The Inter-Action of Power and Authority – J.J. Vila-Chã

3. Power Redeemed

The problem with power is that the human being is deeply affected by the experience of having it, at least when it happens above a certain measure. Whoever gains power always has problems remaining ordinary. By developing a sense of the measure of one’s role, of one’s technical abilities and of one’s personal ethical values, a person can preserve authenticity in the exercise of authority and power. We need, thus, to permanently enter into the discerning process requested by the necessity of assuming that the person entrusted with the uses of power never stops being a person just like anyone else, and so remains constantly exposed to the dangers of abusing. Achieving authenticity in the exercises of power remains inseparable from a complex network of virtues, at the center of which, perhaps, should be humility.[24]

Humility is a virtue well-spoken of in religious contexts. Yet the achievement of authenticity in the exercise of power is not a prerogative of Christians or believers in any other faith. It simply means that authenticity cannot be achieved in separation from the human cultivation of interiority. Only “within oneself” is a person truly capable of deciding the extent to which he or she might cope with temptation. Thinkers of India such as Aurobindo or Gandhi, and Europeans such as Proudhon or Péguy have insisted upon the idea that the present conditions of any given society will never be adequately transformed until there is a betterment of the moral condition in its members. Social and political reform disconnected from the moral transformation of one’s self is fallacious in nature. Karl Rahner would perhaps say that “the politician” of the future would have to be a mysticin order to bring about the changes needed. Giorgio La Pira, the former mayor of Florence, would certainly agree with the German theologian. Any attempt at the exercise of power in separation from a constant reference to higher principles, even if not necessarily religious, cannot but bring about corruption and the degeneration of such exercise.[25]

The issue here is how to understand power and authority in redemptive terms. First, we need to recognize the nature of power, namely, its relational constitution. Whoever is endowed with authority and power is in a commanding position and, thus, can exert influence upon others. Hence the dimension of publicnessassociated with power and authority, as Hannah Arendt so well demonstrated. In the understanding of the human condition, we can no longer separate the life of the self from our basic Mit-sein, being and living with others. To understand power, therefore, is to understand the extent to which we are related to one another.[26]The realization of power happens in the community. An authentic leader, thus, never answers for his actions to himself alone, but always places him- or herself in the presence of others.[27] To discern one’s exercise of power and authority is, in each case, a matter of personal conscience. Yet it always depends on the communitarian or social context in which it actually happens.[28]

In order to redeem power and authority we need to reaffirm the relationship between the personal and the communitarian dimensions of human life. But we also must pay attention to the systemic workings of the institutions in and through which power and authority are exercised. A good institution is one that charters the different ways in which its members are called to exercise control and affirm the responsibilities that are part of it. A functioning democracy, for example, presupposes elections at regular times and under specific conditions. Needless to say, democracies are all the better the more they become capable of putting into action adequate systems of control and, even more, of enforcing their own ethical and moral substance. Political discernment, therefore, is inseparable from life in the community and always depends on the quality of the institutional parameters that surround it.[29]  

No human power is self-sustaining since power and authority always depend on particular relationships, are sustained by them, and always remain at the service of them. Whenever the holders of power isolate themselves or become isolated, their power easily degenerates into corruption, despotism, if not violence and other major forms of self-destruction.[30] To achieve an authentic knowledge of power is, therefore, indispensable for both the exercise of power and the assessing process of whoever exercises it. In order to evaluate power one needs to have a “general education in relationality, here understood as the ability to know how to live consciously and responsibly in the family, at school and university, in the work environment and in the trade union, in a community of believers or in associative, administrative and different political contexts.”[31] An assessment of power can only be fruitful if, once educated to the proper conditions of social and political life, we learn not just how to uncover systemic knowledge but also to distinguish among myriads of emotional states operating in the human soul.

[24] Cf. Ibidem, p. 134.

[25] Cf. Ibidem, p. 135.

[26] Cf. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Was ist der Mensch?, pp. 60-61.

[27] D’Ambosio, op. cit., p. 138.

[28] On political discernment, see, for ex., João B. Libânio, Spiritual Discernment and Politics: Guidelines for Religious Communities(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982); Id., Fé e política: autonomias específicas e articulações mútuas, Coleção “Fé e realidade” 17 (São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 1985).

[29] Cf. D’Ambosio, op. cit., p. 138. 

[30] Cf. Ibidem, p. 171.

[31] Ibidem.