From Where Obedience?


The post that follows started as a response to Mr. Dhingra's comment on a post below. It grew too large for the comment box and so it ends up here.

Once again you [Mr. Dhingra] ask some interesting and pertinent questions and this is an area that is new for me. I had not considered the matter. There are a couple of points I'd like to make.

(1) I'm not against those who speak their minds even in opposition to the opinion of the Bishops in prudential matters. I just choose not to be one of them. I think your point about continually asking questions is important, but I do not feel qualified to ask those questions. Anyone who has read the disputed questions here on the site will know why. Reasoned argumentation on theological matters is something I am better at following than I am at producing. I understand the articulation of theories and notions, but I do not have the background to say anything. The same holds for most economic and social theory. I have opinions, but the opinions are rarely formed from sitting down and carefully reasoning through each issue. More often they are the result of anecdotal observations of causes and effects. Therefore, I leave all logical dissent to those better informed and more capable of considering the ramifications.

(2) On a personal note--where did obedience come from? I wish I could say that obedience sprang naturally and is the milieu in which I thrive. Unfortunately, that is not completely so. My obedience comes only after endless wrangling, wrestling, and explanation, hundred and thousands of questions. I do not act in opposition to what is stated, but I do question it to some point. So, too, with the Church. I spent a good many years questioning not merely prudential judgments, but judgments that carry the weight of the magisterium. As a protestant entering from the enlightened world of our present society, the first bit of wisdom I challenged was Humanae Vitae. Along with this I also questioned the Church's teaching on homosexuality, marriage and divorce, etc.

Over time, I found that the Church was right, again and again, on dozens of lesser matters that I questioned. Over and over again, I saw the weight of truth on the side of the Bishops, and most particularly of the current Bishop of Rome. This man I came to see as nearly miraculous in his grasp of the truth and its implications. I won't claim to understand everything the Holy Father has written, nor even to have read it, but everyday personal experience convinced me of its correctness. So much so, that my eyes were opened to the fact that in making judgments about theological matters and even about matters affecting society the bishops drew upon two-thousand years of tradition, reflection, and consideration of social, political, and theological considerations. In that time, the Bishops undoubtedly made a great many errors, even as they may do so today; however, it seemed sheer folly for a single person of limited experience in the world to set his judgment against that of so august a body.

So long experience has shown me how weak my own intellect is when wrestling with these matters, I choose to defer. The Church has long proven prophetic in its utterings, and I have come to trust that voice. Yes, the Pope could have been wrong when he spoke out against the recent conflict in Iraq--I'm still pondering that, but more and more, I become convinced that he was not wrong. Despite the good that was done in delivering the Iraqi people and the world from the hands of a monster, I still wonder about the means and its propriety. (I say that without any hint of a lack of support for the brave men and women who effected the will of this country's President.) But I gradually come to believe that the Holy Father was once again correct in his statement concerning it.

I could dredge up endless examples from experience, but let's leave it at the fact that the Bishops have been correct on many things more often than I have.

(3) Obedience stems from a third source and that is sheer human limitation. I have neither the experience nor the intellect to consider ever single issue on which the Bishops see fit to make some sort of statement. Some issues I feel that I have better capacity to understand and make decisions. More often that simply means that I've formulated an opinion and so feel qualified to discourse upon it. For example, when the Pope or the Bishops speak about the death penalty, because I have spent a great deal of time formulating an opinion, I feel that it is a matter on which I can speak with some authority. In fact, my opinion have no authority, nothing to back them up, and no real logic to hold them together. I naturally embrace the Church's teaching on this issue because it agrees in large part with my own opinion, so there is no struggle. But the Church, by issuing a teaching, has given a coherent presentation to my rambling thoughts on the matter. I "feel" that the Death Penalty is wrong, and the Church articulates why that might be.

In some cases, I disagree, or more likely, I know nothing of the matter whatsoever. I recently read a rash of criticisms of some bishop's letter or another that talked about Jewish/Christian relations and "ecumenism." I have no real idea what the Bishops said or why they were so roundly criticized for the statement. But this is a case where I have no expertise in Church tradition or law to say whether they were correct or not, and that whatever the statement, it has no real bearing on my life or conduct. Whatever they may have said (or may not have said) regarding the salvation of the Jews, seems to me a matter between the individual Jewish person and God. My duty in the meantime is to love all, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, whatever ilk or stripe, as I love myself. To hold them in respect and to exercise whenever possible the spiritual and corporal works of mercy toward them. How God effects their salvation is a matter for theologians to tussle over and which has no relevance to how I am to conduct myself.

(4) Obedience is also an exercise both in humility and detachment. When I spend my time second-guessing Church leader, formulating opinions in opposition to suggested guidelines, and questioning how we might best implement this or that prudential judgment, I wind up tied in knots emotionally and intellectually--unable to speak to God in any way that would be meaningful and resentful of Church authority and magisterium. I become self-absorbed and self-interested. So, very obviously, the questioning of prudential judgments is often an occasion of pride. My whole life is better when I accept the judgment and attempt to act on it (if it is something that I can act upon). Or, often, it is simply better when I don't worry about the prudential judgments of others at all--when I choose not to formulate an opinion, but act on the general principles we are all to be living. No matter what the Vatican chooses to do about Bishops like Bishop O'Brien, I will not change the fact by vociferously dissenting, nor will I help Bishop O'Brien by becoming wrapped up and tossed about by the issue. Rather, I lend my help through constant prayer for the wisdom of those taking action, and for the soul of Bishop O'Brien that he might find himself "right with God." Rather than worrying whether this or that action is the right and proper thing to do--a point I leave to those better qualified to judge, I can always pray for the Bishops and for those affected by the ruling as I continue to feed those who are hungry and visit those in prison. . .

I guess part of what I'm saying is that just as i wouldn't go around challenging every prudential judgment I hear from the gallery, neither am I inclined to do so with respect to the Church. Moreover, I am inclined, when the issue comes up to ask first, "What does the Church say?" If the matter is not definitive, my second recourse is almost always, "What do the Bishops (the Pope) say?" I find that it spares me a great deal of conflict in my already conflicted world. Moreover, it also wraps me in a mantle of protection when accosted by supporters of this apparition of Mary or that revelation of some seer. My first question can always be, "What does the Holy Mother Church say of the matter?" If she has not deigned to speak, I'm not inclined to pay attention.

All of that said, I'm not inclined to say that all should follow this path. I think I say all of this merely to be truthful to my readership, so that they (and incidentally I) will have a better understanding of my failings. When it comes right down to it, I'm more inclined to trust the Church than to voice my own opinion--my track record is far worse than that of the Bishops in Conference.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 23, 2003 8:23 AM.

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