If our modern society had a list of banned words (heck, we might be close), at the top of the list would probably be obedience. In our world of self-assured decision making and an “I can do what I want” attitude, suggesting the idea that human beings must submit to an authority is basically an equivalent of mortal sin.
And yet, even letting alone the fact that we Christians are bound to obey God if we want to reach heaven, anyone with common sense and an ounce of critical thinking can see that it’s impossible to go through life without obeying something. So, it’s reasonable to conclude that obedience is a necessary part of life. The Church, however, takes it one step further — seeing that obedience isn’t always the easiest thing to do — and elevates obedience to a virtue.
As a result, the Catechism has a few truth bombs to offer on the subject. They’re so awesome, by the end you’ll probably be doing this:
1) “God has willed that, after him, we should honor our parents to whom we owe life and who have handed on to us the knowledge of God. We are obliged to honor and respect all those whom God, for our good, has vested with his authority.” (2197)
Believe it or not, there’s something on the books that Mom can point to for why you need to eat your vegetables, or why Dad can tell you to mow the lawn. But keep in mind that while this definitely refers to the mother and father who raised us, it also applies just as much to spiritual mothers and fathers, as well, like the bishop in the diocese in which we live and/or serve, the Church (Christ’s bride), and even – in some sense – the Blessed Mother, who offers herself to us as the very model of obedience to the Lord’s will.
Also, note the phrase for our good — if we knew what was best for us, there would be no need to be obedient to anyone, ever. But we don’t always know what’s best for ourselves, and in fact the most attractive option can sometimes be the worst possible choice. And so, God puts legitimate authorities in our lives to help us see the right and wrong paths to follow.
2) “The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.” (1900)
Nobody likes the bratty kid who says to his mom, “I don’t care what you say!” Besides, if the mom has even a smidgen of good sense, how far will that retort get the kid anyway? In my own case, I’d always be greeted with a, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out…” if ever I sassed the one who gave birth to me.
Does a mother like having to respond that way to her child? Probably not. But her status as mother — the duty she bears of caring for her children — requires her to lead the child down the proper path, even if that path is unpleasant for him. The child, then, owes it to his mother to treat her with honor and respect, all with a good attitude, because the mother necessarily knows better. Though he’s still free to disobey, it would be arrogant of the child to do so.
3) “Having become a member of the Church, the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us. From now on, he is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church, and to ‘obey and submit’ to the Church’s leaders, holding them in respect and affection.” (1269a)
Being baptized and belonging to Christ’s body not only makes us necessarily a part of a larger whole (and thus not in charge ourselves), but also demands that we pull our weight. “Obey” and “Submit” are both active words, meaning they require something on our part in order to be fulfilled. As such, the sedentary sport of “couch potating” has no place in the Christian life.
What’s more, as Christians we’re allowed by God to be in pain, to suffer, to feel discomfort, at least part of the time. Anyone who’s lifted weights, participated in track & field, altered their golf swing, or perfected their jump shot knows that success only comes with a willingness to be coached and to be pushed to the limit. In the life of the Church, that presents itself as a teaching we disagree with, a period of dryness in prayer, or a time of pain we’re unable to make sense of. If we’re open to being led, it’s amazing the growth we can experience.
4) “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin.’” (1733)
The operative phrase in this whole passage is in service of, and it applies to both the doing of good and the doing of evil. Both good and evil existed long before we were on earth, and both will exist long after we’re gone — good, indeed, will endure for eternity — so it makes sense that all we do is necessarily moving toward either a good or a bad end.
The difference, however, is that the more we choose to submit to what is good, the more we have the freedom to continue to choose that good thing. It’s not so with sin, as the authors of Scripture and the writers of the Catechism so wisely note. A choice to do evil — to do something with selfish motives — actually causes us to relinquish our God-given freedom in favor of vice or addiction. It’s what St. Augustine referred to as incurvatus in se, or “turned in on oneself,” that when we’re overcome by sin, we’re necessarily more wrapped up in ourselves, instead of looking outward to serve others and serve the Lord.
5) Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country. (2240)
As much as this concept – especially given our choices for President – may cause some Christian Americans to hold back a gag, it was nevertheless Jesus himself who commanded us to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This doesn’t mean that we go along with whatever the secular world is offering, then hold our religious beliefs in private. In fact, the right answer sounds nearly impossible and perhaps even downright paradoxical.
A document from the early Church, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, which the Catechism quotes, says:
Christians reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners … They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws … So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.
Isn’t it interesting that the idea of duty keeps cropping up when we talk about obedience? Part of obeying God involves obeying the authorities of the nations we live in, perhaps even more so in helping our nations prosper. This was what St. John Paul II was doing when he helped topple Communism in his native Poland. He wasn’t trying to make Poland a Catholic nation per se, but was instead working to help his homeland become more free, that the nation itself could praise the Lord with their lives more fully.
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Obedience to a legitimate authority will always make us more free as persons, even if we’re unable to see it at the time.