The Virtue of Obedience

We live in a turbulent time; a time that’s similar, in some ways, to the various Reformations of 500 years ago. History, of course, doesn’t repeat itself. History is a creation of unique and unrepeatable people. So the gulf between Europe in 1521 and our circumstances today, in 2021, is huge.

But patterns of human thought and behavior do repeat themselves. The sense that we’re living through a sea change in human affairs, the anxiety and confusion that seem to infect so much of the world and penetrate even the Church—these things are historically familiar. And in such a time, a word like “obedience” can sound foolish, or even toxic. The questions that we all face demand to be answered before we commit ourselves to anyone or anything. What can we believe? How can we trust? Whom should we follow—and why? In other words, why be obedient to anything or anyone?

The virtue of obedience presumes that rightful authority exists. And it leads us to respect and comply with those who properly exercise it. Obedience has been central to my life. I was a Capuchin Franciscan long before I was a bishop, and even before I was a priest. And as a Capuchin, I took a vow of obedience. That vow is a pillar of every healthy religious community. And it plays the same role in every successful marriage. The mutual obedience of husband and wife secures the covenant of their love. We submit ourselves to the needs of the other out of love—or, if we’re having a bad day, we do it at least out of loyalty.

But Christian obedience is never a form of unthinking servility. We have brains for a reason. Christian obedience is an act of love. It’s a free gift of the self, and when obedience to authority becomes mechanical and excessive, or worse, if it serves a bad end, it crushes the spirit. All real love—and especially the love at the heart of a healthy obedience—is ordered to truth. Spouses have the duty to speak the truth to each other, charitably and respectfully, but also honestly, even when it’s unwelcome. Life in the Church is no different. When authority undermines itself with corruption, falsehood, ambiguity, brutishness, cowardice, or mismanagement, fidelity to the truth requires faithful Christians to resist and challenge it.

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