Critiques & Controversies: June 2003 Archives

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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There are a great many people who have opinions on how best to solve whatever the current crisis may be. (Very honestly, I know too little about whatever crisis people are talking about to make any informed comment whatsoever.) Many would probably like to be advisors to the Vatican, and I applaud them for their willingness to advance and defend opinions I can only just begin to understand.

However, one of the great Spiritual Mothers of the Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila, has some better advice for me, which I have found enormously helpful in these crises--obedience. Obedience is one of the very hardest things in the world--particularly when our judgments on matters that are open to dispute differ. And yet, it is at this time that obedience may be at its most important.

God, for whatever reasons He may have, has placed over us a hierarchy of people who have authority in spiritual matters. In all matters touching on faith, these people are our leaders. Now, this is not to say that if someone suddenly did something in direct defiance of Scripture, Tradition, or sanity, that I would blindly follow their lead. I am not becoming a Pelagian or a Nestorian (I sometimes think the poor bishop was terribly maligned, but I leave that to others) any time soon. However, if the Pope determines that a given Bishop will stay in office, then I assume he has done so for very good reason and that Bishop will remain. Would I like a Charles Chaput in every Bishopric? No question. Will the Pope give me one? Probably not, for more reasons that I will not go into (considering I am already following La Madre in the tacking-on of endless digression).

But Teresa of Avila was adamant in her insistence on obedience. She said that you explicitly and implicitly follow the law of those who are over you spiritually and you pray continually to God about the matter. If it is in His Will to change the heart of your director (or priest, or Bishop, etc.) He will do so. If for some reason it is not, it is better to serve obediently.

Now I'm certain La Madre would not countenance anything that went explicitly against all of Church History and teaching--if, say a Bishop came out and said that all pro-life teaching was null and void. But when it came to matters of individual judgment, she encouraged us in spiritual matters to abandon our own and cling to that of our superiors.

Why might this be? I think it is part and parcel of humility. That is, we abandon ourselves and prefer the judgment of those God has set over us. (Or in the cases of the two diocese that I have recently lived in, the lack of any stated judgments.) Thus, when I became a Carmelite, I promised obedience to the Carmelite Superiors in the Province and in the Order. When they produce a document or revise the rule, my life and my choices are guided by that. I may not like some of the statements or provisions they have made (in point of fact, that is not the case, I delight in the recently promulgated revision to the rule), but I have promised obedience, and that promise is a promise not just to the superiors of the Order, but to God Himself.

What is the point of all of this? I suppose it is to confess what will probably be viewed as irresponsibility on my part. But in the matter of prudential judgments I prefer the judgments of my superiors, in the Order and in the Church. If the Pope says it is wrong, then it is wrong. If the Bishops say one thing or another, that really matters and affects me where I live, then I should prefer their judgment to my own--even in matters that are open to discussion. So on matters of controversy, I try as much as possible to follow our magnificent Pope. I trust his prudential judgments as worthier than my own for several reasons--(1)surely some of that guidance of the Holy Spirit that protects the Church rubs off on other matters of opinion (perhaps not, but a man of deep prayer seems reliable in more than the statements recognized as infallible), (2) deference to age, experience, and intellect--this good man has all three, hands down, over me, (3) track record.

So, when the Pope makes a decision, I do not consider that I have the wherewithal to second guess him. Ditto for most of what the Bishops have to say. When one makes a blatantly idiotic remark on a subject outside his purview, we're talking another matter. But in all matter affecting the Church, the better part seems to be simple obedience and constant prayer for God's guidance of the hierarchy. I'll leave the espousal of differing opinions to others. I'll also say, that in matters where there is some doubt it is important for people who are qualified in the matter to express their opinions. However, until such opinions trickle up to the hierarchy and effect a change, I will decide obedience to the opinion given and not trouble myself with things that doubtlessly beyond me. (Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time knows how unreliable my own judgments and thought can be on disputed issues.)

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A Father's Day Observation


One sometimes puzzles over why there seems to be less of a masculine presence in the Church today. Yesterday, I had something of a glimpse of the reason.

Every year on Mother's day, the church I attend goes out of its way to have literally thousands of roses all over the altar area. This year there was something on the order of twelve-thousand roses decorating the Church. On mother's day a long blessing and much of the homily was dedicated to the role of mothers in our lives. Don't get me wrong--so long as the liturgy is not warped and the theme can be worked into a reasonable homily, I don't have any real problem with this--it is right a proper to give all due respect and dignity to mothers. However, when we got to Father's day, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity--certainly a day in which one could easily talk about the image of Father that men are all called to emulate--not a word. Not so much as a recognition that it was Father's day. Certainly no blessing, no special recognition , no flowers. (Not that I'd care for roses anyway--Dendrobium orchids seems appropriate--in fact, orchids of any sort, given the etymology of the name). I find this dismaying--dismaying and yet entirely predictable. When we view the Holy Family, although we pay a moment of lip-service to Blessed St. Joseph, the model of all fathers, we quickly pass over him to Jesus and His Mother.. All well and good--but utterly damaging in service to the family. A Marian emphasis is wonderful, uplifting thing--but a Church that does not recognize fathers for their contribution to the family is not a church that invites men in. This is only one of many ways that the Church, perhaps in an attempt to undo a perceived wrong in a completely male hierarchy, actually overlooks men and chooses not to invite them equally if they are not part of the clergy.

I'd like to think that what I observed was an anomaly, but I have noted it in nearly every parish I've been to. Mother's Day is made much of, Father's day, if it is mentioned at all, is usually some sort of joke. This may reflect societal influence, but the point of the Church in culture is not to reflect society but to direct it. If you want to invite men into the Church, then the day that celebrates the vocation of the vast majority of men should have the same or similar degree of celebration as that which celebrates the greatness of Motherhood. At a minimum, it seems appropriate to read a special blessing for fathers or to say a single prayer for strengthening fathers in their vocations. So long as the Church continues to slight this important vocation, we will have failed families--divorce, child abuse, and adultery. All vocations take great strength and perserverence. To expect once a year a blessing to help strengthen that vocation does not seem to be asking overmuch.

(Oh, and then I should probably say something about the way the Church treats those who are childless through no fault of their own--or in many cases even worse, those who are single either temporarily or by vows, and yet not part of the Religious. These are imperfections of the practice, not of the institution, and they can and should be addressed and remedied.)

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from June 2003.

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