True Obedience vs. Revolution in the Church

What is a faithful Catholic to do in the face of unjust commands from ecclesiastical authorities?


December 23, 2021

For Catholics seeking to act uprightly before God and men, it is no exaggeration to say that discerning the nature and limits of the virtue of obedience is becoming the most critical question of the day.

In the civil as well as ecclesiastical spheres, Catholics face mounting pressure to submit to rulings or commands that are increasingly at odds with the teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and even natural reason. In the Church, no better illustration of such a troubling diktat can be found than that of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis Custodes and the Congregation for Divine Worship’s Responsa Ad Dubia, restricting access to the traditional sacramental rites and intending their eventual elimination from the life of the Church.

What is a faithful Catholic to do? 

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I offer the following excerpt from my forthcoming book, True Obedience in the Church, as an analysis of this aspect of the revolution currently underway in the Church and as a summons to practical action for Catholic clergy and laity.


The traditional liturgical worship of the Church, her lex orandi or law of prayer, is a fundamental, normative, and immutable expression of her lex credendi or law of belief, one that cannot be contradicted or abolished or heavily rewritten without rejecting the Spirit-led continuity of the Catholic Church as a whole.

As Church history attests, the Mass has been repeatedly proved to be just such a profession of faith, above all by the actions of those seeking to undermine that faith. The Catholic Encyclopedia is quite clear on this point:

That the Mass…is the central feature of the Catholic religion hardly needs to be said. During the Reformation and always, the Mass has been the test. The word of the Reformers: “It is the Mass that matters,” was true. The Cornish insurgents in 1549 rose against the new religion, and expressed their whole cause in their demand to have the Prayer-book Communion Service taken away and the old Mass restored. The long persecution of Catholics in England took the practical form of laws chiefly against saying Mass; for centuries the occupant of the English throne was obliged to manifest his Protestantism, not by a general denial of the whole system of Catholic dogma but by a formal repudiation of the doctrine of Transubstantiation and of the Mass. As union with Rome is the bond between Catholics, so is our common share in this, the most venerable rite in Christendom, the witness and safeguard of that bond. (Adrian Fortescue, “Liturgy of the Mass”)

For precisely this reason, only two groups of Catholics (or, I should say, former Catholics) ever questioned the traditional lex orandi: the Protestants, who rejected it because they openly dissented from the lex credendi it expressed, and the Modernists, who believed that the lex credendi perpetually evolves and must evolve, and therefore the lex orandi must be mutable and malleable to keep up with it.

For the same reason, Catholic tradition recognizes, as a matter of course, the pope’s solemn duty toward the immemorial liturgical practice of the Church. According to the famous Papal Oath of the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, a handbook of formularies used by the pontifical chancellery at the end of the first millennium, the pope is to swear: “I shall keep inviolate the discipline and ritual of the Church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors.” In one of its approved texts, the Council of Constance states: “Since the Roman Pontiff exercises such great power among mortals, it is right that he be bound all the more by the incontrovertible bonds of the faith and by the rites that are to be observed regarding the Church’s Sacraments.”

Of very many theological authorities who might be brought forward, let it suffice to summon Francisco Suárez, S.J. (1548–1617):

If the Pope lays down an order contrary to right customs, one does not have to obey him; if he tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him; if he attacks by force, he could be repelled by force, with the moderation characteristic of a good defense. (De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16)

Suárez moreover claims that the pope could be schismatic “if he wanted to overturn all the ecclesiastical ceremonies resting on apostolic tradition” (De Caritate, disp. XII, sect. 1). It is always legitimate for us to wish to adhere to that which the Church has solemnly taught and practiced.

Already in the fourth century, St. Athanasius the Great could say to the faithful: “For our canons and our forms were not given to the Churches at the present day, but were wisely and safely transmitted to us from our forefathers” (Encyclical Letter; by “forms” Athanasius is referring to the public customs of prayer and worship, the lex orandi). We ought to be skeptical of novelties that certain churchmen wish to add to the tradition or substitute for it and should be prepared to offer resistance if an attempt is made to eliminate tradition, which is unquestionably an essential and constitutive part of the Church’s common good.

We do not owe obedience to an ecclesiastical authority if he acts against the common good of the Church. 

Catholic theologians are unanimous in maintaining that this is possible—ecclesiastical authority can actually act against the common good—and, even more importantly, that ordinary Catholics are capable of recognizing when it is happening.

Many Catholics in England refused to attend Archbishop Cranmer’s new, protestantized rite of Mass, even when they were encouraged to do so by clergy who preferred the strategy of compromise with the heretical forces coming to power there in the sixteenth century. Even at the cost of inconvenience and penalties, devout English Catholics refused to attend what would only later be called the Anglican rite—and this, well before any directive from Rome asserted that the new service was “the offspring of schism, the badge of hatred of the Church,” and “grievously sinful” to attend (see William Lilly, “England Since the Reformation”).

Even as secular rulers do not have an authority that simply overrides a citizen’s own exercise of reason and the voice of his conscience, so too in the realm of grace ecclesiastical rulers do not have an authority that simply shuts down the believer’s reason and evacuates his responsibility before God to love the Church’s common good more than any personal good of anyone.

The sensus fidelium is part and parcel of the Church’s indefectibility, which is too often falsely construed as a kind of top-down, hierarchy-only, magisterial quality, when in point of fact it is a divine endowment made to the Church precisely as a corporate entity. That is why Newman could observe that during the Arian crisis of the fourth century, “the divine dogma of Our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the ‘Ecclesia docta’ [the taught Church] than by the ‘Ecclesia docens’ [the teaching Church]” and that “the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its Baptism” (Arians of the Fourth Century, Note 5). 

Today, a true appeal to conscience can and should be made by Catholics who see vital goods being violently taken from them. This is not to be “progressive”; it is to be human and Christian. It is to be rightly traditional, knowing and witnessing to the perennial value of what has been loved and venerated before us and was always handed down with unwavering fidelity.

True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times is available as an ebook now and will be released as a paperback in February. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


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