In the liberal atmosphere that permeates Western culture, obedience has been greatly abused as an excuse for great evil. However, obedience is a virtue and Catholics are supposed to seek to continually increase in virtue. This leads to the question: How does a Catholic obey both their religious and civil superiors when they are obviously perpetrating evil laws and doctrines?
The answer provided by the Catholic Church is surprisingly simple: God does not require blind obedience to all commands.
In this article, we will review the Catholic teaching on obedience and its practice in the modern world.
Obedience in the Church of Christ
Because the Church has discussed obedience at length throughout the ages, forming an opinion aligned with the mind of the Church should not be difficult. In this age of immediate access to information, three authorities are readily available: Catechism of the Council of Trent, St. Thomas, and St. Ignatius of Loyola.
- Catechism of the Council of Trent
The Catechism of Trent discusses obedience as part of the its treatment of the Fourth Commandment and one section deals specifically the obedience due to Bishops and Priests.
The Apostle also teaches that they are entitled to obedience: Obey your prelates, and be subject to them; for they watch as being to render an account of your souls. Nay, more. Christ the Lord commands obedience even to wicked pastors: Upon the chair of Moses have sitten the scribes and Pharisees: all things, therefore, whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do; but according to their works do ye not, for they say and do not.
The key points of this teaching are obvious: Bishops and Priests are entitled to our obedience as they are responsible for the salvation of our souls. Moreover, this obligation is not limited to good and holy priests, but also to 'wicked pastors'. In this light we are admonished to not follow their wicked example but to observe and do 'whatsoever they shall say to you'.
To a casual reader, it may appear as if subordinates should obey all orders from bad priests, bishops, and Popes regardless of the nature of the order. However, in the 1923 edition of the catechism there are footnotes that direct the reader to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.
On the honour and obedience due to ecclesiastical superiors see Summa Theol. 2a. 2Ae (Second Part of the Second Part) cii. (102) civ (104) 5; ....
- Summa Theologica – St. Thomas Aquinas
It should be of no surprise that the Catechism of the Council of Trent refers the reader to the Summa. After all, for hundreds of years it was the 'go-to' reference manual for understanding key areas of Catholic theology.
St. Thomas establishes that observance (question 102), rendering honour and respect to those in a position of dignity, is exercised by "rendering him service, by obeying his commands, and by repaying him, according to one's faculty, for the benefits we received from him". Further, this service is owed to the person in a position of authority, not because of themselves, but because of the position of dignity that they occupy. Disobedience to the superior is counted by St. Thomas as a mortal sin as it is "contrary to the love of God" and the "love of our neighbour".
In article 5 of question 104, St. Thomas proceeds to define the framework for obedience due to superiors – outside of which obedience is not obligatory and may even be sinful.
The first criteria is that the order cannot contradict the law of God, as He is the "first mover of all wills", all are bound to obey the divine command under justice (Q104, article 4 & 5). One example employed by St. Thomas is the chain of command within a hierarchy. In this he states: "If a commissioner issue an order, are you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul?" Ultimately, he ends his example with an order given by the Emperor stating "... if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God".
Simply put, if at any point within the hierarchy an order is given that requires the subject to sin, the order is to be disregarded. This sinful order can be structured in two ways. Either the nature of the thing commanded is sinful or the command is to disobey a legitimate order.
Sin can be divided into the immediate, proximate and remote cases. In the immediate case, the order in and of itself is directly sinful, such as a command to break the First Commandment. In the proximate case, a command involves a situation in which it is likely the person will fall into mortal sin, such as an order to a reformed alcoholic to visit a tavern for a glass of water. In the remote case, the occasion lacks both characteristics. Catholics are obliged to avoid the immediate and proximate occasions of sin, but have no obligation to avoid remote occasions.
The second criteria is that, the order provided by the superior must be within the "sphere of his authority". Obviously, different types of superiors have different domains in which it is licit for them to issue orders. For example, a person's manager can only issue orders that pertain to their employment. A religious superior can only issue orders that fall within the "mode of life" ( clerical, monastic, mendicant, military, hospitaller) as expressed by vows taken and the rule of the order. For example, a religious superior can issue an order to transfer a member of their order to another monastery or house of the order. St. Thomas states that a subject who obeys an order outside of the sphere of authority, but does not require sin, practices "perfect obedience". This is due to the lack of no obligation to obey but they submit their will to the superior nonetheless.
St. Thomas concludes by identifying three types of obedience:
-Sufficient for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one
is bound to obey:
-Perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful:
-Indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful.
Therefore, following St. Thomas, we arrive at two criteria for obedience:
-The command does not require the inferior to sin, either in the
immediate or proximate case.
-The command is within the sphere of the superior's authority
These various conditions for obedience can be summarized in a 2x2 matrix as shown in Table 1: upper right
In summary, following St. Thomas' reasoning, if an order is within the sphere of authority and does not involve sin, then the subject has an obligation to obey and commits a mortal sin if he disobeys.
If the same order is outside the sphere of authority, then St. Thomas states it is perfect obedience to submit one's will to that of their superior.
Finally, it is sinful to obey an order that involves sin (is against the law of God).
- The Obedience of the Jesuits
There is one religious order that is usually put forward as the paragon of obedience: The Jesuits.
While according to Fr. Harvanek SJ, the Jesuit practice of obedience changed after the Second Vatican Council, we are primarily concerned with how St. Ignatius understood obedience and its ideal practice within the Jesuits. A letter to the Portuguese Jesuit, penned by St. Ignatius in 1553, describes in detail the ideal of perfect obedience.
In this letter, St. Ignatius exhorts the Portuguese Jesuits to a very high degree of obedience and as the word cloud of the top 100 words (see image below) shows how the words superior and obedience dominate the letter.
This theme of obedience to the superior is reinforced throughout the letter, with little or no distinctions concerning the content of the command. The Jesuits are exhorted to humble themselves by obeying the least command of their superiors, to internalize this humility and to desire internally nothing other than that desired by the superior.
Near the end of the letter St. Ignatius deals with the concept of 'blind obedience' – that if taken out of context could lead to a great deal of trouble.
The third means to subject the understanding which is even easier and surer, and in use among the holy Fathers, is to presuppose and believe, very much as we are accustomed to do in matters of faith, that what the superior enjoins is the command of God our Lord and His holy will. Then to proceed blindly, without injury of any kind, to the carrying out of the command, with the prompt impulse of the will to obey. So we are to think Abraham did when commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen. 22:2-3]. Likewise, under the new covenant, some of the holy Fathers to whom Cassian refers, as the Abbot John, who did not question whether what he was commanded was profitable or not, as when with such great labour he watered a dry stick throughout a year. Or whether it was possible or not, when he tried so earnestly at the command of his superior to move a rock which a large number of men would not have been able to move.
We see that God our Lord sometimes confirmed this kind of obedience with miracles, as when Maurus, Saint Benedict's disciple, going into a lake at the command of his superior, did not sink. Or in the instance of another, who being told to bring back a lioness, took hold of her and brought her to his superior. And you are acquainted with others. What I mean is that this manner of subjecting one's own judgment, without further inquiry, supposing that the command is holy and in conformity with God's will, is in use among the saints and ought to be imitated by any one who wishes to obey perfectly in all things, where manifestly there appears no sin. ( http://www.library.georgetown.edu/woodstock/ignatius-letters/letter25 )
If someone were to read the letter, missing or dismissing the highlighted sentence, the Catholic world would be led into ruin. Without this key phrase, the Church would be led to believe that whatever "the superior enjoins is the command of God our Lord and His holy will".
While St. Ignatius differs with St. Thomas concerning the degree of virtue of simply obeying a superior's commands, they agree on the key element: A sinful command cannot be obeyed.
Principles in Practice
Unfortunately, many examples of sinful obedience and disobedience are readily available since the end of the Second World War.
I've selected two recent events in the life of the Church as examples: Summorum Pontificum and Amoris Laetitia.
- Summorum Pontificum
In 2007, Pope Benedict issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. In the Motu Proprio we find the following statement:
Art. 5. § 1 In parishes, where there is a stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition, the pastor should willingly accept their requests to celebrate the Mass according to the rite of the Roman Missal published in 1962, and ensure that the welfare of these faithful harmonizes with the ordinary pastoral care of the parish, under the guidance of the bishop in accordance with canon 392, avoiding discord and favouring the unity of the whole Church. (Summorum Pontificum)
For context we find that Canon 392 requires the bishop of a diocese to protect the unity of the Church by exercising vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline.
Can. 392 §1. Since he must protect the unity of the universal Church, a bishop is bound to promote the common discipline of the whole Church and therefore to urge the observance of all ecclesiastical laws.
§2. He is to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the saints, and the administration of goods.
The order of the Pope is simply that Pastor's should provide the 1962 liturgy when requested in accordance with Canon 392.
With the hindsight provided by the passage of time, we know that the majority of Bishops and Priests did not 'willingly' provide the 1962 liturgy. In fact, there are numerous accounts of Bishops putting barriers in place to thwart the explicit intention of Summorum Pontificum. I know of one case in particular where the local ordinary refused to grant permission to the Tridentine Mass (ie. 1962 liturgy) and it wasn't until the laity could appeal to Ecclesia Dei that the bishop acquiesced.
Following the principles discussed above what can we conclude?
-Is it within the sphere of the Pope's authority to issue such a
command? Answer: Yes
-Is there immediate or proximate sin involved in the command?
The conclusion that we can reach, following St. Thomas, is that those who disobey the precepts of Summorum Pontificum, are committing the sin of disobedience. If a priest decided to say the Tridentine Mass, disobeying his superior to do so, he would not since as he is obeying the explicit order of a higher authority: The Pope.
See Table 2 : upper right.
- Amoris Laetitia
The second example is more delicate as it deals with the recent manifestation of the Pope's desire in Amoris Laetitia to allow those Catholics to receive Holy Communion who have abandoned their spouses and are living in an objective state of cohabitation with another man or woman.
Here are the objective teachings of the Catholic Church:
-A Catholic who obtains a civil divorce, is still considered married to
their spouse in the eye of God and His Church. Until such time as
the Church, after investigating the facts, concludes that the
formation of the Catholic marriage was frustrated.
-To have marital relations outside of marriage is a mortal sin.
-To knowingly receive the Holy Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is
the sin of sacrilege
-To enable the sin of sacrilege is in itself sinful.
Following Catholic Teaching, carrying out an order (tacit or explicit) to provide communion to Catholics who purport to be remarried civilly is objectively sinful.
Following St. Thomas Aquinas' principles we can conclude that:
-It is within the Pope's authority to issue regulations concerning the
reception of Holy Communion? Answer: Yes
-Is there is immediate or proximate sin involved in the command to
knowingly provide communion to persons living in an objective
state of mortal sin? Answer: Yes!
The conclusion that we can reach is that any who obey the order to give communion to Catholic 'divorcees' objectively are committing the sin of sacrilege. If a priest decided to refuse to do so, disobeying his superior, he would not commit the sin of disobedience as his is obeying the explicit order of a higher authority: God.
See Table 3 : upper right.
The degree of virtue attached to obedience depends upon the nature of the order. It is not virtuous to obey an order that is sinful, as God must be obeyed in all things. It is virtuous to obey an order that is not sinful and falls within the superior's sphere of authority. There is greater virtue in obeying a sinless order that falls outside the superior's sphere of authority.
Dealing with explicitly sinful or sinless orders is simple. Dealing with orders that may be proximately sinful is more difficult as it requires us to practice the virtue of prudence in order to rightly determine whether or not to obey.
Obedience is a virtue that must be practised prudently!
Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas : http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/SS/SS104.html#SSQ104OUTP1
Letter of St. Ignatius to the Portuguese Jesuits: http://www.library.georgetown.edu/woodstock/ignatius-letters/letter25