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Why there is no obedience crisis with your (bad) bishop

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 08, 2022

In response to my commentary of February 1st (Catholic reinterpretation: From fruitfulness to sterility), more than one reader asked how we can remain in obedient communion with the Church when doctrinal, moral and liturgical deficiencies are permitted or at times even encouraged by so many in ecclesiastical authority. Fortunately, the answer to that is quite simple. But in our righteous anger, we often overlook the obvious.

What ought to be obvious is that it almost never happens that even the worst pope, bishops, religious superiors and parish priests actually command the faithful to do something evil. Far more than nine-hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, they simply give bad guidance or, if they command something, they command you to stop doing something that would normally be considered good. There is a huge difference between being advised or even ordered not to do some particular thing which is objectively good and being advised or even ordered to do something which is objectively evil.

The overwhelming number of alleged crises in religious obedience involve not a crisis of good and evil but a crisis of my particular will over and against the will of a superior. Yes, I may feel sure that I am called to exercise apostolate X to the benefit of persons Y and Z, or to celebrate the sacraments using liturgical form A rather than liturgical form B. But that decision may lie in the hands of a superior (just as it may lie in the “hands” of circumstance). And again and again when saints have been thwarted in what they initially were certain they were called to do, they obeyed their superiors until such time as either (a) they obtained the necessary permission; or (b) they realized that they were actually being called to do something else.

Willfulness vs. Obedience

No matter our state in life, we have many theoretical options for doing good, but we may be constrained to pursue some options rather than others by a great many factors: Our affections and desires, our opportunities and abilities, and our obedience to the decisions of those who exercise authority over us. I will offer just two obvious contemporary examples: First, we may feel called to communicate the correct Catholic position on gender identity and sexual morality, regardless of cultural pressures to the contrary. But we may have no opportunity to do that, or we may be prevented by those in charge from including this potential mission in our jobs, or we may find that our religious superior has removed us from catechetical work and put us in charge of the choir. In a second example, we may think it is best to attend the Traditional Latin Mass, but we may be compelled instead (by anything from opportunity to an ecclesiastical order) to attend Mass according to the latest Missal.

Now, in these cases and many others, regardless of our state in life, we may have good reason to believe that a religious superior—a priest, a bishop, even a pope—has placed a restriction on us for very bad reasons, or has even denigrated the service we hoped to perform. But the bare fact of the matter is that in this and a million other cases, the superior in question has not commanded us to do something evil; he has simply indicated that, for whatever reason, he does not want us to do one particular good thing, but something else.

Please note that this does not provoke any crisis of conscience. The fact that I am prevented, by any circumstance, including the will of a superior, from pursuing a particular good that I would like to pursue may indeed provoke a crisis of obedience in me, but it will be a crisis not of conscience but of my own willfulness. I am not being asked or commanded to do evil, but to prescind in some manner or degree from doing something that I regard as good, so that I must serve Christ in some other way.

This is precisely why so many saints who have been thwarted by “ill-advised” superiors have chosen obedience to the superior as a surer path to grace than following their own wills, even though they regarded their wills as being directed to a true particular good. Moreover, these saints have seen, in their very suffering at the hands of wrong-headed superiors, a surer proof of the grace of Christ for the world than anything they might accomplish in pursuing their own desires. For them, it was as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross put it so succinctly: “Human activities cannot help us, but only the Cross of Christ.”

The laity

Now what all this signifies is the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, and this difference may be nowhere easier to perceive than among the laity, who are so seldom expressly commanded by religious superiors to do any particular thing, but who may nonetheless suffer certain restrictions or deprivations based on ecclesiastical statements and decisions, either in the universal or the local Church. A lay person is called to seek a sound spiritual environment for his own growth and development and, if applicable, for his family as a whole, particularly children. Yet for the laity, as for many lower clergy and religious, any obstacles will typically take the form of features in the prevailing ecclesiastical landscape which, for a wide variety of reasons, will not afford them the certain spiritual opportunities they not only desire but prefer.

In this, the laity can make decisions in many cases about where they would like to live and so, through some degree of sacrifice, they can place themselves within a better ecclesiastical environment. But what the laity cannot do—or at least can do only under almost unimaginably extraordinary circumstances—is claim that they must disobey some direct command of an ecclesiastical superior. If a priest or religious might possibly, in one case out of a thousand, be ordered to do something evil (rather than to refrain from doing some particular good), then for a lay person this would be a chance of no more than one in a million.

There is, in other words, a vast difference between chafing under the atrocious leadership of a pope, a bishop, a religious superior, or a priest and being commanded to do something evil. There is a vast difference between suffering under even genuinely bad spiritual leadership and undergoing a crisis of conscience. There is an immense gulf between being denied the opportunity to pursue some good and being ordered by a religious superior to do some evil.

In many places in the Church today, both in the secular affluent West and elsewhere, the leadership provided by religious and ecclesiastical superiors is very bad. The problem is hardly unique in our time; there have been many times in the past when the leadership of either the universal Church or local churches and religious communities has varied between mediocre and horrendous. It is, in point of fact, a great blessing to be able to live under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical or religious superiors who are both holy and competent. But until we are ordered to do some direct evil ourselves, rather than to prescind from something we regard as good, we cannot speak of a crisis of conscience. We cannot speak of rebellion against ecclesiastical authority, still less of separating ourselves into a sect which claims, without any apostolic warrant, to represent the truth.

Conclusion

In a discussion with my own pastor about the temptation to complain or even speak derisively about Church leaders, he reminded me that no Christian should ever forget the full truth of the matter—which is that Christ has already won the victory. To this I will add a thought I have expressed many times since I started working for Catholic renewal in the 1960s. So often, those who have been spiritually restricted by bad ecclesiastical leadership have said things like, “What choice do I have? My family is losing so much! I must break my unity with the Church and seek a spiritual home elsewhere. There is nothing else I can do!

My reply is very similar to the advice quoted above from St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It is not a pleasant answer, but it has remained unchanged now for over fifty years: Yes, there is something else we can do. We can do exactly what Our Lord did, when He was refused the opportunity to gather all Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. We can do exactly what the only begotten Son did in obedience to the will of His Father, for the express purpose of winning that victory.

We too can become one with Jesus Christ, empty ourselves—and suffer.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 10, 2022 10:37 AM ET USA

    Deacon0101: The examples you mention would not be a matter of obedience to a lay person (though they might eventually become one for you as a deacon if some penalty is imposed). Ordinarily one would simply dismiss the advice as erroneous and get on with the job. Also, lay persons (and deacons) can choose to move to a better diocese. In practice, however, a bishop who demanded obedience from a priest or a bishop in denying Church teaching would be extraordinarily rare. It is more likely that he would exercise his authority by either refusing to allow a particular priest or deacon to serve (either in a particular capacity or at all) in his diocese. Similarly, a pastor might remove a deacon or a lay person from certain duties in the parish or refuse to have a particular deacon assigned there. But in these cases, there could be no justification for disobedience even if the bishop or pastor has decided unfairly or otherwise badly. No deacon or priest should exercise his ministry, obviously, without the authorization of his bishop. A further clarification: Note that your mind is not legitimately controlled by a bishop or a pastor, but your ecclesiastical duties are. My point is that a negative decision by the proper ecclesiastical authority cannot possibly cause a crisis of conscience in the sense that you have "no choice" (as a deacon) but to continue to exercise your ministry in a particular way in defiance of the proper authority, or "no choice" (no matter what your state in life) but to leave the Church. You could seek a contrary judgment through a canonical appeal; you could resign your position; you could move elsewhere; or you could find ways to continue to serve within the parameters of an unfortunate situation. But a crisis of conscience which forces you to leave the Church? No, never.

  • Posted by: Deacon0101 - Feb. 09, 2022 3:04 PM ET USA

    So what if your bishop tells you that you should accept homosexual relationships as true Christian love? What if the bishop declares that transgenders are not mentally unstable and cannot be treated as such. Those ecclesial leaders that ask us to accept these sinful lifestyles are not commanding but warning us not to willfully deny these sinful states.

  • Posted by: toddvoss1511 - Feb. 09, 2022 11:35 AM ET USA

    Excellent analysis

  • Posted by: kmk1916 - Feb. 09, 2022 12:21 AM ET USA

    THank you for this article! It is so true.

  • Posted by: dianekortan5972 - Feb. 08, 2022 9:32 PM ET USA

    Amen!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 08, 2022 8:45 PM ET USA

    You have a point here. There are always options, some more painful than others. I suppose we should expect to suffer through this valley of tears for the same reason that the Patriarchs and Apostles were riddled with flaws: perfection is not to be sought on earth but in heaven. We seek stability in our lives and in our faith. However, the post-Vatican II Church apparently wills not to provide or even allow it. What to do? My answer is to use the hermeneutic of continuity as a reliable guide.

  • Posted by: padrecatolico - Feb. 08, 2022 8:42 PM ET USA

    Excellent and much needed article. It seems to me that if a bishop requires that we do something irreversible that is not in his ecclesial competence such as vaccination or having a tattoo, there is no obligation to obey. Any comments?