Whatever happened to the virtue of obedience?

Whatever happened to the virtue of obedience?

Bishop Julian Porteous

For many today the word "obedience" sticks in the throat. There is a resistance to the word. Many feel it is too harsh a notion. A softer option is preferred - co-operation, respect, collaboration. The notion of obedience carries the image of the rigid demands of authority being imposed on a person who has no power to resist. It conjures up the sense of denial of human freedom. It suggests a loss of personal autonomy. It is not a word that finds currency in social and religious thought today.

Yet it is a notion related closely to the essence of the life of Jesus Christ. The Letter to the Hebrews states: "He learnt obedience, Son though he was, through his sufferings" (Heb 5:8). This obedience was an act of humble submission to his Father's will as St Paul states, "and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to death, death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). The Lord himself saw his fate linked to obedience: "By myself I can do nothing; I can judge only as I am told to judge, and my judging is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me" (Jn 5:30).

In the Garden of Gethsemane, at a moment of intense prayer, Jesus made the ultimate act of obedience expressed by St Matthew in these words, "And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed. 'My Father,' he said, 'if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it'" (26:39).

Individual rights

Why do we resist the notion of obedience so strongly?

This is the age of the triumph of the individual. Individual rights take precedence over the needs of the common good. Rights are stressed and responsibilities downplayed.

The anthem of our day was captured by Frank Sinatra in his well-known song, "I did it my way". At all sorts of levels the task of self-realisation is promoted as the primary human goal. Educational theory proposes positive reinforcement of the individual. Criticism of performance must be couched in positive terms. Nobody fails!

The Human Potential Movement which developed in the 1960s proposed that all human beings have the capacity to cultivate their inner potential so that they will experience an exceptional quality of life reflected in happiness, creativity, and fulfilment. The advertising world constantly attracts us to invest in the satisfaction of our whims and desires.

This heady mix of social influences induces an attitude of narcissism. Egotism, vanity and simple selfishness are strong features in modern Western society. The notion of obedience is foreign to this world of thought.

Servile or filial obedience

What does the notion of obedience conjure in the mind? For many the word evokes a sense of servile submission to the will of another. The expression, "becoming a doormat", expresses the fear that obedience will lead to a person's rights and freedom being walked on and denied. The word can evoke the image of a weak and subservient person who had no self-confidence and waits on the orders of another.

This notion of obedience as servile is feared and rejected. And so it should be! It is not true to the real meaning of the virtue of obedience.

There is another way of seeing obedience. Obedience could be viewed from the aspect of relationship - what we could call "filial obedience". The clear willingness of Jesus to embrace obedience is grounded in the quality of his relationship with his Father. The Lord is aware that his Father clearly loves him and affirms him. This is captured in the accounts of his Baptism: "This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him" (Mt 3:17).

Grounded in a consciousness of the love he enjoys and animated by a trust in the wisdom of his Father's will, the Lord can say, "I have come from heaven, not to do my own will, but to do the will of him who sent me" (Jn 6:38).

Consider the question of obedience in the life of a teenager. This is a volatile period of human growth. The child is becoming an adult and seeks to establish autonomy as an individual. The adolescence is often marked by rebellious attitudes to authority, particularly that of parents. Parents find this a very testing time which calls on all their resources of wisdom and patience.

Parents with a more mature wisdom and with an eye to the general wellbeing of their child will set limits to the freedom their child seeks.


Consider the case of a son or daughter in their relationship with their mother. Adolescents will often be drawn to defy the directions and expectations of their mother. Any parent knows that the simple application of discipline will not work. Human nature has not changed as the ancient philosopher Socrates noted: "The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise." He goes on to add, "Children are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents ... gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannise their teachers."

In the end the child will come to obey not because he or she recognises the inherent wisdom of a particular direction but because of the relationship they have with their parent. The adolescent will submit in the end because of the relationship: "You are my mother".

Obedience here is grounded in the quality of the interpersonal relationship. The fourth commandment captures this when it says, "Honour your father and your mother". Adolescents may not agree with the request being made of them; they may experience attitudes of rebellion and anger rising up within them; but they will accede to the will of their parents because they are their parents.

The Church as mother

St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) stated, "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (De unit. 6: PL 4, 519). Motherhood evokes strong human experiences: being nurtured in the womb; being suckled; being unconditionally loved.

In Scripture and Tradition the Church is depicted as mother and we use the phrase "Holy Mother Church". In Baptism we are born of the Church which, as the Catholic Catechism teaches, is "Mother and Teacher" (see CCC 2030). This notion of the Church is a strong antidote to contemporary attitudes whereby the Church is viewed as organisation, as a structure and as an instrument of authority.

However once viewed as mother it is possible to re-envisage how the Church carries out its role of teaching and discipline. Its teaching is a service it renders rather than an imposition of its will. It disciplines are for our good. Its leadership - from the Pope down - is the exercise of guiding wisdom initiated to foster our moral and spiritual growth.

Catholics and the Church

In many ways there is a crisis of obedience in the Church today. Gone are the days when what Father said or what the Pope taught were accepted without question. An educated and articulate laity wants to think for itself. However, the Church, as Pope Benedict has often said, does not oppose the use of reason in relation to matters of faith. However, faith and reason must work in harmony. Faith without reason becomes fundamentalism, reason without faith devolves into secularism.

Questioning of the Church is not restricted only to some educated laity. Priests and religious assert their freedom of thought and their right to interpret the teaching of the Church according to their own lights. The decision on the part of a priest or religious to take a position at variance with the Church raises further questions when they decide to publically state their views or teach others according to their own perceptions. Priests or religious represent the Church to the faithful and to the world beyond the Church and have the duty not to preach their own views but to faithfully present the teaching of the Church.

At the present time in the Church there is not a crisis of authority but rather a crisis of obedience. The image of the Church as authoritarian and out of touch now sours the relationship of many Catholics to the Church. Many cannot bring themselves to accept Church teaching that does not accord with their own perceptions.

Seeing the Church in a new way can assist in dealing with our natural resistance to "being told". The Church viewed as mother can lead us to a new attitude. We are conscious that a mother seeks what is best for her child. A mother is naturally solicitous for the future health and wellbeing of her child. She looks to what can best assist the growth and maturing of her child. Thus, we can see the Church in its disciplines and teaching as serving this role in our Christian lives.

Obedience is in fact a deeply transformative spiritual attitude. It is far more than just doing what is expected. Obedience exercised to religious authority in fact draws us into spiritual fecundity. Obedience as we saw was a key characteristic of the spirit of Jesus as Son of his Father in heaven. His obedience was a direct reversal of the disobedience of Adam. Obedience was the key means by which humanity was set free from the effects of that first sin of disobedience.

Saint Ignatius

St Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises leads the retreatant to a point of surrender to God. This surrender is a handing over of one's will (or in modern terms one's ego) to the will of God. It meant for St Ignatius a total trusting surrender of all that we are to God. It is a radical act of trust in God. This was clearly what he himself had done and now he offered others the path that he had taken.

This act of surrender characterised the spirituality of the Jesuit Order. It was an often heroic path that the sons of St Ignatius chose to take. This path was chosen "for the greater glory of God." St Ignatius expressed this in a prayer that is well known. Yet it is a prayer that on one level seems completely out of touch with modern attitudes, but at another level reveals the freedom and power of an act of total surrender and obedience.

In the Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius encourages the retreatant to pray: "Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own. Whatever I have or hold, you have given me. I return it all to you and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more."

This is the radical and liberating entry into the depths of the Christian mystery. It is here that obedience is discovered in its full salvific potential.

Obedience is currently a rejected and lost virtue for many in the Church. Yet it can be a path for human and spiritual flourishing. Each time we say the "Our Father" we say that we want God's will to be done and not ours! A daily realisation of this can be found in a willingness to be obedient to rightful authority, even when it calls on us to let go of our own views and preferences and trust "Holy Mother Church".

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