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 Fathers — https://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.
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.
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”
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.