Catholicism and Obedience

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History and other writings, the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, a staunch Lutheran, often criticized the medieval Catholic Church for perpetuating a standoff between religion and the secular world, and extolled Protestantism for emphasizing a constructive coordination between Christianity and secular life.

As a signal example of the secular “alienation” produced by Catholicism, he pointed to the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The vow of obedience seemed to offer the clearest example of Catholic “alienation.” Monastic and religious orders professing obedience to religious superiors, at odds with the state, were simply perpetuating a spiritually unhealthy chasm between Christianity and the world.

It would be an understatement to say that Hegel, no supporter of the “separation of Church and state,” was over-optimistic about the harmonious union of “true Christianity” (Lutheranism) with the state. But he was correct about the traditional prioritizing of the virtue of obedience in Catholicism.

Jesuits are – theoretically – the order most devoted to obedience, and even take a fourth special vow of obedience to the Pope. This “special vow,” perceived as alignment with a “foreign power,” led to the expulsion of Jesuits from some countries during the 18th century.

Among most religious orders, it is generally understood that obedience is a sort of all-inclusive vow. Dominicans, for instance, take only one vow – obedience – and it is understood that the other two vows (poverty and chastity) are automatically included in that vow.

The emphasis, among religious and monastic orders, on the vow of obedience, is inspired by the major New Testament theological doctrine that sin entered the world by the disobedience of one man, and that the Son of God came into the world to atone for sin by His obedience. (Rom. 5:19) The importance of obedience is also extolled in the Old Testament, as being more important than “sacrifice and oblation” or “holocausts.” (Ps. 39:7-9; 1Sam. 15:22)

The life of Jesus exemplified this to the hilt: “He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” (Lk. 2:51) Here we have the example of the Son of God, obeying his parents, learning a trade with his father, staying with his mother and possibly supporting her with carpentry after his father’s death, and then finally allowing himself to be subject to his executioners, in an ultimate sacrifice making reparation to the Father for Adam’s disobedience – learning obedience through all the things he suffered. (Heb. 5:8)

Jesus, on trial, reminded Pontius Pilate that he would have no power if it were not from God; but nevertheless subjected himself to Pilate’s authority. (Jn. 19:11)

Certainly it is of the utmost importance for Christians, continuing Christ’s redemptive work, to practice obedience. Even without religious vows, the practice and the virtue are inculcated in the New Testament.

           Paul III Approves the Jesuits by Albert Chevallier-Tayler (1904) © Jesuit Institute

For Catholics, in addition to the Ten Commandments, there are the Precepts of the Church; and an individual Catholic may subject himself voluntarily to a spiritual director.

But the New Testament indicates numerous other calls to obedience – to prelates (priests and bishops), for example. (Heb. 13:17)

Obedience to kings, princes, governors, and other civil authorities, is also inculcated in Paul and Peter’s epistles. (Rom. 13:1, Tit. 3:1, 1Pt. 2:13) St. Peter even mentions being subject to “every human creature for God’s sake.” And early Christians, looking for a Kingdom “not of this world,” were models of fidelity and even citizenship, unless they were enjoined to renounce Christianity or Christian morals.

Also, in a society which held that the husband is the head of the house, wives were asked by Peter and Paul to be subject “to their husbands, as to the Lord,” in all things (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18, 1Pt. 3:1) – passages which raise the blood pressure of extreme feminists, and are sometimes mysteriously replaced during readings at Mass.

Do these passages still apply? Certainly, in regard to major household decisions, the existence of “two heads” would portend some rough times ahead. But in a democratic milieu, of course, the de facto “head of household” may sport a low profile, and look for conversation and mutual agreement before coming to “our” decision.

Marriage often provides an education for developing such skills.  In any case, that Pauline instruction about wives comes just after his emphasis on mutual subjection of husband and wife. (Eph. 5:21)

So in the contemporary world, the “house husband” who takes over domestic duties while the wife functions as “breadwinner,” or collaborates in cooking, cleaning, babysitting, chauffeuring, etc. is an example of the general rule of “mutual subjection.” And the titular “head” adapting his headship to a conventional domestic role can thus give evidence of administrative ingenuity. . . .But, whoever does the cooking, we should remember what the Lord admonished his disciples as he sent them out, (and we pass this on to our kids), “Eat what is put before you!” (Lk. 10:8)

Young men are told (1Pt. 5:5) to “clothe themselves with humility” and be subject to their elders. And servants likewise (1Pt. 2:18) are enjoined to be subject to their masters – not only the good and gentle type, but also the brusque and demanding type. Fast forwarding two millennia, this would seem to apply to bosses, foremen, managers, chairpersons, etc. “St. Peter, are you serious? You mean I should try to accommodate myself to that competency-challenged so-and-so who was just appointed over us??”

But while the New Testament inculcates such multiple areas of obedience, unjust or irrational obedience is never required. Jesus’ non-conformance to the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath – for curing illnesses (Mt. 12:10) or for allowing his disciples to pluck corn from the fields (Mt. 12:3) – exemplifies His opposition to religious literalism and rigidity. And Peter and the apostles, when commanded not to preach about the Christ, answered, “We ought to obey God, rather than men.” (Acts 5:39)

In a Biblical perspective, religious authorities shouldn’t demand religious practices be extended into places where they don’t belong. And civil authorities have no jurisdiction over faith.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Sue

    ” And the titular “head” adapting his headship to a conventional domestic role can thus give evidence of administrative ingenuity.”
    You may call it ingenuity, but I call it a craven way to undermine the family, termite style. The father’s role is to be out in the world, and the government’s dangling of enticements to make men put on aprons denies the essential nurturing qualities of the mother.

  • Augustine Thomas

    “And early Christians, looking for a Kingdom “not of this world,” were models of fidelity and even citizenship, unless they were enjoined to renounce Christianity or Christian morals.”

    So how should we take this in a country that expects us to provide tax money for the mass murder of unborn children? Is that not a renunciation of Christian morals?

  • Mack Hall

    Augustine is bang-on. Must one obey a Cardinal-Archbishop who makes merry with King Herod, thus tacitly approving of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents? Must one obey a fashionable priest who on the Orwellian telescreen consistently broadcasts his diffuse hatreds?

  • Gratianius

    @mack hall
    Taking your questions as serious inquiries, and not as mere rhetorical sarcasm, this is what you need to do if you’re a serious Roman Catholic: study the Code of Canon Law, Canons 208-231. It is online at the Vatican website.

    You will then know what ways in particular the lay faithful must be obedient.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Sue: A rational husband, in view of circumstances (e.g., no other way to feed the kids), might decide to change “roles.” Why not?

  • Manfred

    @Howard: Thank you for a little levity on a Saturday afternoon. I am not dismissing your scholarly essay, but obedience in the Church? To Whom is Don Quixote Bergoglio obedient, Sancho Panza Lombardy? This pope does whatever he pleases and Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture be damned.
    He recently “quoted” St. Paul as saying: “I boast of my sins” when Paul never said that. Rather, he said: “I boast of my WEAKNESSES.” No Catholic would ever boast of their sins!

  • Ronald Sevenster

    Obedience has broken asunder after Vatican II. If one reads Papal and other official documents before and after this Council with an unbiased mind, one wonders mainly about the inconsistencies. An Alien from outer space, if he were a serious student of religions on earth, would never conclude that pre_Vatican II document and post-Vatican II document are from the same Church. Or he would suppose that some major schism had occurred around 1960. All the efforts to reconcile the Vatican II Church with historical Catholicism are never based on genuine interpretation of the relevant documents but on spin.

  • Howard Kainz

    @manfred and Ronald Sevenster: I think you are confusing disagreement with the pope or the Vatican with disobedience. The pope and bishops do not administer many mandates to test the obedience of the faithful. Humanae vitae is one example. V2 also issued directives about Scriptural interpretation and marriage and the liturgy, but few commands. I share your uneasiness about some things, but don’t find a clarion call to disobedience.

  • Lynn

    Honestly, I’ve never understood the obedience to ones husband. I truly don’t get it and I certainly would not consider myself a radical feminist. My husband is, and I struggle to find a better way to put this, not the brightest bulb in the bunch. Perhaps his parent didn’t do as good of a job as they should have or perhaps be just wasn’t interested in really learning how to make good and sound decisions.

    Its such a horrible thing to say about ones husband, I know. But it really makes me cringe anytime someone mentions obedience to the husband.


  • Sue

    @Howard: “no other way to feed the kids” is a hypothetical myth not unlike the frequently abused “lifeboat” situational ethic stories. Is the man disabled or comatose? Then he may not make a very good homeworker either and so the family is effectively a “single parent” anyway.

    But women working (I do not say “staying”) at home not only allows the breast-is-best nurturing (how ironic that you say “no other way to feed the kids”) of children but also forestalls the near occasions of sin of abortion and contraception that are presented to the woman on a “career track”.

    I do realize that there is now an abundance of education and investment in women now and humbly suggest that those could be directed into the homeschool and the home economy, for the good of society. Homeschooling makes the ebbs and tides of pregnancy, breastfeeding, child-nurturing, granny-caring fit together seamlessly.

    There is a need for women who are at home to feel sorority with other at-home mothers and not to feel that this is a uni-sex one-size-fits-all pursuit done only by whoever is the lowest-paid in any relationship.

    As far as obedience, is the husband *really* weighing all of the opportunities for home economy or is there some leisure-seeking or pimp motives lurking in the background?

    Read “The Way Home” by Mary Pride for more on the homeworking Mom, and “All the Way Home” for a rationale for the homeshcooling Mother. I would also recommend “What’s a Smart Woman Like You Doing at Home?” by Linda Burton and
    “Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing” by Kippley.

    Also on my reading shelf: “Forced Labor: What’s wrong with balancing Work and Family” by Robertson, “Home by Choice” (Understanding the Enduring Effects of a Mother’s Love”) by Hunter, “The Miseducation of Women” by Tooley, “From Cottage to Workstation (The Family’s search for harmony in the Industrial Age)” by Carlson, and “What our Mothers didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman” by Critenden.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Sue: I was raised in the 40s and 50s. My mother and father both worked, and my father was a fire captain, home every other day, and took on all the “household” tasks. When I went to graduate school, I was surprised to find that my roommates had a very different experience of the division of labor. But I profited by the fact that I was the only one who could actually cook every night. So my roommates were willing to do all the shopping, cleaning, dish-washing, etc. I just think that too sharp a division between the tasks of Father and Mother can be detrimental, especially when children come.

  • Richard A


    Obviously, when men and women are courting, they are asking themselves (among many, many things) “Can I be an effective and loving head for her?” “Can I truly respect him and subordinate myself to him when needed?” Right? That’s what you and he did, I’m sure. So what’s the problem?
    Really, Scripture doesn’t say “the husband is the head of the wife, unless she would be better at it.” You may as well teach your children that the Father is not always the Lord of creation, and that Christ is not always the head of the Church. Because the point of your relationship with your husband is to model for your children how God and His creation relate to each other, and Christ and His Church.
    Among Christians, relationships are not primarily functional, they are familial. One has the place he has based on who he is, not on how well he carries out the functions.

  • Sue

    @Lynn, long ago I read the excellent book “Fascinating Womanhood” and it seemed that it was addressed to the wife in a marriage “unequally yoked” as to religion. But, I believe it may be helpful as well to the wife in other types of disparate yokings.

  • Paul V


    Like your husband, I also married a woman smarter than myself.
    Each of us have unique gifts, we’ve divided responsibilities according to these gifts. Seems to work with us but might not work for others. Come to think of it, I think my Father married a woman smarter than him.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Paul V and Sue and Lynn: I’m not sure if you have to have a higher IQ to be head of a household. Do we require our political leaders to have a high IQ?

  • Paul V


    Some of our political leaders do have high IQs but lack common sense or street smarts it seems.

    I’m an example you don’t have to have the higher IQ to be head of the household. My comment was in regarded to roles. My wife and I were modelling our parents marriages and things were not going well. She realized the problem first, took me a while to catch on — We were not our parents, we had to find a system that worked for our personalities. Once we got that all sorted out things smoothed out considerably. Since I don’t want her to do anything she doesn’t want to do and she doesn’t want to stop me from doing anything I want (of course this is all in line with my Christian faith) obedience is not a problem.

  • Anthony

    there is also the obedience Jesus showed to Joseph and Mary after finding him in the temple.