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

4. State Power

A primordial prerogative of the State is the monopoly of punitive power. The State punishes in the measure that it has the power of coercion and so takes away from individuals the right to make justice for themselves. The incalculable value of the State derives from it being capable of containing the violence inherited from “man’s primitive struggle against man” and until now scattered in human society.[32] When faced with violence, the individual can appeal to the State. But there is a danger, namely the one associated with the fact that the State frequently remains the last instance, i.e., the instance that does not allow for further recourse.[33] The centrality of the question regarding the authority and the power of the State remains crucial. Because of its multiple functions, “its power to legislate, its power to decide and execute, its administrative function, its economic function or its educational function,” the State is endowed with the power to compel and to do so in last instance. After all, the power of the State is the power to coerce.[34]

Above we mentioned the danger of the wicked or totalitarian State. Now we just reaffirm “what makes the state a state, through different and even opposed regimes and forms.”[35] That is, of course, the exercise of authority and power. Hence the gravity of situations in which the State becomes illegitimate and degrades itself into forms of abuse in the exercise of what should be its own authority and power. More than anything else, this is the reason why human societies are always in need of a strong conjunction of law and force. And the recognition that no State can “fully express, fully realize, radically exhaust all the requirements of moral conscience”.[36] In other words, politics and the State must be taken for what they are, namely, as utterly incapable of achieving morality and fulfillment of all ethical demands constitutive of the human condition as such. No politics, and thus no State, can be said to be capable of ultimately quenching the human thirst for perfection.[37]


To conclude, let’s return once again to the thought of Gaston Fessard, and this not because the French Jesuit has rightly been identified as one of the most important influences in the formative process of Pope Francis,[38] but rather because according to Fessard, any attempt to grasp the essence of power and authority necessarily leads us to represent it on the one hand as “the continuous growth of a principle towards its end”, and on the other “as two opposite movements between the poles of the individual and the universal.”[39] Is this a sign of contradiction? I would say no, at least inasmuch as that double aspect of the political realm testifies to what for Fessard corresponds to the “rightness of the reflection” (rectitude de la réflexion). As an interpreter of both Hegel and the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola,[40] Gaston Fessard knows that the duality of power and authority constitutes a symbol of the “circle whose movement, during a period of continuous growth, first unfolds between two diametrically opposed points, then withdraws into itself to rediscover, by an about turn, its principle in its end”.[41]

Power and authority are symbolic of the search that both philosophy and theology represent and of the political life that sustain our societies in their historical processes. In seeking to understand the nature and essence of both authority and power, we realize that power is procreative, as represented in the figure of the father; that the Hegelian dialectic of Master-Slave expresses the structure and the dynamic of domination and its transformation in accordance with the logic of freedom; that Man-Woman and the consequent constitution of the family opens the door to the primacy of the Common Good and the ineluctable transformation of individual effort into the universality of the Kingdom. 

[32] Cf. Paul Ricoeur, “La question du pouvoir,” in Histoire et vérité, 3e éd. augmentée de quelques textes, Collection Esprit (Paris: Seuil, 1955), 235–316, p. 246 f.

[33] Cf. Ibidem, p. 246. 

[34] Cf. Ibidem.

[35] Cf. Ibidem, pp. 246-247.

[36] Cf. Ibidem, p. 247.

[37] Cf. Ibid.

[38] Cf. Massimo Borghesi, The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, trans. Barry Huddock (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2018).

[39] G. Fessard, op. cit., p. 32.

[40] Cf. Gaston Fessard, La dialectique des Exercices spirituels de saint Ignace de Loyola, Théologie 35, 66 (Paris: Aubier, 1956).

[41] Cf. Gaston Fessard, Autorité et Bien Commun, op. cit., p. 32.


João J. Vila-Chã is a Portuguese Jesuit and Professor for Social and Political Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is member of the Editorial Board of Concilium and of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP). He is also President of COMIUCAP and Vice-President of the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (Washington, DC).

Address: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, Piazza della Pilotta, 4, 00187 ROMA, ITALY.