My soul hurts every time I hear someone say that obedience to bishops is more important than getting the “right liturgy.” Unfortunately, this is more than an occasionally encountered fringe opinion: it is a mainstream conservative view of obedience to priests and especially bishops. It is insidious for several reasons, not least because it creates a false dichotomy between different types of authority that shouldn’t be contradictory.
Ultimately, however, it is contrary to reason, as a comparison to spousal obedience will reveal. This comparison is all the more defensible if we recall that Catholic tradition calls bishops the “husbands” of their local church and sees all priests as acting in the person of Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church.
Let’s compare a couple of conversations. Here’s a model that I’m sure many readers can relate to—regardless of whichever character they find themselves in!
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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James: Unfortunately, our bishop is being a bit difficult. We aren’t allowed to have as many Latin Masses as we want, and he even said we can’t celebrate the Novus Ordo in Latin. Instead, we have a kind of jarring Novus Ordo with an unsympathetic pastor who doesn’t always follow the rubrics.
Jonathan: Now wait Jim, obedience is more important than perfect liturgy. That’s really important. It’s more virtuous to obey than to have the best liturgy.
James: But it turns the faithful away—how are we supposed to keep our parishioners coming back, let alone convert more, if the liturgy is painful, or not in harmony with the formation they should be receiving as faithful children of the Church?
Jonathan: I’ve been around schismatic groups before, Jim; we don’t want to go there, do we? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we’re called to be obedient, not liturgical perfectionists.
The first thing about this sort of conversation that always throws me off is that “Latin Mass” or even “Novus Ordo according to the rubrics” is immediately transmogrified into and equated with “perfect liturgy.” But who said anything about “perfect liturgy”? What even is that, and has it ever existed on earth? And secondly, what does accepting disobedience to rubrics and prayerful worship have to do with “obedience”? And why is the only alternative “schismatic groups”?
But before I go further, let’s reproduce this conversation with just a couple of words changed:
Jessica: Unfortunately, my husband is being a bit difficult. I’m not allowed to prepare dinner in my own way, and he even said I’m not allowed to make enough rice for two dinners, which I wanted to do to save time. Instead, he randomly yells at me a few times a week, telling me my meal plans are rigid and old-fashioned. And apparently, following the directions on the back of the rice box is “legalistic.”
Johanna: Now wait, Jessica, obedience is more important than perfect home life. That’s really important. It’s more virtuous to obey than to have a comfy home.
Jessica: But it turns me and the children away—how am I supposed to keep it up, let alone bring more children into the family, if our common life is painful, or doesn’t give them the formation they should be receiving as beloved children?
Johanna: I’ve been around unfaithful wives before, Jessica; we don’t want to go there, do we? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we’re called to be submissive.
How absurd is this equation of a desire for freedom from domestic maltreatment with an unreasonable desire for a “perfect home life”! As with perfect liturgy, when has that ever existed, except in the house of the heavenly Father? And again, what does accepting controlling attitudes (unhealthy and harmful for both husband and wife) have to do with “submission”? Similarly, why does legitimate complaint immediately result in the implication of infidelity?
The sort of reductio ad absurdum that occurs when obedience is used to bulldoze all reasonable requests should already be clear. However, here’s another type of conversation I hear from time to time:
Donald: I hate to complain, Damian, but Fr. Rumpus scandalized some parishioners last week by saying that the Eucharist is only consecrated when the faithful say “Amen.” It’s really difficult to know what to do. Don’t get me wrong—I like Fr. Rumpus as a person.
Damian: Yeah, Donald, that’s not right. So, what are you going to do?
Donald: I don’t know. He’s really pleasant in conversation, but I can’t talk to him about theology, he won’t listen to any authorities that I reference, like the Catechism. So, I don’t know. Believe me, I’m sure he has good will. It’s probably his bad seminary formation.
Damian: I’m not sure you can excuse writing off the Catechism just by saying “he had a bad seminary formation,” even if that’s the cause. There’s got to be a bottom line after which you say, this priest isn’t really operating as a priest in the Catholic Church should. That isn’t an excuse to leave the Church, but it may very well be time to appeal to an authority to correct him or remove him if incorrigible. Or if that doesn’t work, to simply go to another parish.
While I appreciate the genuine desire to be charitable and assume the best, which I truly often notice in such exchanges, there is a question lingering in my mind. While it’s true that people of good will act on what they think is right, it is still possible for them to be wrong and for their opinions to not match reality.
Imagine if a wife said, “I hate to complain, but my husband Tom scandalized me last week by saying that fidelity is necessary only when he feels like it is. It’s really difficult to know what to do. But don’t get me wrong—I love Tom.” However, once someone has said something as unloving and unreasonable as “fidelity is necessary only when I feel like it,” it seems hard to keep loving and respecting them in the same way.
Essentially, that is what many have become accustomed to saying about their bishops: we like them as people even though they think that fidelity to the Faith, to Church teaching, discipline, and tradition is only necessary when they feel like it. Without wishing to unjustly condemn motives we can’t see, it’s hard to see how you can keep liking someone practically when something so overarching affects the way they act and think. Many have become accustomed to saying about their bishops: we like them as people even though they think that fidelity to the Faith, to Church teaching, discipline, and tradition is only necessary when they feel like it.Tweet This
Ordinarily, other people are there to help point out how someone’s vision of reality is not, in fact, fully aligned with reality. When someone can’t be convinced to align his or her mind with reality on an important enough topic, we call that person some form of “crazy.” If their wrongness is no longer a private matter but affecting the wellbeing of others, there is an obligation to avoid or prevent the harm caused by their inability to conform themselves to reality. If this is true of unbalanced spouses, shouldn’t it also be recognized of ecclesiastical superiors who are sufficiently out of touch with the pastoral reality of their flocks, sound theology, and correct ceremonial praxis?
Earlier this year, I argued that “every Catholic has a right to properly celebrated liturgy and orthodox preaching,” as indeed the magisterium strongly reiterated in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, among many other documents that could be cited. In my article, I explained why “ritual and setting surrounding the matter and form” of a sacrament is not “inconsequential or nonessential” but necessary for the full expression of the Faith and its integral practice. In fact, many faithful experience irreverent liturgies precisely as abusive.
The American Catholic soldier captured during the Vietnam war in the ’60s and released in the ’70s comes to mind. The Church he knew had changed on him while he was in prison camp; for years, he used the “blocking out” techniques he had developed as a POW to suffer through Novus Ordos before rediscovering the Latin Mass of his youth.
If the industry of marriage counseling and self-help books proves anything, it proves that people are not satisfied with “obedience” and “validity” as the only things that matter when it comes to a romantic relationship. Apparently, it’s not good enough for husbands and wives to say “it’s a valid marriage” and relegate the five love languages to “rigid” and “old-fashioned” couples.
In contrast, a multiplicity of “non-essential externals” and subjective considerations seem to actually be the “make-it or break-it” point of many marriages, both among secular people and Christians. In the realm of liturgy and ecclesial obedience, however, it is commonplace to hear such things as desire for traditional sacred music, beautiful vestments, Eucharistic reverence, or theological correctness vilified as “proud,” “liturgically perfectionistic,” “disobedient,” or “picky.” Imagine if the woman who complained that her husband never cleaned up after himself, never kissed her, never bought her any jewelry or clothing, and never cared to learn what marriage meant theologically was told she was being “proud,” “maritally perfectionistic,” “unsubmissive,” or “picky”!
At heart, a false dichotomy is created in the Church by setting fidelity to theology and liturgy against fidelity to an obedience that is not in harmony with them. When we compare it with what such an attitude would produce in marriage, we can easily see that mindless obedience which views worship that is dignum et justum (right and just) as incidental, dismissible, or compromisable is bound to end in the breaking up of the Church as a sustainable home—just as the uncalled-for submission of a wife to an irresponsible husband will eventually lead to the destruction of their marriage and traumatization of their children.
So, the next time someone claims that obedience trumps every other claim, ask them if they would do to their wife what they propose the bishop do to you.
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