When are Catholics required to obey their bishops?
September 9, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Readers may be surprised, or scandalized, that Catholics like myself critical of bishops who appear to be pushing the practice of Communion in the hand during the COVID-19 epidemic are minimizing the importance of the virtue of obedience. So having criticized one view of what obedience is about, I’d like to say something positive about obedience.
Obedience is indeed a wonderful virtue. We should not see it as a passive or effeminate virtue, but as a primary virtue of the soldier. Christians are, after all, soldiers of Christ, and it is the constant theme of traditional Catholic spirituality that we should overcome our self-will in order to conform ourselves to the will of God. This, after all, is what the love of God is: “If you love Me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Furthermore, our religious superiors exercise over us God’s authority, and for most of us our opportunity to obey God in specific matters comes in the form of obeying God in our superiors.
The difficulty modern Catholics have had with obedience is partly the result of spiritual writers of recent centuries taking it too much for granted that they are not talking about obeying our superiors in matters of sin, or about “rash” obedience when what we are commanded might be sin; nor about matters that go beyond our superiors’ competence, or about commands that fail to promote the common good.
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas take such a strict line on the last of these issues that it appears commands that are well-intentioned but are not actually going to do any good would not count as valid commands at all, since for them the very definition of a command involves the promotion of the common good. We can leave a little room for maneuver over matters where our judgment of what will promote the common good may be no better than that of a superior, but the point remains that for the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church what obedience is about is leaving aside our own interests for those of the community, under the direction of the person charged with the promotion of this common good, and not at all about enslaving ourselves to an alternative human will, however that will might be clothed in the dignity of office.
The second alternative would not be a proxy for obedience to God, but rather of obedience to Satan, who is the ruler of human tyrants, governed as they are by their passions.
The idea that the command of the superior is the command of God could be very dangerous unless it is remembered that it contains in itself this important limitation: that we should obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). If we regard our bishop — as we should — as exercising authority from God, and therefore undertake to obey him as a way of obeying God Himself, we could never imagine that this would involve disobeying God’s will. This does not only mean that we should not obey the bishop in breaking the Ten Commandments, but that it is not true obedience to carry out the bishop’s desires, should he harbor them, to harm souls in any way.
It was a matter of great satisfaction to many of us Catholics in England and Wales in 2011 when our bishops reimposed the obligation of Friday abstinence: we are now obliged to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, unless it is a Solemnity. It was similarly gratifying in 2017 when our bishops reimposed the obligation to go to Mass on the traditional dates of the feasts of the Ascension and Epiphany, which had been moved to the nearest Sunday. We should rejoice, similarly, at the authority priests have over us in the confessional, to give or withhold absolution, and to impose a penance on us. These exercises of authority are for our spiritual good: it is easy to see how they benefit us, and the very inconveniences to which they might put us can be a source of grace when accepted with humility.
Obedience can be difficult, when we are asked to do something difficult or dangerous for the common good, such as when a priest is asked to serve a remote and impoverished community. Obedience has a special value — and this is a favorite theme of spiritual writers — in relation to penance, since penances we choose for ourselves can be a source of spiritual pride, a problem which is mitigated if the penance is imposed on us by a superior.
However, the authority of bishops and priests over lay Catholics is actually extremely limited, and hardly goes beyond the kinds of examples just given. They cannot bend us to their human will, and they cannot impose on us their opinions on non-spiritual matters, however good their intentions. Above all, they are given power to do good, and never to do evil.