he has determined through his own individual choices. But I determine my own essence by the choices that I make, according to Sartre, and there is no reason for me to choose in the same way as anybody else. As was said above, there is no common human nature, and thus no common good. And so any instruction on what to choose necessarily comes to me as from someone essentially different from myself. But it is up to me to create myself. Hence, authority is fundamentally oppressive and seeks only to deprive me of what is radically unique and characteristic of my deepest self.

A Response to Sartre

The uneasiness and general suspicion towards authority that characterizes the post 60s liberal mind owes itself in part to Sartre. But this metaphysics is simply incompatible with a Christian metaphysics. In fact, it is incompatible with common sense. If existence precedes essence, then it would be impossible for Sartre to speak of "man" in general, as he does throughout his works. A science of man (anthropology) would be impossible; for what could the term "man" possibly refer to, if man is originally "nothing"? Indeed, man determines his character by the choices that he makes, but it is a man's character that is determined by choices, not a man. Furthermore, it is absurd to maintain that existence precedes essence, for to do so is to identify being with non-being. If man is originally nothing, how can he at the same time be something (an existent)?

On the contrary, the human person has an already constituted nature; for essence and existence are simultaneous. A man is essentially a rational animal, from the beginning of his existence to the end. Though the individual person has a determinate nature, this does not mean that he is determined. Human nature includes the ability to apprehend the good as such, and thus I have the power to determine myself to one of a variety of options (freedom). Freedom does not mean creating my own nature. Rather, it involves both knowing how I ought to choose so as to fulfill my nature which I have in common with every other human person, and having the habits (both the virtues and divine grace) that will enable me to make those choices. In other words, freedom is an achievement. In this light, authority can be seen to exist for the sake of my freedom, not as an enemy of it. The authority of a parent, for example, exists for the benefit of the child. This is true because what is beneficial for one person is beneficial for all, for we are all of the same nature (human nature). And so if my father, as a result of his life experience, has a better grasp of the goods of human nature than I do, it is in my best interest to listen to him. For the more I listen to him, the more I learn about myself. Indeed, he may abuse his authority, but in so doing he is abusing something that is basically good and that exists for my own good. In short, it is not authority that is oppressive, but rather the abuse of authority.

Ecclesiastical Authority

This relationship between freedom and authority is especially intensified in the context of the Catholic faith, which is an ecclesial faith, not something private and individual. For the faith that we appropriate is the faith of the Church (Eph 1, 15-23; 3, 1-13). A person is baptized into the Church, that is, into Christ's Mystical Body (1 Cor 12, 13). Now this Mystical Body is not merely an association or an impersonal institution that exists outside of us. It is a living Body through which we receive the life of grace (Jn 15, 1-7). If the Catholic lives in the Person of Christ, he does so as a member of his Mystical Body. The believer is in the Church, not outside of it, beholding it as an object existing outside of him. And so the believer's knowledge and awareness of the Church is akin to a person's awareness of himself. We know ourselves from the inside, so to speak, not from the outside. That is why the Church is not a source of information that is outside of us, but within us, so to speak; for we are in it and, through the Eucharist, it is in us.

The charism of infallibility belongs to the Church as a whole, that is, to the entire Mystical Body of Christ (Jn 14, 16-17; 14, 25-26; 16, 7; 16, 13). This charism is a gift to the whole Church, that is, to every member of Christ's Mystical Body, just as the power of imagination or the power of seeing are powers that belong to the whole organism (animal or human). But a power needs an organ, such as the organ of the eye, or the brain, which is the organ of internal sensation. Likewise, the charism of infallibility, which belongs to the Church as a whole, requires an organ. And that part of the Church that is the Magisterium is precisely that organ. For it is the Magisterium that formulates the self-understanding of the Church, which Christ promised would remain inviolate (Mt 16, 18; Jn 16, 13). The Magisterium exists for me and for every member of Christ's Body, that is, for our benefit, and ultimately for our freedom.

Now, since the Magisterium is a part of the Church, and since I too am a part of the Church, the Magisterium is part of something to which I intimately belong, just as my leg belongs to the same substance as my intellect. And so the formulated moral teachings of the Church are not something that come to me as from a foreign source. The teachings of the Church are expressions of her self-understanding, and it is through these expressions that I come to understand myself as one who has appropriated the faith of the Church, that is, as one who belongs to this Mystical Body. And so the obligation to form my conscience according to the teachings of the Church of which I am a part is not a type of oppression; for the teachings of the Church do not limit, much less deprive me of my freedom. Rather, they are the very source of my freedom. For a person's freedom increases as his knowledge of what is truly good increases. But the Catholic who has been influenced by Individualism generally sees the authority of the Church as a threat to his freedom.

Concluding Thoughts

Of course this does not mean that individual bishops cannot be obnoxious, or be mistaken about a particular issue, or that they cannot abuse their authority. Jesus warned them about such abuse: "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as 'Benefactors'; but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant" (Lk 22, 25). The abuse of ecclesiastical authority can make it very difficult to distinguish between legitimate authority and the deficiencies of a particular member of that Magisterium. It is easy to associate the distasteful personality of the bishop, priest, or parent, with the very idea of authority itself. Perhaps this is why the Individualism of Sartre and the suspicion it begets towards authority was initially attractive to some people. And clericalism is still not entirely dead within the Church. But the Church has been around for 2000 years and will be around long after we are gone. That is why it is important that we direct young people to that which exists permanently for them, for their own personal freedom and integrity, namely the authority and teaching office of the Church. It is simply too much of a responsibility for any one individual to become that authority for another person, for it is not even possible to adequately govern oneself spiritually and theologically throughout one's own lifetime. When we finally come to an appreciation of our own personal limitations, we may become a little less suspicious about authority and more open to the possibility that we are not forlorn, but radically dependent upon one another.


1 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) [Back]

2 Jean Paul Sartre Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1985) p. 15 [Back]

3 Ibid., 17 [Back]

4 Ibid., 22. Sartre writes: "If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. Ibid., 22-23 [Back]