Power, authority, sovereignty royalty: let’s be clear about what these concepts mean.

Four are the concepts of the Social Doctrine of the Church now frequently being used once again, also in light of the disputes over sovereignism and globalism. The four words in question are power, authority, sovereignty and royalty. It may be useful to take another close look at them in order to see if they can be of help at present.

Power is the ability to command someone to do something by the use of force alone. In his Republic, Plato wrote that anyone who went into the agora armed with a knife would have had the power of life or death over anyone. Someone pointing a pistol at my head would have power over me. Power is based on fear insofar as the battle of everyone against everyone else. Hobbes said this depended on the social pact stipulated precisely in order to escape this power, but actually creating a new and  stronger one: Leviathan. Power, however, can also be a democratic majority based on naught but the prevalence of the most votes. There is no legitimacy to power since it is imposed by virtue of ‘might is right’, and this means any type of ‘might. Nor does power look for any forms of justification; it doesn’t need them since all it needs is the force to impose itself.

Authority is morally legitimized power. Empowered with authority is he/she who commands over another person for reasons of good. Authoritativeness is the quality proper to authority, just as ‘might’ is to power. The legitimacy of authority must be moral; any other form of legitimization does not suffice. Procedural, institutional or electoral legitimization do not found authority in a full and ultimate sense. The right/duty to command over others cannot stem from rules that so determine, institutional functions stipulated in some Charter/Constitution, or the majority of voters obtained in an election. At the most, all these sources can indicate who is to command or govern, but are not able to either morally legitimize said person, or serve as grounds for dutiful obedience on the part or those under said authority. While power has no need for any reference to either truth of good, authority does, because it draws its legitimacy from them.

In a brief “Dialogue about Power  written in 1954, Carl  Schmitt noted that once upon a time the legitimization of authority was indicated in nature or in God. Now that these two sources have been abandoned to a great degree, exactly on what do we today found power so that it is authority and not just stark power? We have to accept the fact that this question is still waiting for an answer, since the power of man over man cannot be based on man himself, but only on something superior, something above him.

Sovereignty is the power which invests itself with authority all on its own and acknowledges neither any other power nor any other authority above itself. Napoleon crowned himself emperor and later in Sant’Elena lamented the emptiness of power without God. Power does not even think about acquiring legitimacy, while sovereignty endows itself with legitimacy all on its own, thereby thinking it becomes authority, but just remains power. The modern State, from Bodin (“Prince is he who depends only on his sword”) onwards, has been based on this concept of sovereignty. The Italian Constitution also employs this concept when saying that the “the people is sovereign”. This is something unacceptable since it comes down to the democratic transformation of State absolutism: whether sovereign is one person or many persons changes very little in terms of quality.

Lastly, we have royalty. This indicates morally legitimized power understanding itself not as being sovereign, but willing to be at the service of something higher, something above it. Christian emperors and kings did not think they held power on the basis of ‘might’ alone. Nor did they think they were sovereigns in the sense of not being accountable to anything above them. They thought they were the first officials of Christianity and that it was their duty to serve God and the Church in the temporal order, respond to a natural order, and to natural ends that imposed upon them laws they had to obey. Contrary to a power despot or a sovereign, a king knows he enjoys a legitimate yet not absolute primacy, and above all knows cannot be law unto himself. The ultimate grounds of his authority are situated elsewhere and above him, and this is the reason why a king knows he is autonomous, but not independent from the Church.

Nowadays, as I said above, these words are quite frequently being used; for example, in discussions regarding the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. These are concepts very dear to the Social Doctrine of the Church, and they can prove helpful in also coming to grips with the outstanding political problems of our times, not just those of yesteryear.

Stefano Fontana