By Dr. Jeff Mirus | May 20, 2011 Catholic Culture
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, it has ever been a problem, as in the failures to observe days of fast or abstinence, or the requirements relating to reception of the sacraments, or the obligation to support the mission of the Church. But even among those who, in their own fashion, take Catholicism seriously, the scourge of disobedience has done enormous damage. Thus, for example, the many Catholics, especially Catholic intellectual leaders, who have been influenced by Modernism have felt perfectly free to reject both the rubrics of the liturgy and the letter of conciliar and papal decrees, the better to follow a spirit of their own choosing rather than the Spirit which was given them by the Church in baptism.
In similar fashion, some who have been properly appalled by Modernism, without an ability to make necessary distinctions, have grasped at exceedingly spurious straws to justify a rejection of the authority of the Pope and the bishops to govern the liturgy, and even a rejection of the conciliar and papal teachings on those matters against which they prefer to stop their ears. Most peculiarly, this has led some into a habit of private judgment which they reject 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 things Catholic).
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.