THE PATHOLOGY OF POWER:
and why we ought to tremble
the devil led him into a high mountain, and showed Him
all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; And
he said to Him: To Thee will I give all this power,
and the glory of them; for to me they are delivered,
to whom I will, I give
(St. Luke 4.5-6)
each of us, in some manner, this passage
should be construed as one of the most frightening in all Holy Scripture.
Everyone in any position of power, of authority, of dominion over
the lives of others in any way, in any measure — especially within
the Church — should tremble before these words. Read them once again,
and reflect on them.
Prelate or pastor; chairman or manager, senator or selectman … if
you possess power — power over others which you can arbitrarily
exercise to their detriment — you should be concerned, gravely concerned.
You presume to know from whom you received the power you possess.
It is very likely that in truth, whoever you are or whatever your
office, you do not really wish to know—as long as you possess. Power
as possession and possession as power; each is signatory to the
other, and both are the signature of power.
Do you doubt it? How prepared are you to relinquish your power,
to cede even some portion of it to another? How prepared are you
to become subject to another as others are now subject to you? If
you fear this — why do you fear? From what likelihood of injustice
do you flee? And if you would flee it as an evil, why do you now
embrace it as a good?
In a word, why does the possession of power please you? Why do you
esteem it a good — in fact so great a good that you are unwilling
or reluctant to relinquish it? If you do not pause to dwell on that
question, and to answer it honestly, then it is power that possesses
you and not you that possess power. It is power as pathological,
subjugating others but no longer susceptible to being subjugated
itself. It is the will as recalcitrant to itself.
While able to exercise control over others, it does so in and through
the inability to exercise control over itself. It is, in the end,
incapable of dispossessing itself. The will and power become synonymous
such that the act of willing itself becomes indistinguishable from
the power that motivates it. The will retains its primacy, but no
longer its autonomy. It is free to exercise power but it is no longer
free to relinquish it. It is free to exact, but not to yield; to
lay levy, but to pay no tribute, to dominate but not to submit.
This is power as tyranny, uncurbed by reason, and were it possible,
unrestrained. Its end is always itself and not the other, except
inasmuch as the end of another redounds to its own end. In this
sense, it is the apotheosis of the self, the self construed as a
If we have read Homer we find that the principal difference between
the Homeric gods and men is nothing in the way of exemplary virtue
(there is as much turpitude among the gods as among men), but a
difference in the magnitude of power, in the exercise of power ...
most often arbitrarily ... and almost always tragically.
Or perhaps you alone, among all men, are like unto God in goodness?
Perhaps you are the servant who is greater than his Master? Are
you? Are you greater than Christ,
being in the form of God… emptied Himself, taking the form of a
1 Jesus Christ Himself did not cling to power — but submitted
Himself to it ... to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to the jeering mob, and
in the end to those who drove the nails into His hands and feet.
You are without excuse. All the reasons that you invoke to cling
to this euphoric caricature of power are so many pretensions and
lies. One day, and not a day of your choosing, that power will be
taken from you and utterly cease … or pass to another. Pharaoh,
Caesar, Emperor, King, Prelate — President, Chairman of the Board,
Manager, Supervisor — every stratum of power under which man bends
… oppressed, subdued, exploited … has its end ... and it's accountability.
Even if it is expunged from history, erased from living memory,
it will stand in the dock before God and testify against you!
Before you take the seat of power, then, know the liability that
you incur. As the magnitude of power escalates, so too the susceptibility
to evil implicit within it, attendant to it, and with ever greater
urgency you must ask yourself, from whom, truly, does this power
derive — to what end, and at whose expense? If this question does
not make you tremble, you can be sure from whom it comes ... for
even the just, St. Paul tells us, work out their salvation
in fear and trembling.2
But most especially, in our present article, it is particularly
apropos of those in the Church.
Because, as it has been said,
the Church where the light is brightest, the shadows are darkest.”
It is the lamp set upon a hill. It is a light to the nations.
It is the preeminent moral authority among Catholic Christians.
Here, the grasping for power, the arbitrary exercise of power, the
relishing of power, especially to the detriment of the powerless,
is not simply utterly inconsistent with, but is an egregious defection
from, Jesus Christ, Who emptied himself of power and came among
us as one who serves. Yet even here, where the light prevails, the
shadows linger, and the brighter the light the deeper the shadows.
Here, encountering what is most noble, we also encounter what is
The Dark Provenance of Power
the devil led him into a high mountain, and showed Him all
the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; And he said
to Him: To Thee will I give all this power, and the glory
of them; for to me they are delivered, and to whom I will,
I give them.”
(St. Luke 4.5-6)
Ponder that carefully. While the evil one
father of lies”
2 … and we must be careful how we read this, I think that
we can be fairly certain—especially in light of history, and in
light of our own experiences with people who have exercised power
over us, that the seat of power is at best a perilous perch indeed.
It is a height that is commensurable to a depth.
We flatter ourselves than we have acquired power through our wit,
our talent, our ability, our intelligence; in short, that we
merit power. We deserve it. We have earned
it. It is ours in justice as in recompense. This, of course, is
a fiction. Another scenario is as likely: we convince ourselves
that we have acquired this power through our cleverness. We have
insinuated ourselves into power by manipulating people, currying
some, crushing others, assiduously constructing a network of “connections”
that will be the conduit to the pinnacle of power. We deceive.
In one sense we misunderstand power, politely abjuring it even as
we lust for it. The reality, however, is that power — in our own
lives, no less than in the life of the Church — can be either magnificently
redemptive ... or, as we have more often seen, unimaginably destructive.
It can lift up, or it can crush; preserve life or take it. It can
feed and it can make famine. It can heal and it can maim. It can
exonerate and it can crucify.
The ancient allurement to the unbridled, even the gratuitous expression
of our own will against all that would curb it, against the reproach
of justice, even against the reproval of reason itself ... is not
merely an enticement; it is a frightful human liability; a liability
of which satan is keenly aware, and equally adept at exploiting.
Power becomes an asset in itself. When this occurs, our liability
to it becomes fully exploited ... and the means to the exploitation
of others. And this is to say that power is always relational.
It asserts itself through possession and influence; it seeks and
claims dominion, uncurbed self-expression and unrestrained self-assertion.
It boldly manifests itself not merely in the amassing of material
goods, but most perniciously in the acquiring of ever escalating
positions, titles, and offices which themselves escalate the power
through which they were first acquired. Having become an asset ever
increasing in value through escalation, power culminates in personality
and power, in the personality that possesses the power, and in the
power that possesses the personality.
At this point we confront power as pathology.
Inextricable from the personality, it becomes the expression of
the personality ... but ... because it is always and intrinsically
relational ... the expression is always exercised to the
spiritual, psychological, physical, or moral detriment of others.
Power as pathology cannot be otherwise, cannot express itself otherwise,
for it is preeminently the power to assert one will against the
protest, and always the good, of another.
The Sole Antidote
to the Pathogen of Power
there is another relational power, one that is, in all its effects,
contrary to, even remedial of, the relational power of the unbridled
will — and this is love. Power as love, as a munificent expression
of the self to the benefit of others, rather than as a pathology
expressive of the self as acquisitive to the detriment,
the expropriation, of others, does not differ in its ability to
exercise influence over others — it differs in its perception
of others — as ends in themselves and
not as means to ends
that converge on the self. It perceives
others not in terms of itself, and how it will benefit relative
to others, but in terms of the other itself, to the end of the
other — not the end of the self. In fact, this is what we understand
by love, and how we differentiate love from selfishness. In a word,
love gives, where selfishness acquires. The power to give and the
power to acquire are quite distinct, and the means through which
each are effected are diametrically opposite. Acquisitiveness deprives;
love invests. God, St. James tells us, is
Giver of every good thing”
It is the
evil one, the predator who takes what is not his, who seeks to
acquire for himself, ever plundering through "taking from",
"depriving of", what in justice belongs to another, seeking to acquire
that he may corrupt and destroy what he appropriates, that no good
may reach fruition or attain to perfection.
How many parallels
we find in our own lives — and, alas, for sorrow — in the lives
of many even within the Church ... from the great Dicasteries in
Rome to the pettiest of parish councils ... how many have acquired
— and exercise — power precisely through relinquishing charity!
Unable to reconcile the two, they inevitably opt for one by forfeiting
the other. It is a rare man in whom power and charity equitably
abide, in whom the exercise of power derives from the obligations
of love. This mutuality we construe as the virtue of justice and
we speak of such a man as a "just man", in whom power and charity
reciprocate rather than conflict. Power is not diminished through
the exercise of charity, and charity is not diminished through the
exercise of power. In the just man we see a reflection of God, for
power and charity are preeminently attributes of God, in Whom alone
the perfection, and the perfect exercise of each, constitutes the
Divine attribute of Justice.
Love does not coerce. Period. It does not diminish the other, deprive
the other, depredate the other, reduce to abject poverty that it
may appear more magnanimous still after it has lifted what it first
crushed. Love is not a taking-from, it is a giving-to; it is not
the imposition of the will as an extension of the self, it is the
invitation to will the abundance of the other even to the dispossession
of itself. It can only find, realize, authenticate its beneficence
through benefiting the other — not itself. It is solicitous
of, and ever in loving service toward the lesser — even the least.
The paradigm of perfect love — because the paradigm for all Christians
is Christ — is found in the act of truly loving our enemies ...
from whom we can hope, anticipate, no benefit, no return, nothing
that would motivate us through self-interest. This is the possession
of power — not over others, which is so easily achieved: it is power
over oneself, over all our inclinations, our selfishness,
our pride; paradoxically even over the inducement to power itself!
In loving our enemies we bow down to no one but God — for we refuse
to bow down to ourselves, in and through whom alone the perversion
of power is possible.
The Pathogenesis of Power
whence this perverse ambition for power, so likely, so liable, to
corrupt, and through its corruption, abuse? The lust for domination
and the exercise of a sinful will, together with its attendant misuse
of power, is a direct consequence of the Fall of Man in the Garden
of Eden. Of itself, power is not evil. When that which motivates
the exercise of power is love, it is a great good. When that which
motivates the exercise of power is ambition, it is evil. Power becomes
no longer the means, but the end. What is meant, given, to be expendable,
becomes instead an asset in itself, an asset to preserve, and not
spend, to augment, and not deplete. Love ceases to motivate power
and is replaced by ambition. The self, and self-love, becomes the
axis of the universe in place of God, the love of God, and the genuine
love of others.
It is here that we most clearly see that satan as the perverter
of power, the one who works to pervert the good, to plunder and
then corrupt the good, making it subject to himself, perverting
the power of service to God and man to an instrument of service
to the self, to self-adulation as a parody of love, a parody that
culminates in the introverted caricature of love which we know as
Promised power and unfettered freedom, together with all the riches
and esteem of this world, we are invited, seduced, by this illusory
pledge of happiness understood in terms through which, ultimately,
no happiness is possible. He promises what he cannot possibly deliver
— and has never delivered!
No matter what satan may promise, he cannot give us happiness, for
it is not his to give ... but as we have seen, power is! Beware!
He would have us believe that power and happiness are reciprocal,
even synonymous — in effect, that the unfettered exercise of our
will brings us the satisfaction, the utter felicity we long for.
we have all we want, when we want it, and at whatever cost to whomever
... we shall be truly happy ...!”
acquiring the desire of his heart in this world, material or sensual,
has ever reposed in happiness? In an instant it passes to another,
or ceases to be altogether. We have seen it. It is, after all, how
we ourselves have acquired it, by the relinquishing of it by another
to whom it no longer belongs nor brings happiness. Among the polities
of man, none is greater, none more vast, more numerous, more populous
than that in which, one and all, without exception, quietly and
incessantly attests to this: Necropolis — the vast city
of the dead whom we hedge with cypress and yew ... lest we witness
what we would deny!
We all have within us that weakness, that inheritance of sin from
our first parents, that allurement and terrible susceptibility to
sin and temptation, to ascend that seductive and sad summit of power
... and to precipitously fall.
Next, Part II:
Power and Prostitution: Selling our Mother into Shame
Boston Catholic Journal
1 II Philippians 2.6-7
St. John 8.45
3 St. James 1.17
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know your works ... that you have but little power,
and yet you have kept My word, and have not denied My
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