Saturday, 19 October 2013


Reflecting on recent discussions about the Holy Father, Ultramontanism and Papolatry, I was led to think about obedience.

It seems to me that if one had to identify what is so counter-cultural about being a Catholic today, that word sums up a large part of it.

For we are under a duty of obedience to the Holy Father, even when he is not teaching infallibly; even when he is wrong and we disagree, unless to obey would be sinful.

Likewise, we are under a duty of obedience to the civic authorities, in a similar way (CCC §1900)

We are under a duty of obedience to our bishop and our priest, too, come to that, as well as to our employer, if we are employed.

The reason for all that is simple, but rarely stated: it is not that people in such positions are  assumed to be wiser or more virtuous than us.  Rather it is because obedience is good for us; and we only really practice obedience where we disagree with what we are being asked to do. If we agree, then obedience does not really come into it.

And the reason it is good for us is two-fold; on the one hand, we are called to imitate Christ, and one might cite obedience as one of his defining characteristics, and indeed the means by which He restored man’s relationship with God, which had been lost by disobedience. (cf Rom 5:19).  On the other hand, it is through obedience that we die to ourself; that we submit our own desires, passions and will to an authority beyond ourselves: Thy will be done.

Yet how counter-cultural that is. We live in an age where personal autonomy is so highly valued that obedience seems a pointless, and indeed irresponsible, way to behave.  We are told that if we are true to ourselves, then all is virtue.  I think the truth is the other way about: if we are all-virtuous, then we are being true to ourselves.  

The supremacy of obedience to conscience over other forms of obedience can only come into play when our conscience is telling us to do what we do not want to do. Otherwise, it is more likely to be our will, masquerading as conscience.  We can only treat our conscience as sovereign if it is truly well-formed; and the best ways to judge that are how well it accords with the teaching of the Church, and how difficult are the demands it makes of us.  I am somewhat sceptical when people claim to be following their conscience down paths that make their lives easier.

And here’s something else that is counter-cultural: wives are to obey their husbands.  Few people dare talk of that these days, but St Paul is quite clear.

Notice however that St Paul does not say women should obey men. This is not simple mysogynism. No, it relates to roles.  The role of a wife is, above all to be a mother; to raise a family.  Matrimony is ordered to motherhood as its name implies.  So my theory here is that wives are to obey their husbands not because their husbands are more likely to be right, but because otherwise, wives might not have the opportunity to practice obedience.  Husbands, and single women, will have other opportunities - in the workplace etc - but a woman in her own home, raising her children, will obey her husband, or not obey anyone.  And that is not good for her. 

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