Authority in Church history – blind obedience or personal judgment

We find two opposite approaches to obedience in Church history, one, that puts such value on obedience as to marginalize nearly every other consideration, another, that would measure every obedience by how well an authority corresponds to the truth or to authentic christian tradition – as judged by the one who was expected to obey.

The practice and teaching on obedience in the Catholic tradition has likely tended rather to excess in the way of blind obedience than to excess in the way of personal judgment. A tendency thereto is at any rate not surprising, given that the christian tradition, going back to Christ, e.g., “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10,16) and to St. Paul, has seen in the obedience owed to man, an obedience “to the Lord”, to God himself. (Eph 5: 21; Col 3:22-24)

Blind/unconditional obedience in the spiritual tradition

“8. Once a man who wanted to become a monk came to see Sisois of the Thebaid. The hermit asked him, ‘Have you any ties in the world?’ He said, ‘I have a son.’ He said to him, ‘Go and throw him in the river, and then you can be a monk.’ He went to throw his boy into the river, but the hermit sent a monk to stop him. He was already holding his son ready to throw him in, when the brother said, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ He said, ‘The abba told me to throw him in.’ The brother said, ‘Now the abba says, do not throw him in.’ So he left his son, and came back to the hermit; and tested by such obedience he became a strong monk.” Sayings of the desert Fathershttps://erenow.net/common/the-desert-fathers/15.php

“That it might be more thoroughly tested whether he would make affection and love for his own flesh and blood of more account than obedience and Christian mortification (which all who renounce the world ought out of love to Christ to prefer), the child was on purpose neglected and dressed in rags instead of proper clothes… And further, he was exposed to blows and slaps from different people, which the father often saw inflicted without the slightest reason on his innocent child under his very eyes… And when the Superior of the Cœnobium saw his steadfastness of mind and immovable inflexibility, in order thoroughly to prove the constancy of his purpose, one day when he had seen the child crying, he pretended that he was annoyed with him and told the father to throw him into the river. Then he, as if this had been commanded him by the Lord, at once snatched up the child as quickly as possible, and carried him in his arms to the river's bank to throw him in. And straightway in the fervour of his faith and obedience this would have been carried out in act, had not some of the brethren been purposely set to watch the banks of the river very carefully, and when the child was thrown in, had somehow snatched him from the bed of the stream, and prevented the command, which was really fulfilled by the obedience and devotion of the father, from being consummated in act and result.”

And this man's faith and devotion was so acceptable to God that it was immediately approved by a divine testimony. For it was immediately revealed to the Superior that by this obedience of his he had copied the deed of the patriarch Abraham. (John Cassian, Institutes, Book IV, Ch. 27,28) https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/350704.htm

Blind/unconditional obedience in theology

First Rule. The first: All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the Church Hierarchical.

Ninth Rule. Finally, to praise all precepts of the Church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defence and in no manner against them.

Tenth Rule. We ought to be more prompt to find good and praise as well the Constitutions and recommendations as the ways of our Superiors. Because, although some are not or have not been such, to speak against them, whether preaching in public or discoursing before the common people, would rather give rise to fault-finding and scandal than profit;

Thirteenth Rule. To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.

St. Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises (emphasis added), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/ignatius/exercises.xix.v.html

Ignatius here calls for more than external obedience to precepts of the Church and of superiors, but considers “thinking with the Church” to require one from abstaining from critical words or even thoughts against them.

And that, even when they are imprudent, as long as they do not command “manifest sin”.

3… The superior is not to be obeyed because he is highly prudent, very good, or qualified by any other gift of God our Lord, but rather because he holds his place and authority—as eternal Truth has said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me.” Nor, on the other hand, should he be any less obeyed in his capacity as superior if he is less prudent, for he represents the person of him who is infallible wisdom and who will make up for any shortcomings in his minister

… 7 … Whoever aims at making a complete and perfect oblation of himself must, in addition to his will, offer his understanding. … He must not only have the same will as the superior bur also be of the same mind as he, submitting his own judgment to the superior’s to the extent that a devoted will is able to influence the understanding.

8. For while the understanding does not enjoy the same freedom as the will and by nature gives its assent to whatever is presented to it as true, nevertheless, in many matters where the evidence of the known truth is not compelling, it can, by the will’s intervention, incline to one side rather than the other; and in such matters every truly obedient person should incline himself to think the same as his superior.

… 11. For if we look to the purpose of obedience, it is just as possible for our understanding to be mistaken about what is good as it is for our will. Hence, if we think it right to conform our will to the superior’s to prevent it from going wrong, we should also conform our understanding to his to keep it from going wrong. “Do not rely upon your own prudence,” says Scripture.

“Letter on Obedience” https://jesuitportal.bc.edu/research/documents/1553_ignatiusonobedience/

The only restriction on this absolute obedience in action, will and intellect is where “manifest sin is evident.” (Ibid, 24.)

While St. Ignatius, reacting to the protestant rejection of church authority, is particularly extreme, similarly citations from the christian tradition could be multiplied.

Personal judgment

The christian tradition knows also the maxim “an unjust law is no law.” (St. Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio i, 5 “A law which is not just does not seem to me to be a law.” “Lex mihi esse non videtur, quae iusta non fuerit.”

This principle, made famous in the 20th century by Martin Luther King, citing St. Augustine and Aquinas (https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf) provides a corrective to blind obedience. While a superior’s authority may be derived from God and from Christ, and so in obeying him one may be obeying Christ, the superior does not always truly represent God, and therefore need not always be obeyed, indeed in some case must not be obeyed.

But who may judge a law to be unjust or unreasonable? Some groups connected with the Franciscans, such as the Beghards, seem to have been convinced that the rule of Francis and poverty were so in accordance with the gospel, that any decree from the pope modifying or diminishing them would be unjust and therefore not binding.

They say that if the pope changes something in the rule of Saint Francis, adds something to it, or subtracts something from it (especially concerning the vow of poverty), or if he annuls the aforesaid rule, he acts against the gospel of Christ and neither a Friar Minor nor anyone else is required to obey him in the matter, however much he may command it or excommunicate those not obeying him, because such excommunication would be unjust and not binding. (Bernhard Gui, Inquisitor’s Manual: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/bernardgui-inq.asp)

According to the moral theory of probabilism, it would seem, indeed, that whenever an individual is sincerely in doubt about whether a law or command is unreasonable or unjust, and, consequently, sincerely in doubt about whether that law or command is morally binding on him, he is morally free to obey or not to obey.

Joining the idea that unjust or unreasonable laws are not binding with the theory of probabilism that in the case of sincere doubt we are not bound, but free, we end up, in effect, with an altogether opposite approach than the blind obedience favored by many christian authors. Since an unjust law is not binding and might even be contrary to a higher law, one is not only permitted but may be obliged to consider whether a given law is just or unjust. And in the event of any serious doubt, one is not bound to follow the law.

The dilemma

Blind obedience may lead you to cover up sexual and moral abuse, to ride roughshod over the conscience of those deemed beyond reason, whether those are the “woke” or the “deplorables”, or to cooperate in a new holocaust.

The opposite extreme, refusing to grant legitimacy to whatever decision one holds is erroneous, whether a decision of church authority you reject because you hold it to be harmful to the Church, the election of the president – “not my president”, or a court decision, whether one such as Obergefell or Dobbs, if followed consistently, can spiral into schism, civil war, anarchy, or totalitarianism, the enforcement of the position of the strongest parties by brute force.

The mean of virtue

What are the alternatives?

Between “always obey”, and “obey only when the decision seems to you to be right”, there are a number of middle positions.

  • “Obey, unless you are sure (beyond doubt) that the law or command is wrong and seriously harmful”.
  • “Obey, unless you are sure (beyond doubt) that the law or command is wrong”.
  • “On matters of grave importance, obey, unless you are sure beyond doubt that the law or command is wrong; on matters of minor importance, if a law is merely probably harmful, it is not binding”
  • etc.

As is true of human and moral matters in general, it will not be possible to establish a definite golden mean that will be valid for all peoples and times, as virtue lies not in an absolute but in a relative mean. But we can try to establish a number of generally valid principles and guidelines to navigate in the murky conditions of a pluralistic civil and ecclesial society. In the next posts, I want to make an attempt at this, beginning with St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of authority and obedience.

Authority in the COVID-pandemic – the extremes of blind obedience or personal judgment

In the past two years, various health measures have been set down by governors, ministers or church authorities, such as restrictions on gatherings, prohibition of public Masses, or the wearing of masks. In the responses to these measures, two greatly contrasting approaches to obedience have revealed themselves.

Some argued: those are the rules, laid down by legitimate authorities, so you have to follow them, and to disobey them is sinful. (1)

On the other side, some argued that, e.g., wearing a mask would be a sin, because giving in to this unjust and unreasonable demand is supporting an unjust “system”. (2)

More commonly, it was argued that, if the claimed reasons for mask wearing could be called into doubt, mask wearing could not be mandatory. More or less “I don’t think masks are necessary, so I’m not morally obliged to wear one”

Taken to one extreme, obedience to authority’s dictate would leave no room for reason and conscience; taken to the other extreme, the subjection of the authority to the judgment of each individual would remove authority’s ability to regulate matters on which there is no consensus about what is reasonable.

What was particularly striking in this case was that many, generally reasonable persons, on both sides of the issue, considered the case to be so obvious that those who disagreed with them must be stupid, wicked, or both. In not a few cases, friendships were broken over the issue.

The contrast between the “authoritarian” and “discerning” or “libertarian” views of obedience was particularly vivid and evoked strong emotions in the past years. But these contrasting views have a long history in philosophy, politics, and the Church.

References

(1) Examples at:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavius-pope/pope-says-obey-rules-during-exit-from-coronavirus-lockdowns-idUSKCN22A0VM

http://www.jeffvanderstelt.com/blog/year/day/month/covid-19-submission-to-authority

https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/obeying-government-and-obeying-god/50660

https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/my-threshold-for-civil-disobedience-in-a-covid19-world/

(2) (E.g., “it’s contrary to the common good to continue to go along with an attempted communist takeover of the United States, which is what’s happening.” – https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/45692/denver-archdiocese-fssp-evaluating-priest-who-told-catholics-to-disobey-bishop-on-mask-wearing

and https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/bishop-christians-must-refuse-covid-vaccine-derived-from-aborted-babies-even-if-it-means-martyrdom/ – while not quite explicitly stating this – I also know some people personally who argued along these lines)

Homily on 5th Sunday of Lent, Year A, 2020

In recent weeks nearly the whole world has become occupied, with increasing intensity, with the corona virus. We see a great deal of solidarity, willingness to sacrifice, readiness to change. Great force are unleashed, because here one of the deepest human drives is implicated, the survival instinct. Like other animals, we have a fundamental drive to survive.

At the same time, we know that we at some point will die. How does this knowledge affect us? Our life can be an attempt to extend the short span of life as long as possible. Some wealthy persons invest a great deal in research, from which they hope for breakthroughs in extending human life. Some persons avoid everything wherein they see every the slightest risk: fear of dying turns into fear of living. Others attempt to supress death by simply ignoring and not thinking about it.

Our life can be an attempt, to get as much as possible from life: to work, to do and accomplish many things, to experience and enjoy many things, or simply to experience as consciously as possible everything going on in our life.

The thought that has become much more present with the current crisis, that I myself or someone close to me could be seriously or even fatally struck, can cause fear, or it can strengthen the desire and resolution to live each day as well as we can: "live every day (and every week, and every month), as though it were your last," as many saints have encouraged for the past millennia.

Death is a tremendous reality. Jesus knows well the purpose in Lazarus's death, indeed he "is glad" that he was not there to prevent his death. Yet he also, with Maria of Bethany, wept over the death of Lazarus, one of only two times recorded in the Gospel that Jesus wept. Jesus knows the depth of the darkness of death.

And Jesus gives us hope. His words to Martha are spoken and written for us as well: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

The worldwide developments can challenge faith, if Martha's observation, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," becomes, today: "If God exists, all of this would not be happening." But all who, with Martha, confess, "Yes, Lord; I believe, that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world", find comfort in Christ's solidarity with those dying in sorrow, find hope and confidence in the surety of the victory of life over death.

Towards the end of Lent the Church reminds us yearly of the reality of death from the perspective of the hope that Christ's life, death and resurrection gives us. For the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead will give life, meaning and hope to our mortal life and our concern for physical and spiritual life of our brothers and sisters, the beginning of eternal life in us.

March 28, 2020 – The Lamb of God

"I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter." (Jer 11:19) One who does not attempt to escape his fate. Jeremiah and Isaiah, too, use the image of a lamb led to slaughter. Christ Jesus is this lamb of God, who does not fulfill his will by force, but is handed out without resisting, and thus the salvation of man is accomplished: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Joh 1:29)

Death is a consequence of sin; God had provided otherwise for man. Giving himself unto death, Jesus takes this consequence upon himself, "bore the sins of man." Not as though God requires punishment and sacrifice in order to satisfy his anger. Indeed, God gives himself, enters into even this aspect of human history, when Jesus suffers and dies for us, so that suffering and death have gone from being a punishment and consequence of sin, to being a place in which love is manifested. In the sacrifice of Christ, it is not the degree of suffering that matters, but the love that is the root of merit.

Even in human life there are situations that can only be made whole by a voluntary sacrifice. Sick persons in need of help (many doctors and nurses are sacrificing themselves now to treat the sick), crises in relationships… often enough only love that is willing to sacrifice can provide a remedy. Christ's death is the sacrifice in which God's love and thus his glory is manifested in this way.

This love made manifest on the cross, in the suffering and death of Christ, is present in the Eucharist. "This is my body, which will be given for you." It is Christ himself who renders praise to the Father and gives himself to us under the appearance of bread. The Eucharist is not only a banquet; it is the presence of Christ's sacrifice. Even if we cannot at this time celebrate this banquet together, the Lord remains present among us in this sacrament, to comfort us in fears and suffering, to strength us, to turn us with thanksgiving and trust to our God and Father.

March 27, 2020 – Life and Death

We're all going to die.

Not of the corona virus. Some will die, but as a society we will survive it. But all of us will die some time; we are powerless to prevent that. What is in our power, is to live well.

In the current crisis discussions are going on about how much we can demand or expect from people in order to save lives, or to limit illness and death? The controversy over the prohibition of smoking in restaurants in Austria, which was drawn out over many years, touched on a similar question: does the concern for the health of third parties justify limiting the rights of individuals (e.g., smokers or owners of restaurants)? Opinions are scattered over a wide spectrum: some believe that measures should have been taken earlier and been ever more strict; others believe that the current measures are already excessive.

The christian faith could possibly play a mediating role in this discussion. We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved us unto death, and who rose again from the dead. So we are convinced: death is not the worst thing that can happen and health is not the most important thing; the most important thing in life is love and death is, for the one who believes and loves, the door to eternal life. Thus christian faith "relativizes" fear in the face of a pandemic by giving us a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and of death.

But christian charity also moves us to be concerned and to take care for others as for ourselves. And so the christian faith also confirms the importance of taking the risk of the illness seriously, out of love for our brothers and sisters who could be hit by it.

The Gospels show Jesus consciously and willingly embracing his death, yet also experiencing fear of suffering and death, show his conviction of the victory of life over death, yet also weeping over the death of Lazarus.

It is a fruitful paradox of Christianity. Because we believe in the victory of God's love over death, we are empowered to more intensely value life and to champion it.

March 26, 2020 – Soldiering On or Enjoying

Today is the 11th day of the Stay-at-Home orders in Austria, though it feels like quite a bit longer. The days are so unusual, they feel longer. A couple days ago the government hinted again that it will be quite some time before we can return to "normal life" again, and the return can only be step by step. For those suffering in the current conditions and merely hoping that the whole thing will be over as soon as possible, that is likely unpleasant news.

We can, however, to a significant extent ourselves determine the effect these things have on us. Our we experience the (necessary) new circumstances depends not only on the external situation and our job, but also on our attitude.

I myself am neither out of a job nor required to work more intensely than before, as the police, medical personell and a number of other professionals have to. Pastoral care and parish life continues, though contact takes place mostly by telephone, email and the like. In addition, I am an introvert and enjoy peace and quiet. Still, I miss more personal contact with people, and I can sympathize with those who need such contact much more, or who are out of a job or concerned about it, or who struggle with homeschooling for the first time, and who find the current situation rather burdensome.

One thing that helps me is to be attentive to see the opportunities to be found in the present circumstances, as well as the many things for which to be grateful. E.g., to have somewhat more time to listen to music or to make music, or to clean up, organize or fix various things in my apartment, or to pray, especially in the evenings, when there are usually so many meetings, catecheses, etc. In larger society, it is a blessing to see the solidarity and mutual help given at this time.

That doesn't mean we should pretend everything is rosy; it is not. There is not a little human suffering that we should attend to, quite a bit of sacrifice and deprivation is needed. We can, however, give this assistance and make these sacrifices better from a position of strength, of hope, of joy in the graces God is working this time. In this sense, I hope and pray that all of us can experience this strange and unusual time as a time of blessings.

March 25, 2020 – Feast of the Annunciation

"Behold, I come to do your will, o God." Beginning with the narrative of man’s fall, the whole Bibel tells of the consequences of man’s rejection of God: suffering, death, social and political division, war, and it tells the Gospel, the good news of God’s plan to transform that rejection into acceptance.

This “Yes” has a central place in today’s feast, the Annunciation. Nine months before Christmas, the Lord’s birth, this feast recalls: God himself becomes man, affirms the humanity that he created, and enables man to say a wholehearted, sincere “yes” to God, and to himself, despite destructive, sinful and egoistic tendencies present in him after the fall.

Mary lived from the very beginning in a deep relationship to her child and Lord, a relationship oriented towards her maternity, but rooted in the first place in her faith. In faith she spoke her “Yes”, gave her assent to the Lord’s word to her, revealed through the angel Gabriel. Through this obedience of faith the wonder took place, which we venerate in adoration: God became man, Immanuel, God with us.

As Eve’s and Adam’s disobedience stands at the beginning of humanity’s disobedience, so Mary expresses this obedience of faith, as the new “Eve”, for humanity and for the whole Church, which believes in God, hopes in him, and loves him. We are called with her to renew our assent to God and to his plan for us.

That means for me and each of us: to affirm and to do what I can to achieve my goals and to improve my part of the world in some way. But it also means to accept the world as it is, in a state of imperfection and on a journey, which its uncertainty, its tensions. And it means above all, to trust that God accompanies, calls, and fills us with his grace, that all things lead to good for those who love Him.

March 24, 2020 – Call to Conversion

"See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you" (Jn 5,14).

Some would see in the coronavirus a divine punishment for man's sins. Christ, when asked about the man born blind, rejects the notion that sickness is punishment for an individual's sins. Neither he sinned nor his parents, that he was born blind, but so that God might be glorified (Jn 9:3). Elsewhere Christ sees indicates one may sse catastrophes and injustice as a call to repentance and conversion. (Lk 13,1-5)

In a televised interview on Sunday, Cardinal Schönborn in this vein expressed the hope, that "some rethinking is done in economic matters, but also in regards to the personal lifestyle of each one of us…. is it necessary to fly for the weekend to London to go shopping? Is it necessary to spend Christmas on the Maldives? Is it necessary to take a luxury cruise with 4000 people on a ship? Do there have to be 200,000 aircraft flights a day?

It is not a matter of refraining from what is in human power to hinder suffering and sickness, but of, more than this, seeing the big picture from a perspective of faith and christian hope. We have the certitude of faith, God does not abandon us, and for those who love him, he leads all things to good. (Rom 8,28) And does that also through the rethinking, changes and conversion for which a pandemic and its consequences can be the occasion.

March 23, 2020 – New Heavens and a New Earth

"Thus says the LORD: Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind." (Isa 65:17). Isaiah transmits the Lord's promise to give God's faithful yet suffering people courage: the victory will be won, finally, neither by unjust human powers nor by unfeeling powers of nature, which can repress and destroy life, but the power of love, which makes alive. God will create a new world, in which no one dies young, in which everyone is in the position to build a house for themselves and to live there.

The prophecy doesn't reject the present world so as to base hope merely in a distant future, along the lines "this world may be hopeless, but it will pass away, and I will create another." The hope is related not principally to the future, but to God, whose fidelity and love is greater than all disasters and all evil.

Many centuries later, many persons still suffer from injustice and the consequences of the forces of nature. There is still much hatred, injustice and destruction in the world. Yet what was promised to God's people can also be seen today. Where men and women trust that the victory belongs to love and goodness, and in this hope champion the winning cause, take courage to do their best to further it, we find a participation here and now in the promised new world, a gleam of this tremendous hope even in the midst of darkness.

Homily on 4th Sunday of Lent, year A

March 22, 2020

Light of the World

Are the Chinese responsible for the outbreak of the Coronavirus that is making such a stir and is bringing so much suffering and uncertainty? Or the governments?

Similarly the disciples ask: „Who is responsible for this man’s blindness? It can only be the result of sin? Is he guilty, or his parents?”

It is human and normal to ask the question, why did that happen?

In the encounter with the man born blind, Jesus focuses not on the past, bot on the future. He is not blind, because something was, but that something happen: so that healing take place, to show that whatever happens, God is with us a God of the living, as light in the world. Jesus does not pose the question of guilt, but of purpose and meaning: what meaning can we find or bring into the situation?

This is a an encouraging word and an invitation for us, when we feel unsettled in the face of risks to health or one’s financial situation? As he was present to the man born blind, so he is with us in this uncertain situation. Jesus gave the blind man bodily, but also, and even more, spiritual vision, let him perceive God’s intervention in history in recognizing Jesus as a prophet. God wills to open our eyes, too, to see and create meaning in the present happenings.

The new corona sickness may bring suffering and various worries. Many have relatives who are particularly at risk or are themselves at risk, some are out of a job or worry about keeping their job.

The sickness and its spreading is however also an occasion to rethink various things, on the political level, such as globalization and the foundation, but also with a vew to our daily life.

We experience and show much solidarity precisely in these present times, the willingness to sacrifice to protect or to help others. And we may take joy and consolation in this. God is at work here, too.

It was hope for healing that moved the blind man to obey Jesus’s command, to go and wash himself. The hope that fills our hearts, springing from faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the victory over death itself, can help us to keep a positive, even confident and joyful attitude. In our daily work that continues, in taking various precautions, in helping others in this time, we have confidence: the LORD is with us, in HIM is our hope and our salvation. Let us encourage and enhearten one another with this hope. Some things we have to bear, but we can and should see various positive aspects of the changes and developments taking place.

Let us remain in contact with one another, and let us pray for one another, that Jesus, the light of the world, enlighten our communion and this present time.