Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Reflection on Obedience


Recently, I posted a rather lengthy series of questions and answers on celibacy. Then I got to thinking that there are two other common religious vows I left untouched. I thought I'd post a little reflection on the vow of obedience.

Many readers already know that I spent my time in formation with a Franciscan community. Here are the opening lines of the original The Rule of Saint Francis :
The Rule of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience without anything of our own, and in chastity.

Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Honorius and his canonically elected successors, and to the Roman Church; and the other friars are bound to obey Francis and his successors.
The successors of Saint Francis are selected according to the following passage of the rule:
All the friars are bound to have always one of the friars of this very same religious [order] as minister general and servant of the whole fraternity and they are bound firmly to obey him. When he dies, let there be made an election of a successor by the ministers provincials and the custodes in the Pentecost Chapter, in which the ministers provincial are bound always to convene together, wherever it will have been determined by the minister general; and this once every three years or at another interval greater or less, as it will have been ordained by the aforesaid minister.
The interesting thing about the Franciscans is that Saint Francis was never ordained a ministerial priest. The order he founded was to be an order of "little brothers". That is the literal meaning of "The Order of Friars Minor", which you see on the name of so many Franciscans, such as "OFM" or "OFM Conv." or "OFM Cap" etc....

The "Conventuals" are historically the original order, and obtain their name because the community moved into lavish convents while Francis was away preaching to the Saracens.

The OFM's broke away from the conventuals to try to live a more radical poverty.

The Capuchins broke from the OFMs around the time of the Protestant reformation for much the same reason.

In our own day and age, the CFRs (Capuchin Friars of the Renewal) broke away for similar reasons from the Capuchins led by Benedict Groeschell.

One can legitimately ask if any of the Friars who started any of these various reform movements was being obedient at the moment they broke from the larger body.

There are also "TOR" Franciscans who staff the Franciscan University at Steubenville, OH. This order of priest rose up from Francis' order created for married people, called the Third Order, after the Friars and the Poor Clare nuns.

Then there are other smaller splinter groups of Franciscans and even some Protestants have formed Franciscan communities such as the Episcopalian and Lutherans. Protestants tend to like saint Francis because his spirituality was very radically biblical.

The Robin Hood stories include the character of Friar Tuck, and Friar Tuck is what the Franciscans are. They are an order of brothers. As a Franciscan, we would say, all Friars are brothers, and some brothers are priests. The order was founded not by a priest, but by a layman.

The Friars are bound by obedience to the Holy Father, but also obedience to Saint Francis and his successors.

There has been some controversy in recent history because the order elected a lay brother in solemn vows to the position as Francis' successor as minister general. Rome said that ministerial priests cannot be bound to obedience to a layman, and therefore Rome bound the order to replace the duly elected minister general.

This is one of the areas I want to reflect upon. Vowed obedience can sometimes create situations of conflict between two authorities.

On the one hand, as Franciscans, we all looked to Saint Francis as the model Friar, and we elected a laybrother to the position of minister general because we saw this as part of who and what we are, and what we were founded to be.

On the other hand, we also owed the obedience to the Holy See that Francis explicitly desired, and the Holy See was commanding something that struck at the core of who Franciscans saw themselves to be.

Recall that a minister general is only elected for a three year term according to the rule of Francis, unless he dies between chapters. This leads to minister generals avoiding too heavy a hand in leadership lest he lose the office and bear the wrath of his successor.

This has led the Franciscans to speak of Saint Francis' desire that the will of the order prevail over the will of the individual.

I am a believer that religious orders have preserved the voice of democracy within the tradition of the Church even after the hierarchy abandoned the practice of elected bishops.

In the way a minister general is to act with the Friars and the way a Friar is to obey, the rule states the following:
Let the friars, who are ministers and servants of the other friars, visit and admonish their friars and humbly and charitably correct them, not commanding them something which is contrary to their conscience and our rule.
Saint Francis recognized the danger that those in authority could command something that would cause the receiver of the order to violate his conscience or the rule itself. Saint Francis recognized this danger and placed it in the rule that a minister general should not do this. Only after this clarification does he continue:
Indeed let the friars, who are subjects, remember, that for the sake of God they have renounced their own wills. Whence I firmly command them, to obey their ministers in all things which they have promised the Lord to observe and which are not contrary to their souls or to our rule.
Note that Francis gives an "out clause" to obedience that makes many "conservatives" uncomfortable. He strongly encourages renunciation of the will, but never at the expense of conscience or the rule that he had written.

It is this "out clause" that has led to the continual renewal movements at reform among Franciscans. If a Friar feels the community at large is not living poverty the way Francis intended, or not as devoted to prayer as Francis intended, or not building the kind of fraternal life Francis intended, the reformer simply breaks away.

Paragraph 1790 of the CCC states that we must always follow the certain judgment of our consciences. Paragraph 1778 even refers to the conscience as the "aboriginal Vicar of Christ", giving conscience a sort of primacy even over the Holy Father.

Thus, the vow of obedience is not solely a vow to blindly obey human authority. It is primarily a vow to obey God, as God reveals himself to conscience.

For a Roman Catholic, the will of God is revealed through the magisterium when defining matters of faith and morals infallibly.

Even on non-infallible matters, we owe a religious submission of the mind and will, meaning we seek to interpret Vatican teaching in its best light and obey where we have no reason not to obey.

Yet, this obedience is not a blind obedience to human authority. On non-infallible matters, we interpret Vatican teaching in its best light, but we can humbly admit that where infallibility is not invoked, there is a possibility of error.

Under canon 212.3, there may instances where we are bound by duty to express a grave concern to our ordinary and to other faithful. Under 749.3, we also must be careful not to consider a teaching infallible presumptuously.

Furthermore, aside from the obedience due to the authority of the Vatican, we also owe obedience to our local bishop. So a Friar will find himself bound to the Gospel and the Rule of Saint Francis, to Francis' successor in the minister general, to the local bishop, and to the Holy Father.

Additionally, the Vatican claims that there is an infallibility inherent to the "sense of the faithful" and reading the signs of the times as the Gospel commands will lead any minister to pay attention to the cares and concerns of the laity.

The Friar must ultimately synthesize all of these voices external to him into his conscience, and through careful prayer and reflection, try to resolve conflicts between all of these disparate voices.

Let's examine an example:

Assume a Friar is ordained and is preparing a liturgy. If the local bishop interprets the GIRM differently than the laity in his parish, and the minister general interprets the GIRM a third way altogether, to whom does the Friar ultimately owe obedience?

Does it even matter if one of the three parties quotes a Cardinal supporting his view, or does that simply add a forth view to the mix?

Such instances are not at all infrequent, and frequently a person is not disobeying the GIRM or some other Vatican directive so much as interpreting within a different framework than you might be.

Many priests look to the theologians for guidance through the maze of competing voices.

The laity often don't understand why some priests appeal so frequently to the theologians. A theologian is like a medical doctor. He or she is someone who has been trained at a doctoral level to find the ways through the maze of information to make a good diagnosis and suggest a treatment.

Because Saint Paul refers to teachers and administrators and bishops as different offices, some theologians have even speculated that the theological academy is a sort of authoritative body in the Church.

Afterall, we give a certain credence to certain theologians like Thomas Aquinas even though he was not a pope or bishop. Many of the doctors of the Church are not popes or bishops, but all the doctors and fathers of the Church were theologians.

While adding the theologian to the voices competing for the allegiance of our conscience may sound more confusing, since it is just one more voice, that voice is one who is often working out the very question you may be asking as an individual.

The theologian offers more than a prescriptive interpretation of the GIRM, like the bishop, minister general or average lay person. He offers an argument from scripture and tradition justifying why he interprets the GIRM exactly as he does.

The theologian also often sees the pastoral implications of new Vatican teachings even before the Vatican comes to see them.

For example, before the issuance of Humanae Vitae, but after Castii Connubbii, it was the theologians who synthesized the cry of lay dissent with the papal teaching of Pius XI to come with a pastoral solution of the rhythm method that would become the basis of NFP as advocated by Paul VI.

Now that NFP is accepted on the basis of unitive love, it is the theologians asking where else unitive love might make certain sexual acts morally licit.

Where the teaching of the magisterium may not seem to apply to a question you are asking, the voice of theologian may have determined how to apply the magisterial teaching correctly to the situation at hand.

Theologians are not infallible, but they base their arguments on sacred scripture and sacred tradition so that you can judge for yourself whether their conclusions have merit. Each theologian must be read critically, but there is nothing inherently wrong with examining their arguments.

Often, the theologians also tie in the questions of the day brought by science, the arts, and current political or cultural questions.

What all of this means is that determining if a person is being obedient is not as simple as asking whether the person did exactly what the pope seemed to say on the surface.

In order to judge whether a person has been obedient or disobedient, one would need to examine the following:

- the various valid interpretations of what the Pope said,
- the level of obedience due to a papal teaching,
- the level of obedience due to voices interpreting or even seemingly competing with the Pope, such as the local bishop and the minister general,
- the obedience due to the rule and the example of the founding saint,
- the will of the order itself as a whole that elected the minister general,
- and the needs of the people to whom you minister as you seek the sense of the faithful and the signs of the times
- all within the context of experts in the field of the theological academy as they address your specific questions in light of scripture and tradition.

This may sound like an impossibly daunting task, and all I can say is that many members of religious orders do exactly this.

Some do it more rigorously than others. Some do it in a way that is more convincingly authentic than others. Some get confused and slide into error or outright disobedience. Yet, overall, obedience is followed even in situations where a religious seems to be defying a simplistic understanding of papal teaching.

Finally, in the midst of all of this confusion, saints arise who are seldom obedient to external authority at all.

Saint Francis was not well trained in theology and not a particularly learned man. His vision was radically new form of religious life and fit none of the pre-existing models of what religious life was supposed to be, and Pope Innocent was initially suspicious of it.

Often, the person most obedient to God is not the one following orders from a human authority, but the one with the vision to see a new way of doing things.

Ultimately, obedience does involve a renunciation of the personal will to follow the will of God.

It includes a humble acceptance of correction from others. It does maintain a unity expressed in loyalty.

Yet, our obedience is ultimately due to God as discerned in conscience. The person vowed to obedience renounces his or her will not to another human being - not even the Pope. He or she renounces his or her will to God, with obedience to the Pope and several other voices becoming an expression of this obedience to God.