Obedience Print
By Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 06 May 2012

In his recent Holy Thursday homily, Pope Benedict cited the call by some clergy in Europe to be disobedient. Of course, obedience is not popular for a whole host of reasons. Most of them are psychological and so really are not at issue here.

One cultural reason is that obedience to an earthly superior, a priest or a bishop, is thought to be demeaning. But the logic is off. You can only be obedient if the superior (another politically incorrect word) is asking for something that is morally good. So how demeaning could that be?

Doing good is what we are here for and yet we do not always personally know what the particular good is. There is no higher moral good than following Christ. Pastors, religious superiors and bishops are only here to help people follow Christ.

Interestingly, people who have trouble with obedience to the Church will still obey their boss and the weatherman or the cop on the beat and not note the inconsistency. Following Christ in his Church ranks highest in the hierarchy of goods.

Another putative reason for disobedience is that obeying Church authority gives the Church too much power, something that is simply not acceptable in a materialist age. Yes, doing good does in fact have its own extraordinary power in the culture.

Look at the Church in Poland under the Nazis and the Communists. Look at the Church in the United States where so many parishes and charities quietly work away helping the homeless, the sick, and the dying, just to highlight one vast area of service.

The kind of power that originally sparked the objection to being obedient dates back to the Enlightenment when the power of the Church was too closely allied with the ruling elite in various countries. But that alliance has long been split apart, for example in the United States. And this is all to the good because the split actually allows Church to be Church rather than merely a hobby of the elite. 

Now, obedience should be popular because we only grow when something reaches us from outside of ourselves. It can be as simple as food or as vital as the imperative to love and follow the truth. We are tied to many larger realities:  as babies to our parents; as students to universities; as workers to our factories, as Catholics to the Church, and so on.

The list is endless. We cannot do without the myriad of things that reach us each day. The love, the food, the information, the exercise of our political and economic rights all open life to something larger. So even in a purely natural sense:  “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.” (Romans 14:7)

But in fact Paul was writing about people in the act of faith in that passage. Obedience – the handing over of ourselves – is part of the structure of faith. Another way to express it:  “there is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment, in a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God.” (Benedict XVI)  It is a self-abandonment to Christ as he comes to us in the Church. Which is why the Church is known as “Our Mother.”

Turning to just one branch of self-abandonment: we hand ourselves over to following the documents of Vatican II and we can say with Benedict XVI:  “They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church's Tradition. . . .I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century:  there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.”

And he continues:

I would also like to emphasize strongly what I had occasion to say concerning the Council a few months after my election as Successor of Peter: “if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.”

So our obedience is a complex of reading the documents and finding out what they mean from the Church. It opens us to grace and it leads to conversion and renewal!

A closing thought from Henri de Lubac S.J.:  “An apprenticeship of this sort never comes to an end; it is hard on nature, and those very men who think themselves most enlightened are the ones who have most need (which is why it is particularly helpful for them), so that they may be stripped of their false wealth, ‘to humble their spirits under a visible authority.’(Fénelon)”


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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