Monday, April 30, 2012

Obedience: The Dirtiest Word in America

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:1-11
Let's stop for a second and consider the passage above.

Why did God highly exalt Christ Jesus? Why did God bestow on him the name above every name, that at that name every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth? Why shall every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father?


He took the form of a servant, did not count equality with God something to be grasped (even though he could have), and became obedient unto death.

Paul exhorts us to have "this mind" ourselves. In other words, to be like Christ. To love others so much that we are obedient unto death. (As Christ does us and also loves and trusts the Father.)

Christ undid the sin brought about by Adam's and Eve's disobedience and lack of trust in God with his own complete obedience and trust. Even unto death.

Let's all stop. Really stop. And read it again. Slowly, aloud, thinking about it.


So. If we are to follow in Christ's footsteps, our love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit we should show each other. Our self-giving as a servant should be a complete pouring out of ourselves, an emptying, in complete obedience.

This is what the great saints have done.

Even the ones who were in disagreement with the Church teachings at the time still were obedient. To be less than that, while working for change, is to not trust God or the Holy Spirit. It is to make yourself too important. If Christ's bride is the Church, then shouldn't we also give the Church that respect?

That is why those saints are our models in tempestuous times. They help us walk as Christ did, with obedience.


Contemplating this over the last year has helped me care immensely when I am disobedient. And I am disobedient, I am sorry to admit. Much more often than I care to say.

Aren't we all?

Beginning with Adam and Eve, disobedience is the original human sin. It is the one that makes us ignore our inner voice of "what is right" and do what we want anyway.


It sounds fine until it interferes with what we'd really like.

Then, in fine American independence we spit the word "obedient" as if it is a curse and defiantly stamp to emphasize our right to do what we like. If we have to stamp on the person next to us who doesn't agree, well then, so be it. That's what they deserve for trying to restrict my right to do whatever I like. I'd better tell everyone while I'm doing it so they may applaud my independence.

That is all very American.

But is it Catholic?

Is it Christ-like?


This comes to mind with great force as I've been thinking about being Catholic and being American lately. In the last couple of days I've encountered a surprising number of Catholics rejecting pastoral direction* and recommendations. With great vigor and varying levels of rhetoric and skill, they have proudly (and loudly) pointed out their defiance. Some of this has been online and one, to my startlement, was to my face at a most unexpected time.

Interestingly, it has all been a rejection of advice on how to weigh issues' importance when voting.

In every case, people were offended by the manner, rhetoric, or tone with which they were advised. No one, however, stopped long enough to scrape aside the "tone" and look at the actual issues being propounded. "How dare they tell me how to vote!" is reason that needs no response. In America anyway.

I have come across this before and still find it perplexing.

Lest you think I am picking on one "side" or the other, rest assured I am not. I have had the same frigid silence come up when discussing voting for immigration and the death penalty as I have when discussing voting for an end to abortion or contraception.

But I just don't understand the triumphant tone and proud face that I am shown every time this sort of thing comes up. Despite what either "side" thinks, the attitude is identical on the surface.

We count on our pastors to advise us on practically everything in our lives. They are our shepherds. When we are running full tilt for a cliff, we need them to put out their shepherd's staff and turn us from the path of destruction.

Granted, some do a better job than others and we are out of practice after many years of some bishops and priests who have done a lackluster job of counseling.

Do we have to do what they say? No. We, in turn, have our own obligation to use the minds that God gave us and consider the facts and issues carefully.

Facts and issues.

Not tone. Not the "outrage" of being advised of what issues matter more than others.

I began wondering about my concept of priest as shepherd. And I found this wonderful statement from a recent shepherd.
One could say that by his own example Jesus himself, the good shepherd who "calls his own sheep by name" (cf. Jn 10:3-4), has set the standard of individual pastoral care: knowledge and a relationship of friendship with individual persons. The presbyter's task is to help each one to utilize well his own gift, and rightly to exercise the freedom that comes from Christ's salvation, as St. Paul urges (cf. Gal 4:3; 5:1, 13; Jn 8:36).

Everything must be directed toward practicing "a sincere and practical charity." This means that "Christians should be taught that they live not only for themselves, but according to the demands of the new law of charity; as every man has received grace, he must administer the same to others. In this way, all will discharge in a Christian manner their duties in the community of men" (PO 6). Therefore, the priest's mission includes calling to mind the obligations of charity, showing the applications of charity in social life, fostering an atmosphere of unity with respect for differences, encouraging programs and works of charity, by which great opportunities become available to the faithful, especially through the new emphasis on volunteer work, consciously provided as a good use of free time, and in many cases, as a choice of life.
General Audience, May 19, 1993
Our bishops and priests have the duty to show us the applications of charity in social life. To me, that includes advice on how to weigh issues when we vote.

They aren't going to follow us into the booth and pull the lever. Just like they don't come into our bedrooms and make sure we are living our marriage well. But it is their duty to advise, even if we don't like it.

Our duty, and we do have one here, is to carefully consider that advice.

Not to give a knee-jerk reaction of the usual sort because that advice may not fit what we want. Or the tone may not be right. We can be angry. We may even say something we regret. But we have to think further, go farther, and carefully consider issues, facts, and the Church's teachings.

If we don’t agree with Church teachings or pastoral advice, treat that disagreement as the important thing it is. Go to source materials, study the Catechism, read the Church Fathers, look at the 2000 years’ worth of discussion on the subject. Dig into it and don’t let go until you understand the logic that led the Church to that teaching.

So, yes, use your brain.

But also keep in mind that simply not “liking” something is not reason to disobey.

In that we also must keep in mind Paul’s counsel from the beginning of that passage. Are we showing the fruit of love, affection, sympathy? Are we humble, counting others better than ourselves, looking to the interests of others?

Can they tell we are Christians by our love?

I know. I have trouble with it too.

In today's Mass readings there was a line that I just can't shake. It echoes round and round in my head. I've learned to pay attention when that happens.

Jesus, speaking of being our good shepherd says:
"I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)
But to do that, we have to be the kinds of people our fellow Americans (and many fellow Catholics) may not understand. We have to follow our good shepherd.

We have to stop treating "obedience" like a dirty word.

* And I'm not talking about the sort of thing that led to the sexual abuse scandal. That's not the sort of thing the Church has ever taught was right and that no one in their right mind would expect to find justified anywhere.


  1. An excellent, well-considered post, Julie. I have to say much of my adult life has been spent in crucible of shortening my reaction time between what God asks of me, and actually doing it. Learning to conform to Christ takes knowledge to do the right thing, and the virtue (or the bending of the will in some cases) to actually do it.

  2. I'm going to have to share this... I hope you don't mind.

  3. Thank you Pat!

    Deacon Dean, help yourself! :-)

  4. "But to do that, we have to be the kinds of people our fellow Americans (and many fellow Catholics) may not understand. We have to follow our good shepherd."

    You're not the boss of me! You can't tell me what... Oh, I get it.

  5. It's easy to tell my kids "You don't have to like it. You can be as unhappy as you want - inside your head because you have complete freedom of thought. You just have to do it." Modeling it for my kids, now that's a lot harder.


  6. If the church doesn't have the "right" to tell us what to do, who does? It is the boss of us.

  7. I'm glad you realize also that we have a mind and that advice is not command.
    When an issue is settled as clearly infallibly settled (see canon 749-3 online), there can be no disagreement by us on that action as being wrong. But the gospels have a section that show both Christ and the apostles dissenting and disobeying concerning the Sabbath despite Christ having told the apostles to obey the scribes and pharisees in " all they command you, observe and do" because they sat on the chair of Moses. So we have an apparent contradiction...Christ tells the apostles to obey the pharisees in everything then he has them disobey the pharisee interpretation to not pick grain as one walks through a field on the Sabbath. It's very much like Lumen Gentium 25 requiring "religious submission of mind and will" in some not all non infallible positions and yet Catholic moral theology tomes imprimatured for seminaries, that few read, allow for sincere, prayerful, studious dissent in the non infallible ( see Germain Grisez' " Christian Moral Principles" page 854).

  8. A very good piece. You made a lot of sense, and I think Bill's comment above is right on.

    I will say I do disagree on a few church teachings, but I've learned to obey.

  9. This is what God the Father says about obedience (from the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena).

    It is said that the devil can emulate humility, but he cannot emulate obedience.