Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

Discourse about the new role of the laity easily assumes the grammar and rhetoric of rights, autonomy, and liberation. We hear about the right to dissent, the right to be a priest, freedom to be engaged with the world, the autonomy of Politics, and freedom of conscience. I would suggest that a theology of the laity include as well the grammar of duty, obedience, and responsibility. The Documents of Vatican II provide a balanced view of freedom and authority; yet popular and scholarly opinion often exaggerates freedom and neglects or ridicules the role of authority. The virtue of obedience is typically ignored as an important element of lay spirituality. Any authentic spirituality must incorporate some provision for obedience as an imitation of Christ. Obedience entails the surrender of self-will and even one’s own judgment in conformity to God’s will. The call to obedience comes from the very words of Christ: “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). St. Benedict places obedience as the first step of Christian humility. Benedict, in his Rule, describes obedience as a “strong and noble weapon” for the Christian life. Why should — and how can — the laity live out a life of obedience in the contemporary world and put to good use this “strong and noble weapon”? This question should surely be addressed by the coming Synod.

Some have come to speak about obedience simply in terms of dialogue; but this surely leads to a spurious form of obedience when it means that authority must listen to me until they see it my way. And it fails to recognize the need for some source outside of self that places a check on self-will. We need a sign or reminder to seek God’s will and not to mistake our own will for His. The quest for autonomy, when understood in Enlightenment terms, is surely not the appropriate way to understand Christian freedom and conscience. The Documents of Vatican II speak about God’s will and God’s law as something above man, something that man “does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience” (Gaudium et Spes, #16).

Man indeed participates in the divine law through reason, and must follow what his conscience dictates. But the Christian notion of conscience must be carefully distinguished from the modern secular version of the primacy of conscience. According to this secular version, the individual conscience declares the law to itself; being true to oneself and to the quest for personal satisfaction, however defined, is the highest norm of moral action. In this scheme of things no one has a right to tell anyone anything; even to judge an action as wrong violates the purported canons of individual freedom and toleration. The notion of divine law has no place in this philosophy. Furthermore, the Catholic idea of conscience provides for an institutional role, specifically the Magisterium, in the formation of conscience: “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought to carefully attend to the sacred and certain doctrines of the Church” (Dignitatis Humanae Personae, #14). In the formation of conscience and in the acceptance of norms for moral behavior a Christian lay person has an opportunity to exercise, such obedience constitutes an imitation of Christ: “With ready Christian obedience, laymen as well as all disciples of Christ should accept whatever their sacred pastors decree in their roles as teachers and rulers in the Church” (Lumen Gentium, #37). Obedience to the Magisterium of the Church serves as a strong weapon against the self-seeking of the age; it is a counter-cultural way of life to find direction from another and to submit one’s will and judgment to the counsel and command of another. The Magisterium is a rock that saves us from the swirling eddies of subjectivism and arrogant self-assertion that sweep the spirit of the age.

A personal anecdote may help to illustrate the importance of this principle in the life of lay people and in the practice of spiritual and moral formation in the Church in the United States. Four years ago my wife and I attended a Pre-Cana session in preparation for marriage. Sexual morality was discussed only indirectly; so we asked the priest, in a common session, what a married couple ought to do about birth control in light of the teaching of the Church. The priest replied that “If you are hung up on the authority bit, then follow Humanae Vitae; otherwise, follow your conscience.” I was angry and humiliated at first because of the simplistic way in which the priest framed the issue. Certainly there is much more at stake in the Church’s teaching on sexuality than authority — for example, a woman’s awareness of her own body, a husband’s respect for the female mode of sexuality, the openness of both to children, and their mutual trust in God, But as I reflect upon the incident, I have come to see that authority is involved; despite his derogatory manner the priest hit on a key issue. But he made it sound like authority and obedience have nothing to do with the Christian life, that it is inauthentic to act out of respect for authority. But this is a crucial mistake; because of it many well-meaning couples are left without formation and are swept into the maelstrom of the contraceptive culture.

As much as the Church must seek to explain and defend her authentic teaching to the world and to her own members the Church should also explain the virtue of obedience as an imitation of Christ. As the Catholic Church in the United States continues to face the crisis of dissent, the text of Vatican II cannot be neglected:

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of the soul. This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will (Lumen Gentium, #25).

Lay people find a form of obedience in their submission to Church authority in matters of faith and morals. The dissenters and sophisters who lay claim to the rhetoric of absolute rights and liberation from authority cannot honestly claim to be following the spirit of Vatican II.


  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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