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à propos of nothing ...

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 24, 2006

OK, this is a bizarrely contrived hypothetical situation. But suppose I owe obedience to a certain authority, and this authority has judged innocent a man whom I think guilty -- or conversely, the authority has judged guilty a man whom I think innocent. Clearly I have to act in obedience to authority (provided the commanded actions involve no sin), but am I obliged to concur inwardly in the authority's judgment? The late Cambridge philosopher (and truculently orthodox Catholic) Elizabeth Anscombe has some useful remarks on the subject. This from her essay, "On Authority in Morals":

There is a difference between saying: You did not do as I told you, and that is bad, because it was I, whom you ought to obey, who told you, and: You did not believe what I said, and that is bad, because it was I, whom you ought to believe, who told you.

The difference lies in this: that the one with authority over what you do, can decide, within limits, what you shall do; his decision is what makes it right for you to do what he says -- if the reproach against you, when you disobey him, is only one of disobedience. But someone with authority over what you think is not at liberty, within limits, to decide what you shall think among a range of possible thoughts on a given matter; what makes it right for you to think what you think, given that it is your business to form a judgement at all, is simply that it is true, and no decision can make something a true thing for you to think, as the decision of someone in authority can make something a good thing for you to do.

If I'm a novice monk, and the abbot commands me to water a dry stick, his decision to give me that command makes my watering a dry stick a good thing for me to do (regardless of whether or not it's the best use of my time). If the same man commands me to hold the opinion that he is a holier abbot than his predecessor, I owe him no obedience in the matter and his decision to command me is futile.

If I'm an infantryman, and my company commander orders me to charge enemy lines, his decision to give that order makes my charging enemy lines a good thing for me to do (regardless of whether or not it's a sound military tactic). If the same officer orders me to believe one of his brother officers is not the coward he appears to be, I have no duty whatsoever to obey his order.

Note that Anscombe is not denying legitimate authority over matters of belief; the bishops, e.g., have authority to speak in the name of the Church in articulation of what convictions constitute Catholic faith. What she is denying is that a decision can make something true.

Now suppose that my abbot or my company commander comes under suspicion of wrongdoing. Can my superiors rightfully order me to keep silent about the situation? Yes, if I antecedently undertook to obey them in such matters. Can they order me to believe him innocent or guilty? No. As Anscombe says, provided it's my business to form a judgment at all, the truth of the matter -- however difficult to find or painful to acknowledge -- is the only thing that counts.

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Show 17 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Clorox - May. 28, 2006 9:39 AM ET USA

    Another bizarrely contrived situation: Assume a bishop demands that you be obedient to his disobedience.

  • Posted by: JohnB - May. 25, 2006 2:31 PM ET USA

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church throws a good deal of light on the "obedience of faith" in Part One, Chapter Three: "Man Responds to God," paragraphs 142-84. Because the Council of Trent defines faith as a supernatural virtue (DS 3008), it follows that RELIGIOUS obedience, i.e., based on faith, is also a supernatural virtue. Psalm 118:8-9 is true: "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes," including any religious superior. BETTER, note. Some trust is appropriate.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2006 11:32 AM ET USA

    When a bishop who ignores his mandate to "feed my sheep," meaning he has no interest and offers no direction for your salvation, demands obedience, it is one's obligation to call him to task. In my opinion, this description fits most American bishops like a glove. St. Pius X apt instructions, "the less they are exposed, the more mischief they do," is the governing principle here. In the spirit of he and St. Athanasius, bishops. Once, just once, speak to us sin and salvation. Just once, feed us!

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2006 9:28 AM ET USA

    There must be some valid application of this discussion to the chaos that followed in the wake of VC II because of its loss of emphasis on discipline and doctrine. Those that saw through this shortcoming from the beginning cannot now be somehow held accountable. Where then does the blame for over 40 years of chaos rest? And why hasn't the real issue been addressed?

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2006 7:58 AM ET USA

    "[B]izarrely contrived hypothetical situation": my eye.

  • Posted by: pakx - May. 25, 2006 1:19 AM ET USA

    There have been many times in my life that I have been ordered to water a stick. The only times I have ever come unglued when doing so, is when I began to believe that, by watering the stick, a tree would grow from it. It *is* nice though, when next to the stick, a seedling pops up.

  • Posted by: murphy - May. 24, 2006 9:58 PM ET USA

    If you want to be understood, you know exactly how to say it. Enough said.

  • Posted by: Fatimabeliever - May. 24, 2006 9:01 PM ET USA

    I'll never understand why those who chose the religious life and know something is morally wrong do not fight and stay in their religious life by fighting against immorial behavior and blowing loud whistles until they are heard even though they will be accused of disobedience because the simple reason is that this so-called action of obedience to immoral behavior will lead them and others on a path to hell.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - May. 24, 2006 6:53 PM ET USA

    The Church can teach infallibly because the Holy Spirit prevents Her from teaching error, not simply because, e.g., the Pope's saying it makes it so. Dutch, the charism of infallibility has NOT been vouchsafed to Cardinals or Nuncios. Their pronouncements may be doubted or even disbelieved. Fr. Phillips, no authority can command one to sin. If not speaking is a sin of omission, then one must speak. Normally, I would defer to authority, but, lately, many haven't been reliable on such matters.

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - May. 24, 2006 3:31 PM ET USA

    Pedants will find an excellent discussion of this issue in Fr Romanus Cessario, OP's The Virtues or the Examined Life. Chapter 4 - Christian Prudence and Practical Wisdom, Section 5 - The Elements of Prudence footnote 46 regarding obeying the directives of a spiritual director, obeying the directives of a superior, and modifying one's thinking as a false notion of Dominican obedience. Fascinating, as Fr Spock, SJ of Vulcan would say.

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - May. 24, 2006 1:12 PM ET USA

    jchrys, You are missing what CS Lewis in God in the Dock called "the delight of simile and metaphor". The real outcome of the Anscombe v Lewis debate was not that Anscombe "defeated" Lewis, it was that Lewis realized the logical road down an apologetic path was a dark and dreary one. Till We Have Faces that is.

  • Posted by: rpp - May. 24, 2006 12:36 PM ET USA

    A company commander can order your to charge an enemy line, but cannot order you to shoot an unarmed civilian. A bishop can tell you to be Catholic you must go to Reconcilliation once a year, but cannot tell you to be involved in an abortion. You are not morally bound to follow immoral orders. Unfortuntely, it is rare that the choices are this clear.

  • Posted by: FrPhillips - May. 24, 2006 10:57 AM ET USA

    And if the issue is not the matter of watering a dry stick, but is an order to keep my mouth shut about... oh, say for instance... a pastor ripping off the offerings of those who gave in good faith towards God's work; or not blowing the whistle over the moving of a priest from parish to parish who has left the wreckage of molested teens in his wake, because (in the words of the Superior), "we'll handle it in our own way..." Of course, these are only wild, imaginary examples.

  • Posted by: - May. 24, 2006 10:55 AM ET USA

    I’ve worked for the Federal government for 40+ years and whenever (which, as the years pass, becomes more infrequent) I, or my co-workers, ask, “Why did they do that?” the answer always is, “Because they can.” So you see, Di, the rightness or goodness of any decision is irrelevant because, as we all know, might makes right and you-know-what only rolls downhill. And when you grow tired of watering that dry stick, just remember that they’re probably paying you well to do it.

  • Posted by: Catholicity - May. 24, 2006 10:41 AM ET USA

    jchrys, it is because: 1. Popular culture (sic) is enamored with all things dumb and dumbed down. Our lives tend to reflect that. 2. Careful reading requires an intense and systematic study of why an author chose the words he chose, and reflection on their relationships to other words in the sentence, however drawn out. Point 1 makes that more difficult than it was for previous generations. 3. You need new glasses. :)

  • Posted by: Dutch - May. 24, 2006 10:27 AM ET USA

    Say two cardinals publish a booklet saying their teaching should be understood as being from the Magisterium, - it is confirmed as such by the nuncio but doubts are raised in one's mind when reading it, and statements in the booklet appear to disagree with the Wednesday speeches of Benedict XVI. What would the professor suggest?

  • Posted by: - May. 24, 2006 10:08 AM ET USA

    Why is it that I, whenever I read something written by Professor Anscombe, about which she seeks to make some point of logic or illogic, or about philosophy, of which she was a scholar, I am left, as I read through her prose, in one of three states, or all: (1) suffering a sudden headache; (2) confused by her punctuation; (3) longing, intensely, because of the foregoing points (1) and (2), for a rarity called the "short, declarative sentence"?

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