Herodias was aggravated by the warnings of John the Baptist. Using her husband’s power, she managed to get rid of him. Vladimir Putin has his own ways of dealing with those who criticise him: he accuses them of betraying the country, arrests them, jails them and sometimes murders them. Daniel Ortega does the same in Nicaragua.

Dictators do not tolerate criticism. Rather than dealing with the message, they attack the messenger. They do it because they have power but not authority. This is not only the way of dictatorial heads of states; it is also the way of dictatorial parents, teachers, prelates and whoever has power over others, sometimes also through strength, intelligence or connections.

<em>Herodias with the Head of St John the Baptist</em> (1843) by Paul DelarocheHerodias with the Head of St John the Baptist (1843) by Paul Delaroche

They do it because in the criticism – when it is valid – they see themselves being judged justly. They know that the message addressed at them is true and that their way of doing or of being is not. This was the case of Herodias; it is the case of Putin, of Ortega and of anybody who uses their power to kill just criticism. They consider it necessary for their own survival.

In democracies, loyal opposition and criticism are not only tolerated; they are desirable and considered to be necessary. They keep whoever has power on track for the common good. Criticism can also be abused, given for one’s own gain rather than for prompting better decisions. When this happens, it too would be flowing from power rather than authority. 

Conversely, one may have authority without having power. The Galileans, having witnessed Jesus’s preaching and acting, exclaimed: “This man has authority not like the scribes” (Mk 1,27). Jesus had no legal authority. He did not belong to the priestly cast, was not a scribe, and was not a doctor of law. But the words he spoke expressed truth that was immediately recognised as such. Moreover, this was sustained by his behaviour.

One may have authority without having power

By now it should be clear that I am distinguishing between power and authority, as the Galileans had done. Some often speak of authority when they really mean power. Power comes from without – it can come through an election, through violence, scheming, deceit, or fraud. It could also be attained legally but subsequently abused. One can also have power because of one’s role, as in the case of parents and teachers.

Authority comes from within. Internal authority requires, among other virtues, a great sense of justice, respect for the dignity of others and love for the common good. In other words, persons with authority are capable of putting their own interest aside every time that it clashes with the good of others. Persons in power do not have authority unless they cherish human values. Having internal authority would strengthen them to use justly and humanly any power that they might have.

Authority comes from cultivating a love for truth and for justice. It also needs to be loyal, not intended to destroy but to produce justice. Persons who act upon their internal authority will probably suffer. It is no wonder that prophets have always been persecuted. However, they are also respected, probably not least by those who persecute them, at least in the very depth of their being, as seems to have been the case of Herod.


Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.