Contemporary culture is often hostile to the idea of authority in general and to religious authority in particular. Religious liberty, on the other hand, is readily grasped as a core value of the West. How the two can be harmonized strikes many as an insurmountable difficulty. But properly understood, religious authority need be in no conflict with religious liberty. That proper understanding, however, requires a prior appreciation of the distinctive value of religion.

One foundational judgment of practical reason is that religion is a basic good to be pursued. That is to say, any human being thinking clearly about the range of possibilities that could make him well-off will recognize that being right with—i.e., conforming one’s will to—whatever greater than human source of meaning there might be is an intelligibly attractive possibility.

Most people, recognizing the good at stake, seek to discover whether there is such a source. But not every agent who makes this judgment and acts upon it believes that there is such a more than human source of meaning. Concluding that no such source exists, some people seek to realize the good of religion by making their peace with the absence of this source of meaning. But for the many who consider it more reasonable to believe that such a being exists, it is then necessary to ask who and what such a being might be, and to ask how one is to be “made right” with that being in one’s life and action.

These deliberations involve a mix of speculative and moral considerations. While the existence of a creator can, plausibly, be known through the use of natural reason, this creator is not entirely and unmistakably present to us as the God of some particular revelation or religious tradition. How then have some people arrived at such robust conceptions of God? After arriving at the reasonable conclusion that God exists, many people further judge that God has offered mankind signs and opportunities by which we may come to know and love Him. He has, in other words, extended to us the possibility of a personal relationship. Such a relationship is itself a human good, and its desirability—and the desirability and even necessity of accepting that offer—is recognized by practical reason in a concrete judgment: That I should, for example, accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and henceforth strive to act as he would have me act. Or that I should submit to Allah and follow the teachings of the Prophet. Similar practical judgments, albeit to different conclusions, are made by others who have accepted different possible revelations as true, and have acted accordingly.

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Conscience and its acts are thus at the root of our pursuit of the good of religion and of our acceptance of—our faith in—some particular religious tradition (and surely, that faith’s perfection will be found where the revelation accepted is true, and human flourishing will be compromised to some extent insofar as the revelation accepted is false). Considerations of this sort are at the root of sound thinking about freedom of religion: There is an obligation to seek religious truth and choose in accordance with what one acknowledges as religious truth. But the seeking, the judging, and, especially, the conforming, all require freedom. Such freedom is both existential (the freedom of being a person) and social/legal (the freedom of political liberty in a non-threatening, non-coercive context).

The results of one’s deliberations and acts of faith when considering one’s possible relationship to a supreme being can play a unique role in the rest of one’s practical deliberations. Consider the illusion that, in being self-constituting, we are self-sufficient, reliant only upon ourselves for successfully actualizing our possibilities. Such a thought is truly illusory: we are not responsible for our own existence; nor are we responsible for existing as the kinds of beings we are, with the particular set of goods that are beneficial for us.

Further, our success in pursuing those goods through judgment, choice, and action, is not of our own making. By my own power, I do not have the capacity to ensure the continued existence of the world through to the completion of any act I perform, much less the particular set of conditions necessary for success, rather than failure, in my actions. Indeed, I can no more ensure even the existence of my acts of judgment and will while exercising those powers. Literally everything that I am, everything that I do, and every measure of my success must be seen as accomplished in overwhelming reliance upon something, or someone, else.

It is natural, from the standpoint of one who has answered questions about the existence of a transcendent source of meaning affirmatively, to identify this source as the cooperating agent and to see thereby every endeavor as part of a potentially cooperative relationship with this being. It is likewise natural to see that being’s revelation as an invitation to us to accept His guidance in that cooperative relationship. One’s every action, from this standpoint, will be suffused with both gratitude, for the gift that has been given, attentiveness, to what God is asking of us as regards our participation in the relationship, and profound significance, insofar as everything that we do will either contribute positively or negatively to the building up of that relationship. We may call that relationship to which we are called our vocation.

What, then, justifies religious authority? There are two justifying reasons: one primary, the other secondary.

The primary reason for religious authority must be that some set of persons are believed to be in a special epistemic position as regards what God wishes of human beings in order that the human-divine relationship be protected and promoted. Call this magisterial authority. The secondary reason is that some form of quasi-political authority—call it ecclesial authority—is necessary in order to coordinate the actions of those persons who together take themselves to be oriented towards God and his purposes by way of some magisterial authority or other.

When some set of persons are believed to possess, and believe themselves to possess, a special awareness of, or access to, the divine plan for human-divine relationships, and it is believed, including believed by those persons themselves, that part of the divine plan involves their promulgation of that plan, then those persons’ assertions and other acts related to the divine plan will be taken to be authoritative in a strictly religious and magisterial sense. What those persons proscribe and prescribe, as regards actions and beliefs, will be taken to give believers good, and indeed overriding reasons for action and belief, even in cases in which the believers might otherwise have thought some other belief or action justified.

Absent magisterial authority, there might be the authority common to other voluntary associations, all of which also need some locus for authoritative decision making in order that a common way of proceeding be initiated and maintained by the members of the association. But, while a religious club might indeed need and have such an authority, there seems no particular point in calling this “religious authority.” Moreover, a political authority might have religious functions without being taken to have the special epistemic position characteristic of religious authority. Again, I see no need to think of this as religious authority in the primary sense.

Now it appears that, under these conditions, it is not the case that a non-coercive religious authority—that is, an authority which cannot punish with the sword—is ever in a position to violate the conscience or religious liberty of its members or its alleged members. For those members are either believers, in which case they look to the magisterial authority for guidance and, receiving it, take it to be authoritative for the formation of their conscience, or, they are not believers, perhaps because, having consulted their consciences and exercised their reasoning capacities, they no longer believe in the privileged epistemic position of the magisterial authorities. These agents, whom the magisterial authority is unable to coerce, are free to leave the set of believers, or accept what non-coercive—because avoidable at will—punishments, such as excommunication or lighter discipline the ecclesial authority may mete out, just as agents in any other voluntary association are free to leave, or accept that association’s non-coercive punishments.

At the same time, it is also clear, based on what has been said, that a mingling of religious authority and political, or coercive authority, is inappropriate, given the nature and importance of conscience and the good of religion. Yet it is important to see this as the locus of abuse, not the exercise of magisterial authority as such. Religious authority that is exercised with genuinely coercive power—the sort of power characteristic of the political state—is a perversion of both religious and political authority, and is inadequate to the tasks of either. Magisterial authority need pose no threat to religious liberty; and if the claims of some magisterial authority are true, then such authority must be considered essential for the fullest participation in the good of religion.