My last blog, My Calling to the Clerical Culture, described and analyzed my experiences as a seminarian, when I was being indoctrinated into the clerical culture and as a priest 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 clerical culture.
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 clerical culture that gives the hierarchy power over the “lowerarchy”. As Lord Acton (1834–1902), the historian and moralist reminded Bishop 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.
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 Faith 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 hopefully 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 Pope 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 priests 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 priest/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 Loyal Dissent
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 Faithful 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 Pope 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 clerical culture, 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 admonition “But 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 Bishop 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 Bishops (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 Pope 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 Vatican II. For example, Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, Apostolicam Actuositatem, The Apostolate of the Laity, and Lumen Gentium, The Constitution on the Church.
MISSION OF DISSENT
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,