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, 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.