Tag: Catholic

The Creeping Culture of Consumerism

I remember reading an article in the Worker written by Dorothy Day sometime in the early 1950ies. In her inimitable style she paraphrased Luke 2:1 “…a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all who inhabited earth.” Her version was “… a decree went out from Macy’s, and Wal-Mart and Sears, that the whole world should do their Christmas shopping.” I substituted Wal-Mart and Sears because the other two department stores she mentioned are no longer in business.

Although she was just applying consumerism to Christmas, I believe she was a prophet of the creeping of consumerism that has in recent years taken over our society. This commentary will consider consumerism and its underlying philosophy as it’s grown beyond the season of Christmas. I believe consumerism is a symptom of our value system. In a future commentary I will suggest ways of moving from a society based on consumerism to what has been called a Society of Sustainability. If we can’t change the world—at least we can change ourselves!


is not a new phenomenon. Nor does its epitome, the , have the corner of the market. Wherever I mention the , you can just insert your own country. The dream is a matter of degree. According to Professor Peter N. Stearns in his book in Word History, it has been around for centuries in different societies. Stearns’ book provides a comprehensive, academic review of its development and impact on societies.

To go back even farther in history, the sacred book of China, Tao Te Ching, which literally means the way, “…was written in China around the 6th century BCE presumably by Lao Tsu, approximately the same time as Buddha lived in India.” [LINK] The English translation is The I Ching or the Book of Changes. It’s made up of 81 brief chapters or verses. Verse 46 seems to describe a forewarning from the 6th century about the moral values that underlie contemporary consumerism. I think Lao Tsu nailed it; here are several lines from that verse:

There is no greater loss than losing the Tao (the Way), no greater curse than covetousness, no greater tragedy than discontentment; the worst of faults is wanting more—always. Contentment alone is enough. Indeed, the bliss of eternity can be found in contentment.

For the of this commentary I want to focus on consumerism as it today in most of the developed societies, particularly the United States, which is perhaps an extreme example of consumerism at its worst. We all know that most of us buy things we don’t need; that advertisers exploit consumers through promoting campaigns that encourage us to buy stuff we don’t need because they know that we think more stuff will make us happier, smarter or more loved as we pursue the that’s built on the mentality that more stuff or newer stuff is better. The has become the American Nightmare. But before discussing any scholarly explanations of consumerism’s impact on society, here’s how the word stuff became so popular when talking about compulsive consumerism.

I believe the philosopher/comedian, a later day Lao Tzu,  George Carlin, was way ahead of his time whenhe choose the word stuff to characterize consumerism in the early 1980ies in a routine he called A Place for My Stuff. The word stuff has become the symbol for all those things that we buy, but could do without. With his unique gift to see humor in situations that most of us would fail to notice, he philosophized that “…all we need in is just a place for our stuff…all your house is, is a place for your stuff…as a matter of fact, a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover over it…and if we didn’t have stuff we wouldn’t need a house.” He goes on at length to point out how ludicrous the emphasis that we give to acquiring stuff is. Here’s the video of him performing that routine. You might want to watch it at your leisure if you’re not offended by some of his vulgarities. [LINK]

Remember that Carlin’s routine was performed before there was a Black Friday or a Cyber Monday. Now we even extend these margin days up to Christmas Eve. It’s basicallya national campaign, in which big business lowers prices and quantities to increase demand, and as a result—profits for them—all in the name of holiday shopping, when spending becomes as addictive as any drug. As you may know, there are actually 12 Step Programs for Shopaholics. “Hi, my name is Don and I’m a Shopaholic, Hi Don!”[LINK]   Here’s a website that indicates, [LINK]compulsive shopping, also known as a spending addiction, can be as debilitating as gambling or alcohol addiction. Psychologists believe that the person who is a compulsive shopper uses shopping to soothe him/herself rather than dealing with ’s challenges head on. Obsessive shopping ultimately leads to worse problems than the ones from which the person is seeking relief. In many incidents the compulsive shopper’s behavior puts his/her family’s welfare in grave jeopardy, which often leads to divorce. Caveat Emptor!


In the words of Lao Tsu, whom I mentioned above, “She who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” Here’s another quote, this time by an “unknown author, “When having more leaves you empty, you’ll discover true happiness lies in enough!” Or how about this one from Gandhi, provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Or as we used to say in the Bronx, “enough already”!

Although all of these quotations are though provoking, they don’t provide a black and white answer to the question, what’s enough under every situation.  We need to determine whether we’re concerned about how much stuff we need versus how much stuff  we want, or whether we need to buy a new car because our car is just obsolete and doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a new model versus because it’s dying on us. I believe we don’t need a bureaucrat to figure it out for us; but sometimes we need help to motivate us in making the right choice, in answering the question; What is Enough for Me?

Here’s a story that helped me revaluate how much stuff I needed. It’s a book by Bob Perks, entitled I Wish You Enough. [LINK]I was very moved by his story. Youmight recognize the story because “…those words have been read at graduations, weddings, funerals, award ceremonies, and even engraved on stone.” Bob wrote the story after watching a father and daughter saying goodbye at an airport. If you’ve never read this heartwarming story, or even if you have, you can reread it on the link above. Pay special attention to the Seven Wishes that father shared at the end of the story, they are antidotes for our tendencies to accumulate more stuff then we need, and to keep us conscious of the effect too much stuff has on the environment.

The more I thought about Bob’s story, the more I could imagine that, I Wish You Enough being one of Jesus’ parables that was meant for our times; the Seven Wishes could be His 21st century Sermon on the Mount; and if we put the words to music, it could well be the national anthem for an anti-consumerism, sustainable society.


“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” ~ Edward Abbey

The good news is that there are a number of change organizations and programs and must read books that are already fighting the cancer of consumerism. Thebad news is that consumerism has metastasized to the point that if we continue to have the attitude to let George do it, our legacy for the next generation could be disastrous. So, to paraphrase an old call to action, “Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their galaxy.”

With that in mind, I’m going to focus on just one icon of our generation, who has a theological and scientific background, who devoted his personal, religious, and professional , among other things, answering the key question, what’s enough! He taught us not only by what he wrote, but by being a model of how to live the New Story, or as some refer to it as, the Great Story of the universe, and our place in it, without jettisoning the entire Old Story.

If there were a Hall of Fame for individuals who have made significant contributions to our sense of responsibility to one another, our sense of the divinity of the universe and our place in it, how we can make a difference in our environment; how we can see beyond the myopic

views of our planet earth that many of have, the late Fr. Thomas Berry, would be a shoo-in for induction. He was a pioneer in the field of spirituality and ecology; some called him a monk, a cultural historian, an author, a teacher, and a mystic. He wrote or co-authored twenty books, but for this commentary, I’d just like to consider several of his most popular ones.

His book The Dream of the , which was published in 1988, has had an impact on historians/ecologists/ecotheologians, as well as spiritual seekers. The president of the Northern America Conference of Religion and Ecology praise his book as being “…quite possibly one of the ten most important books of the century.” The book suggests that the ecclesiastical establishment, along with empires, corporations, and nation states, have controlled western nations in their becoming progressively more destructive of the earth.

I’m sure he aggravated the when he wrote, “…the primary ‘pro-’ act is to support planet earth, which sustains all the we know.” He was not a pro-abortion advocate, but he was in a subtle way, trying to awaken the hierarchy to their need to get their priorities straight. He believed that the Church needed to be more proactive about preserving the environment. Think about it, rather than spending their time and our money on pushing an agenda of contraception and abortion, our planet might be facing more than the loss of unborn children if they don’t put more energy into fighting for the survival of mother earth.

In Berry’s own words in the Dream of the :

“We have a new story of the universe. Our own presence to the universe depends on our human identity with the entire cosmic process. In its human expression, the universe and the entire range of earthly and heavenly phenomena celebrate themselves and the ultimate mystery of their existence in a special exaltation. Science has given us a new revelatory experience. It is now giving us a new intimacy with the .”

 Equally powerful was another book that he co-authored with Brian Swimme, a renowned physicist/cosmologist, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Cosmos. This book’s major focus is on interrelatedness of the whole universe and our place in it. They point out that for most of the 14 billion years of creative evolution, we humans were not around until the Ecozoic Era, the era when our ancestors realized that they were the result of a long story, and they needed to understand that they could be overseers of the earth with all its wonders. I think Connie Barlow captured their reverence for our planet when she wrote on her website The Great Story, [LINK]The more we learn about and process, the more we are in awe and the deeper the urge to revere the evolutionary forces that give time a direction and the ecological forces that sustain our planetary home.”

But if you really want to get to know Thomas Berry, as both a man and scholar, I found that Carolyn W. Toben’s memoir, Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry, published in 2012, offers an intimate sense of Berry beyond his books and essays.

For ten years Ms. Toben spent hours with Berry in deep discussions about his fundamental thinking. She makes it clear that for Thomas the relationship that we humans have with the earth, is the primary experience of the divine, and the pain that Berry had for the destruction of our eco-system. But despite that pain, the conversations give us more than a little hope; it gives us a workable path to the future.

You may want to check out my website for more information about the Fr. Berry and the Great Story under the title ism and Evolution and scroll down to # 16, [LINK]  In addition to videos of the Cosmic All Stars singing their songs, We are the Cosmos and The Cosmos Blues, there is a wealth of information from experts on the new cosmology and the New Story. To mention a few: Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, # 4; Brian Swimme’s, website, The Center of the Universe, # 5; Teilhard de Chardin’s position on suffering from a cosmic perspective #14; Connie Barlow, the creator of the website the Great Story, # 15; Matthew Fox and his story of the Original Blessing, #17; and many more.


I must confess that I am a recovering “shopping sinner”. It wasn’t until my early sixties that I changed my shopping habits and became a more conscious consumer and more concerned about the damage we were doing to planet earth. I grew up at a time when a new car cost between $1,200 and $1,600. So it seemed natural to me to trade my “old” car for a new one every other year, whether I needed a new car or not. I had a fixation for buying wrist watches. How many wrist watches did I need?  Certainly not a half a dozen! And then there was just stuff! Stuff that I didn’t need; stuff that ended up in a closet for years; sweaters that were taking up space in drawers. I’d clean out my closets and drawers, just to make space for more stuff. I never told the in confession that I was guilty of buying too much stuff: Bless me father for I have sinned, I just bought a new watch and sweater that I didn’t need.”  At that time, I didn’t think that I was an evil person or that the Lords of Consumption, the corporations, who were profiting from my purchases, or the hucksters who were promoting hyper-commercialism were evil. It was just the way things were.

I suppose most of us had, or has at least a touch of the shopping sinner’s syndrome. So, now’s a good time for us to reflect on how we can change our wicked ways, and as the eighth step in the 12 step programs say, make amendsMy “aha moment” was when I first was exposed to the Great Story of the Universe. From there it seemed an obvious next step to become involved with the Green Movement [LINK] . The movement“… advocates the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment through changes in public policies and individual behavior.”  The movement is centered on ecology, health and human rights.

In my next commentary, I will focus on specific ways we all can become involved both personally by changing our consumer habits, and through change organizations by advocating for for saving mother earth us and for future generations.

 I wish you all enough for 2013! 

The Hope Which Springs Eternal Within the Human Breast

The title for this posting was stolen (like in baseball) from a classic poem I memorized in grammar school, Casey at the Bat [LINK] by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. He in turn stole (like in plagiarism) the line from an essay On Man by Alexander Pope. Just in case you can’t remember the poem, or sadly never heard of , here is a brief summary. The baseball fans of Mudville, who were watching their team lose that day, were divided into two groups, the “struggling few (who) got up to go leaving there the rest” and the loyal fans who stayed because of their belief in the “hope that springs eternal within the human breast”; and they were counting on to whack out a homerun and win the day for the Mudville Nine. If you want to know the outcome of the game, click on the link above.

It seems to me that in some ways, many of us are waiting for “a like” person or movement to fulfill the hope that Vatican II inspired for reforms in the . If we’re one of those, I think we need to listen to the wise sage Pogo, who said in a 1971 cartoon, “We have met the enemy and it is US![LINK]  Pogo’s statement has become a universal truth that applies to most organizations, including the . Like many others, I believe that the laity is the key to change.  Having aired our grievances, and recognized that we are part of the problem, we need to keep hope alive. We all need to become change agents and not just “leave it up to George”. This commentary will focus on those who believe that “hope springs eternal…”, and are willing and able to follow Pogo’s challenge to be part of the solution. In my next blog I will focus on sources of hopelessness.


“Every area of trouble gives out a ray of hope; and the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I don’t intend to use “hope” in the biblical or theological sense, as in , and , but in a more everyday way, as in “ is the belief in what is possible and the expectation of things to come.”  Or as St. Augustine of Hippo described it, “ has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”  Or if we think of hope as a movement, the Chinese author and Guru Lin Yutang described it as, is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.

I realize that these “bumper sticker” type quotations might seem Pollyannaish, especially when we apply them to the Vatican. So, I’d first like to suggest a prototype of person who as a cardinal, had all the characteristic and values for providing a hopeful vision for leading the  forward, while at the same time would not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

In my last commentary in , [LINK]I included several references to Cardinal Carlo Martini’s death in which the articles mentioned examples of his progressive observations and  convictions that the cardinal had about what the needed to do to  become relevant in the 21st century.  The September 8, issue of The Tablet: The International Weekly had several post mortem articles under the overall title Cardinal Carlo Martini Remembered. The lead article on page 2, Prophet for Our Times [LINK]  acknowledges some of the many contributions Cardinal Martini made to the , and suggests how different the might be now if he had succeeded Pope John Paul II.

The article also serves as an introduction to his last interview two weeks before he died, entitled, The Pope and Bishops Should Find 12 Unconventional People to Take on Leadership Roles (notice the title specifies people not clerics).That interview describes “…a papacy that never was, but might have been.”  The interview is on pages 8 and 9 on the link immediately above. Additionally, in an article entitled Never Afraid on pages 6 and 7 under the same link, Cardinal Martini is remembered as “…the torch-bearer of liberal ism”. I particularly appreciated the author’s describing Martini’s primary role as bishop being “a pastor of souls” rather than being limited “to that of ecclesiastical authority”We are getting closer to a conclave to elect a new pope. fully the next pope to sit in the chair of Peter will be someone like Cardinal Martini. If that were to happen, I think the hopes we had for Vatican II, and even beyond, could become a reality not just a dream.

Another source of hope for me was the celebration of the 50ieth Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s opening session. I’ve been encouraged by the many positive reactions to the celebration of that historical event.  There have been a number of article that I’ve read in the past several months that I found hopeful,without ignoringwhat remains to be done, nor hesitating to point out how much of what we hoped for and thought would be accomplished had been sabotaged by the Vatican Curia, Pope John Paul II, and his handpicked successor. For me the articles brought back some of the same excitement and hope that I had as a newly ordained when I first heard about Pope John XXIII’s plans for the Council. In the words of the renowned philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà-vu all over again”.

One concept that was reinforced by several of the anniversary articles was collegiality, the fact that we are stakeholders in the .You know that, and I know that, but the people in charge still don’t seem to “get it”.  We’re all familiar with the sensus fidelium (the mind of the people). The term stakeholder is perhaps more in touch with current corporate lingo.  It wasn’t around when sensus fidelium was first used by the early fathers of the , but it’sexactly what collegiality is in current corporate lingo. As members of the People of God, we are stakeholders, and this is one of the issues that remain to be resolved in accord with the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, , promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November21, 1964.

Chapter 3 of is where collegiality is spelled out. [LINK] In an article by John Wilkins in Commonweal, p.16 in its October 2012 edition, the author describes the “fierce and protracted” debate between the minority of the conservative bishops, and their progressive opponents had over collegiality. Basically, the conservatives were concerned that if they budged an inch on collegiality, the ’s teaching on infallibility, defined by Vatican I in 1870 would be in jeopardy. The argument was between those who saw collegiality as community and those who saw it as a pyramid, with the “…pope at the apex.” In Roman Law a college (like in the College of Cardinals)  is an association of equals, a concept that the traditionalists could not reconcile with a monarchial papacy.” [1] Although the progressives won in the end, in reality the “community” structure, as envisioned by was never operationalized, thanks to the long reigns of John Paul II and the present pope’s obsession with tradition.(See Jeff Mirus’ article Benedict’s Hermeneutic of Continuity).[LINK]I believe that the concept of collegiality is a priority for change and needs to be implemented according to the original promulgation of Vatican II.

As stakeholders there are a number of change organizations that are available for us to join if we want to participate in taking our back and beyond Vatican II. I suspect that most of you are familiar with the major lay organization in your own countries and around the world, so I’ll put their websites along with additional articles, at the end of this posting, so you can refresh your memories if you think it’s necessary. What all the lay organizations need is more of us stakeholders to join them in their missions.


Besides the older lay organizations’ contributions, I see a source of hope in a lay group that was established in 2005, the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Governance (NLRCG). If you check their website [LINK] you’ll see a completely different type of organization with strong ties to the US Conference of Bishops (USCCB), with a membership that includes key lay leaders from organizations across the country. The “Target membership is approximately 225 individuals who are top leaders and key experts from the worlds of business, civic life, professional associations, foundations, universities, healthcare systems, vibrant parishes, and other organizations.” The board of directors is made up of seven lay women, seven laymen, and three clergymen. The Executive Director is a lay woman. I was very impressed with the credentials the members have and what they’ve accomplished in a short time. If you check their website, their annual reports for the last few years, along with their mission, strategic plans etc. are available.

One of their guiding principles of NLRCG is to provide:

“…an avenue for greater incorporation of the expertise of all the faithful, especially in the areas of management, finance, and human resource development. By virtue of baptism, lay people have not only the right but also the duty to offer their gifts and talents in service of the . See: Christifideles Laici – Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on The Vocation and The Mission of the Lay ful in the Church and in the World, 1988, 29 and Code of Canon Law, Canon 222.1, 1983.

NLRCG’s goal is to build “… a Church that is stronger in areas of management, finance and human resources and more fully utilizes the talents and skills of the laity.” Their recommendations are presented to the USCCB and, as stated in an article in America, they become a, Blue Print for Change [LINK], “…a roadmap for strengthening the organizational, financial, and managerial structures of the at three levels: national, diocesan, and parish.”

Given the fact that, “…the Church in the United States, with its more than one million employees and operating budget of nearly $100 billion, is comparable in size and scope to some of the nation’s largest corporations…” having management experts guide the bishops seems like an excellent idea. Especially, since most bishops do not have any professional credentials or experience in managing what is essentially a position for a CEO of a large “corporation”.  At the very least it should promote a new transparency in the , and strengthens the role of the laity in at least the governance of the , and give them a foot in the door for being included in decisions on the ’s teachings.  I believe that the clergy sexual abuse of children, would never have reached the proportions it did if the “managers”, i.e. bishops, were not able to cover up for the perpetrators. In the words of James Muller, “With lay people involved in the decision making, certainly no who had abused a child would have been transferred to another parish…parents would never have permitted it.”

To me, the fact that there is such an organization as NLRCGis encouraging. I often wondered how we could expect men with degrees in theology, canon law orscripture to have the knowledge that’s required to be a “CEO” in a “corporation” as large as a diocese.


Here’s a major issue that NLRCG has already recommended to the bishops, “… improvements in the process by which bishops are selected. While recognizing the primacy of the Holy See, it suggested the process for choosing bishops be supplemented with help of human resource professionals…” The election of bishops is one of the goals that most of the lay groups have been advocating for years. Here’s an interesting paradox: despite the fact that the hierarchy usually invokes tradition and teachings of the fathers of the as their rationale for their doctrinal positions, yet when it comes to the selection of bishops, the fact that bishops were chosen in the early centuries of the by the laity, doesn’t register with them.

In his book, Electing Our Bishops: How the Church Should Choose It’s Leaders, Joseph F. O’Callaghan, points out that “The terrible moral failure of the American Bishops in handling the crisis of ly sexual abuse has focused intense attention on the office of the bishop.” [2] He believes that bishops are often perceived as branch managers or subordinates to the pope in their own dioceses, with administrative responsibilities over subdivisions of multinational corporations with their headquarters in Rome. This goes back to our conversation on collegiality.

I also recommend Robert Mc Clory’s book, As it Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Church. As the title suggests, the author goes back to the beginning of the early , which obviously not like the present , and shows what needs to reclaimed and rejuvenated. He makes a good case for laypeople: having a sanctioned place at the table, along with the clergy; provides many historical examples of laity playing significant roles in assisting the institutional in adapting to the 20ieth and 21st centuries. His answer to the question “is anyone listening?“, often asked about the hierarchies’ negative responses to the “…energy expended by all these reform groups…”,  is very positive. He lists a number of achievements that he sees as hopeful signs, and in his final chapter “The Vision Presses on to Fulfillment”, he provides a number of scenarios for the Coming Democratization of the Church.


As an octogenarian and card carrying member of several catholic organizations whose foci are on reform in the , I obviously don’t have the same energy that I had fifty years ago, and my involvements with these groups ain’t what it used to be: no more driving at night to meetings, no more taking leadership positions, no more demonstrations, no more lectures, but thanks to the modern technology I can still actively participate on-line. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a half a dozen petitions to sign, or “change causes” to support. Thankfully, I am still able to take advantage of connecting with the virtual world out there in cyberspace with my computer. To paraphrase Descartes, “Scripto ergo sum” (I write therefore I am).  What I’m suggesting is we don’t have to sit on the sidelines if we still have a glimmer of hope.

In my next blog, I will consider the other side of hope, the hopelessness that the hierarchy “will never get it” despite all our efforts to reform the .


1) Wilkins, J. (2012) “Bishops or Branch Managers?” Commonweal, October 12, p.18.

2) O’Callaghan, J.F., (2007). Electing our Bishops: How the Church Should Choose Its Leaders. New York: Sheedp. 3.


The Second Vatican Council has Already Made Us FreeArticle by Robert Blair Kaiser, National Reporter,  August 7, 2012.

Opening the Church to the World Op-ed, New York Times, by John W. O’Malley, S.,J., October 10, 2012,

The Promise of Vatican II to the People of God National Reporter, Editorial, October 11, 2012

The Bigest Meeting in History Feature Article on Vatican II, The Tablet, October 6, 2012, by Hilmar Pabel.

Map for the Journey of Faith From the Editor’s Desk, The Tablet, October 6, 2012.

Catholicism at the Cross RoadsReview of Paul Lakeland’s book, by Frank Dechant, Future Church.


Obedience To Authority And Loyal Dissent

My last blog, My Calling to the Clerical Culture, described and analyzed my experiences as a , when I was being indoctrinated into the and as a when I became part of that culture. The anecdotes I related were not intended to represent all clerics, but to provide readers with one man’s perspective, with the hope that they would be able to see how it was possible for a sincere, but naïve and psychosexually immature individual to actually become part of the .

In this blog, I intend to concentrate on the abuse of the virtue of obedience, which I believe is the crucial characteristic, the underlying problem, of the that gives the hierarchy power over the “lowerarchy”. As Lord Acton (1834–1902), the historian and moralist reminded Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This same reference also suggests that monarchial governments are more prone to corruption. But more about that later! 

The Perils of Obedience to Authorities

One of the first scholars I thought of when I decided to write this commentary on obedience was Stanley Milgram, PhD, a social psychologist whose website is linked here. Although his untimely death in 1984 ended a life of scientific inventiveness, his research and writing continues to influence contemporary culture and thought. When I was taking classes in research and statistics at Columbia University we studied his ground breaking work on obedience to authority as a model of an empirical study. At that time my focus was not on obedience to authority, but on Milgram’s methodology as a researcher. After recently re-reading his experiments, it became abundantly clear how his findings could apply to the chain of command in the Catholic Church, and it confirms the need for change in its archaic application of obedience to authority.

I’m just going to give a brief synopsis of his research on obedience, but if your interested, here is a paper he wrote that explains his methodology and findings: Perils of Obedience

As described on his website, between 1961 and 1962 he set up an experiment at Yale University to determine how conditioned humans were to obey persons in authority. He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give what they thought were harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts—to protesting “victims”, simply because a scientific authority instructed  them to, and in spite of the fact that the “victim” did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The ‘victim” was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks. This fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was as powerfully real and gripping one for most participants. His experiment illustrated the power that authority has over most humans. In Milgram’s Perils of Obedience above, he concluded that the road to disobedience “… is a difficult path, which only a minority of subjects is able to pursue to its conclusion…” For those of us who are Catholic Christians, the bottom line is, since many of us are so strongly conditioned from early childhood to obey the injunctions that the Church authorizes as the unchangeable word of God, it’s important for us to question these orders and challenge unreasonable mandates of obedience to authorities.

Is Obedience a Virtue or Vice?

I believe the answer to the question above is—it depends. However,if you follow the official position of the Catholic Church verbatim, the correct answer would be that obedience is—always a virtue! This is clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)Check Chapter Three, Man’s Response to God , and scroll down to Article 1, I Believe, # 144 I. The Obedience of and you will find this statement: 

To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to “hear or listen to”) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.

If we agree with the CCC, we always must obey the pope and bishops, “because the Bible tells us so”, as does the Church’s magisterial authority on faith and morals, that dates back to the apostles and the writings of the early Church Fathers. According to these sources, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church speaks for God, and to defy or disobey Church authorities, is to defy and disobey God herself.

Marie Louise Uhr in an article published in 1998 entitled  Obedience, a Questionable Virtue , arrived at a different conclusion than the CCC.  I agree with her position that although in some cases obedience may be evil, (e.g. soldiers obeying orders to kill innocent civilians) at the very least, obedience is—a questionable virtue. She provides the historical background of how the Christology of obedience became so central in the church’s hierarchical structure. She puts the questionable virtue of obedience in the context of the Old and New Testament, as well as its theological and psychological background..

The whole article is available on the link above, and is well worth reading. Here are some highlights of her thinking, which ly will encourage you to read her article. In the introduction she first makes a strong case for the devastating results that the present Christology of obedience has produced.

I wish to suggest that Christian theology which preaches an obedient Christ and upholds obedience to authority as a major virtue has led to authoritarianism, hierarchical church structures, which have encouraged church members to uphold obedience, rather than conscientious discernment, as the primary response to orders from both church and civil authorities. And this has had disastrous consequences for large segments of society. Hence I want to consider the theology, and in particular the Christology of obedience; some of the social and theological problems that I think come from this Christology; scriptural foundations for dissent and disobedience , and the possibility of a more Spirited, democratic church…

Consequences of Considering Obedience as a Virtue

To mention just one of Ms. Uhr’s “disastrous consequences” of considering obedience as virtue, she describes the fact that for hundreds of years women have lived under “divine authority” to obey their husbands in all things. It was even part of the wedding service thanks to Saint Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, and Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Casti Connubii, until rather recently when it became politically incorrect, thanks mainly to the women in the feminist movement. 

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Ephesians 5:21

Had Ms. Uhr lived into the beginning of the 21st century, I’m sure she would have addressed what many think is the most scandalous consequence of obedience in the history of the Church—the   sexual abuse of children by the pedophile predator s and the bishops who covered-up for them, instead of protecting the victims. Without trying to go through hundreds of cases over the last twenty years, I believe the recent trial of Monsignor William Lynn, of the Archdiocese of the Philadelphia, his conviction of a felony, and his sentence of three to six years in prison, for the key role he had in covering-up for the clergy who abused children, should send a message to the hierarchy that they need to get their act together. They are no longer able to hide behind their prestigious positions in the church, their expensive lawyers, and public relations people.

A recent article in the Irish Times, entitled The Church in the Dock, highlighted the Lynn trial and sentencing, pointing out the impact Lynn’s conviction will have internationally.  The author specifically mentions cases in Ireland and London as well as Lynn case. He ends the article by saying in a typical Irish poetic and polite writing style, “All three cases raise uncomfortable issues for the church in addressing how, quite properly, its /employees, will be held to account legally. These and other cases all involve uphill battles in which the church used all legal means at its disposal…to fend off accountability. That is its right, but, particularly to victims, appears a strange form of contrition.” He’s got that right! It’s tantamount to the church giving itself absolution by saying an act of contrition, and for its penance saying three Hail Maries and three Our Fathers.  The time for the church to be apologetic is over; it’s time for them to be accountable!

Back to Philadelphia! Rather than my going over the details of the months-long landmark clergy-abuse trial of Monsignor, Lynn, and his sentencing, if you’re interested in a thorough and professional coverage of the trial, I’d suggest reading the archives from the website of Catholics4Change, based in Philadelphia. The website’s primary concerns are:

  • The Priest Pedophile Scandal
  • Church Accountability to Laity
  • Empty Pews
  • Lack of Moral Leadership

All of these concerns are in one way or another, connected with the abuse of obedience by authority.

Our Right to

Ms. Uhr’s articlealso deals with dissent. She reminds us that “Jesus is the great dissenting prophet”, and that there is a need for “dissent or disobedience from the ‘obedient laity’ to become a Spirit-filled People of God, if we are going to have a healthy church.”

Dissent has a long history in the Catholic Church. Robert Mc Clory’s book ful Dissenters provides stories of men and women, who loved and changed the church by taking contrary opinions on one or more of the Church’s teachings, and are models of loyal dissent. Most of the subjects of the eighteen stories in his book are well known names including: Galileo, St. John Henry Newman, soon to be declared a saint, the mystic Hildegard of Bingen, St. Catherine of Siena, theologians Yves Congar and John Courtney Murray, S.J. to mention a few. Mc Clory identifies how all of their stories have several things in common: each story was inspirational and can encourage us to stay the course, and most of all to be fearless in the face of extreme controversy. All the dissenters suffered emotional abuse for their dissent, for example John Courtney Murray was publically disgraced when he was silenced by Pius XII because of his writings; they all remained in the church through thick and thin; they did not reject the concept of church authority, but just how authority was applied to particular teachings; the issues they questioned eventually were resolved, and more often than not, had ramifications that benefited the whole church and; the resolutions of their issues established principles that could be applied to other doctrinal disputes. These dissenters have been called by their admirers “the original cafeteria Catholics”, who dared to contradict and criticize the Church.

I believe “now is the time for all good people of God” to ratchet up its level of dissent, and to follow these great role models. As the Irish Times article suggested above, I believe that Monsignor Lynn’s conviction and sentencing as a felon, should sound an alarm to the , from the hierarchy on down, to the point where they will be more open to make positive changes in their style of governance. And perhaps, just perhaps Lynn’s jail sentence will put the fear of the Lord or the fear of the civil justice system in them, if for no other reason to avoid Jesus’ uncharacteristic harsh admonitionBut whoever shall offend one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6. And perhaps, just perhaps, the USCCBs will have the integrity, the fortitude to follow the example of Penn State. The dyke built to protect abusers at Penn State finally broke and though overdo, the president, the vice president, the athletic director, and the icon of college football Coach Joe Paterno were fired. (See my blog Say it Ain’t So Joe—Penn State and the Catholic Church, 12/3/11). Not only was Paterno fired, but they removed the halo that encircling his head in a group painting, that canonized him as Saint Joe. They also impounded the famous eight foot bronze statue of him that stood outside of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. There must be a message somewhere in there for the bishops. For a more in depth opinion of this issue, read Spong’s essay, The Penn State Tragedy Highlights the Catholic Church’s Failure.

On further reflection, I don’t think that the United States Conference of Catholic s (USCCB) as it is currently structured will make significant changes without “the power of the people of God” mounting a persuasive crusade to claim their rights and needs. Here is an interesting article that appeared recently on the website,  Questions from EWE, entitled On Sheep and Shepherds.,that adds more light on our shepherds and our right to dissent. The authors of the website preface the article with a statement that appears on everyone of its blogs: “Test everything: retain what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). They then remind us of our canonical right to dissent: “Please remember that Canon Law says it is not only a right but a duty to question the church. Also, Canon Law provides an over-riding power to the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful). By this, Canon Law says that if the collective of the faithful rejects a law, it is not valid.” (How about contraception! The last I heard, close to 90% of the faithful did not agree with Paul VI’s so called contraception encyclical, Humanae Vitae.)  

The article uses its interpretation of scripture to point out that the faithful want Shepherds not clerical politicians to lead the church, and they use Jeremiah’s prophecy as a warning to shepherds (aka bishops), ‘’Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture declares the Lord!” (23:1) Apparently Jeremiah foresaw what was to happen under the reigns of Benedict XVI and John Paul II as they systematically rescinded parts of the most progressive documents of II. For example, Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, Apostolicam Actuositatem, The Apostolate of the Laity, and , The Constitution on the Church.


The good news is there are already dozens of active groups within the church that are already actively exercising their right to dissent and their obligation to be responsible as baptized Christian Catholics. From the American Catholic Council to the Voice of the Faithful virtually from A to V, and in between, there are thousands of fellow travelers already involved in carrying out their mission of dissent. Every day I’m collecting more Links and Resources  for my website, so you might want to check there.

For my next commentary, I plan to address the issue of democratizing the church, starting with how we choose our bishops, and how we can help change its monarchial structure.  In the meantime, I am writing a letter to the bishop of Phoenix and several bishops I know personally. I’m basing it on the great letter that Anthony T. Massimini wrote on his website  The 21st Century American Catholic under the section, CURRENT DISCUSSIONS, dated July 24, 2012.

He starts his letter to the Archbishop of Philadelphia by stating that Msgr. Lynn is not the only one that is sentenced for being an obedient servant but “…the Church’s authority structure has also been convicted, and must be “sentenced”. He goes on in a very straight forward style to remind the bishop of his responsibilities to the “true People of God”; and challenges him to do more than apologize and has a number of good suggestions how the archbishop can do that.  I hope you will consider joining in this letter writing campaign.

Finally, I end this commentary with a phrase that was used to close letters in the 19th century, the time of Pius IX, the father of infallibility. It seems appropriate for the topic of obedience to authority.

Sincerely, your humble and obedient servant,

Don Fausel