Priestly Obedience in a Post-McCarrick Church, Part II

Go to Part I

Now that we have traced the nature and the theological implications of obedience and ecclesial authority, let us now look at authority and obedience as complementary responsibilities. Church documents emphasize that obedience is a complex reality. Both superiors and subordinates have duties and responsibilities. Considering how fervently Jesus prayed for unity among his followers, the tasks of authority and obedience should not be seen as antagonistic, but rather, as complementary realities. They find their unity in the one, obedient, loving self-offering of Jesus to the Father.1 Those in authority share in Christ’s mission of serving the people to bring about the designs of the Father’s love in their lives. Those obeying share in Christ’s obedient cooperation in the Father’s plan of salvation, cooperating in the unfolding of his plan to bring salvation to the world.2

Both sides share the mutual responsibility of listening as Christ listened. In Christ “everything is listening to and acceptance of the Father.”3 Jesus said, “I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me.” (John 8:28–29) Both those in authority and those obeying should make it their goal to be actively listening and discerning God’s voice and God’s will. This constant seeking greater knowledge of God’s will should lead to trustful dialogue between them.4

Duties of Bishops

The Code of Canon Law provides a lengthy list of a diocesan bishop’s duties towards his subordinates, including his priests:5

With special solicitude, a diocesan bishop is to attend to presbyters and listen to them as assistants and counselors. He is to protect their rights and take care that they correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state and that the means and institutions which they need to foster spiritual and intellectual life are available to them.

He also is to take care that provision is made for their decent support and social assistance, according to the norm of law.6

He must also foster vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life, and the missions. The law also requires the Ordinary to preach, teach, and catechize frequently, while also being at all times a model of holiness. He must offer a Mass intention for his people on Sundays and Holy Days; govern the local church by exercising legislative, executive, and judicial power according to the norm of law; promote discipline in the local church, making sure laws and rubrics are properly followed. He is to promote the apostolate in various forms. He is obliged to have personal residence in his diocese and make regular visits to parishes and other Catholic institutions. He is to provide an extensive report to the Holy See every five years and visit Rome for an ad limina visit. Serving at the will of the Holy Father, a bishop does not choose where or how long he serves. He is “earnestly requested” to submit his resignation if ill health or another grave cause renders him less than able to fulfill his duties. Regardless, he must submit his resignation at age 75, but continue working until his resignation is accepted by the Holy See.7 And if the above responsibilities were not already enough:

In exercising the function of a pastor, a diocesan bishop is to show himself concerned for all the Christian faithful entrusted to his care, of whatever age, condition, or nationality they are, whether living in the territory or staying there temporarily; he is also to extend an apostolic spirit to those who are not able to make sufficient use of ordinary pastoral care because of the condition of their life and to those who no longer practice their religion.8

Christus Dominus provides an even more extensive list of a bishop’s duties.9

Considering a bishop’s many responsibilities, it should be clear that no bishop will be perfect in fulfilling them. Just as there is no perfect parent, perfect spouse, or perfect family, there will never be a perfect bishop or perfect diocese. Bishops are all human. They are also all sinners. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Each will prioritize some duties over others. He will be more naturally gifted and effective in fulfilling some duties than others. Therefore, those preparing for ordination should recognize that when they promise respect and obedience to their bishop and his successors, they are promising respect and obedience to a man who will at some point frustrate them, disappoint them, and let them down.

If a bishop is negligent in fulfilling one of his duties, there will be some degree of disfunction in his relationship with his priests and the diocese. The same is true with other persons serving in positions of authority: vicar generals, vocation directors, rectors of seminaries, etc. Yet the inevitable disfunction in the Church should not lead to despair. The Incarnation is the story of God entering the messy disfunction of human relationships and doing good in the midst of brokenness, suffering, and tension. Obviously, the more everyone cooperates with God, the better things go. So, we should not slip into complacency, but should continue to work for renewal and reform in the Church. At the same time, we must be realistic. The Church will only be raised up out of her problems on the Last Day. Until then, the Church we serve and the bishops who lead her will disappoint us and fail to live up to their duties in some ways.

Duties of diocesan priests

The section in the Code of Canon Law delineating “The Obligations and Rights of Clerics” begins by emphasizing their obligation to fulfill their promise to show reverence and obedience to their Ordinary.10 Canons 273 and 274 discuss the reverence and obedience owed by a cleric:

Can. 273 Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and their own ordinary.

Can. 274 §1. Only clerics can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required.

  • 2. Unless a legitimate impediment excuses them, clerics are bound to undertake and fulfill faithfully a function which their ordinary has entrusted to them.

To summarize, a cleric should do what his Ordinary justly asks of him unless it is immoral or the cleric is prevented from doing so by a legitimate impediment.11 It is worth underlining the law’s insistence that a bishop should stay within his jurisdiction when making requests of his subordinates. The bishop should not micro-manage his diocesan priests in inconsequential matters. His authority is different than that of a religious superior over subordinates who have made a vow of obedience. While religious superiors can and should regulate many details of the daily lives of their subordinates in keeping with the institute’s rule of life and requirements of the common life, a diocesan bishop is primarily responsible for ensuring that the pastoral needs of the people in the diocese are provided for and that clergy follow the requirements of Canons 273–284.

Further explicating the basic principles put forth by the Code of Canon Law, the Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests states: “The priest will promote a genuine relationship with his bishop characterized by sincere trustfulness and cordial friendship.”12 Note that it indicates the priest should take initiative in building a trusting relationship with his bishop. Also worth noting is the insistence on a “trusting” relationship, avoiding hostility and automatic suspicion towards those in authority while also recognizing that a cordial, not “chummy,” relationship is the goal. Trying to become the bishop’s closest friend is never a good idea, just as being standoffish toward the bishop is usually not indicative of healthy ecclesial rapport.

Church documents on the relationship between clerics and their bishop make clear that subordinates should speak respectfully and honestly with their Ordinary. In fact, this candid conversation makes it possible for the bishop to fulfill his duty of listening attentively to his presbyterate. Speaking “respectfully” typically means speaking privately with the bishop, talking to his delegated representative for certain matters, or communicating through established channels of consultation. Public confrontation is rarely an effective first route of communication with anyone, especially a bishop. In an era when “finding your voice” through unreflective words spoken in anger on social media is the norm, it is imperative to remember that face-to-face conversation is typically the most effective means of personal communication. If, however, criminal activity is involved (i.e. sexual abuse of minors, cover-up of grave sins or a crime, etc.), subordinates should go directly to the police and the proper ecclesiastical authority to report any crimes committed by bishops or superiors.13

The Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests places the obligation of wearing proper ecclesiastical attire in its reflections on obedience. For a priest, clerical attire is “an unequivocal sign of his dedication and identity,” an external sign that “the priest no longer belongs to himself,” but is the “property” of God and belongs to Christ and the Church.14 In this way, clerical attire assists in the prophetic ministry of a priest, attesting to his total dedication to serving the Church and doing the Father’s will. Wearing clerical attire is an external sign that the priest belongs to God the Father, having been drawn into the relationship of Christ with his Father.

Priests and seminarians should pray for their bishop and his intentions.15 Leadership is not easy. Oftentimes, it is very lonely. Much time is spent on dealing with complaints, administrative headaches, and other exhausting tasks. Most of the many problems that reach the bishop’s desk are not small. The weight of his responsibility is heavy, as he will answer one day before the Divine Judge for his care of all the souls in his diocese. He is a mere man, a sinner, like the rest of us. Thus, he needs the fervent prayers of his priests to assist him not only in his ministry, but also for the sake of his own salvation.

What priestly obedience is not:

Blind “Obedience”

The duty to speak honestly with one’s Ordinary exposes the myth of “blind obedience” put forth in some clerical circles as an exemplary form of obedience. Played to an extreme, such priests never give the bishop honest feedback about his policies, decisions, or pastoral approach, even when he asks. Further, they never share any insights into what type of future assignment is best for them, how they might serve unique needs of the flock that other priests might not be able to provide, or their own unique personal challenges (health, spiritual, etc.) that should be considered in priest personnel decisions.

While perhaps well-intentioned, “blind obedience” in diocesan priesthood is undergirded by a catastrophic theological error: namely, the error of thinking that bishops are all-knowing and that the Holy Spirit guides them through direct, spiritual insight alone. In reality, bishops are fallible, not omniscient. The Holy Spirit uses human voices to inspire wise episcopal decisions and to broaden a bishop’s perspective on complex situations. By providing feedback when asked by the bishop, diocesan offices, and the Priest Personnel Board, priests assist the bishop in his ministry of listening and discerning God’s plan.

Priests and seminarians tempted to avoid dialogue with ecclesial authorities can gain courage by reflecting on the actions of saints like Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Alphonsus Liguori. These saints were diligent in their obedience by speaking openly, honestly, and directly with popes, bishops, and superiors about what they understood God was asking of them. At the same time, these saints also always diligently showed respect toward these persons and accepted the final decisions made even when they conflicted with their own personal preferences.

“Obedience” of Careerists and Control Freaks

Of course, there is another temptation that is to the opposite extreme of “blind obedience.” The “careerist” or “control freak” is significantly preoccupied with his future, particularly future assignments. Constantly jockeying for his next position, he “needs” to be placed where he will be successful and comfortable. He expends a great amount of mental energy thinking about his future assignments or crafting a way to remain at his current assignment if that is what he thinks best. Veiled under his guise of “care” for the people of his preferred parish is his need to feel in control of his future. This is tragic because obedience means being open to surprises. Obedience even includes openness to “failure” in a difficult assignment filled with frustration, disappointment, and criticism. Obedience will inevitably lead priests to situations where they pour themselves out with great dedication, only to result in the “failure,” mocking, and insults of Good Friday. Just as on Calvary, only later will the glory of the graces won in that assignment be revealed.

Priests and seminarians tempted to be excessively preoccupied with future assignments or their own comfort can find inspiration from saints like the North American Martyrs, Saint Peter Claver, or Saint Francis Xavier. Their faithful ministry was not repaid with applause, affirmation, or material compensation, but with ridicule, persecution, and indifference. In the final days of their lives, their sacrifices went without appreciation, receiving hostility and contempt from those they had patiently and generously served.

Armchair Quarterback and Backseat Driver “Obedience”

Another erroneous approach is the obedience of an “armchair quarterback” or “backseat driver.” While not necessarily rulebreakers as such, these seminarians and priests vigorously debate decisions made by bishops, the pope, and the Curia. They spend much time discussing and analyzing the implications of recent announcements, policies, and appointments. They are not hesitant to criticize moves they deem to be taking the Church in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, they are mostly wasting their time, expending tons of energy on internal Church matters over which they have very little or no influence. In taking the role of analyst or commentator, they (usually unknowingly) neglect their mission as soldiers engaged in battle for souls. Time squandered on debating and pontificating, could have been used to serve, support, evangelize, and pray for the people entrusted to their care.

Humble and wise priests and seminarians recognize that leaders are usually making decisions based on more information than is available to subordinates. Bishops, the pope, and the Curia also have a wider perspective as they seek the good of the Church universal, not just of a small area where a particular priest or seminarian might be most familiar. In terms of priest personnel decisions, there are many confidential factors considered when assigning priests. There is always more going on than meets the eye. Better than a fault-finding attitude towards decisions made by Church leaders is an approach aimed at understanding the logic behind these decisions and cooperating to bring these goals to fruition.

One must not forget that those making decision in the Church are often aware of the weaknesses of their own decisions. They are usually trying to make the most of limited resources, praying and begging divine providence to make up for the weakness of their own judgement and the lack of resources available to them.

The commentary of G.K. Chesterton on the difference between Saint Thomas More and Henry VIII is an insightful historical example of the difference between humble obedience and “armchair quarterback” or “backseat driver” obedience. Chesterton described Henry Tudor as “rigid in every detail of Catholicism; perhaps too rigid to be a Catholic; to the very end he thought himself rather more Catholic than the pope.”16 Henry VIII had a deep “hatred of heresies” and spoke very passionately about ecclesial topics. Chesterton characterized Thomas More as a different type of Catholic. He was more of a “go with the flow” Catholic, not in the sense of relativism in morals, but in the sense of not deeply engaging himself in ecclesiastical affairs or Church politics beyond what was necessary. If More were alive today, we can safely assume that he would not be heavily invested in “Catholic Twitter” debates, watching or producing online videos analyzing ecclesiastical affairs, or taking strong positions for or against certain bishops, Vatican initiatives, or diocesan strategies.

Chesterton summarized the problem of Henry this way: “What was the matter with him was that he was the sort of rigid Churchman who always does, consciously or unconsciously, want to be head of the Church.” For Chesterton, the heroism and holiness of More was the result of his humility:

The issue between Henry Tudor and the friend whom he rather reluctantly murdered is really this: Henry was a strict Catholic, wishing to keep everything straight, but insisting that the man to keep them straight must be himself; while More was really a more liberal Catholic, admitting that things sometimes needed to be sharply put straight; admitting (above all) that he himself might need to be put straight; but insisting that the man who put things straight should not be himself, but another. Henry always wanted to be judge in his own cause; against his wives; against his friends; against the Head of the Church. But the link which really connects More with that Roman supremacy for which he died is this fact: that he would always have been large-minded enough to want a judge who was not merely himself.17

Anytime we are convinced that ours is the only correct approach to complicated decisions that belong to the responsibility of others, we should consider whether we have given humility total reign in our soul. Some of the greatest damage to the Church has been done by passionate, well-intentioned Catholics who lacked humility. Their attempts to perfect the Church, in the end, led people farther away from her.

Rigorist and Legalist “Obedience”

A related flawed approach to obedience is that of the legalist or rigorist. This type of seminarian or priest fails to account for the ambiguity that is intended within rules and policies. They forget that there is an intended hierarchy among rules. They overemphasize certain minor norms to an exaggerated level, distracting persons from the core tenants of Christian living.

One form of legalism is to expect the “diocese” or other Church authorities to make all the decisions. Chancery secretaries can tell stories of certain priests calling to complain that the bishop has not put out a policy or statement on a particular matter. Usually, hidden within such complaints is the priest’s desire to avoid criticism. Rather than exercising courageous leadership and making a prudent local decision, he would rather say “the bishop made the rule” or “the diocese required it.” He wants to avoid taking ownership of his own decision as pastor and evade answering to his people for decisions. While strong in his words to diocesan officials, he is actually spineless in his parish. He is hoping the bishop will do work that he should do himself.

Priests and seminarians tempted to avoid difficult decisions and “hide” behind policies made by others, can find spiritual assistance through the intercession of Saint Philip Neri. While living in the time following the Council of Trent when rules and ecclesial discipline were given much emphasis, Saint Philip still exercised tremendous creativity in the way he encouraged active Catholics to greater faith, evangelized fallen-away Catholics, and invited all to a deeper relationship with God. He followed all the norms of Church law, while utilizing ingenious and original methods to lead people closer to Christ and his Church.

Individualistic “Obedience”

On the opposite extreme are priests who get mad anytime the diocese makes a policy or issues a mandatory requirement. They want to do their own thing and believe they know better than the bishop what is best in their parish and their unique situation. These priests might be right. But they need to recognize that sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices for the good of the larger Church, working as a team.

Similarly, priests can be tempted to “personalize” their parishes and liturgies so much that they end up bringing confusion to the faithful. If traveling between neighboring parishes leaves the faithful feeling like they are visiting different ecclesial planets, there is a need for greater cooperation and coordination between clergy. Attempts to build parish participation by “stealing” parishioners from other parishes is not a sign of vitality, but rather a lack of a true missionary spirit of evangelization. Priests should direct their pastoral work according to the orientation and direction provided by the bishop.18 A priest should seek to harmonize local pastoral goals with those of the bishop, seeking creative ways to help his parishioners embrace their membership in the diocesan family and the Church universal.19

Priests and seminarians who feel their ministry is cramped, inconvenienced, or limited by a decision of their bishop or Vatican norms can take comfort in the obedience of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. The public ministry of Padre Pio was greatly restricted for several years by ecclesial authorities. While he could have easily argued that he knew what was best for the salvation of souls and had deeper insight into spiritual realities than his superiors, he instead humbly submitted to the judgements of the Holy See.

The Sacred Liturgy is a particular area of parish life where the universality of the Catholic Church is displayed quite vividly. Roman Catholics should be able to attend Mass in the Roman Rite anywhere in the world and be able to understand what is going on, even if they don’t comprehend the language being spoken, because the universal rubrics of the Liturgy are being followed. The structure of the Mass is not determined by the preference of the priest, as the Liturgy is primarily a gift received from Christ through the Church.20 For this reason, the Code of Canon Law and Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests insist:

“The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop” (CIC 838). The priest, therefore, may not add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy of his own initiative.21

Oftentimes within presbyterates, middle-aged and senior priests are tempted to “remove or change” certain aspects of the liturgy according to their personal taste or what they think is most appealing to the faithful. Many of these priests were educated in the decades following Vatican II when liturgical experimentation was encouraged by “experts” enlightened by a “spirit of Vatican II” that imposed a more casual approach to liturgy. Young priests and seminarians are tempted in the opposite direction to “add” elements to the Ordinary Form of the Mass from the Extraordinary Form in attempts to restore a greater sense of the reverence that was lost after Vatican II. While well-intentioned, such efforts are counter-productive as they are based upon the same priority of personal preference over obedience that animated liturgical abuse following Vatican II.

Duties of a parochial vicar

The relationship presented by Christus Dominus between pastor and parochial vicar has the parochial vicar working respectfully under the authority of the pastor.

Assistant pastors, as cooperators with the pastor, make under the authority of the pastor an indispensable and active contribution to the pastoral ministry. Therefore, there should always be fraternal association, mutual charity and reverence between the pastor and his assistants. They should assist one another with counsel, help and example, providing a united will and common zeal in the service of the parish.22

The rapport between pastor and parochial vicar is both fraternal and structured, with the pastor setting the vision and the parochial vicar cooperating with this vision, as he and the pastor work together to serve the parishioners. Implied in Christus Dominus is not simply a top-down model in which the pastor is the “boss” and hands out orders to a subordinate without receiving any counsel from him or dialoguing with him. Both pastor and parochial vicar work together to lead the parish in a unified direction, not pulling parishioners in different directions.

Since pastors and parochial vicars commonly are from different generations and have had different ecclesial experiences, working together requires spiritual and human maturity. The parochial vicar must remember that obedience is more important than the “success” of parish programming if his ideas are not endorsed by the pastor. A healthy sense of humor can help with the inevitable day-to-day frustrations of serving with a priest of a different generation, especially when living the common life, a very beneficial practice for priests.23

Duties of seminarians

The duties of seminarians are laid out in the Program for Priestly Formation, as well as diocesan seminarian handbooks and seminary policies.24 Being an obedient seminarian means embracing the vision of priestly formation put forward in these documents and following the specific rules and policies required by them. However, it should be emphasized that obedience for a seminarian is more than simply “jumping through the hoops” and following rules. As discussed in the first section of this paper, obedience is more than external conformity to regulations. Obedience is an act of the will, an entrusting of oneself and one’s future to God. If a seminarian is simply “going through the motions” to placate or please those in authority enough to be approved for Orders, something essential to holy priesthood is missing.

Seminary is a place to practice the various components of an obedient lifestyle. This includes immersing oneself in the Tradition of the Church and building a healthy relationship with one’s bishop (the apostolic dimension), being proactive in building fraternity among seminarians (the community dimension), and entering all pastoral and service opportunities with enthusiasm (the pastoral dimension).

Because discernment of a priestly vocation involves both the decision of the candidate, the formation team, and a diocese, honesty between seminarian, formators, and the vocation director is essential for the process to work correctly.25 Seminarians should avoid the temptation of creating their own “underground” formation program in which they do not speak openly with formators, while seeking out alternative formation in liturgy, theology, and spirituality elsewhere, usually in cyberspace or from other seminarians. While polarization within the ecclesial climate might lead to some struggles for seminarians trying to live their faith as orthodoxly as possible, they should realize that not trusting their formators and instead creating their own program of formation will not lead to a healthy priesthood. Soon after ordination they will be disappointed, having prepared themselves to serve a version of the Church, an idealized dream, that does not exist.

If a seminarian is not able to be honest with the formation team or is dismissed from seminary because he spoke about his theological views that differed from those of the formation team, that seminary was not a place where he could be formed into a healthy and holy priest. Attempting to “fly under the radar” to avoid conflicts with formators at all costs will lead to disillusionment after ordination and a damaged ability to trust, which will make true obedience difficult, if not impossible, during one’s priestly ministry.

Dealing with a conflicted conscience

The question arises: What should a priest or seminarian do if conflicted in conscience about a request from a legitimate authority in the Church? While there has not been much written directly on this question in Magisterial documents for diocesan clergy, guidance given to consecrated religious provides a helpful outline that can be applied to diocesan clergy in similar situations.

The first counsel is not to assume that one’s own judgement is necessarily better than that of a superior. While presuming “I know best” is the typical modern approach, the Church teaches that a conscience must be properly formed. It must conform itself to objective moral norms. On its own, conscience is not the arbiter of the moral worth of actions.26 “Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect” as we make decisions.27 Obedience to the moral law is not subjection to something extraneous and arbitrary, rather it leads the human person to participate in God’s wisdom and leads to the fulfillment of the divine image in the human person. As previously discussed, being obedient means having an openness to God’s ways being different than our own and God’s wisdom being different than our hasty judgment of a situation.28

A second point is that there is no obligation to obey an order “manifestly contrary to the laws of God” or a command “involving serious and certain evil.”29 In fact, if blatant sin is being ordered by a superior, the subordinate should not only disregard the request, but also report the superior to the appropriate authority.30 This takes courage, but is necessary for the purification of the Church. While it can be tempting to “cover up” sinful requests of superiors out of a desire to save the Church from scandal, these deeds will fester, multiply, and grow until they are brought to the light and the work of Satan is exposed. This step also provides the superior an opportunity for repentance and conversion.

Is what my bishop decided really best?

At least a few times in any priest’s life, his bishop or superior will make a decision that the priest judges not to be the most expedient for the salvation of his soul or the souls of the faithful. While the bishop or superior is not necessarily asking him to sin, the subordinate judges that a promulgated policy will create obstacles on the path to holiness. This is certainly common in diocesan priesthood, when directives and decisions of bishops can have a deep impact on priests and their parishes. This scenario also occurs frequently in the relationship between pastor and parochial vicar, between seminary rector (or vocation director) and seminarian.

In such a situation, dialogue is crucial. Saint Benedict told monks facing this scenario to ask for a free, open, and trustful dialogue with the superior. This type of dialogue allows both sides the opportunity to expand their perspective on the situation. It also allows the subordinate to gain deeper understanding of the superior’s motives and plan. To be fruitful, the conversation must be approached with this spirit of mutual enrichment, not as a debate between two opposing parties who are each trying to “win” an argument. If, after the monk has explained his concern to the abbot, the superior does not change his request, Saint Benedict says the monk should obey “for the love of God and confiding in his help.”31 The same approach seems appropriate for a priest or seminarian.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s “Letter on Obedience” provides helpful insights on how to obey requests lacking in prudence or wisdom. A frustrated seminarian or priest should remember the ultimate reason for his obedience is not primarily the wisdom of the superior, but Christ operating through the superior.

For the superior is not obeyed because he is highly prudent, very good, or qualified by any other gift of God our Lord, but rather because he holds his place and authority — as eternal Truth has said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me.”32

Thus, focus on Christ and his perfection, while recalling that Christ is working through the fallible superior. Christ’s wisdom and love will not disappoint, even when a superior is flawed and sinful.33

For Ignatius, the mindset of focusing on Christ working in the superior should be developed into a habit through practice. One must “practice recognizing Christ our Lord in any superior, reverencing and obeying his Divine Majesty in him with all devotion.”34 Ignatius also suggests getting in the habit of seeking reasons to defend a superior’s decision. Often the opposite is the default reaction, looking for reasons to criticize, disapprove, and expose potential weaknesses in a superior’s decision.35

Those preparing to make a promise of obedience should recognize that there will be significant moments when a decision of their bishop will cause not only frustration, but deep sadness and anger. At a human level, a real grieving process is taking place. Giving up “my plans,” “my dreams,” “my preferences,” “my way of doing this,” is emotionally taxing. There can be a sense of rejection and neglect felt when a bishop has overlooked “my needs,” “my viewpoint,” or “my wellbeing.” A lifestyle of obedience can bring many tears. However, these can be moments of spiritual growth as we find ourselves in the loud cries and tears of Jesus in his own obedience on earth.

In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:7­–10)

We should not conclude that something is necessarily wrong with us or our superior if a particular request fills us with disappointment and emotional turmoil. Some of the most important acts of obedience will require much interior effort, fervent prayer, and reliance on divine grace. They will involve a process that carries us from our initial inner resistance and frustration, to faithfully carrying out the divine will, and eventually arriving at a place of trustful peace in obedience.

Murmuring vs. lamenting

Blessed Columba Marmion provides a distinction between two different ways of talking about a request of a superior that causes us sadness or anger.36 The wrong way to respond is by “murmuring,” responding with a cynical, hyper-critical attitude. Such a man grumbles and allows bitterness to take hold of him. He shares this bitterness through biting, contentious words. What is missing from his response is love. His speech comes from a place of resistance. His focus is trying to find something to criticize. Biblical examples of “murmuring” can be found in the scribes and Pharisees who grumble, murmur, and relentlessly criticize Jesus’ teaching.37

Marmion warns that this approach is dangerous, a “microbe” capable of infecting an entire community, spreading from member to member.38 It does not take much experience in a seminary or in a presbyterate to witness how quickly a little murmuring by a few can escalate into a thick fog of negativity lingering over everyone. Marmion diagnoses the root of murmuring in a lack of faith, regarding the superior only as a man and not seeing Christ working through him.

The proper approach suggested by Marmion is “complaining.” Because of negative connotations the word “complaining” has picked up since Marmion wrote, it might be described better as “lamenting,” “grieving,” or “healthy venting.” This is “the cry of a heart that is crushed, that feels suffering but, however, accepts it entirely, and lovingly.”39 This lament comes from a place of love, a heart that is vulnerable with God and others about inner experiences of pain, sadness, anger, and confusion. One can see such a disposition in Mary when she said to Jesus: “Son, why have you done this to us?” after three days of anxious searching for him when he was twelve years old (Luke 2:48).

Lamenting, says Marmion, “could become a prayer.” Jesus quoting Psalm 22 on Calvary, crying out in pain: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” should assure us that it is OK to speak honestly with God about our pain as we strive to be obedient. Clerics, particularly those who have promised celibacy, should consider Jesus their “go to” person with whom they share their deepest emotions, never hesitating to vent to him when having strong feelings about a situation.

Marmion’s approach also underscores the importance of talking to the right people about frustrations with our bishop or superior. When upset, we should go to someone who will understand our suffering, not discount it, but will also help us be obedient. There are people we should avoid venting to when we are in emotional turmoil. In particular, persons who will not hold us accountable, only adding fuel to the fire, pushing us to uncharity, overdramatization, or exaggeration. The people to whom we express our pain should be those who, after listening to us, will challenge us to respond with supernatural faith and charity.

When obedience is difficult, the perspective of eternity must be our ultimate focus. From the sacrifices required of Abraham in the Old Testament, to the challenge Jesus issued to his followers in the New Testament, following wherever God leads requires sacrifice. Jesus said: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) There will be moments in the life of every Christian, especially those who have made a promise of obedience, when they will “hate” their life because of what obedience requires of them. In those moments, comfort can be found in the promise of Jesus that obedience is the path to eternal life.

Obedience to Church teaching

A particularly important skill for seminarians and priests today is knowing how to approach controversies about Church teaching. In recent years, comments by Pope Francis, often in unscripted interviews, have provoked questions and strong criticism by some, deep praise and adulation from others. Prelates, theologians, reporters, celebrities, politicians, and other public figures all seem to have an opinion about his papacy and teaching. Further confusion has developed as some “expert” commentators push his most ambiguous statements to the most extreme interpretation possible.

How are we supposed to make sense of a pope whose words lead to headlines that are sometimes openly contradictory to consistent Magisterial teaching on certain topics? Or what are we to do when the Vatican puts out a confusing and theologically murky statement? Similarly, how should we respond when a diocesan mandate or policy does not align with our theology or seems like it will lead to theological confusion?

In these situations, the first thing to recall is that the Holy Spirit works through the men Jesus has appointed to shepherd his flock. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide them. So, we should take seriously what the pope and bishops teach, even if we don’t like their personality, are suspicious of their character, or have seen their lack of virtue. “Jesus Christ promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit to the Church’s Pastors so that they could fulfill their assigned task of teaching the Gospel and authentically interpreting Revelation.”40 The way we speak about the pope, bishops, and their teaching office should reveal our belief in the promise of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Because of Jesus’ promise, the Code of Canon Law requires priests to show reverence and obedience to the pope.41 This reverence and obedience is ultimately directed toward God working through the man elected pope. Historically, popes have been good and bad. Some have been saints illustrious in holiness. Others have been deeply immoral, criminals of the worst sort.42 Yet, the promise of Jesus has not failed, as the Deposit of Faith has been handed down from generation to generation. Obviously, some popes over the past 2,000 years have handled the Sacred Deposit more carefully and others more clumsily. Regardless, the Holy Spirit has safeguarded the truth through their office.

Secondly, when faced with an unsettling teaching, a priest or seminarian should go to the source, seeking to understand the teaching in its original context; reading the original text rather than a news summary; studying the entire document, not just controversial quotes that have grabbed headlines. In an era of online news, writers are keenly aware that they need “click-bait” for people to read their reporting. Zeroing in on contentious topics creates controversy, which creates more interest, which creates more attention and publicity for the author and news agency. As clergy, our motivation is different than that of news reporters. Our goal is to understand the symphony of truth revealed by God and to share it with the faithful. Reading papal statements with this attitude will help keep enigmatic quotes in their proper context.

Thirdly, it takes time to understand what an author is saying. In a world of instant gratification, one must remember that theology takes time to digest. Wisdom comes from listening, reflection, and prayer. We are accustomed to receiving data in short fragments as text messages, tweets, or Facebook posts, but understanding theology takes focused reading, prayer, reflection, and discussion. It might be necessary to read a papal document multiple times to begin understanding the content. As we study and reflect, we should be open to revising our own opinions. At the same time, “Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies,” so patience is necessary as the Church further clarifies the meaning of certain teachings over time and finds better ways to explain them.43

We must also discern the pope’s intended audience, remembering that the pope is usually speaking to the universal Church. Pope Francis has very little firsthand experience of North American political, economic, or ecclesial realities, so we should not read such knowledge into documents he produces.

Since there are different levels of Magisterial teaching, a priest or seminarian “must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged.”44 For example, an infallible teaching is typically defined through an Ecumenical Council or an official, formal ex cathedra pronouncement by the pope, not through an airplane interview or footnote in a post-synodal document. Further, the various levels of teaching (infallibly defined as divinely revealed, definitively defined teachings related to Revelation, moral teachings infallibly defined, moral teaching not infallibly defined, ordinary magisterium of bishops, discipline matters, etc.) all should be approached with the proper corresponding response (from theological faith to religious submission of will and intellect, etc.). All Catholics should give their assent to teachings even when they are not definitively defined.45 Donum Veritatis emphasizes that “magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.”46

A good practical step to take when confused by a teaching or pronouncement is to speak to other priests who are intelligent and prudent, asking for their take on the matter. Sometimes we are jaded by our own life experiences and read into documents our theological pet peeves and preoccupations. Other priests might have a better, more balanced way of reading certain pronouncements. If concerns about the teaching remain, then consult with experts, theologians, or diocesan leadership who might have a deeper understanding of the issue.

Sharing our confusion and concern about a specific teaching or ruling should be done with the intention of maintaining the “unity of truth” and the “unity of charity” within the Church.47 Asking honest questions in a respectful way can lead both parties to better understand the truth. Questions or clarifications should be raised with an “evangelical spirit” desiring to resolve difficulties, not to embarrass, rudely confront, or “call on the carpet.”48 Sharing incensory articles on social media is not a helpful way to further the “unity of truth” and the “unity of charity” in the Church. The clarification of the truth needed to promote the unity of the Church and assist the Church in her mission of evangelization is not the result of public relations battles, antagonistic protests, or online mudslinging, but rather of prayer, study, and respectful dialogue.49

When it comes to diocesan or papal decisions, one must remember that these are usually the fruit of a laborious collaborative process, so any clarification will usually take a good deal of time. In other words, don’t expect a quick response when doubts surface about a teaching. The intended meaning and proper interpretation of a puzzling statement will be clarified over time. In the meantime, we should focus on the fundamental dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Creed are good places to go for theological refreshment when wars break out over theological interpretations of texts. Sometimes we might have to “suffer for the truth,” spending time in prayer and silence as the Church’s teaching is refined in our own minds and souls, and in Magisterial pronouncements.50

Practical tips for growing in obedience

Obedience is a lifestyle for diocesan priests, not simply an occasional imposition every half-dozen or so years when receiving a new assignment from his bishop. Therefore, it is essential that a seminarian or priest purposefully cultivates growth in obedience so that his ministry might be more and more animated by the inner freedom and self-offering of Jesus. There are several spiritual practices that can aid daily growth in obedience.

The first is devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.51 She provides priests with a schooling in how to make a wholehearted “yes” to the Divine Will. Mary gave her fiat daily, from the Annunciation, through Calvary, into eternity. She made serving Jesus faithfully the goal of her life, letting go of her own plans to embrace God’s plan. Her faithfulness led her on a wild adventure, from the hill country to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth, to the barnyard of Bethlehem where she gave birth, to the desert of Egypt where she patiently waited, to the routine of daily life in Nazareth, to the chaos of Jerusalem for pilgrimage and, eventually, her Son’s crucifixion, to the joy of the Resurrection. She embraced all of it in obedience.52 Certainly her husband Saint Joseph is also a great model of heroic obedience for priests and seminarians because of his tremendous flexibility, docility, and courage in following the surprising designs of Divine Providence.

A second important spiritual practice is voluntary mortification and penance.53 These acts “practice” and “exercise” the will, loosening its attachment to comfort, pleasure, and convenience. They also strengthen our resolve to seek heaven, reminding us our ultimate happiness will not be in this life. Additionally, they increase our ability to accept not having everything our way. They help us confront our natural tendency to run away from suffering and sacrifice.

Third, reading the lives of the saints is a very reassuring practice, since they all had trials of obedience. Priests and seminarians navigating disheartening and exhausting channels of ecclesial bureaucracy can find comfort in Saint Alphonsus Liguori. He spent years trying to ensure the proper continuance of his Order after his death, enduring many tiring, painful, and often futile attempts to negotiate curial bureaucracy. Priests and seminarians who feel they are being treated unfairly by the Church can find inspiration from Saint John of the Cross. He showed heroic patience as he was beaten up and locked up by those who opposed his attempts to reform the Carmelites. His time in a dark pit led to much spiritual fruit and some of his greatest mystical and theological insights. Priests who find themselves “demoted” from significant responsibility or passed over for an important assignment can take courage from Saint Pope John XXIII and Saint Pope Paul VI. Both were “demoted” from important positions in the Vatican at certain points in their ministry and sent elsewhere. Yet both accepted these decisions respectfully and in no way lessened their pastoral zeal, throwing themselves enthusiastically into their new assignments.

Church history teaches many important lessons about obedience. It shows we are lying to ourselves if convinced we are indispensable to a parish or a particular ministry and must not be transferred at all costs. Perhaps most importantly, Church history indicates that the Church has always had problems. We cannot fix them all, no matter how hard we try. Priests need to be able to go to bed at night without having a perfect parish, perfect diocese, perfect Vatican Curia, or the perfect pope. At the same time, Church history reveals that zeal for souls should consume us and priests should tirelessly work for Church reform and greater holiness in the Church. The ups and downs of Church history demonstrate the perennial and lasting value of faithful priestly ministry, as obedient perseverance in the “daily grind” of pastoral ministry, especially in unglamorous tasks, bears fruit for the salvation of the world.

A fourth spiritual practice is to root our priestly obedience in the Mass. During the Eucharistic Prayer the priest prays the prayer of oblation, offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. Each day, the priest and people can unite themselves with this offering, as Christ leads them to surrender their own will to God the Father. Blessed Columba Marmion made the following suggestion to priests:

Every time you celebrate Mass, cast a glance over the day that is before you; accept the aggregate of duties that await you. Say to the Lord: “You have loved me, O Jesus, and you have delivered yourself up for me” (Gal 2:20). “I also give up everything and deliver myself up for you” (2 Corinthians 12:15).54

The Mass can be a place where priests renew their commitment to give themselves as a self-offering through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, to the Father.


Living priestly obedience in a post-McCarrick Church is certainly not easy. Neither is learning obedience as seminarians in a polarized climate of distrust. Yet, such a situation is perhaps an important opportunity for a deepened understanding of priestly obedience. This study has demonstrated that priestly obedience in every era should be more than simply not breaking rules, not teaching heresy, and not turning down a priestly assignment from one’s bishop. Priestly obedience is above all something positive: an orientation of one’s entire self toward the Father, a robust participation in the interior freedom of Christ, an active building up of priestly fraternity. Obedience is an act of faith in Almighty God. As we contemplate leadership figures in the Church, we might question: “Why is this guy in charge?” or “Why is he so incompetent?” or “How will the Church ever regain any credibility?” An obedient priest or seminarian facing these questions finds his response in an act of faith. God is the one who chose to work through broken, sinful men. From the first twelve to the shepherds of today, the Church has stayed afloat and effectively evangelized not primarily because of the skills and virtues of men, but because of supernatural grace abundantly provided by God and accepted in obedience.

  1. Pastores Dabo Vobis #30 refers to Jesus as the “model and source” of ecclesial obedience.
  2. Evangelica Testificatio #25.
  3. Faciem tuam #8. See also #4–8.
  4. Faciem tuam #20: “Whoever presides must remember that the one who does not listen to his brother or sister does not know how to listen to God either . . . Time spent in listening is never time wasted . . . ”.
  5. See CIC 381–402. Christus Dominus #11–21 also includes a similarly extensive list. For duties of religious superiors see Faciem tuam #13, 20, 25.
  6. CIC 384.
  7. CIC 401 §1.
  8. CIC 383.
  9. Christus Dominus #11–21.
  10. CIC 273–289.
  11. “In reality, the priest, by the very nature of his ministry, is at the service of Christ and the Church. Therefore, he must be disposed to accepting all that is justly indicated by his Superiors, and in particular, if he is not legitimately impeded, he must accept and faithfully perform the office committed to him by his Ordinary.” Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013, #56. Available online:
  12. Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests #33.
  13. See Pope Francis, Vos Estis, 7 May 2019. Available online:
  14. Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests #61.
  15. Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests #33.
  16. G.K. Chesterton, “Saint Thomas More,” in Saints Are Not Sad, Frank Sheed ed., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012, p. 287.
  17. “Saint Thomas More,” p. 288.
  18. Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests #33, #60.
  19. “In exercising this care of souls, pastors and their assistants should so fulfill their duty of teaching, sanctifying and governing that the faithful and the parish communities will truly realize that they are members both of the diocese and of the universal Church. For this reason, they should collaborate with other pastors and priests who exercise a pastoral office in the area (such as vicars forane and deans), as well as with those engaged in works of a supra-parochial nature. In this way the pastoral work in the diocese will be unified and made more effective.” Christus Dominus #30.
  20. “Attentiveness and fidelity to the specific structure of the rite express both a recognition of the nature of Eucharist as a gift and, on the part of the minister, a docile openness to receiving this ineffable gift.” Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February 2007, #40. Available online at:
  21. Directory for the Life and the Ministry of Priests #59.
  22. Christus Dominus #30.
  23. CIC 280.
  24. All of these documents make much reference to Pastores Dabo Vobis, CIC 232–264, and Vatican II, Optatam totius, 28 October 1965. Available online:
  25. CCC #1578: “No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift.”
  26. Evangelica Testificatio #28. See also, Pastores Dabo Vobis #44.
  27. Veritatis Splendor #41.
  28. Faciem tuam #20 provides a good examination of conscience: “Those persons are certainly not free who are convinced that their ideas and their solutions are always the best; who suppose they can decide by themselves without any mediation for knowing the divine will; who think of themselves as always right and do not have any doubts that it is the others who have to change; who think only of their own things and do not pay any attention to the needs of others; who think that to obey is something from another era, which cannot be propounded in a world which is more evolved.”
  29. Evangelica Testificatio #28. See also, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, q. 104, a. 5.
  30.  See Vos Estis.
  31. Faciem tuam #26.
  32. Ignatius of Loyola, “Ignatius on Obedience,” 1553, #3. Available online:
  33. “Ignatius on Obedience,” #21.
  34. “Ignatius on Obedience,” #3.
  35. “Ignatius on Obedience,” #22.
  36. Christ the Ideal of the Priest, p. 145–146. Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, 1926, p. 282–286. Available online:
  37. John 5:16, 6:41; Matthew 9:11, 11:16–19; Luke 5:21, 19:7.
  38. Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, p. 284.
  39. Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, p. 285.
  40. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Veritatis, 24 May 1990, #15. Available online: While primarily written for theologians and bishops, Donum Veritatis provides a helpful framework that can be applied to the situation of priests and seminarians.
  41. CIC 273.
  42. For a nice overview of immoral shepherds, see Rod Bennett, Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While the Bishops Did the Devil’s Work, Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2018.
  43. Donum Veritatis #24.
  44. Donum Veritatis #17.
  45. Donum Veritatis #23.
  46. Donum Veritatis #17. Seminarians make an Oath of Fidelity and Profession of Faith prior to their ordination, which includes the declaration:

    “With firm faith I also believe everything contained in God’s word, written or handed down in tradition and proposed by the Church, whether by way of solemn judgment or through the ordinary and universal magisterium, as divinely revealed and calling for faith.

    “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing that is proposed definitively by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.

    “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they proclaim those teachings by an act that is not definitive.”

  47. Donum Veritatis #26.
  48. Donum Veritatis #20.
  49. Donum Veritatis #33.
  50. Donum Veritatis #31. Quite inspiring is the example of Henri de Lubac who found himself in such a situation. His words about “Ecclesia Mater” in The Splendor of the Church provide a fitting summary of his own patience and love toward the Church. Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, transl. by Michael Mason, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1999, p. 236–278.
  51. Canon Law urges Marian devotion for priests and seminarians: CIC 246 §3, CIC 276 §2.
  52. Lumen Gentium #56, #61.
  53. Pastores Dabo Vobis #49; Optatam Totius #9.
  54. Christ the Ideal of the Priest, p. 146.
Rev. Philip Smith About Rev. Philip Smith

Father Philip A. Smith is a priest of the Diocese of Toledo currently serving as Director of Vocations, Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, and CYO Sports Chaplain. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. He is author of What Nobody Ever Told Us: A Guide to Getting More Out of the Catholic Mass.


  1. There is no mention of Deacons in this article…as it seems to now be he norm to exclude this Holy Order

  2. Avatar Deacon Steven Dove says:

    I would appreciate Fr. Philip’s reflection on obedience for permanent deacons as we navigate the ecclesial, secular, and paternal world we live and minister in. I find that my wife speaks “ex cathedra” more frequently than the Holy Father :).