TO THE POPE
Rev. Brian Moore, S.J.
ISBN 85826 200 2
A.C.T.S. No. 1739 (1980)
Imprimi Potest: P. Duffy S.J. Provincial
Nihil Obstat: Peter J. Kenny S.T.D. Diocesan Censor.
Imprimatur: Peter J. Connors D.C.L. Vicar General, Melbourne.
25th July, 1980.
* * *
OBEDIENT TO THE POPE
What we are setting out to do here is to explore the nature of the
obedience we give to the Pope, and to see how that obedience can be
integrated into the "whole" that our personal spiritual life should be.
If this integration is not achieved then we run the risk of seeing
obedience to the Pope in one or other of two false lights.
That is to say, we might see it as something on the edges of our
spiritual life, as an accidental thing that goes with our being
Catholic Christians. Or we might see it as something primarily
polemical, as something to be established by argument, and left at that.
If we look at obedience to the Pope simply in the one or the other of
these two lights we are, first, failing to get to the heart of the
matter and, secondly, are impoverishing our own spiritual life.
CHRIST OUR TEACHER
In all things, we have only one teacher, Christ Our Lord, who teaches
us by his words and by the example of his life. Now, if we look, even
if only superficially, at the life of Our Lord we cannot fail to see
how central to it is obedience. And this obedience is central both to
his mission and to his own personal spiritual life as man.
Obedience and Mission
Christ Our Lord frequently speaks of himself as sent. That is to say, he asserts
that he did not come into this world of his own volition but in
obedience to the will of' another.
Now, when he speaks of himself in this way he is clearly not speaking
of himself precisely as the Divine Son. There can be no question of one
Divine Person commanding another Divine Person, no question of the
Father commanding the Son. For, as Divine Persons, they are co-equals;
and the Divine Will is one, just as the Divine Nature is one. There is
but one God, and there is but one Divine Will.
When, therefore, Our Lord says that he is sent, he is speaking as the
Incarnate Son - though not merely as man. He is not saying simply that
his human nature is a creation of God, and that in this sense he is
sent into the world. No created thing can come into existence of its
own volition. So he means something more.
SENT ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURE
Nor is he 'sent' in the sense in which the Angel Gabriel is said to be
'sent by God'. There it is simply a question of God 'making his
ministering spirits his messengers who obey his commands'. Nor, again,
is he sent as John the Baptist was 'a man sent by God' - that is,
commissioned in the first moment of his life to be the precursor of the
Speaking of himself as sent,
therefore, Our Lord is saying that the Incarnation, that act whereby
the Divine Son took to himself a human nature, was an act commanded by
the Divine Will. That is to say, the Blessed Trinity wills the
Incarnation of the Son; and hence the Incarnate Son can speak of
himself as sent.
The fact that, as a Divine Person, the Son wills his own incarnation
does not present a problem. The sender can also be the sent. We have an
analogy in our own experience. When we will something, we, as it were,
send ourselves to be united to 'the good' which exists in the object of
That Incarnation, therefore, by which 'for us men and our salvation'
'the Word was made flesh' is effected through obedience.
The Saving Death
In the words of that great hymn to be found in St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, 'Christ
became obedient unto death, even to death on a cross'. It is necessary,
then, to see in what way that act of obedience is relevant to the
saving nature of Christ's death.
In the Scriptures, the essence of sin, whether of the angels or of men,
is expressed as rebellion against the will of God, expressed in some
particular concrete situation. And since the will of God in these
situations is an expression, always and purely, of his love, sin is
essentially a rejection of the love of God. The undoing of the terrible
results of man's saying 'I will not' are undone by the unfailing 'I
will' of the God-Man, whom the Scriptures call 'the Amen,' for with him
it was always, Yes.
Every act of the God-Man, Christ Our Lord, is salvific. Every act of
his promotes, effects the salvation of man. For in the moment of the
Incarnation, the human will and understanding of the human nature of
Christ, utterly submit to the Divine Will and understanding of the
Divine Nature with which it is united in the unity of a single Person.
Every act of the will of Christ, even of his human will, is
consequently, the act of a God-Man, a Man-God, and so a saving action.
While it is true that every action of Christ is salvific in man's
regard, the death of Christ is, nevertheless, seen as the supreme
moment in which the salvation of man is achieved. (The Scriptures
present this as a necessary element in the nature of covenanted love.
That is to say, the provisions of a will and testament come into effect
only at the death of the testator.) Consequently, it is in Christ's
Sacrifice on Calvary that the nature of obedience is clearest seen.
THE SACRIFICE ON CALVARY
We can, in considering the sacrifice Our Lord offers on the cross,
distinguish two elements. One is visible - the crucifixion, the
bloodshedding, the physical death when he yields up his spirit. The
other is invisible - the utter submission of his understanding (even in
the darkness of abandonment) and of his will, that this should be.
On the analogy that it is the soul of man which gives life to his
physical activity, so it is this interior, invisible sacrifice of his
understanding and will which gives life and meaning to the exterior,
visible sacrifice - of passion and of death. And, reversing the point
of view, just as a man manifests his understanding, his will, his
feelings through his physical activity (his words, his actions, his
laughter, his tears) so the exterior, visible passion of Christ
manifests the essence of the interior, invisible passion.
To accept death willingly at the will of another demonstrates two
things. First, that the submission of will is absolute, with nothing
whatever held back. Secondly, that this submission is as irrevocable as
death itself. The crucifixion and death of Christ Our Lord on Calvary,
therefore, is the ultimate proof of the completeness and irrevocability
of the submission of his human mind and will to God.
That is to say, by willingly submitting to death, Our Lord in effect
says that he no more wills other than the Father wills than he could,
speaking purely as man, effect his own resurrection from the dead.
Their utter and irrevocable submission was first made in the very
moment of their coming to be, in the Incarnation. 'Coming into the
world, he says: "A body you have fitted me. At the head of the scroll
is written that I should do your will, O Lord".' The death also
vindicates the truth of his life-long claim, 'I always do the will of
him who sent me'.
Obedience is the submission of one's understanding (whether through
knowledge or faith) and one's will (through love) to the understanding
and will of another. So perfect was that submission in the God-Man that
it merits salvation for the whole human race, of which the God-Man was
As salvation was merited, so is salvation received. Christ submitted so
perfectly, the Scriptures teach us, that 'he became a life-giving
spirit to all who obey him'. That is to say, if man submits his
understanding (through faith) and his will (through charity) to Christ
Our Lord, he thereby becomes partaker in the salvation which Christ
wins by his submission to him who sent him, the Blessed Trinity - man's
ultimate end. It was the disobedience of one man which brought into the
world sin in which all men have shared. So it was the obedience of one
man which brings salvation to all. Thus the Scriptures teach us.
To facilitate man's making (by grace) this submission, Christ Our Lord
does two things. He sets before man the example of his own life; and he
establishes a 'chair', a teaching authority which perfectly reflects
his will for man. As in Christ the invisible God is made visible and
his will for man is revealed, so the continuing visible chair of the
ascended Christ is always accessible to man.
Obedience in Jesus' Spiritual Life
According to Peter (when the Apostles were choosing a successor to
Judas), witness to the Good News begins with the preaching of John the
Baptist, and continues throughout the teaching and miracles of Jesus up
to 'the time when he was taken up from us'. It is not remarkable, then,
that little of his life, exterior or interior, before his public career
is recorded. But the one incident of his boyhood which is recorded
centres on obedience.
When he is found in the Temple, the boy Jesus speaks of the necessity
of being in his Father's house, or about his Father's business.
Whatever meaning is given to the words, they signify, essentially,
doing his Father's will.
On his returning with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, the Gospel tells us,
'he lived subject to them'. The fulfilment of the Father's will,
therefore, can demand obedience to human superiors, not because of
their greater excellence, but because of their office. The keeping of
the Fourth Commandment is a concrete expression of the will to keep the
In his public life, Our Lord insists that he always does the will of
his Father, that neither his words nor his works are his own but his
Father's, that the doing of his Father's will is his meat and drink.
Most striking affirmation of this utter dependence on the Father
abounds in John 5:19-47.
The reason why he can so confidently make this claim is the
consciousness he has that he is completely docile to the leading of the
Holy Spirit. It was by the Spirit that he was driven into the
wilderness, there to be put to the test; that he cast out the powers of
evil; that he spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth; that he chose his
This is saying more than that, simply, his human choices were in
harmony with the breathing of the Spirit. They were, in fact, choices
in which the will of the Spirit was the determining factor. Even his
affective life was subject to the Spirit and it is in the Spirit that
he exults with joy at the Father's revealing things to little ones; and
it is in the Spirit that he grieves over the lack of belief in the
bystanders when he raises Lazarus from the dead.
Our Lord himself, then, is the model for St. Paul's words, 'They who
are sons of God are led by the Spirit of God'. Docility or obedience to
the Holy Spirit is characteristic of the Christian; but that it is
truly the Spirit who is leading a man has always been discerned by the
harmonizing of a man's spirit with The Tradition.
(iii) Passion and Death
It was Our Lord who taught us to pray, 'Thy will be done'. That this
attitude of obedience and submission is central to his life is
strikingly illustrated in his hour of spiritual anguish and physical
pain in the agony in the garden. Three times he makes the prayer, 'Not
my will, but Yours be done'.
Because the human nature of Christ is united to the Divine Nature of
the Son in the unity of a single Person, the human mind of Christ
enjoyed the beatific vision of God. Yet, in time of spiritual anguish
in the garden, it is not this vision that he draws on for strength, but
submission to the Father's will. So, too, in the moment of death all is
committed into his Father's hands, accepted, that is to say, as decreed
by the Father's will.
The most perfect 'spiritual life' that a man ever lived was, we see,
grounded on, lived in, and consummated by obedience.
The 'Chair' of Jesus
Our Lord told his contemporaries: 'The scribes and the pharisees occupy
the "chair" of Moses. Whatever they tell you to do, therefore, you
ought to do. But don't imitate them in what they do themselves'. Our
Lord hereby affirms that there existed in Israel identifiable persons
whose office it was to guard and to teach the revelation made by God to
Moses. It was they who judged whether or not something was in harmony
with the Law of Moses. In their exercise of this office, they were to
be obeyed - irrespective of the holiness or otherwise of their personal
lives. The preservation of the Law was not simply left to charismatic
figures such as the Prophets.
God, because he acts intelligently and lovingly, acts consistently.
Almost necessarily, then, we would expect that the revelation he makes
of himself in and through Jesus Christ would be guarded and taught from
a 'chair' of Christ - that is to say, by an office-bearer teaching in
the name of and with the authority of Our Lord himself.
FULFILLING AND TO BE FULFILLED
Moses had foretold the coming of a 'prophet' after himself, to whom the
people were to listen as they had to him. Jesus, in fulfilling this
prophecy in his own person, thereby fulfils rather than abolishes the
Law, as he himself says. The teaching authority of Moses is absorbed
into his own, not nullified. Because of this continuity of teaching
authority, Our Lord is able to point out to those who refused belief in
him that the reason why they did not accept what he said was that they
did not really accept what Moses had written.
It is, then, inevitable that Christ Our Lord would establish a 'chair'
to ensure the continuation of God's revelation of himself in Christ.
And as the chair of Moses continued until it was taken up into the
chair of Christ, so the chair of Christ will continue until faith gives
way to vision in eternal life, wherein God reveals himself to us as he
is; and 'we shall become like him for we shall see him as he is'.
To adhere, then, to the chair of Christ Our Lord makes us conscious,
with thanksgiving, of our participation in the whole sweep of God's
saving action - 'as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our
Saviour, Jesus Christ'.
A CONTEXT OF CHARITY
We can distinguish three moments in, or three aspects of, Christ our
Lord's establishing a spokesman to occupy his 'chair'.
At Caesarea Philippi, when Peter makes his confession of faith, 'You
are the Christ,' Our Lord does two things. He commends Peter for
accepting faith, God-given, in something 'flesh and blood' (that is,
merely human perception) could never come to know. Then he makes Peter
the rock on which he will build his Church. (Matthew 16: 17-19)
At the time of the Passion, Our Lord warns Peter of his approaching
defection from and denial of Christ. But he adds, 'When you have come
back, strengthen your brethren.' The college of Apostles will be
dependent on Peter. (Luke 22: 31-32) So, too, Vatican II (Lumen Gentium) teaches, 'The
college, or corporate body, of the Bishops does not enjoy authority
unless it is conceived of simultaneously together with the Roman
Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head . . .'; and, 'The Roman
Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the visible and perpetual
foundation and principle of the unity both of the Bishops and the
multitude of the faithful'.
Finally, after the Resurrection, Our Lord, having three times drawn
from Peter a protestation of love, installs him in the pastoral office,
with the words, 'Feed my lambs; feed my sheep'. (John 21: 15-18)
It is worth thinking about: it is in the context of a revelation by the
Father that Our Lord makes Peter the foundation rock of his Church; it
is in a context of human weakness sustained by the prayer of Christ
that Our Lord makes Peter the president of the Apostolic College; it is
in a context of love that Our Lord installs Peter in the pastoral
office. The teaching authority within the Church is, therefore, to be
an expression first of the love of Christ and then of his flock. When
the Pope teaches it is an expression of loving obedience to Christ and
of loving concern for the flock of Christ. When we give obedience to
the Pope we vindicate Our Lord's own words, 'My sheep listen to my
Let us consider, now, ourselves - the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd
- who are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and who are thereby
incorporated into Christ and into his Mystical Body, which is the
We are baptized, and we profess our faith, 'in the name of the
Trinity'. 'In the name of can mean two things. First, it can mean 'in
the power of '. That is to say, the efficacy of our baptism and of our
baptismal faith comes from the Trinity, who is the Source of all the truth we attain to
'In the name of ' can also mean 'as commanded by'. So any spokesman for
another puts aside the communication of his own judgement and will in
order to communicate the judgement and will of another. Hence, our
profession of baptismal faith is a confession of ours only because we have made our
own the understanding and will of another. Baptismal faith is
essentially a submission of our understanding to the Trinity, who is
the Revealer of all truth.
The Obedience of Faith
The Revealer's supreme Revelation of the truth is Christ himself - the
Way, the Truth, the Light, the Life, the Word made flesh.
Let us consider the scene in which Christ Our Lord is baptized by John.
As Jesus comes up from the water, the Father's voice is heard, and the
Spirit is seen, in the form of a dove, descending and resting upon
Here we have the visible, public commissioning of Our Lord to begin his
ministry: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to
bring the Good News'. We hear the Father's command, 'Listen to him'. At
the same time, we see that on Christ rests the Spirit of Truth - the
Spirit who will be given to all believers in order that he may lead us
into all truth and the truth may set us free.
That is to say, the obedience of faith is given by us out of love; and
that submission of ours issues, paradoxically, in freedom.
The question arises, then; how can we, who desire to enjoy 'the freedom
of the sons of God' ensure that we are obedient to Christ Our Lord, and
thereby, to the Holy Trinity who commands us, 'Listen to him' ? Our
Lord, speaking to his Apostles, says, 'Whoever listens to you is
listening to me'.
Just as Our Lord assured his contemporaries that by listening to the
occupants of the 'chair' of Moses they were listening to Moses himself,
so he assures all generations to come that by listening to the
occupants of his 'chair' they (and that 'they' includes us) are
listening to him.
If, then, obedience to the Church ensures obedience to Christ, then it
is obedience to the Pope and to the College of Bishops which ensures
obedience to the Church.
It might help to see all these considerations in the concrete by taking
an historical example. When St. Ignatius Loyola applied to the Pope for
approval of the Society of Jesus which he had founded, he presented the
following as the purpose of his society:
to serve the Lord alone
and the Church, his Spouse,
under the Roman Pontiff, Christ's Vicar on earth.
Because of the union between Christ and his Church, St. Ignatius can
use the linguistically curious combination of words - the Lord alone,
and his Church. But what guarantees this service of Christ is that it
is under the direction of the Pope.
In passing, it is worth noting how far removed is this obedience to the
Pope from any sentimental personal attachment. In St. Ignatius' time,
the memory of the notorious Borgia Pope was still fresh, and a
descendent of his, St. Francis Borgia, was a contemporary of St.
Ignatius. More, even as he formulated this ground-plan of his Society,
St. Ignatius knew of the possibility of one of the cardinals, a man
hostile to St. Ignatius' views, becoming Pope. As, indeed he did. The
Pope, then, is not obeyed because he is 'a good man' like John XXIII
[now Blessed] or 'a strong man who will be good for the Church' like
John Paul II. He is obeyed because he is the Vicar of Christ.
In reply, the Pope replied, in summary, as follows:
The duty of the pastoral office
for which the Divine Majesty has chosen me
as did my predecessor,
I approve this ground-plan,
because it is consonant with the Revelation.
And I forbid anyone to contradict me.
From this we might observe that the exercise of the Pastoral Office is
itself an act of the obedience of faith. In other words, the Pope is
under the necessity of speaking, for it was in order that he should
speak that the office he holds was divinely instituted. The divine
institution of the office guarantees the truth of what he teaches; and
this is why any Pope's teaching is always consonant with that of his
predecessors. (We have a striking example of this in Paul VI's Humanae Vitae.)
The tradition whereby a Pope, having taught something, forbids
contradiction is simply a way of underlining the fact that only the
truth sets man free. The Pope forbids contradiction because the person
contradicting would be wrong. And to be wrong is the worst possible
state that the human intellect can be in - because it would be in
bondage to error.
A MYSTIC'S INSIGHT
It was St. Catherine of Siena (l347-1380) who persuaded Pope Gregory XI
to return from Avignon to Rome. Nine popes had resided in Avignon and
no papal election had been held at Rome for three quarters of a
century. The prestige of the papacy has rarely been so low, and was to
sink lower. Within a year of Gregory's death there were two rival
claimants to the papal office and the Church was utterly divided.
Before the Schism was healed, there would be three simultaneous papal
obediences tearing the Church apart.
And yet, for St. Catherine, the Pope was 'our sweet Father, Christ on
earth' - even while it seemed to her (or, rather, because it seemed to
her) that the whole Church rested on her shoulders and crushed her with
From what has been said above, it is clear that the claim is being made
that an understanding of obedience illuminates the nature of human
freedom. We turn now to see how this is so. Since freedom and
responsibility go together, we shall also see how obedience is an
exercise of human responsibility, not an abdication of it.
Obviously, we are not speaking of physical freedom but of the freedom
of the non-material faculties of man. These are his intellect (by which
he understands) and his will (by which he loves). Now, something is
functioning freely only when it is acquiring possession of the thing
for which it functions at all. Even naturally, therefore, the intellect
is free only when it is attaining to the truth. For the whole purpose
of the intellect is to know.
To the extent, then, that the intellect holds to be true something
which is, in fact, false, to that extent it is in bondage to error.
This may or may not lead to disastrous practical consequences. It may
not matter much whether or not we believe in the existence of life in
other parts of the universe; it matters considerably if we are
convinced that fire does not burn. But whether or not the practical
consequences are great or small, the fact remains that the intellect in
error is not free.
So it is, too, with the will. The will is given us so that we can reach
out in love to all the good around us. Only that will, then, is free
which embraces the good by loving it. To love, to desire what is evil
is to do violence to the will.
If man were created for only a purely natural end, that end would still
be to attain to the fullest possible natural happiness achieved through
possessing the truth and loving the good. But man is made for a
supernatural end - that is, for the attainment of happiness through the
possession of the Source of all truth, Truth himself; and the
possession of the Source of all good, Goodness himself.
Only when he is attaining the end for which he was created is man truly
free. It follows, then, that only those acts which help man achieve the
purpose of his existing at all are truly to be called free. Such acts
are the knowledge and the love of God - knowledge through faith and
love through charity.
'This is eternal life - to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ
whom you have sent'. 'To know', in such a context, means to adhere to
in faith and in love. Such adherence is effected through the obedience
of faith to him who alone has 'the words of eternal life', him 'to see
whom is to see the Father'.
It is often asserted that to hand over, through obedience, one's
understanding and will to the will and understanding of another is to
abdicate personal responsibility - either through sloth or through
If this were so, then the man Jesus would have to be held to be the
most irresponsible of men. For, in the Incarnation, the human will and
judgement of the humanity of Christ totally submit themselves to the
will and judgement of the eternal Word.
Our greatest responsibility to ourselves is to see to it that we keep
our intellects from error and our wills from evil. That is why, in St.
Paul's words, we 'test all things and adhere to what is good'. It is
the reason why, in matters in which our own experience is not to be
trusted, we look to find the most reliable authority we can and conform
our judgements to those of reliable authority.
Hence obedience to the Pope is responsible as well as liberative.
We are, however, fallen creatures. As a result of original sin, our
intellects are darkened, our will is weakened, and we are inclined to
evil. This is why revelation is necessary: so that things concerning
God and the things of God which are not of themselves unattainable by
human reasoning might, given the present condition of man, be more
easily known to all with certitude and without the admixture of error.
From this condition, two other consequences follow. First, that what
can be seen to be so clearly right is not thereby the thing we are most
anxious to do. Secondly, it means that, just as the universal
sinfulness of man required the universally salvific sacrifice of Christ
Our Lord, so our individual sinfulness requires of us individual
For a sacrifice, it is necessary to have a priest and a victim - and
for each to be designated by the one to whom the sacrifice is offered.
It is God who in the Old Testament institutes the priesthood. It is God
who appoints Christ as 'High Priest for ever' who offers, as we saw
early in this discussion, a sacrifice of obedient submission to his
Father's will expressed in his death.
By baptism we are made partakers of every aspect of Christ's mission.
We become 'prophets', proclaiming the wonderful works of God. We become
kings, rulers in freedom since the truth has made us free. We become
priests, in order to offer spiritual sacrifices to God; and the
offering of such sacrifice to God is, as Christ's was, the offering of
our understanding and will through obedience.
Our noblest faculties, the chief constituents of our selfhood, are what
we offer. They become the victim we offer. We put to death in ourselves
our self-will and the 'conceit of our hearts' - our personally arrived
at judgements - by submitting our will and understanding to God's truth
and love. 'I want obedience', says the Lord, 'not sacrifices; and the
knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings'.
OBEDIENCE AND ASCETICISM
Broadly speaking, when the Pope addresses himself to the Church at
large, he is speaking in one or other of two areas. He is either
teaching some point relevant to the content of our faith or morals; or
else he is suggesting some particular way of acting. For example, Pope
Paul VI in Humane Vitae was
clearly addressing himself to a moral question.
On the other hand, in his address on Holy Thursday, 1980, Pope John
Paul wrote, 'Furthermore, it must always be remembered that only the
word of God can be used for Mass readings. The reading of Scripture
cannot be replaced by the reading of other texts, however much they may
be endowed with undoubted religious and moral values'. Here there is
not a question of faith or morals being taught, but of direction being
given regarding the proper celebration of the Mass.
MATTERS OF FAITH AND MORALS
'The true' and 'the good' are absolutes. When therefore, the Pope,
exercising his office as teacher of the whole Church, declares
something to be true/false, good/evil, we must respond with both
interior and exterior assent. In other words, we must submit our
understanding and will to what he teaches; and we must so speak and act
that it is evident that we do so submit.
It is not sufficient that we should act as if we do give that internal
assent of will and submission of understanding when, in fact, we do
not. Merely exterior submission is pointless on two counts. First, such
teaching is not aimed primarily at our behaviour, but at illuminating
our understanding of religious truth - thereby setting it free of the
fear, even, of error - and at setting free our will to love as good the
truth proposed to our understanding.
A second reason why merely external submission is not enough when there
is no real internal assent is that in this situation there is set up a
tension, a contradiction between the invisible and the visible in man.
In speaking of the sacrifice on Calvary, we noted how the exterior
manifests the interior. When, therefore, a person's way of behaving
does not correspond with what he really believes and desires, there is
established an unhealthy contradiction. In religious matters, of
course, this can lead to giving scandal - in the sense of putting a
stumbling block in someone's way when it is discovered that only lip
service is being given. Such merely pretended submission gives greater
scandal than does straight-out rebellion.
In this case of accepting the teaching of the Pope in matters of faith
and morals, we act out our baptismal priesthood. As priests we offer in
spiritual sacrifice our own will and judgement as victims. This act of
love issues in freedom for the will (since now it confidently embraces
'the good') and in freedom for the understanding (since it now
acknowledges 'the true'.)
Allowance must always be made for the invincibly erroneous conscience;
but since this is the exceptional case it is unnecessary to consider it
BLACK AND WHITE
It is sometimes said that Catholics will, at the word of the Pope, say
black is white. This is based on a misunderstanding of a well-known
proposition of St. Ignatius in his Rules
for Thinking with the Church. What he actually says is simply an
acknowledgement of of the fallibility of the human mind in its search
for religious truth. He writes:
In order that we may be altogether of
one mind and in harmony with the Catholic Church, if the Church should
declare to be black something
which appears white to our
eyes, we ought likewise declare it to be black. For it is to be
believed unwaveringly that the spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of
the Catholic Church his Spouse is the same - through whom we are
governed and led to salvation. Nor is the God who formerly gave the
precepts of the Decalogue any other than he who orders and rules the
hierarchical Church of the present age.
APART FROM FAITH AND MORALS
When the Pope speaks on such matters as the example given above
regarding the proper celebration of the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, he
is clearly not teaching the Church some point of faith or morals. He is
not talking of absolutes, but is speaking of things which, in
themselves are contingent. In other words, he is saying that at the
present, this seems to be the most desirable way of acting. From this,
three consequences follow.
To a certain extent, the end he has in view in giving the directions
that he does, is achieved even if our obedience is only external. Thus,
in the example given above, the good the Pope hopes will be achieved by
the avoidance of replacing the Scriptures with other writings for the
Liturgy of the Word at Mass will be largely achieved even if celebrants
do so unwillingly and without conviction. However, this is to be called
conformity rather than obedience. The best value that such merely
exterior submission could have would be that, given time, it might lead
on to interior submission, since there is not that second remove from
true obedience which a refusal even to conform entails.
The contingent nature of such directional utterances of the Pope allows
for the exercise of personal responsibility in the implementation of
these directions. This does not mean that we decide whether or not a
particular injunction of the Pope is to be obeyed. Simply, as such it
is to be obeyed. However, quite evidently there can be circumstances
which could properly lead to a suspension of exterior obedience. For
example, when the Pope says he wishes priests and religious to dress
recognizably as such, he would not mean priests and religious to do so
in a country where such dress is forbidden by law.
As a practical issue, it is possibly in these areas where the Pope is
not teaching matters of faith and morals that most people have the
opportunity of exercising the asceticism of obedience. To put aside our
own will and judgement in small matters can sometimes be harder than
putting them aside in greater matters. So, too, with exterior
conformity. We all have our own ideas on what is the best way of doing
A TIME AND PLACE FOR EVERYONE
These directives of the Pope, then, certainly more frequently and
perhaps more demandingly, invite us to both exterior and interior
asceticism. The interior sacrifice we are invited to make is the
putting aside of our own will and judgement. The exterior sacrifice we
make is our surrender of a way of speaking and acting we might
naturally be more inclined to, and adopting the way requested of us.
Sometimes, this latter can require the acceptance of life-long
consequences. For example, the marriage laws of the Church of a bygone
time are no longer applied with nearly as much stringency as they once
were. But while they were in force their observance demanded of many
people a life-long sacrifice. They would have fallen with particular
hardship on people who could feel that the situation would eventually,
inevitably change. (Rather as people had, and have, to accept the fact
that, given time, medicine will cure illnesses which at the present are
fatal or have crippling life-long effects.)
Ideally, of course, this should not be - and would not be in a world in
which sin and the effects of sin were not realities. We, however, are
presently concerned with incorporating often very difficult obedience
into a total spirituality. If you like, literally making a virtue of
necessity, literally making the best of a given situation.
Realistically, we must concentrate on the fact of two points in time,
two places. They are the 'then and there' of Calvary; the 'here and
now' of the time and place in which I find myself.
From all eternity, the two dates surrounding the hyphen on my tombstone
are known to God my Father. So, too, are known to him the geographical
boundaries of my pilgrimage on earth. Known to him also is every single
item of the world's history which, being contemporary with mine, will
impinge on me and on my life. We believe this; and we also believe that
allowing this as he does God does so for no other purpose than our own
When, therefore, the law of the Church or the directives of the Pope,
seem to fall heavily upon me, it is within my power to accept them in a
spirit of submission in faith and love. Such self-denying submission is
comparable only to that of the human nature to which the Son of God
united himself when he, too, willed to belong as man to a given time
By accepting obedience in any given situation, we are lovingly
submitting to the providence of God which places us in a given
time-place situation. Just so did Christ accept a manner of death which
was purely contingent on the time-place situation in which, as
eternally decreed, 'for us men and our salvation' 'the Word became
flesh' in order 'to die for our salvation and rise again for our
It is not difficult to establish that within the Church of Christ there
exists a pastoral office which has the right to command obedience. It
is possible to divide and subdivide the degrees of seriousness in papal
teaching and the degrees of obedience which must be given. But, in the
long run, the thing that is really useful to us is to understand the
spiritual dimensions of obedience and to integrate it into 'the whole'
which our spiritual life should be.
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