When I was ordained to the Priesthood on June 8, 2007, I was asked by the Bishop, “do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” I answered “I do”. It is a widely misunderstood promise by many. It is seen as robotic, undemocratic, and arbitrary. I suppose that if I was pledging obedience merely to a man that it would be. But in pledging obedience to my Bishop, I am pledging not only to a man, but to a man consecrated to the fullness of Christ’s ministerial Priesthood. This makes the promise a bit different than its external appearances. It is much more than a mere discipline.
Certainly, obedience does require discipline. But there is grace to make that discipline possible. At the Ordination Mass, the promise of obedience is immediately followed by the Bishop’s words, “may God, who has begun the good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.” This is a wonderful example that “the law of prayer is the law of belief” (lex orandi lex credendi). The Church teaches us that my ability to be obedient comes from God. Everything is first of all a matter of grace, and not a matter of personal discipline. We can have discipline to a certain extent, but we will always fall short, because we are sinners. The grace of Jesus Christ is needed to overcome our lack of rightness. His grace needs to illuminate our minds. It needs to strengthen our will to overcome sinful habits, and strive towards virtue. Grace enables us to be humble, and ultimately, obedient to God’s will. Obedience is a result of grace.
Obedience is often associated, again, with discipline – the old, “do it because I said so, that’s why” type of mentality. But obedience, in its positive character, is an act of faith in Jesus’ Presence in the Church. Through Jesus Christ, God is in us, and we are in God. This same Christ is Present in all the Church’s members, making them one body. Certain members of the Body are given Christ’s Presence in them for authority and service. These are our Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. These build up the Body through ministry of teaching, sanctifying, and leading God’s Church. These three orders of ordained servants hold authority in different degrees, and are given particular gifts for the good of the Church. They are servants of the servants of God.
As the Pope and Bishops in union with him teach on matters of God’s revelation to us, Catholics are expected to be obedient to those teachings. What does this mean? It does not mean that we will not struggle with the Church’s teachings. It does not mean that we may have doubts about the truth of the Sacraments. It does not mean that we cannot question things. Obedience is not meant to take away human choice. But if we choose the Catholic faith, we strive for respect and obedience towards our ordained ministers. We cannot say that we believe in the Eucharist, the Bible, the Virgin Mary, etc., and act in ways that undermine the authority of the clergy, or break up the unity of the Church. In a sense, it is all or nothing. Either we are obedient to ordained ministers who are teaching and giving us the truth, or we should be disobedient to ministers who are mistakenly wrong. But it can’t be both.
We are challenged by reason and conscience to determine what we really believe in terms of God, truth, morality, and religion. We are free people, and we must decide what we believe. But if we say we believe in Jesus, we receive that teaching about Christ through the authority of the Church. We are making a choice to respect and obey that authority, it is in service to a higher truth, the truth of the Gospel. It does not make sense to both believe the Church’s testimony and to be disrespectful and disobedient to that authority. The choice of faith comes first, then obedience. Obedience will in turn nurture our faith, helping it to develop and grow.
When we experience obedience as mere discipline, it will eventually spend itself out for lack of faith. It will also become a slavish type of thing, which can only do harm to people. Obedience is certainly not something that is owed to the clergy by virtue of their merits. Church history is full of bad clergymen. Obedience is an act of faith in an unseen Christ, ministering through the man in service to the whole Church. We need to recall the reasons for our faith choice, and re-discover why we have chosen to believe. We can also pray for the gift of faith itself, especially if we are struggling with a teaching of the Church in matters of divine revelation or morality. Obedience is a choice, but it a choice of faith and reason, not a choice of force. It is seeing, not blindness.