Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Renewed Obedience to Ecclesiastical Superiors

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 20, 2011

Every Catholic, including lay persons, is supposed to be obedient to his or her ecclesiastical superiors in the matters over which they have authority. For all Catholics, this requirement of obedience applies to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to whatever the Church formally teaches on faith or morals.

For religious priests and sisters, this obedience applies most widely, as they sacrifice their own will almost universally in their particular vocation. For diocesan priests, obedience is due to the bishop in administering the things of God throughout his diocese. For permanent deacons, it applies to their mode of service within the Church. For lay persons, it applies to all those rules, requirements and disciplines, directed toward lay persons, which the Pope or bishop may impose in the ecclesiastical effort—necessarily unindividualized, fragmented and imperfect—to promote sound spirituality and a healthy soul. (It is worth noting here that obedience to what seems less perfect is far better spiritually than a contrary voluntary pursuit of what seems more perfect.)

Since the Church is a hierarchical body, it goes without saying that a command of an intermediate authority which clearly contradicts the command of a higher authority need not be obeyed. Needless to say, any command which imposes some specific action which the Church herself, in her teaching authority, regards as immoral, is to be resisted. But Catholics are not—repeat not—to exercise a private judgment over Catholic faith and morals which would lead them, in matters subject to interpretation, to evade the responsibility of obeying their legitimate ecclesiastical superiors.

In our own day, this sense of Catholic obedience is much eroded, and for at least two reasons. First, we all live in a culture which believes strongly in personal autonomy, which regards all authority with suspicion, and which holds obedience to be contrary to human dignity because it impedes self-determination. Unfortunately, no matter how traditionally ecclesiastical we may be in our tastes, our spirit of obedience cannot escape a certain measure of infection from this cultural virus.

Second, older Catholics have just lived through a fifty year period in the Church’s history during which the normal exercise of ecclesiastical discipline at every level had broken down, a period which perhaps now is slowly drawing to an end. During this period, superiors were often reluctant to command and not infrequently commanded the wrong things, mirroring the aims of secular culture rather than those more proper to the Church. Moreover, during this period almost nobody felt the need to obey such directives as they received, except for those few—frequently abused by their superiors—who opposed many of the values of the surrounding culture, including its tendency to be disobedient! Finally, during this period, nearly all of us took exception to some things that were going on in the Church and, if we were parents, we even conveyed a deep distrust of ecclesiastical authority to our children.

The proof of what is now a widespread climate of Catholic disobedience is all around us. For lax souls, of course, this has ever been a problem, with different symptoms in different ages. In our own day we could point to a lazy disregard in matters doctrinal (such as the existence of hell and the possibility of eternal damnation), moral (contraception, abortion, homosexuality), and disciplinary (holy days of obligation, fast and abstinence, requirements for reception of the sacraments, and the obligation to support the mission of the Church), in all of which they simply fall back into the essential godlessness of the general culture from which the Church, in her wisdom, has tried to lift them.

But even among those who, in their own fashion, take Catholicism seriously, the scourge of disobedience has done enormous damage. The chief exhibit here is the example of the many Catholics, especially Catholic intellectual leaders, who have been influenced by Modernism. These have felt perfectly free to reject the most central doctrines of the faith, the rubrics of the liturgy, and even the letter of conciliar and papal decrees directed at their own errors. In their intellectual pride, they have advanced innumerable specious arguments for refashioning Catholicism in their own image, the better to follow a spirit of their own choosing rather than the Spirit which was given them by the Church in baptism. The disobedience of those in positions of ecclesiastical authority has even led to widespread abuse of the laity, especially with respect to their rights to the liturgy as prescribed by the Church and to religious education according to the teachings of the Church. These abuses in the spiritual order have been easily as serious as sexual abuse in the physical and psychological orders, and the extended failure of bishops to put an end to these many abuses is all of a piece.

In similar fashion, some who have been properly appalled by Modernism, but without an ability to make necessary distinctions between heresy and differences in emphasis on the one hand, and apostasy and prudential disciplinary changes on the other, have grasped at exceedingly spurious straws to justify a rejection of the authority of the Pope and the bishops to prescribe the form of the liturgy, and even a rejection of certain conciliar and papal teachings, especially legitimate doctrinal developments, against which they prefer to stop their ears. Most peculiarly, this has led some into a habit of private judgment which they condemn in others; and the convolutions which they go through to justify their private judgment as a public certainty are truly marvelous, including, sometimes, even the quoting of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (in works written as a thoughtful commentator on things Catholic) against Pope Benedict XVI (in documents carrying the authority to determine and define the Catholic thing).

One comes across this spirit of disobedience in the most outlandish places, though no instance should any longer be surprising. A few days ago, in response to my comments on the restoration of Friday abstinence by the Bishops of England and Wales, I received an email from a gentleman who protested loudly that if such a rule were established in his country governing Fridays in the Easter Season, he would be forced to reject it, as the Easter Season was a time for rejoicing in the Resurrection, and not for any type or degree of penance whatsoever. When I inquired of him concerning the necessity of obedience to legitimate authority, he rejoined without a trace of doubt that, in such a case, disobedience would be justified as “prophetic”.

Nothing could be more ludicrous, you say, than a Catholic adopting such an absurd point of view? Yet there it was, and I maintain that it is symptomatic of our times. It is, in fact, symptomatic of a grave and even mortal disease. Moreover, it is a pandemic disease, the symptoms of which are so widespread and common that we must all take special care in self-examination, lest we overlook the peril in our own lives. The antidote, of course, is humility, and the test of humility lies in cheerfully accepting what we do not like—and not at all in vigorously adhering to what we do.

I propose that we all strike a blow for Christ and the Church by taking the cure. And if not everyone will take it, I propose the rest of us inoculate ourselves against what can only be a harbinger of death.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - May. 23, 2011 6:59 PM ET USA

    It's hard to be obedient when so many in positions of authority have let the faith become diluted and nearly destroyed for whataver reason. All I can say is I'm very thankful for groups like the ICK and the FSSP where novelty and abuse do not generally go on in their parishes. Thank God for the bishops who actually promote and teach the Catholic Faith. Those I will obey.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2011 1:31 PM ET USA

    Well, yes, Dr. Mirus, agreed. But the flip side of this obedience is an exaggerated conformity. One gives one's personal preferences a magisterial aura, and anyone who prefers differently is . . . disobedient. This too is a danger in the spiritual life (and highly annoying to boot).

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2011 12:09 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 21, 2011 10:52 PM ET USA

    I am sorry if this offends but we are responsible for the condition of our church. We are not responsible for those individual actions leading to the scandal - but the conditrion of the faith climate are directly our responsibility. This is a faith problem within our culture which can be solved by living the faith. Humility is necessary as is prudence, prayer, and belief. The reality of Christ's dying on the cross and what he did is foreign to many. We need to pray for our Faith to grow.

  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2011 7:49 PM ET USA

    Memorable instances are the refusals of college presidents to acknowledge the authority of bishops in whose dioceses the colleges are located. Is it an effort to make the presidents of colleges the equivalent of bishops, although they do not have the charisma of consecration? Yet further, I have been wondering why the Society of Jesus has fallen so low. I suspect it is a revulsion from the overly strict demands of obedience in former days. It is replaced by active disobedience.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 20, 2011 7:47 PM ET USA

    It is imperative that it be understood the laity are not responsible for the past 50 years. "The test of humility" has nothing to do with "cheerfully accepting what we do not like" when it comes to our salvation- the Church's fundamental mission. Humility is Our Lord on the Cross. When Our Lord is removed from the churches, when cardinals are presiding over "gay masses", when our daughters ask to serve on the altar, "accepting what we do not like" is not the same humility as that of the martyrs.