Before I share with you my insights on this rather thorny topic, let me ask you to take a minute and reflect on where you have been taught the value of obedience over the years. (Pause. You may want to get some answers or not.) Many of you have heard me say on one occasion or another that we Indians are taught to conform from our mothers’ wombs. That is what makes it so hard for us to be creative or divergent thinkers.
I suspect that in your reflections you would have come up with parents or their representatives as the first persons who taught you to obey. In educational/religious formation you were probably told that disobedience was the original sin and all evil flowed from that. You were probably also taught that THE model of obedience is Jesus as witnessed by his capitulation to God’s will for him in the agony in the garden.
Without going too deeply into any of this, Jewish biblical scholars, and remember the stories are theirs do not see the original sin as disobedience. Far from it. It was Cain’s despairing of God’s forgiveness that was and continues to be at the root of all evil in the Jewish understanding of morality.
And as for that agony scene, have you ever pondered who was there to have heard all this? We have the apostles’ admission that they fell asleep. Reputable Christian scholars tell us that the issues dividing the early Christians, and there were many, made the leaders place a value on obedience which it is very hard to find in the teachings of Jesus himself.
So where does this leave us. You have heard me say again and again that the roots of the word obedience in both the Semitic and Indo-European languages means “to hear”, and to be willing to do what the one speaking to us asks of us. We have been told that to hear and to do the will of God is essential. We have also been taught that to do the will of others who stand in the place of God in our lives is also essential. But I want to suggest to you that what we are now learning is that blind obedience to other human beings is anything but what God wants of us. It is anything but what is required of a mature human being whose maturity is identified by his or her being free to choose.
Without going deeply into the history of obedience in the religions of the world including our own, I ask you to ponder the implications of the thrust in Orthodox Hinduism that one must be totally obedient to the duties of one’s caste to achieve salvation. I ask you to think about the state in which Judaism was at the time of Jesus which in its orthodox dimensions was so burdensome to the bulk of his people, that the thinking, compassionate, and just Jesus did all that he could to lift this burden from them. I think the case can easily be made that the whole of Jesus’ life was lived telling people to use their heads as well as their hearts and hands in the service of their God. He was not killed because he was a blindly obedient wimp. He went to his death rather than back down on his conviction that God wants our free, willing, compassionate, and just living, and that is God’s ultimate glory and ours.
There is no doubt that Jesus himself was obedient. We have stories about his being obedient to his parents, to the precepts of the law, but above all the obedience that he lives is to God’s will and that, as I have said, is that we live justly and compassionately. The New Testament stories clearly limit obedience, however. In Acts 5, 29 we are clearly told that obedience must be to God and not to “men”.
But you may well then say, Ah, but then how do I know what is the will of God for me personally? I have been taught that it comes through my parents, my teachers, my religious authorities, the legitimately elected political persons. Yes, and no. There are stages of human development. And our living is relational. What is suitable for a two-year-old is not suitable for a twenty-two year old much less a fifty-two year old. When we are learning, there is surely some deference required. But when we are learned, the situation changes, and it must.
We hope that the child obeys parents because it believes that the parents want the best for it. We hope it is the same for the student, that they believe the attainments of their teachers are such that what they are imparting is the best for the learner. Can you see why it is so disastrous for incompetents to be teachers, then, at any level of instruction? When they are not credible, they engender contempt, not compliance, much less intelligent obedience.
Human beings can and should be obeyed only inasmuch as they share in the authority of God and that must mean only inasmuch as what they ask of us is just and compassionate.
I want you to listen carefully to a quote from the concise Sacramentum Mundi, p. 1091, edited by Karl Rahner, on the topic of obedience. I have changed it for inclusive language but listen carefully to every word of this quotation, please.
Human beings can and should be obeyed only to the extent that they share in the authority of God. For the end of human beings cannot simply be themselves but is always God. Human beings in themselves possess an absolute value but in the Christian view of things there is no hierarchy of persons, but only of functions and services which flow from them. We may never subject ourselves to other human beings as such, but can submit ourselves to them only to the extent that they stand in the service of a divinely willed goal.
Obedience then MUST take different forms. Child, student, employee, church membership, acceptance of an official ministry, taking solemn vows involve a collaboration and relationship with others which are not identical. They differ as any of us who have been and are in these various kinds of relationships and stages of them must admit. What is essential in each is that the greatest possible dignity of the person and the greatest freedom of the individual must be taken into consideration in every one of these situations by the persons in positions of authority and responsibility. It means encouraging and using the gifts of the individual for the greatest well being of the entire community. And it means that the individual must put those gifts at the disposal of the entire community by speaking the truth in love to his or her superiors. Anything less does injury to both parties involved in the collaboration. And this means that sometimes the greater need is for unholy rather than holy obedience.
I can imagine that at this point you may be saying to yourself, “When is he going to get practical?” Believe me, I have been trying to do just that. God’s will is that we be compassionate and just. Whenever we are asked to be anything but that, no matter who asks this of us, we may not obey. We may obey others, any others, only when what they ask of us is meaningful, that is has intelligence and purpose in it. Blind obedience is unworthy of us. Many of our works on ascetical and mystical theology are wrong on this point. They were produced in historical eras when it served persons in authority to subjugate those under them. Find in the stories we have of Jesus any place where he subjugated those under him for the purpose of keeping them in control.
It is possible that on rare occasions because we do not have the competence to judge an order that we are being given, we obey for the sake of obeying. But this should be the exception to the rule because our freedom is so important if we are to be truly mature human beings. And the person in authority has the need to continue to educate those for whom he or she is responsible so that they are able to make better, more informed human decisions. The whole of moral and faith development hinges on this.
What does that mean for persons in authority? We must be credible as human beings. We must continue to learn and to grow and to search for truth. When we are that, we give those who are responsible to us, the freedom to do the same. Then we have communities of persons at all levels, loving and being loved, knowing and being know, together getting done more than any of us can do on our own. That is authentic obedience, authentic hearing, doing, and being. Nothing less is worthy of us who live in the Jesus’ way.
When a friend and colleague of mine who has access to the Internet typed the word “obedience” into a search engine, she got 814 sites! One of them contained the letter of St. Ignatius of Loyola on obedience. The other 813 were discussions of and locations for training of dogs! Does that give us some major insight into the challenges that the word alone offers to say nothing of the thorny issues of the virtue itself?
Let me say at the beginning while St. Ignatius sees obedience as the epitome of Christian life and THE mark of the members of his society -- I know, I know, would Jesuits themselves think that today you are asking -- I want to assure you that St. Thomas Aquinas does not. But more of this later.
Let us bring this very close to home. Last year some of you were in the audience when the annual time for the deacons to say thanks for their time at St. Charles came around. When a deacon was finally found who would do this, you may have sat aghast at what he said. It was a litany of hurts and anger and offenses he believed had been perpetrated against him and his classmates. He broke with the expectation of the obedient glossing over of difficulties and the heaping of accolades on the seminary staff.
It would have been interesting for you to have been in the staff dining room after that presentation and hear the shock and horror and anger that this had happened on the part of most of the faculty. But then one extremely dedicted and learned member of the faculty -- no, no, it wasn’t me -- defended the right of the class representative to do what he had done. He felt that it was not only the deacon’s right but duty to speak out against what he had perceived as unjust treatment of himself and others, and of a lack of compassion. The professor’s only concern was that it was so late in the game for the issues to be raised. They should surely have been brought sooner to the attention of those who could make changes .
This incident has given me much to think about since it happened and it is once again in my mind as I have been asked to address this topic of obedience with you. I have reflected on my own life as well in terms of this issue of obedience and responsibility for really are they not two sides of one coin? And in those reflections I must tell you that especially during my almost thirty-six years as a bishop and as ordinary of two dioceses, there was nothing worse in my experience than people telling me what they thought I wanted to hear rather than what I needed to hear. That was about as inauthentic as obedience to a bishop can be.
On a par with that was -- and is -- people telling me that they will do something which I have asked of them, and then my finding out that they have not done it or have bad-mouthed my request that it be done. I have rarely “commanded” that things be done. That has not been my style. I have tried to explain to people why I needed and wanted people to do certain things. And they would appear to give me their support and then stab me behind my back. I have dealt with this at length and the harm that it does to the individual and to the faith community in my letter on the occasion of my retirement. If you have not read that letter, please do so. I do not want to repeat here in any detail what I have said that but I believe that what I say is germane to any diocese or to any community.
I am not telling you about my personal pain over these issues this because I want your sympathy. I am telling you it because it is the reality of most people in positions of authority and responsibility and especially in a country like ours where the whole Ma-Bap syndrome is rife. This kind of lip service cannot continue if we are to mature as a church and as a country. We cannot out of some misguided sense of being polite do what we think people want tell, tell them what we think they want to hear, do anything to avoid the conflict that is at the heart of authentic creativity. Authentic obedience demands that we speak the truth in love to those whom we believe need to hear it or must hear it. If that is not what marks the life of Jeus, I don’t know what does.
I mentioned earlier that on the internet site which my colleague found, there was the letter of St. Ignatius of Loyola on this topic. It is still quoted as the classic on the subject and we know from the history of religious communities that many of them were founded on Ignatian principles. Indeed, today, many are trying to rediscover the charism -- whatever that is -- of their congregations by looking once again at the Ignatian principles. I I would suggest too that these principles came to be understood as the approach to all of Catholic life from the time of the Reformation when it was considered that the disobedience of men like Luther had to be combatted in every way. Persons who lived by some kind of Ignatian spirituality became the educators of the Catholic faithful at all levels. Four hundred years later we are in a position to see the strengths and weaknesses of this letter, and indeed the gifts of the reformers themselves.
Do you see what I mean by how much this thinking underlies so much of what we are in the Roman Catholic community at all levels, or at least what we were? And yet what would we expect of a former military man? It would be interesting at some time to talk to someone who is in today’s military and found out how the forces are handling the issue of obedience today. While I do not want to go too far afield in this let me mention that the whole thrust of the modern military is to teach its officers, indeed all its members, critical thinking skills! Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if our seminaries and our schools are doing as good a job of teaching us those same kinds of skills. Your courses in logic and philosophy are supposed to do this for you. But are you learning to be a philosopher and not just studying philosophy?
But let’s leave Ignatius and the military for now. Given the insights of psychology the present members of his society see things differently along these lines of obedience and some of you may wish at some point to follow up on just what that is. But for now, let’s turn to Thomas.
Fortunately, we have in St. Thomas Aquinas another approach to this issue, and it is a considerably earlier one than is Ignatius’. As I mentioned previously, Thomas did not see obedience as the be all and end all of a deeply religious person. The concise Sacramentum Mundi has this to say about St. Thomas, on p. 1089.
It is...not surprising that when Aquinas discussed obedience, what he chiefly has in mind is obedience to human beings, that he counts it among the social virtues, regards it as part of the virtue of jusice and explicitly stresses that our relation to God is not to be reduced to obedience, and that the latter is not the highest virtue.
The scripture scholar and author of several books on moral theology, Father Gerard Sloyan, in his small but powerful book, “How Do I Know I am Doing Right?” has several things to say about the issue of what constitutes authentic obedience. They are:
1) Jesus wallowed for no one, nor should we.
2) The one great move against God for the Christian is the resistance to the truth especially when it is for the sake of “God” or “the Church”.
3) Jesus went around telling even the most illiterate peasant, no one can tell you what is right for you but you. You must do the choosing.
While they are all urgent and exceedingly important points and I can assure you when you accept ministerial office in the church there will be those who will expect you to resist truth for the sake of the institution, I want to deal especially with the third point that Father Sloyan makes.
When Jesus was preaching it was not in a vacuum. His hearers, at least the men to whom he preached, would have learned the Torah beginning at the age of three. They knew not just the summary of the Law in its ten commandments but all 643 rules in the Deuteronomic Code. He was not asking them to make up their way of being obedient to the will of God but to apply it intelligently to their lives.
We have not only the Ten Commandments but also the Beatitudes and the Code of Canon Law. So often we do not hold canonists in high regard but there are brilliant men and women in their ranks, many seeking as Jesus did to free believers from corrupt ideas of what our tradition is all about. We have these as our guides and our background when we make decisions. So when it is a question of obedience or of the practise of any of the other virtues that are part of the total Christian life, like facets of one beautiful diamond, we need to ask ourselves the following, perhaps not about every issue but about the truly serious ones.
Is what I am about to do a benefit to as many persons as possible, not a fulfillment of my own personal needs?
Have I consulted the teaching of the Church on the issue, not just its documents but what its bishops, theologians, teachers are saying?
Have I taken counsel with one person whom I respect, a person who would be for me the embodiment of Jesus if he were physically present with us today?
Have I informed myself of what the best of “secular” authorities say about the issue with which I am concerned?
Have I prayed about the issue?
Is what I am being asked to do both compassionate and just?
And then I must do something, based on how I have informed my conscience, my prayer, and conscious of the mixed motivations which are mine, I decide to act in holy or unholy obedience and trust in God for the outcome.