Covid-19 and the Limits of Obedience

The response to Covid-19 has resulted in a flood of restrictions on our behavior and activities, including within the Church. Initially, the bishops in the United States suspended the public celebration of Mass. If you weren’t a cleric, then it’s unlikely you could go to Mass anywhere in America from mid-March to mid-May. Then dioceses slowly began to re-open parishes, but often with many restrictions. Some of these were relatively uncontroversial—no holding hands at the Our Father, for example. But in some places a few of the new restrictions were met with resistance. I am referring, in particular, to the banning of Communion on the tongue and the requiring of masks or “contact tracing,” or both, in order to attend Mass.

Many well-intentioned Catholics support these restrictions by arguing that (1) the bishop has the authority to make these restrictions, and (2) the restrictions aren’t a big deal, so what’s the fuss about? And so resistance to these restrictions by lay Catholics appears to many to be the sin of disobedience, as well as proof of a spirit of pride. Catholics, after all, believe in obedience to authority.

These calls to obedience, however, have shown a misunderstanding of that virtue, as well as the limits the virtue places upon both the subject and the superior.

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Sphere of Authority

In his Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Father John Hardon defines obedience as “[t]he moral virtue that inclines the will to comply with the will of another who has the right to command.” It is that last part of the definition—“who has the right to command”—which is often forgotten or misunderstood. There are two components that give someone the right to command: the “who” commanding and the “what” being commanded.

First, the “who.” Is the person in a position of authority? If a stranger were to walk up to you and command you to mow his grass, you would have no obligation to obey that command, even if that stranger were the Commander of the Army (assuming you’re not in the Army, of course). A person must be given authority over you, either by another authority or voluntarily by you, in order to demand your obedience.

The second aspect of who has the right to command is less clear: the “what.” Is the action being commanded within the superior’s sphere of authority? Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica notes that only God has the right to complete obedience from men and women (cf. II-II, Q. 104, Art. 4). We are not bound to obey even our legitimate superiors in all things (II-II, Q. 104, Art. 5). Particularly, the Angelic Doctor notes that “a subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his authority.” In other words, if your boss at work commanded you to mow his lawn, and this was not in your employment contract, then you would have no obligation to obey that command. It is outside his sphere of authority, even though he is your legitimate superior at your place of employment. Or if your 16th-century English bishop asks you, a priest, to go along with King Henry’s new edict…

It’s important to note also what is not in this definition of authority, i.e., the level of inconvenience imposed. Often today you will hear arguments that we should obey a command because it’s easy to follow (“It’s just a mask”), implying that since it wouldn’t be a major inconvenience to obey, it would only be sinful pride that would cause us to disobey the order. How can we complain about giving our name at the door, for example, when Christians in the Middle East risk their lives at times to attend Mass?

The inconvenience imposed is irrelevant to whether a command must be obeyed. A commanding officer can order his troops to run into heavy gunfire and he should be obeyed, whereas a neighbor who tells you to wear a blue shirt on Wednesday does not have to be obeyed, even though what he is asking is easy to accomplish.

The Church is Not a Cult

Applying the virtue of obedience in real life, therefore, is complex. Think about the many facets of obedience in a well-ordered Church and society. Some examples include a vowed religious to his superior; a priest to his bishop; a bishop to the pope; a lay Catholic to his parish priest, bishop, or pope; a citizen to the state; a member of the armed forces to his commanding officer; a wife to her husband; and an employee to his employer

In each of these cases, different spheres of authority apply. While a religious superior has wide latitude in giving commands to a religious who has taken a vow of obedience (though even then there are reasonable limits), in other cases the sphere of authority is much more limited. In each situation, our God-given use of reason is paramount. Before obeying a command we must determine if the person has authority over us and what his sphere of authority is. Oftentimes this is done easily and automatically, but in some cases it might not be so clear.

Consider the obligation of obedience of a lay person toward his parish priest, his bishop, or the pope. Although there is the old saying that the lay Catholic has three duties—pray, pay, and obey—the “obey” part is not absolute, as lay people take no vows of obedience. A parish priest cannot command a lay person to wash his car, for example; not even the pope can do that. The hierarchy has real authority over lay people, but that authority is within a limited sphere.

A cleric’s authority is limited by three primary factors. First, his authority over the laity only covers the practice of the Catholic Faith. He does not have the authority, for example, to tell a lay person where to live or where to work (unless that work, of course, directly contradicts the Catholic Faith, such as working at an abortion clinic). Second, a cleric’s authority does not supersede a higher authority in the Church; for example, a parish priest cannot command a lay person to do something contrary to the directives of the bishop (or the pope). Third, a cleric’s authority—even the pope’s—is limited by Church teaching and canon law. The pope cannot command priests to use orange juice instead of wine when celebrating Mass.

While it might make practicing Catholics uneasy to acknowledge there are limits to a lay Catholic’s obedience to Church authorities, it is these limitations that keep Catholicism from degenerating into a cult. The mark of a cult is that it demands total obedience to the leader or leaders, even if doing so is sinful or contrary to reason. Yet Christianity has always exalted the use of reason, not against faith, but in the service of it.

Making the Sacraments Available

Here we get to the application of reason to the recent restrictions placed upon Catholics for receiving the Sacraments. Can a priest forbid the reception of Communion on the tongue? Can a bishop require masks or contact-tracing to attend Mass?

When it comes to restricting Communion on the tongue, the answer is clear-cut: a priest or even bishop has no authority to deny Communion to someone if he wants to receive on the tongue. Current Church law considers Communion on the tongue as the normative way to receive, and does not give bishops or priests the authority to overrule that. Further, Canon 843.1 states, “Sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Note the presumption in favor of a person receiving the Sacraments; they cannot be denied to someone who wishes to receive in the normative way the Church has established to receive, no matter what a priest or bishop may say.

What about the requirement to wear masks or participate in contact-tracing? Here the answer is less clear-cut. According to the Canon just stated, a person cannot be denied the Sacraments if he is “properly disposed.” Some would argue that someone who is not wearing a mask contrary to his bishop’s directive is therefore not “properly disposed.” But this is begging the question, since it’s unclear if the bishop has the authority to make such a directive. Further, if we allow bishops and pastors to require masks for medical reasons, are there limits to this?

People who are obese are more susceptible to Covid-19 and more likely to develop severe symptoms, and thus are more likely to use hospital resources. So should parishes check a person’s body fat ratio before allowing someone to enter? If someone has over 25 percent body fat, is he to be denied the Sacraments, all in the name of the common good and safety? Do the bishops have that authority? Some might object that this example is absurd, but based on the arguments many are giving for mask requirements at church, it follows the same logic: a bishop has total and complete authority to restrict the Sacraments if he thinks it is for the common (medical) good. Just six months ago, many would have thought requiring masks and sign-ins would be absurd.

I do not have all the answers when it comes to the exact limits of authority for our bishops and priests. But I do know there are limits, and both the hierarchy and the laity must acknowledge and respect those limits. The Sacraments are the ordinary means of salvation, and, as such, the Church must do all it can to bring these salvific means to the faithful, no matter the cost. As seen in Canon 843.1, the presumption should always be in favor of a person receiving the Sacraments, unless there is a clear barrier to that reception. Before quickly embracing every restriction suggested by politicians and certain scientists, bishops and priests should do all they can to make the Sacraments easily available to the people, particularly in this time of unrest and uncertainty.

Photo credit: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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