A few days ago Kevin from Texas promised some thoughts on obedience, and I promise to post his comments when I receive them later. Obedience to religious authority is a difficult question, and far more subtle than the simplistic picture of “Do as the bishops say.” It’s even more subtle than the particular witness of the epistle First Timothy, given to a particular man in a particular situation and lensed through a culture far more authority-driven than today’s.

I will leave it for sociologists and historians to bring details and analysis to the table, but students of history, casual and serious, are well aware of the sins of leaders. Monarchs, military, and elected servants have all committed extreme abuses of power in foreign policy (Ireland, Spanish meso-America, Africa), in military campaigns (like the Great War), and in various scandals of power (most notably Watergate, which now lends its infamous name everywhere).

Authority has taken something of a hit in Western culture. China keeps things buttoned down, but you get the idea that if people had full faith in authority there, the dissent wouldn’t be treated so harshly. Muslims just send bombers against one another when they don’t have oil-inspired escapades to battle. Doesn’t it seem like English military science? Send the Aussies and Kiwis into the meat grinder of Turkey; hold back the home boys till clean-up.

The media-driven portion of our culture wants to keep things profitable, so whatever sells will be the bottom line here. The shifting winds will cover respect for benign parent-figures like Cobsy or Martin Sheen. Or they will let loose with a know-all snicker as the Simpsons or others like them bumble through twenty to forty minutes of entertainment sprinkled amidst ads. And as for real-life heroes, it’s all about their rise (Barack Obama or Miley Cyrus) and their fall (sex troll Republicans or Lindsay Lohan) and their rehabilitation to rise again (Richard Nixon or Martha Stewart). With pop culture, it’s a bell curve in reverse, and if the rehabilitation of Newt Gingrich is in the wind, New Kids on the Block can’t be far behind.

One might say that Pope Benedict and the US bishops, stung respectively by bishops of various sorts and their mismanagement of sex predator clergy, are also due for an upswing. Doctrinal neo-orthodoxy seems to be a harder sell with Cardinals George, Law, Mahony bumbling through the echoes of the Generation JP prelates. Is Tim Dolan the real deal, or is he a packaged product designed to rehab the American episcopacy?

So this is the climate in which we discuss church obedience, which is the sub-topic at hand, I assume. Ordinary believers seem to want to see just cause for obeying a pastor, the bishop, or the pope. Don’t let the conservatives dupe you into thinking they are better behaved in this area. They can be as anti-authority as anyone else–when the authority isn’t from one of their own. And church prelates and popes (usually dead ones) are well within bounds of the receiving end of “mean” critique when “they clearly defy or disregard long-standing magisterial teachings,” especially as interpreted by educated and informed laity. The liberals bash Pius XII. The traditionalists bach Paul VI. John XXIII is in the middle of a tug-o-war. It looks like best two-out-of-three for the mid-century championship.

One question in my mind is this: do Catholics want to be obedient servants, or do they want to be cheerleaders? The witness I see on the extremes is they prefer the latter masked as the former. Read the conservative sites and see how the cheerleading plays out. Yay Burke. Boo Mahony. Yay Joseph Ratzinger. Boo Hans Küng. Yay NCReg. Boo NCRep. It’s like they’re all channeling a political convention or a basketball tournament. The liberals aren’t much better, and some are more “foul.”

It’s a culture of selectivity, or cafeteria Catholicism, if you will. A person, especially in the internet age, is able to hold firm to her or his beliefs, find a like-minded group of individuals with which to associate, kick out the unwanted, do a Google search for their favorite outspoken bishop, and declare the rest anathema. All this disguised as obedience to authority.

My premise, which I might elaborate upon at a later time, is that authority is primarily local. Much to my alarm, I’m on the receiving end of obedience, having been a parent now for the past eight years. As I wrote earlier today, I see it as far more of a responsibility than a right. Although it seems at times I’m making it up on the fly, I’m aware that every little word, every little act has an impact on an impressionable young girl. Do I have a right to be obeyed? Heck, I can’t answer that one. I’m a lot more concerned about fulfilling my responsibility as a father, a provider, a teacher, a mentor, and a Christian. I don’t need a snap to attention and a salute.

It seems appropriate the foot washing gospel is upon us this week. In the midst of “yay twelve men, boo women and kids,” (or the reverse) it would be good to take John 13:1-15 as the model of responsible leadership. There’s something in here to admire, as well as something over which we squirm. And that’s a good thing:

So when he had washed their feet (and) put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:12-15)


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Obedience

  1. Jack Smith says:

    “Read the conservative sites and see how the cheerleading plays out. Yay Burke. Boo Mahony. Yay Joseph Ratzinger. Boo Hans Küng. Yay NCReg. Boo NCRep.”

    I’ve been obedient to every bishop I’ve served under – Archbishops John Quinn, William Levada, George Niederauer, Vincent Nichols and Bishop Finn. In only one instance did I feel my obedience would be a conflict with my conscience and as such I absented myself quietly – not challenging the authority of the bishop at hand.

    This is the obedience I think is due by an employee. I think a high level is also due by Catholics in the pews to their own ordinary.

    I think to make a point (with which I often agree) you sometimes overstate it. NCReg, NCRep and Hans Kung are due obedience by no one – even if I like some and not others. Bishops, including AB Mahony are – most particularly by their local church. Otherwise, I think, we’re not Catholic.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks for posting here, Jack.

    My point with non-episcopal examples implied that some people attribute a certain obedience (some might say sycophancy) to persons or organizations that, as you say, are due obedience by no one. Except, perhaps, their employees.

    Bishops, yes. I’ve never been employed by one, but I have been employed by pastors. I haven’t always felt I’ve been well-treated, but I hope I’ve managed to keep things professional and respectful when I’ve had the occasional serious disagreement.

    More difficult is the abstract case of internet commentology. I don’t blog negatively about my pastor or bishop. But I do make critical comments, sometimes smart-asp, about other people’s pastors or bishops.

    I think I have a problem with people who wrap themselves in the mantle of obedience when really it’s nothing of the sort.

  3. Fran says:

    I need to re-read this and come back. I wish I had read your post before I made my last comment here and very much wish I had done so before I commented at another blog.


  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    “There are two types of obedience: obedience in relation to power and obedience in relation to love. When understood in the first way, obedience means submission or surrender, the sacrifice of one’s own intellect and will. According to the second understanding, obedience does not mean submission, but response. Disobedience is not the putting forward of opinions different from those commanded by authority. To do so might well be a duty, not a sin.”

    Charles Davis on why it was not enough to ignore the church, NCR, February 7, 1992.

  5. Fran says:

    “obedience does not mean submission, but response.”

    Words of wisdom. Thank you Jimmy Mac for serving up this particular quotation, which I was not familiar with, but which resonates deeply in my heart.

    All of which leads me to the notion of obedience in this way… The acts of redemption as salvific grace from a loving God versus a continuing series of sacrifices to an angry and never satisfied God.

  6. Liam says:

    I would offer a very traditional spin on Fran’s thought. It comes from the “Universal Prayer” of Pope Clement XI (1700-1721):

    “Volo quidquid vis, volo quia vis, volo quomodo vis, volo quamdiu vis.”

    “I want to do what You ask, in the way You ask for as long as You ask, because You ask.”

    * or “will” – the literal Latin means that, but it’s really more a fine stylistic alliteration for something less imperative than the dominant English understanding of “will”

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