None So Blind: Obedience is an Antidote to Stupidity
Except with infallible doctrines, obedience is not an infallible safeguard. But it can go a long way toward knocking the stuffing out of us, by which I mean the sheer stupidity we generally fall into when we are too fond of our own judgment and our own will. To paraphrase Psalm 14:1: The fool says in his heart, “I need not obey.”
A person who lives in a glass house should not throw stones, but we see this in Protestantism all the time. Lacking any authority principle, relying instead on the principle of private judgment, many Protestants hold strong opinions on religious issues despite a near total lack of study of the sources of Revelation. Their view is often that Scripture is as plain as a 21st century newspaper and so whatever they think it means must necessarily be true, no matter how much it conflicts with other parts of Scripture or the Christian tradition, or even with the alternative views of many other contemporary Protestants, or even with what we might at times justly call common sense.
The absurdities to which this leads are legion. Yet, sad to say, we all have a tendency to assert our own lame theories wildly. To take a modest case, a man who does not wish to fast will frequently rail against the damnably authoritarian nature of Church rules. Yet if he is wise, he will obey them anyway. What he will find is that this act of obedience will help him to detach himself from his own will. Once sufficient detachment is achieved, his view of both the rules and the fasting itself are almost certain to change.
In a contrary fashion, Modernism was born among those who, being essentially worldly, also did not like (in a very broad and general sense) to fast. But these were intellectuals. So, instead of obeying, they developed a cosmic theory about religion and cultural perception to prove that fasting does not suit the consciousness of modern man and therefore no longer has value as a religious practice. Believe me, I am oversimplifying only slightly. I am reminded of the priest who complained that he disliked the Stations of the Cross because they were such a penance.
Well, yes. We understand the rebellion of the natural man. We understand how rationalization occurs, and how capable it makes us of spinning out theories to justify this rebellion. But if we obey even the non-infallible disciplinary decisions of those set over us in the Church, we are much more likely to see our theories for what they so commonly are: Excuses for inordinate attachment.
The need for obedience is most obvious with respect to doctrinal issues on which the Church cannot err, and here too the habit of obedience tends to detach us from an excessive fondness for our own judgments. A moment’s reflection enables us to realize that this actually makes us more objective, and therefore more open to truth.
But infallibility is not essential to the ability of obedience to serve its purpose, as my brief discussion of fasting suggests. This purpose is also served in prudential matters, about which good people can disagree. Nor is obedience valuable only for those who would prefer to do less than the Church requires. There are many who would prefer to do more, and who are prone to condemn authority for not demanding enough. Note that on either side, the prudential judgment of the objector may at times be better than that of the ecclesiastical superiors. This is hardly impossible. But those who object will still benefit more by cheerfully following what the Church prescribes than by insisting on doing things their own way, because the key value of obedience is that it detaches us from our own wills.
The dangers of such attachment are very great. The fallout spreads rapidly from practices and attitudes to ideas and doctrines. Again and again we observe a pattern in those who, having denounced legitimate authority for its failure to implement the right set of requirements, go on over time to deny authority altogether, or to contradict not only disciplinary norms but infallible teachings. To those who remain obedient, it soon becomes evident that insofar as someone is frequently or habitually disobedient to legitimate ecclesiastical authority, the extremism or even absurdity of that person’s views and assertions increases at a very high rate.
Liturgical disobedience is a perennial case in point. Those who obediently make proper use of the liturgy the Church imposes, even when they find it lacking, and whether or not they are priests or laity, invariably grow spiritually. As a direct result, they remain at least somewhat detached from their own views, preferences and passions; they are prone to assess the views of others more charitably and prudently; and in consequence they generally avoid putting themselves on display as fools and idiots. Not so those who insist on saying or hearing Mass in their own way, certain that their own preferences constitute a superior norm. These are soon ready to condemn anything that interferes with their own predilections, to judge every issue according to their own passions, and to assess every virtue by their own lights. They almost invariably soon begin to voice extreme and absolute opinions that are absurd on their face.
An excellent example would be the Modernist distortions of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite that drove obedient Catholics nearly mad a generation ago. These distortions were accompanied by a whole litany of doctrinal and social assertions as shallow as they were outlandish. But for obvious reasons we here at CatholicCulture.org do not currently hear from all that many Modernists. We still hear with some frequency, however, from those who are not slow to speak foolishly on the other side. Thus I have seen it roundly asserted on more than one occasion that Modernism itself will not be driven from the Church until we have a pope who will make the Tridentine Mass the sole form of worship. This change alone, they claim, will eliminate Modernism.
The mind boggles. One wonders what such persons think the prevailing form of the rite was when Pope St. Pius X became so appalled by the inroads of Modernism that he felt the need to condemn it. Or again, one wonders what form of the rite was in effect when Modernist theological advisors attempted to hijack the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council and, failing that, hastened to report the Council falsely in the world press. Unfortunately, when people on any side fail to cultivate a true spirit of obedience through the actual positive and ungrudging practice of the virtue, they cannot help but to multiply stupidities to the point of scandal. This happens to all who fail to learn not just outward obedience, but obedience in their hearts.
And why? Because they are increasingly attached to their own judgment and their own will. Thus they have no remedy for their own weakness, their own blindness. This never takes long to show.
Church authority may at times seem to us too strong and at other times too weak. It may even seem on the whole to be prudentially ill-suited to the times. Yet it is truly marvelous how obedience even to an arguably poor disciplinary authority will invariably breed wisdom and general spiritual health. It is no wonder: By this virtue and this virtue alone do we become increasingly detached from our own wills. In contrast, disobedience almost infallibly makes one ever more a fool. Moreover, it does so quickly and, to everyone else, obviously. There really are none so blind as those who refuse to see.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Nov. 14, 2011 5:40 PM ET USA
The Church is unrivaled in her profound understanding of our "humanness." Her traditional disciplinary dictates are oriented to the salvation of souls with a penetrating understanding of and appreciation for our human nature. She is profoundly "real" to use a contemporary term. Her laws are "really" oriented to the salvation of souls in light of our humanness and in relation to our triune God. Obedience in the setting of "disorientation" is not necessarily a virtue; the article lacks clarity.
Posted by: rlloret6216 -
Nov. 14, 2011 4:30 PM ET USA
...the habit of obedience tends to detach us from an excessive fondness for our own judgments ... as does fasting. Wow! So true. When I am "off balanced," returning to simple acts of obedience - Mass, the rosary, prayers of appreciation, and a day or two of fasting - get me back on track! Thanks again for your excellent writing.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Nov. 14, 2011 12:29 PM ET USA
If you follow conversion stories, you will notice that obedience to the Magisterium is usually the last hurdle to be jumped in the process.
Posted by: Lucas -
Nov. 14, 2011 4:46 AM ET USA
Well Written! I trust these principles also apply to the Church's teachings on social and economic issues - a stumbling point for many orthodox/traditional Catholics.
Posted by: timothy.op -
Nov. 12, 2011 11:41 AM ET USA
This piece exemplifies the tenacity and brutal candor that consistently makes you so enjoyable to read. In ch. 2 of his "Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer," Fr. Dubay frankly illustrates the relationship between detachment from our own wills and the ability to recognize and acknowledge objective truth, goodness & beauty. It's a simple principle: Truth makes demands on us - demands which can only be met by those who, "having purified themselves by obedience," possess the freedom of the sons of God.