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Aug 2, 2019

Why the Virtue of Obedience Transcends the Rights of Conscience

Nicholas LaBanca

There’s an old canard about which many jaded Catholics like to wax philosophically. Back in the “bad old days”, Catholics were expected to “pray, pay, and obey”, and that’s it. Such an understanding of the Church is sadly not uncommon. It reveals a very poor understanding of the virtue of obedience.

The first of these actions, praying, is something with which no one should argue. But as we’ve seen in recent years, there are more than a few people who think praying is useless, and even harmful as it is not a form of “real action”. Secondly, to say that Catholics “pay” grossly misunderstands the good of tithing. What was once required in the Old Covenant is no longer asked of us in the New Covenant. Although, we are obligated to provide for the needs of the Church. Tithing is a great way to do so. This leads us to the main subject we’ll address today: obedience.

Making Moral Decisions

For many, this has become one of the dirtiest of words. To obey the commands of someone in authority is tantamount to being a mindless automaton, a puppet or a blind sheep. In such an individualistic and independent culture, we want nothing to tie us down. We want nothing to keep us from doing exactly what we want or desire. But as Catholics, we have taken up their cross alongside our Lord Jesus. Obedience is an important part of discipleship.

This isn’t a bad thing, as our culture would like us to believe. Out of love our Father in heaven and our Holy Mother the Church rein us back in when we start going down the wide path instead of the narrow one. Sadly, there are more than a few of our Catholic brothers and sisters who openly defy the guidance given by our Lord. A child is duty bound to respect their parents. Likewise, Catholics must respect their own leaders and what they teach in Christ’s name.

Not All Consciences Are Good

We recently had an instance of disobedience to a bishop by a school in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Virtually every media outlet picked up the story. It involved a Jesuit high school defying the clear directive of Archbishop Charles Thompson. The archbishop told the school to not renew the contract of a teacher who had entered into a state-sanctioned same sex marriage. Instead of complying with the legitimate authority of the bishop, the faculty and staff refused to follow the bishop’s directive. They said the school “respects the primacy of an informed conscience of members of its community when making moral decisions.” 

The school also professed:

“After long and prayerful consideration, we determined that following the Archdiocese’s directive would … violate our informed conscience on this particular matter … ”

What do we make of this matter? The school is still fighting the archbishop. The archbishop is well within his rights to issue his decree, with the Church’s canon law on his side. Even so, the school has threatened to appeal to the Vatican. Does this not undermine the role the local bishop has to his flock? He is to teach, govern, and sanctify all that are within the territory of his diocese, whether or not they belong to a specific religious order. Furthermore, the Catholic faithful ought to have a deep respect for their bishop, particularly in areas of faith and morals.

No Bishops, No Church

The Church Fathers give us a wealth of knowledge, especially those that were closest to the time of Christ. It’s difficult to get much closer to the apostolic age than St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius’ words on who the bishop is should give us pause:

“You should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us [to do so] … It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment” (Letter to the Magnesians, Chapters 3, 4).

“For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ … In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church … he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience” (Letter to the Trallians, Chapters 2, 3, 7).

So long as our bishops and leaders are not commanding us to enter into sin, since the earliest days of the Church it has been crystal clear that Catholics have been instructed to not act in defiance to their bishop. One can claim they disagree in good conscience with something a bishop or pastor has asked them explicitly to do, as in the Indianapolis case above, but it is clear from St. Ignatius that such a conscience isn’t pure.

Not God’s Will but Our Will

Let’s focus on the conscience aspect of the issue now. How does one remain obedient to the Church? Whether it’s what she teaches through the Magisterium or through the command of a bishop or pastor, when we deeply believe that a Church authority is teaching or doing something wrong, what do we do? How can we reconcile this with our conscience? 

A saint closer to our own times, St. Josemaria Escriva, helps us begin to answer this very pertinent question for the world we live in today:

“God does not impose a blind obedience on us. He wants us to obey intelligently, and we have to feel responsible for helping others with the intelligence we do have. But let’s be sincere with ourselves: let’s examine, in every case, whether it is love for the truth which moves us or selfishness and attachment to our own judgment. When our ideas separate us from other people, when they weaken our communion, our unity with our brothers, it is a sure sign that we are not doing what God wants.”

That last sentence should strike us to the core, especially if our ideas are at odds with the Church’s revealed teaching. Sometimes we feel like our consciences are pulling us in another direction than what Mother Church has laid out for us. For instance, we might think that it’s OK to contracept in marriage. Or that it’s OK that if we miss Mass on this particular Sunday because of the football game. We could give many more examples. These conclusions, which we often say we have reached in good conscience, deteriorate our communion with the body of Christ. We end up not doing God’s will, but our own will.

Conform Not to This World

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church so clearly points out:

“Personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church” (CCC 2039). 

If we ever find ourselves deeply conflicted about something that the Magisterium has set forth for us, we have a great resource in the Catechism. The response that we as men and women give to God is called the obedience of faith (see Romans 1:5; 16:26).

The Catechism explains:

“To obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (CCC 144).

If we don’t see eye-to-eye with the Church on things like sexuality, the issue of salvation for non-Christians, an all-male priesthood, or any other Church teaching, then we need to step back and remember that the truth of these matters is guaranteed by God.

Jesus is the Head of the Church, meaning that he is one with the Church. It is simply not tenable to say that the Church is at odds with Christ regarding matters of faith and morals. If our bishops and pastors are exhorting us to live according to the vision that the Church has for our lives, then we must submit, even if we don’t fully understand. This is being docile to the Holy Spirit. And again, what I’ve said here is something that I realize is not popular with the way the world thinks.

Be Conformed to Christ

Case in point, a year or so ago, I got into a heavy conversation with (presumably) a fellow Catholic on a Catholic discussion board. It’s a conversation I’ll never forget. Basically, I was told that Jesus and the Church are at odds with each other:

“Sometimes the Church gets it wrong because it refuses to follow everything Jesus taught … The Church ignores whole swaths of what Jesus taught. Unquestioning obedience is for automatons and docility is for milk cows. People are allowed to think and to question and to make up their own minds … It is part of being an adult. And Jesus calls us to adulthood.”

This is the road we go down if we start putting our own feelings over and ahead of what the Church actually teaches on any given matter. If we start to say that the problem is with the Church, we make a Jesus—or a false god—out of our own image. No one said the Church should never be questioned; the only way you can get an answer is if you ask a question. That’s elementary. St. Josemaria said as much as seen above. But we must absolutely conform ourselves to Christ:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29, also see CCC 1694).

Supernatural Maturity

We were made a new creation in baptism. If we don’t conform ourselves to Christ, no matter the difficulty, how can we call ourselves his disciples with a straight face? To respond to these types of claims, we need to look again to the wisdom of St. Josemaria (emphases mine):

[Regarding] docility it is the Holy Spirit who, with his inspirations, gives a supernatural tone to our thoughts, desires and actions. It is he who leads us to receive Christ’s teaching and to assimilate it in a profound way … If we are docile to the Holy Spirit, the image of Christ will be formed more and more fully in us

“We will place ourselves in the hands of our Father God, with the same spontaneity and confidence with which a child abandons himself to his father’s care. Our Lord has said: ‘Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ This is the old and well-known ‘way of childhood,’ which is not sentimentality or lack of human maturity. It is a supernatural maturity, which makes us realize more deeply the wonders of God’s love, while leading us to acknowledge our own smallness and identify our will fully with God’s will.”

Who Is Lord of Our Heart?

Far from being a milk cow, docility to the Holy Spirit gives us that supernatural maturity that we need in order to gain heaven. If we keep appealing to our own conscience, which may be erroneous if we are contradicting the Church with our lifestyle or views on a particular matter, we are not abandoning ourselves to the Father’s care like our Lord Jesus asked us to. Even though we as Catholics must obey the certain judgment of our consciences, as we are so wont to hearing from those who are at odds with Church teaching on any given subject, we also must be aware of the following:

“it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed” (CCC 1790).

The Conscience Needs Guidance

If we think our consciences cannot err, we will find ourselves in a world of hurt because we put a false god of our own image in place of our Lord in our hearts. 

The Catechism goes on to say:

“This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man ‘takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.’ In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (CCC 1791).

Not all ignorance is invincible or blameless. We can be at fault for our ignorance, especially in the formation of our own consciences. The Catechism points out:

“assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience [or] rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching … can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct” (CCC 1792).

Not My Will but Your Will Be Done

We can’t justify our noncompliance with the Church’s teachings by having an appeal to the primacy of conscience. That is not in any way part of the Catholic Faith that we have received.

If obedience is something you struggle with, entrust it to God. We need to pray for that docility to the Holy Spirit and the virtue of obedience. Even if we can’t wrap our heads around why the Church teaches something, or around something that a bishop commands of us, we obey because that’s the example that Jesus gave us. He was completely obedient to his Father. We must be as well.

Obedience Is a Sacrifice

To close, let’s reflect on the words of Pope St. John Paul II, given during the 1981 Lenten season. May his words not only help us, but also our loved ones who have drifted away from the Faith:

“Our prayer, during Lent, looks to awaken the consciences, to sensitize them in relation to the voice of God. ‘Do not harden your heart,’ says the Psalmist. In fact, the necrosis [or, the numbing] of consciences, their indifference to good and evil, their deviations, are a great threat to man…

“And so, our Lenten prayer for the sensitivity of the consciences has a multiple meaning. The man who has a hardened heart and a degenerate conscience, even when he can enjoy the fullness of his physical powers and capacities, is sick spiritually, and it is necessary to do everything possible to give him back the health of his soul. 

“Help with prayer and with the sacrifice of your sufferings… those who are sick in the soul. Sometimes they do not even know it, they do not realize how sick their immortal soul is. His conscience has numbed and hardened his heart. Help them wake up! Help them to receive the voice of the living God, the voice that speaks in Lent with the sacrifice of the Cross of Christ!”

What are your thoughts on being obedient to Church teaching? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page.

You May Also Like:

Saul, the Price of Disobedience

Falling in “Like” with Jesus (Jeff Cavins Show podcast)

Mary’s May Crowning: Part 4, the Presentation

About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

Featured photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

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  • I’m in complete agreement with everything written here. The only difficulty comes at the part where the author says, “So long as our bishops and leaders are not commanding us to enter into sin…” The faculty and staff of that high school would probably argue that their bishop is telling them to sin, as in, telling them to not love that teacher. They are very clearly wrong, but that’s what they would say. This article, and any time someone makes an argument from authority, faces the difficulty of the issue of when is it ok to disobey. The case of Cardinal McCarrick is a clear example of a time where anyone can see that it is right to disobey a church leader. But in the case with the school and the homosexual teacher, some people will be able to see that it’s right to obey, while some will wrongly believe they should disobey. I don’t see this article changing anyone’s stance on the issue. Hopefully the quotes from the saints will help convert hearts and minds to the truth, but I think a follow up article on the teachings of sexuality and living in a state of grave sin would be more effective in leading people to the truth.

    • The article is about obedience to a legitimate authority who cares about the integrity of the Catholic teachings. Justifying moral relativism by declaring that one cannot go against one’s conscience is a clear indication that one needs a conversion of heart.

  • I think Brian (the first commenter) is correct that the article begs the question. The people in question did feel that to obey the bishop would be sinful. Now, the author clearly believes their consciences are faulty on this point. Fair enough. But according to Catholic teaching, that is not enough to say they shouldn’t follow them. The question arises, as the author notes, of the culpability of their faulty consciences. We are not, however, in a position to know if or to what degree they are responsible for the current state of their consciences.

    What we can say is that we all should always strive to form our consciences well, especially when they seem to come in conflict with the teaching authority of the Church. We must leave open the possibility that our conscience is poorly formed and/or in error. But we cannot know that for certain as long as we believe what we do in conscience. To know we are in error is to no longer believe the error!

    Obedience is a virtue, but it does not simply overrule the teaching to obey a certain conscience, a teaching briefly mentioned but not explored in the article. Indeed if one were to overrule one’s certain conscience in obeying a teaching of the Church it would presumably be because one was convinced, in conscience, of the authority of the Church! In other words, the conscience would be more “certain” that the Church was right than that it was right itself.

    There is simply no way around the primacy of conscience, which is why the Church has always taught it. Which is not to say that every appeal to conscience is legit. Many are obviously spurious. But if we throw out (or even downplay) the basic moral principle, we are on a slippery slope. To form people to act against the own conscience is an invitation to both moral self-destruction and societal tyranny.

  • In the Torah there is no word for Obey. The verb the Torah uses is shema/lishmoa, to hear, understand, internalize, respond. So distinctive is the word the KJV invented an English equivalent, the word “hearken”.

    The G-d of the Jews, the G-d of Israel seeks something greater than obeying, namely responsibility.

    If the Christian god is the same as in the Hebrew Scriptures, when did he change his mind?

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