To really get to know somebody, it’s necessary to observe different aspects of their character. We Catholics reveal our moral worth in diverse circumstances: for example, during times of physical and spiritual suffering, when we need to pardon our neighbor, when we detach ourselves from material goods – it is in these and so many other trials, that charity is really proven.
For religious men and women, this may be noted in a specific aspect: the virtue of obedience. Their sincerity in giving their lives to the Church is proved by the capacity they have of renouncing themselves and fulfilling the will of those who represent the Lord to them. We know that an obedient religious is loved by the Lord, while one who does his own will, strays from virtue.
This is the surest teaching of the Church, followed by numerous generations of consecrated people until our days. To accept rebellion as a characteristic of religious life is to consent to the transgression of the most sacred principles, above all when this is done, supposedly, to better serve God.
Note: As has already become customary, the CLAR (Conference of Latin American Religious) published a declaration stating that these words, which were widely published in the media, cannot be attributed to Francis as if they were verbatim since this summary is merely ‘based on the memories of the participants;’ and there has been no official version or rectification... Therefore, without focusing on the existence or not of such a declaration, it is a good opportunity to remember here what the Magisterium has affirmed on obedience, which the CLAR – and all religious men and women of the world – are obliged to follow.
Enter in the various parts of our study
I – What does God prefer: Actions or Obedience?
II – Correction is the Duty of Ecclesiastical Shepherds
III – May Religious Dispense themselves from Obedience?
IV – The Consequences of Resisting Authority
I – What does God Prefer: Actions or Obedience?
Does the Lord so delight in holocausts and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the Lord? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams. (1 Sam 15:22)
God needs not toils, but obedience. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 56, no. 8)
If anyone is under a vow of obedience and goes astray through not taking the greatest care to observe these vows with the highest degree of perfection, I do not know why she is in the convent. I can assure her, in any case, that, for so long as she fails in this respect, she will never succeed in leading the contemplative life, or even in leading a good active life: of that I am very very certain. (Saint Teresa of Jesus. The Way of Perfection, Ch. 18, no. 6, pg. 77)
If one should obey the commandments of the Lord, it is also necessary to submit to the human magisterium, for He himself said: ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me.’ (Saint Augustine. Combat between the vices and virtues (attr.), ch. 5)
Just as the actions of natural things proceed from natural powers, so do human actions proceed from the human will. On natural things it behooved the higher to move the lower to their actions by the excellence of the natural power bestowed on them by God: and so in human affairs also the higher must move the lower by their will in virtue of a divinely established authority. Now to move by reason and will is to command. Wherefore just as in virtue of the divinely established natural order the lower natural things need to be subject to the movement of the higher, so too in human affairs, in virtue of the order of natural and divine law, inferiors are bound to obey their superiors. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II-II, q. 104, a. 1)
Do not desire, then, anything but that which God desires, and do what the one who commands tells you to do, as long as there is no sin involved. Desire that which the superiors desire and you shall desire that which God desires: thus you shall be truly obedient and blessed. (Letters of St. Francis de Sales, frag. 46)
II – Correction is the Duty of Ecclesiastical Shepherds
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. (2 Tim 4:1-5)
The pastor’s specific task in the Church is to instruct the people in what pertains to faith and good conduct. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, lect. 4, Eph 4:11-13)
The first title [of the Church] is founded upon the express mission and supreme authority to teach, given her by her divine Founder: ‘All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.’ Upon this magisterial office Christ conferred infallibility, together with the command to teach His doctrine. Hence the Church ‘was set by her divine Author as the pillar and ground of truth, in order to teach the divine Faith to men, and keep whole and inviolate the deposit confided to her; to direct and fashion men, in all their actions individually and socially, to purity of morals and integrity of life, in accordance with revealed doctrine.’ (Pius XI. Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, no. 16, December 31, 1931)
The Church’s tradition has included ‘admonishing sinners’ among the spiritual works of mercy. It is important to recover this dimension of Christian charity. We must not remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality, rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and that do not follow the path of goodness. (Benedict XVI. Message for Lent 2012, November 3, 2011)
There is no doubt that human society will always suffer the most grievous harm whenever the guiding authority of the Church and its salutary influence is eliminated from the private and public education of youth, for on this education depends, in great measure, the good order of spiritual and material matters. Due to this exclusion, human society will lose, little by little, that Christian spirit which alone may sustain the foundation of public order and tranquility and which alone is capable of fomenting real and advantageous progress for civilization, and of providing man with the means necessary to achieve the end that is beyond the frontiers of this life, that is, the acquisition of eternal salvation. (Pius IX. Letter Quum non sine, July 14, 1864)
III – May Religious Dispense themselves from Obedience?
Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hb 13:17)
The confidence that the religious men and women of this continent place in you, is a motive of great responsibility for CLAR to manifest in all things a firm adhesion to the Magisterium of the Pope, to the norms of the Holy See and of the Bishops, and that it promote the authenticity of the religious life and of the diverse charisms, respecting and favoring – in common dialogue – the particular character of each institute. (John Paul II. Apostolic Journey to Columbia: Meeting with members of the Conference of Latin American Religious (CLAR), no. 3, in Bogota, July 2, 1986)
The Church expresses to you, dear brothers and sisters, her gratitude for your consecration and for your profession of the evangelical counsels, which are a special witness of love. She also expresses anew her great confidence in you who have chosen a state of life that is a special gift of God to the Church. She counts upon your complete and generous collaboration in order that, as faithful stewards of this precious gift, you may ‘think with the Church’ and always act in union with her, in conformity with the teachings and directives of the Magisterium of Peter and of the pastors in communion with him, fostering, at the personal and community level, a renewed ecclesial awareness. (John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum, no. 14, March 25, 1984)
You belong to an ecclesial movement. The word “ecclesial” here is more than merely decorative. It implies a precise task of Christian formation, and involves a deep convergence of faith and life. The enthusiastic faith which enlivens your communities is a great enrichment, but it is not enough. It must be accompanied by a Christian formation which is solid, comprehensive and faithful to the Church’s Magisterium […] As an ecclesial movement, one of your distinguishing marks should be to sentire cum Ecclesia, to live, that is, in filial obedience to the Church’s Magisterium, to the Pastors and to the Successor of Peter, and with them to build the communion of the whole body. (John Paul II. Meeting of the Catholic Fraterninty of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships, no.3, June 1, 1998)
The moral conscience of the person grows and matures precisely within the Church; it is helped by the Church to ‘not let be carried by any wind of doctrine, by the errors of men.’ In effect, the Church is ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (cf. 1Tim 3:15). Fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church impedes, thus, that moral conscience be deviated from the truth regarding the good of man. It is unjust, therefore, to conceive the individual moral conscience and the Magisterium of the Church as two opponents, as two realities in conflict. The authority which, by the will of Christ, is enjoyed by the Magisterium exists in order that the moral conscience attain truth with security and remain in it. (John Paul II. General Audience, no. 3, August 24, 1983)
How is it possible to safeguard and guarantee a charism’s authenticity? It is essential in this regard that every movement submit to the discernment of the competent ecclesiastical authority. For this reason no charism can dispense with reference and submission to the Pastors of the Church. […] This is the necessary guarantee that you are taking the right road! In the confusion that reigns in the world today, it is so easy to err, to give in to illusions. May this element of trusting obedience to the Bishops, the successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Successor of Peter never be lacking in the Christian formation provided by your movements! […] I ask you always to adhere to them with generosity and humility, bringing your experiences to the local Churches and parishes, while always remaining in communion with the Pastors and attentive to their direction. (John Paul II. Speech during the Meeting with Ecclesial Movements and New Communities, May 30, 1998)
Whence it will behoove citizens to submit themselves and to be obedient to rulers, as to God, not so much through fear of punishment as through respect for their majesty; nor for the sake of pleasing, but through conscience, as doing their duty. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Diuturnum Illud, no. 13, June 29, 1881)
LET every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Super Epistulam ad Romanos, ch.13, lect. 1 – French)
The spirit of insubordination and independence, so characteristic of our times, has, as We deplored above, not entirely spared the ministers of the Sanctuary. […] It is not rare for pastors of the Church to find sorrow and contradiction where they had a right to look for comfort and help. […] Let them remember that if, as we have seen, those who resist any legitimate authority, resist God, much more impiously do they act who refuse to obey the Bishop, whom God has consecrated with a special character by the exercise of His power. […] Moreover, bishops have a very heavy burden in consequence of the difficulties of the times; and heavier still is their anxiety for the salvation of the flock committed to their care: ‘For they watch as being to render an account of your souls’ (Hb 8:17). (Benedict XV. Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, nos. 28- 29, November 1, 1914)
Among the virtues that priests must possess for their sacred ministry none is so important as a frame of mind and soul whereby they are always ready to know and do the will of him who sent them and not their own will. The divine task that they are called by the Holy Spirit to fulfill surpasses all human wisdom and human ability. ‘God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the strong’ (1 Cor 1:27). (Vatican Council II, Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 15, December 7, 1965)
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 25, November 21, 1964)
Obedience is a virtue of primary importance […] Just like that of Christ, the priest’s obedience expresses total and joyful readiness to do God’s will. This is why the priest recognises that this will also becomes evident in the indications of legitimate superiors. […] The virtue of obedience, intrinsically requested by the Sacrament and the hierarchical structure of the Church, is explicitly promised by the cleric, first in the rite of ordination to the diaconate, and then in the rite of ordination to the priesthood. (Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, no. 56 (New Edition), 2013)
It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing, 1 Corinthians 1:10 and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified. (Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Ephesians, no. 2)
May the reverence and obedience which you solemnly pledged to those whom the Holy Spirit has appointed to rule the Church, increase and gain strength; and especially, may your minds and hearts be linked by ever closer ties of loyalty to this Apostolic See which justly claims your respectful homage. (Pius X. Encyclical Haerent animos, no. 31, August 4, 1908)
With all Our spirit, therefore, We conjure the good Mexican Catholics to hold obedience and discipline dear. […]And let this obedience be full of joy and a stimulus to greater energies. […]He who obeys unwillingly and only through force, venting his interior resentment in bitter criticism of his superiors and companions in work, of all that which is not according to his own way of viewing things, drives away the Divine benedictions, destroys the strength of discipline, and destroys where he ought to construct. (Pius XI. Encyclical Firmissimam Constantiam, no. 34, March 28, 1937)
The role the will plays in the faith is most important; a sincere will, stripped of its passions, prejudices and human respect. Many are incredulous, not due to questions of understanding, but due to the passions that has taken over their hearts: they prefer to live freely instead of submitting themselves to the yoke of obedience. (Catechism of Trent 100, I, 3)
IV – The Consequences of Resisting Authority
Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. (Rom 13:1-5)
Now, the source of these evils lies chiefly, We are convinced, in this, that the holy and venerable authority of the Church, which in God’s name rules mankind, upholding and defending all lawful authority, has been despised and set aside. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Inscrutabili Dei Consilii, no.3, April 21, 1878)
Undoubtedly, that cannot by any means be accounted the perfection of civilized life which sets all legitimate authority boldly at defiance; […] Such principles, as a matter of course, must hurry nations, corrupted in mind and heart, into every kind of infamy, weaken all right order, and thus, sooner or later, bring the standing and peace of the State to the very brink of ruin. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Inscrutabili Dei Consilii, no.6, April 21, 1878)
The obligation to follow the Magisterium in matters of faith and morals is intrinsically linked to all the functions the priest must perform in the Church. Dissent in this area is to be considered grave insofar as it leads to scandal and confusion among the faithful. […] Insofar as a minister of Christ and his Church, the priest generously takes upon himself the duty to comply faithfully with each and every norm, avoiding those forms of partial compliance, according to subjective criteria, which create division and have damaging effects upon the lay faithful and public opinion. (Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, no. 57, (New Edition) 2013)
It remains for you now to direct your attention to the general state of the whole Church, to see if the people are submissive to the clergy, with all due humility, the clergy to the bishops, and the bishops to God; to see if good order and strict discipline are maintained in monasteries and other religious establishments; to see if evil deeds and false doctrines are sternly repressed by ecclesiastical censures; to see if the mystical vines are flourishing by reason of the virtues and good morals of the priests, and if the flowers are yielding fruit in the obedience of a faithful people; to see if your own Apostolic decrees and the constitutions of your predecessors are observed with becoming solicitude; to see finally lest there should be anything growing wild through neglect in the field of thy Lord, or anything surreptitiously removed there from. Doubt not that something needing correction can still be discovered.[…] But the only real consequence of this legislation is something worthy to be wept with bitterest tears. Do you ask me what that is? It is impunity, the daughter of indifference, the mother of arrogance, the root of impudence, the nurse of transgression. Blessed art you if with all assiduity you endeavour to guard against this indifference, which is the first parent of all our evils. (Saint Bernard. Treatise on Consideration to Pope Eugene III, Book 3, ch.5, no. 19 – French)