- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Exercising Authority: Not Whether, but How

Frank Hartmann
December 2000

From a distance, I have watched, admired, and prayed for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. Its possibilities touch a deep longing for sharing what is most basic, most important–moving towards God as His people. Cardinal Bernardin’s combination of humanness (for me, mostly his acknowledged fear of death) and aspiration to God have been an example to many. This legacy of his seems to be one of God’s paths for Catholics in our diverse country.

A core part of the Catholic Common Ground conversation has been about authority. I must confess that, on reading some of the material that was written for the Initiative, I didn’t get it. There was no resonance. That may be due to my lack of diligence–am I not working hard enough to understand? Or it may be that I, like most people, attend less to the nature and source of authority and more to the manner in which it is exercised. For the most part, how people experience the exercise of authority is the key element in how they respond to it.

The arenas in which I operate utilize authority. Those that may bear most on the conversation about authority are in my work in criminal justice policy, my experience in facilitating Kennedy School Executive Sessions for the past seventeen years, and in teaching mature students (average age thirty-eight years).

One of the crucial issues in American criminal justice is the relationship between citizens and police. Most often that relationship is experienced on the street in encounters between police officers and citizens whom they stop. In such a stop—for a traffic violation, for suspicious activity, to make an inquiry, to check on something, authority is exercised. The citizen’s desired course of activity is stopped, perhaps arrested. The persons who are most wary of this encounter tend to be minority citizens, especially if they are young males. There are few Black males who do not have unpleasant stories to tell about being stopped by the police.


This tension, both potential and actual, between minority citizens and the police is a striking arena in which one finds that the manner in which authority is utilized is the key element in the encounter. Tom Tyler of New York University has written:[1] [1]

The recent attention to police-citizen interactions in New York has led to a number of in-depth interviews with citizens. One example involved interviews with minority teenagers concerning police stop and frisk efforts to find guns. The teenagers interviewed did not object to being stopped and searched for weapons, per se. Their grievances were about the way the police treated them during the stops. They felt disrespected and demeaned by the police. It was not the negative experience of being stopped that led to mistrust, but the interpersonal treatment experienced.

I find that citizens focus primarily upon the motives of the police officers and judges with whom they deal when deciding whether or not to accept their decisions. If they feel that those authorities are motivated by a . . . concern about them and their welfare, they consent to decisions, even when those decisions involve negative outcomes.

My research shows that the most important factor shaping public trust in police officers and judges is fairness. If people feel that the police officers or judges with whom they have dealt have acted fairly, they are more trusting of those authorities and more willing to accept their decisions. Citizens focus on whether they are treated with respect and dignity, and whether or not they feel that their rights are acknowledged.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive aspect is the suggestion that the police can create and maintain public confidence in situations in which they cannot deliver favorable or desired outcomes (my underline). Yet the findings of my research strongly support this conclusion.

It is counterintuitive indeed that young minority men will readily accept police authority if it is exercised appropriately. This is not wishful conjecture, but findings based on valid research. Professor Tyler was writing for a working session of criminal justice policy makers convened to address the issue of the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Is the system fair, just, and effective? Is it perceived so?

The latter question is just as important as the first, for however just and effective the system might be, if it is not so judged by citizens, they will find alternative ways of dealing with issues that the criminal justice system is meant to address. And the perception of fairness is overwhelmingly dependent on the experience of how authority is exercised.

In my criminal justice experience, Americans demonstrate a strong sense of fairness combined with the attitude that if they are allowed to be heard and taken seriously, they readily accept the exercise of legitimate authority. The desire to be heard and respected is not the same as wanting to take authority from those who legitimately exercise it. On the contrary, when this expectation is met, it lubricates the legitimate exercise of authority.


Another arena in which I see authority exercised is in Executive Sessions convened by the Kennedy School of Government. Executive Sessions are working groups of high level practitioners gathered to address a major public policy issue. The working group of thirty-some persons who constitute an Executive Session meets in off-the-record working sessions two or three times a year for a minimum of three years. Members of the Executive Session take responsibility for implementing the findings of the session and for working to influence the subsequent public discourse.

For example, the Executive Session on Policing initiated its work in 1985 and continued for seven years. It was subsequently described by William Bratton, police commissioner of New York City, as the “birthplace of community policing.” Members included the attorney general of the U.S., the head of Scotland Yard, people from the community, and police chiefs and mayors of several American cities.

Executive Sessions have been utilized to address many issues. Current sessions address “Errors in Medicine” (through four meetings to date), “Indigent Public Defense Systems” (through four meetings), Domestic Terrorism (through three meetings), and the Future of Philanthropy (through two meetings). Kennedy School faculty and staff provide the research necessary to support and move the policy conversation.

I have chaired/facilitated all meetings (65 to 70) of the various Executive Sessions. I am regularly amazed at the authority that the individuals who make up the group cede to the chair. In the exercise of that authority it is important that each voice be included and be early enough in the conversation that each person believes that he/she has been heard. When we convene the members of a new Executive Session for the first time, we devote as much time as necessary for the group to listen to each person.

We ask each person to introduce him/herself to the rest of the group by talking about a success that he or she has had. We ask each also to tell the group about an unmet aspiration, some thing that they have wanted to make happen, but no matter how they have tried, have not been able to pull off.

Each member’s presentation is followed by clarifying questions from other members. The group works to draw the person out. “Tell us more about that, help us to understand what you did,” in effect, ”tell us what you are about. What is it that you hope for?” Thus we always start by authorizing each person to show their value in their own terms, to show their worth, to show what they care about.

This listening, hearing, and valuing, establishes the ground for the subsequent work which necessarily involves different ways of looking at issues, misunderstanding, and disagreement. Yet, without fail, the various working groups have been able to effectively wrestle with thorny issues and move forward.

It is common that, as meetings of an Executive Session proceed, some persons sit back from the table, arms folded across chest, brow furrowed. I have learned that such a person is prone to wait until late in the work of the group only to say at that stage “You know, I’ve been sitting here listening and no one has said X.” The implication is that without having heard X, the conversation is not valid. Because that person has not been included, he or she aims (consciously or unconsciously) to torpedo the work done by the group. Yet, if I as chair reach out to include the person early, to make a place for him or her, that person without fail contributes to the work and is able to move along with the group.


By the third meeting of the working group, individual members are using the ideas and terminology of other members (including those whom they find to be strange bedfellows!) often without attribution. In an atmosphere of substantive work, of listening and reflecting, members of the group go through a sorting out process. They seek what resonates, what is useful to them, what moves them forward. All this in a process in which they are heard and in which they cede authority to the group and to the chair.

Why do they do that? As above, there seems to be something in the American spirit that once heard, is willing to move ahead, to accept resolution even when it is not what the individual would have chosen. To make that movement it is essential to be heard, be listened to, to be acknowledged as of value. And then, even if individuals disagree, they can accept the movement of the group.

More often than not, these working conversations convened over time produce thoughtful general agreement about policies and practice. We do not aim at consensus (too hard, too time consuming, too bland in result) but at producing practical ideas that all recognize as having been generated by the working conversation.

Does this always work and for everyone? No, to both questions. We pick prospective members of an Executive Session very carefully and avoid persons with the reputation for a demonstrated inability to listen and use the ideas of others. Note though that there is no lack of ego in the room. These are successful and important persons, accustomed to operating from positions of power. But, in general, this process works. It seems to reflect values of contemporary America. “Let me be heard, attended to, taken seriously, and I am quite willing to be part of our coming together.” And in the atmosphere of working to listen, working to find common ground, working to make progress, wanting some degree of resolution (not just talk) they show a willingness to give up some ideas and personal objectives in order to achieve it.


Is this a nightmare to some, the loss of personal convictions through a group process? In theory, it could be. In the history of Executive Sessions, not one of these powerful members (now numbering in the hundreds) has ever indicated that he or she experienced it as such. Listening, hearing, taking persons seriously is a powerful instrument. Might we believe that such an instrument based on human desires can be used by God? Might we believe that these are characteristics of God’s people?

Finally, when teaching a class of mature students, I teach with authority, working to move toward resolution. In that process, I noticeably diminish my teaching authority if I take comments as if they were directed at me personally (some are).

When my inner jerk[2] [2] takes over, I act defensively and shut down my ability to listen. I have vacated my authority because I am not listening. The students recognize this even when I am aware of it and am trying to cover it. The real exchange effectively ends and each of us retreats. The students experience authority ill administered. I can only work on this, with prayer, over time. I can only hope that over the long run, I can listen and the students can recognize that, and not have my flawed exercise of authority hinder their learning.

What do criminal justice, Executive Sessions, and the use of authority when teaching say about God’s people? That for reasons both good and bad (but it finally doesn’t make any difference), we all seem to need to be taken seriously, to receive the signs that we are taken seriously, to think of ourselves as included. And as this takes place, we unstiffen our necks and realize our value in God’s eyes. That process allows us to accept authority, to move forward with others, accepting the leadership of others.


Years ago, I read a statement of a French theologian that no American could be saved. It bothered me–what was it in our national character that he objected to, apparently in God’s name? Materialism was part of it, but part also seemed to be our emphasis on the individual. In my experience, that is more apparent than real. Yes, we are individualistic, we do concentrate on individual rights. But Americans clearly acknowledge and accept authority. We have a Constitution that spells out this authority and it has stood the test of time.


The effectiveness of the exercise of authority in America is measured by its ability to continually gather us into a people moving within boundaries in a common direction. In my experience in different arenas, we as a people are much more effectively dealt with when we have a sense of inclusion in the process, of being genuinely listened to, of being heard, of being respected. Having been heard, included, we go along, usually pretty happily. We accept authority.

For years, I have been drawn again and again to the gospel situation in which Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. For a very long time, it seemed to me as if Jesus was harsh and authoritarian in speaking with that woman. But at some stage, I was allowed to see that He was working with her, that He was starting with who she was and where she was in life. How might He reach her, how might she hear Him? He clearly wanted this. There was an exchange between them and she was neither meek nor readily compliant. He worked with her; he did not just command her. He wanted her to hear and understand, and to follow. While He never backed away from speaking directly and with authority, it was not an impersonal exercise of authority.

It is hard to be in authority. It is easy to be impatient. It is easy to shut down, to raise one’s voice, to bluster. It is painful to realize how flawed (our common inner jerk?) each of us is when called to exercise authority. Those among God’s people who are called to this exercise need our prayers, our empathy, our understanding, our realization that we too are prone to stop listening when we feel that we are not listened to, not taken seriously.

The American situation regarding the exercise of authority is that we are not stuck in a position of insistence and resistance. Our common character, our need to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be included is not a nettlesome obstacle to the working of authority. It is the lubricant that allows authority to be taken seriously. It is a blessing for God’s Church.