by Kristine Cranley
The other day I was a guest at a farm. Going up to greet the resident livestock, I noticed one of them trying to get its mouth around the savory pieces of grass just beyond the fence. Although I had noticed signs asking guests not to feed the animals, I rationalized that that sign probably meant not feeding them ‘people food’, or something like that. I clandestinely plucked the coveted grass and gave it to the eager lips. Walking along farther I noticed another sign explaining the original: “please do not feed the animals because grass may contain pesticides which are toxic to them”.
Disobedience = Vice
Yet, is it that simple? Anyone who has studied psychology is familiar with the horrifying ‘Milgram experiment’ done in the aftermath of World War II in an attempt to understand how so many people could have gone along with the atrocities of Nazi Germany. In this experiment volunteers were asked to deliver increasing levels of electric shock to what they believed was a participant on the other side of the screen (but in actuality was a recording). As the experiment continued, the invisible receiver of the shocks emphatically voiced his protest, claiming that he had a heart condition which made such shocks extremely dangerous to him, and begging them to stop. Meanwhile the director of the experiment continued to order increased shocks. The results were that a majority of the participants obeyed to the end, even when they suspected it might cause the death of the one they were shocking. Milgram published his summary of the experiment in 1974, entitling it ‘the Perils of Obedience’.
Obedience = Vice
I would venture to guess that most Americans today would agree with the second conclusion; namely that obedience is dangerous and stifling to human development. Obedience has become almost a dirty word. Disobedience has meanwhile become ‘in vogue’. As matter of fact, Time Magazine declared ‘the protester’ as ‘the person of the year’ for 2011. The ‘spirit of rebelliousness’ has in many ways become the ‘esprit de corp’ of the day.
How then can we make sense of a Church, which claims to offer truths to be believed and obeyed? Can we trust such a Church, in the face of so much media coverage regarding the sins of some of its members? Simultaneously, how do we respond when we are ordered to act in ways contrary to the law of God? To help make sense of this question, I want to offer some thoughts on the concept of authority.
“All Authority Comes from God”
“he taught them as one with authority” -Mt. 7:29The dictionary defines authority as “the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge”. God Himself is our ultimate authority. He has the authority to command us, and it is right and just for us to obey. Obedience to God is a virtue! Without it we cannot reach our full human potential. The people recognized in Jesus’ teaching the authority of God Himself. There was a supernatural weight behind His words. He affirmed this Himself on the day He ascended into Heaven, declaring
“all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” -Mt. 28:18-20St. Paul describes the charism which animated his entire preaching mission as
“grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of the faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” -Romans 1:5The obedience of faith.
Scripture testifies to how pleasing obedience is to God. He chastises the disobedient King Saul:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices; as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” -1 Samuel 15:22-23Jesus too tells his disciples that loving Him is equivalent to obeying Him:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” -John 14:15.The beloved disciple in turn testifies to this mark of true discipleship, stating
“for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." -1 John 5:3But what about obeying people? Frail sinful human beings who (unlike Jesus) are not God? In what sense is it ever good to obey them? Here is where the Catholic Church makes a radically unpopular claim. Our Lord has shared His authority with human beings, and we have an obligation to obey them when they command within their jurisdiction. In so doing, we obey God.
Authority Within One’s Jurisdiction
What does this NOT mean? We are NEVER obligated to obey a command which is sinful. This is because no one is authorized to command something which is contrary to the law of God. Remember, God is the true authority, from whom all authentic human authority is derived.
And God does not give His authority to every passerby who decides to order us around. The scientists in Milgram’s experiment had no authority to order their subjects to harm another participant (a truth which they were horrified to discover their participants didn’t seem to understand). Similarly doctors do not have the authority to order a woman to abort her child, even when the child is sick (although from the stories women tell, many doctors seem to have forgotten this truth). And yet we can say the Lord does continue to entrust his authority to certain people in certain situations.
A Few Examples …
In regard to governments, the Scriptures make a shocking statement:
“let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” -Romans 13:1This needs to be read with the understanding that God’s authority (which must always be obeyed) is only present when those in power rule according to His law. Laws must therefore respect the inalienable dignity of the human person to be binding. For St. Thomas Aquinas, laws are only valid when they are in accord with natural law, God’s truth written into the universe and capable of being understood by all (The 10 Commandments are a great summary of much of the content of natural law). Legislators exercise authority rightly when they rule for the sake of the common good of all, and not just certain groups (such as those outside the womb). Legislators have the authority to set the speed limit at whatever speed they want (within reason), and those laws are binding upon us. However, when governments command violations of human dignity, such as forced abortion, forced sterilization, and the violation of conscience, they step beyond their rightful authority and subjects are not bound to obey. God’s authority is never present when sin is commanded.
God also grants fathers and mothers His own authority over their children. Parents are supposed to mediate God’s providential care to the child. Again this is a topic wrought with difficulty and need for clarification. What about parents who manipulate children, abuse them, command them to violate Gods law, or suffer from mental illness? In so doing they step out of the line of God’s authority and no longer operate under it. Honoring one’s parents is not equivalent to obeying what ought not be obeyed, or allowing oneself to be abused, violated or manipulated. Parents are given God’s authority for the sake of ruling for the good of the entire family. Thus when parents command within their proper jurisdiction they exercise God’s own authority over their children, and it is right and just for the child obey them. However, once one has become an adult, parents no longer retain that authority. At that point, although it is often prudent to listen to the advice of wise and loving parents, obedience can become a vice if we refuse to take responsibility for our own life and decisions.
Likewise God’s authority is present whenever people are justly assigned to oversee certain tasks. Teachers exercise authority over the classroom, bus drivers over their bus, coaches over their team, and pastors over their parish. A coach is rightly obeyed when he calls a play, but if he commands the injuring of another player or the use of steroids, he loses his claim to obedience. Neither does his authority extend to non-game related activities such as dictating who you date. And speaking of dates, ladies your boyfriend does not exercise authority over you, even when he pays for your dinner (same to the men when the ladies pay). Authority is not bought. It is granted not because of whom someone is but because of the task assigned to them. Our obedience to right authority is not merely for the sake of politeness. Rather, in obeying we honor God from whom all authority flows (just as we honor Him by refusing to obey commands to sin).
My hosts at the farm had the authority to ask that I not feed their animals. I was a guest on their property and they had the right to command me in regard to what was for the good of their livestock. They did not even owe it to me to explain their rule as they did. My disobedience was far from virtue.
This doesn’t mean that there is not room for dialogue with those in authority. Dialogue is essential, especially when there are things the one in authority may not be aware of. But in the end when discussions have ended and decisions have to be made, obedience to right authority is a virtue.
Christ’s Authority within the Church
This teaching on authority makes Catholics an anomaly in the modern world. We believe Jesus has given his authority to the Pope and Bishops in union with him to govern His Body the Church with His own authority. We believe the Holy Father has been given a charism of infallibility such that the Holy Spirit will not allow him to teach in error when he teaches on faith and morals. Peter stood in the place of all the popes, in receiving Our Lord’s promise to
“give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” -Mt 16:19All who heard these words would have known that Jesus was referring to the conferring of authority over the kingdom spoken of in Isaiah 22:22. These keys of authority belong rightly to Our Lord Jesus, who assures us He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and yet He tells Peter that He is entrusting them to him so that he might rule in His name. When Peter was set free of his office on earth, he passed them to his successor.
Likewise Jesus assures His apostles that
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” -John 20:28This authority too has been passed on to all their ordained priestly successors, so that we today are able to take advantage of this wondrous gift in the sacrament of confession. How can we ever thank Our Lord enough for giving our priests His own authority to cleanse us of sin in His name?
Thus to obey the teaching of the Church is a virtue, because she teaches with the authority of God Himself. Jesus Christ has vested her with His authority, and it is to Him that ‘every knee will bow’ (Phil 2:20). The jurisdiction of the Holy Father and the Bishops in union with him is not unlimited. Our pastors cannot tell us which team to root for, which school to attend, or how to spend our summer vacation. They completely step out of the line of God’s authority if they were to command us to sin or to disobey church teaching. Such commands can never in good conscience be obeyed. But when they teach according to the jurisdiction to which Jesus has appointed them (namely that of faith and morals) they rule with the authority of God. They can be weak and sinful men just like the rest of their flock. They need our prayers and our love perhaps more than most, because their office can be so crushingly burdensome. But God is perfectly capable of making use of broken instruments. They, like the converted murderer St. Paul,
“have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ”. Romans 1:5-6 (emphasis mine)