On Obedience: A Letter to Catholics in Distress
Wisdom from St. Paul, St. Basil, and St. Matthew
The following letter is based on notes shared with me some time ago by a friend who has given me permission to edit and synthesize them. The immediate recipient is envisioned as a priest with the care of souls, but the principles permit of wide application.—PAK
It is not only you who live under an obligation of obedience—a virtue that extends, as you say, right up to the person of the Pope—but all of us children of the Church are called to the virtue of obedience, and that totally, for Our Lord’s sake, for the sake of entering inwardly into His own cleaving to the Father in his human soul and will, unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
The great difficulty comes when, in the midst of this piety, we have a superior who is himself disobedient in grave matters, that is, of the moral and doctrinal order, and when the exercise of authority is swathed in a fog of plausible language pleasing to the spirit of the age. So strong is the cult of an uninformed kind of hyperpapalism that it takes some intestinal fortitude, so to speak, to discern when, and what, one must disobey—or certainly not consent to—from so lofty a superior. I am reminded of the Nuremberg trials: before law and jurisprudence were corrupted by legal positivism, “obedience to superiors” was not admitted as a defense for the commission of crimes. These secular courts, as they were then, expected that there was an instinct of moral conscience that should alert the subordinate to the heinousness, and therefore the unlawfulness, of certain commands from superiors.
This holds true spiritually, too. When intimidation and hence timidity prevail in these crises, it lays bare, I think, that the real basis of our ecclesial obedience may be pivoting on too human and social a basis, and not truly from God and in Christ, in the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5). It takes the really obedient—those who obey in the soul-dredging, Christ-conformed sense—to be able to be “disobedient” in such disturbing situations. This is not, in fact, to practice disobedience, but a true, stripped-naked kind of obedience in union with Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). There may well be a severe personal cost involved.