Obedience, Disobedience, and Rash Obedience: a Virtue in a time of Crisis

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There has long been a strange asymmetry between conservatives and progressives in the Catholic Church. Theological conservatives—priests and bishops as well as lay people—have prided themselves on their obedience, and progressives have flaunted their disobedience. To give the most extreme examples, progressive bishops would make their chums laugh by talking about how they had tossed the latest Instruction from Rome—on liturgical abuses, for example—into the bin. Conservatives would obey rules and superiors’ orders even if it broke their hearts to do so, for example the rule forbidding the celebration of the older form of the Mass from Rome, or a demand by their own bishop to wreck their church’s sanctuary.

Differing conceptions of the virtue of obedience is only part of the explanation for this phenomenon. The other side was political realism. Both sides knew that when push came to shove most bishops, bishops’ conferences, the Catholic media, and often the Holy See as well, would enforce rules and back up superiors when they pushed the progressive agenda, but not when they sought to preserve things which conservatives held dear. Although in theory no priest is obliged to have females serving the Altar, in practice endless problems nearly always await priests who do not. Although in theory denying the teaching of the Church on contraception or the Resurrection should get a priest into very serious trouble, up to and including suspension as a priest and excommunication, in practice this almost never happens.

In short, upholding the immemorial teaching and the liturgical practice of the Church can lead to a priest being removed from pastoral assignments and even ‘cancelled’; trashing these things, particularly if done with a light seasoning of ambiguity, is often the path to preferment. As a line of the 1995 Catholic novel, The Bishop of San Fernando puts it: ‘In order to be a mover and shaker, one must be a wrecker.’ The pseudonymous author of the novel was a conservative priest.

I have argued elsewhere why it seemed sensible for conservatives to maintain their position. Since the rules as promulgated were more favourable to them than the rules as implemented and upheld, rules could be used to criticise the progressives. This was only possible, however, if the conservatives themselves submitted to them: if they did not, their appeal to the rules against their opponents looks disingenuous. Furthermore, if they ignored the rules they feared that they would contribute to the complete dissolution of the law-governed society the Church is supposed to be, and in any case they would never get away with breaking the rules in the ways they would have liked to break them.

However much sympathy one might have with the conservatives in this situation, it must be acknowledged that they shared with the progressives a problematic attitude to the rules. For both sides in this struggle, the Church’s rules were instruments in a power-struggle. The rules never expressed either a coherent conservative theological vision, or a coherent progressive vision, but represented an uneasy, ever-shifting compromise, and the revision, interpretation, and enforcement of rules were ways of each side trying to force their opponents to move in their preferred direction. Rules are man-made, always subject to revision, useful as levers to effect change or to show off one’s hegemony. With a few exceptions, neither side regarded them as expressions of God’s will, or derived from Divine or Natural Law.

Peter Kwasniewski’s short new book, True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times is an attempt to articulate a different understanding of how rules should be understood, and what kind of obedience we owe them.

If you ask conservative clergy, they will agree, in principle, that authority comes from God and exists to promote the common good. They know that St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and the whole theological tradition insist that laws which harm the common good should not be obeyed. This principle has never had much practical traction, for them, however, because they understand the ‘common good’ as a vague summation of doing good to souls, and whether keeping or breaking a rule would promote that is almost always a question of such cosmic complexity that priests and bishops can reasonably regard as above their pay-grade to determine. And surely, they will say, breaking the rules has a presumption against it.

Kwasniewski breaks through this impasse by proposing that the traditional liturgy is itself an inseparable component of the Church’s common good. Once this is stated clearly, it is very difficult to deny. Clearly the ancient Roman liturgy developed under the hand of Providence, as Pope Pius XII made clear in Mediator Dei (63) in 1947: it is a gift to the Church, like the Deposit of Faith itself. Clearly, again, it represents a treasury of spirituality, theology, and culture, as Pope Paul VI taught in Sacrificium Laudis (1966). Equally clearly, its existence places upon us an obligation to preserve it, with a presumption against change, as indicated by the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. This document calls repeatedly for ‘restoration’ and ‘preservation’, and lays down the principle (in section 23): ‘there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.’ This is a criterion so stringent that, if it had been followed, the changes of 1955 and 1960 would never have been allowed, let alone the changes which followed the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concililum in 1963.

Pope Benedict reminded us that the normativity, the action-guiding force, of the older liturgy is not a thing of the past. As he wrote to the bishops of the world in 2007:

What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

Kwasniewski’s argument, then, is a stark one. Since the Church’s ancient liturgy is part of the ‘common good,’ rules and orders which undermine or restrict it are null and void.

This seems, to me, a little too quick. The liturgy is only part of the common good, even it is a major part, and there may be other considerations. Kwasniewski goes on to give the example of restrictions on the liturgy brought in in response to the COVID epidemic as something which falls foul of his argument. However, leaving aside the prudential question of whether the restrictions of the last few years were well-considered and proportionate, considerations deriving from the physical health and safety of worshippers have many times over the centuries been taken to justify liturgical restrictions and adaptations. People have worshipped outside during outbreaks of the bubonic plague; people with various illnesses have been quarantined and thus prevented from attending Mass; priests have hidden during times of persecution, making access to the sacraments more difficult; and practices like the Pax (kiss of peace) have been repeatedly adapted on hygienic grounds. People are routinely advised to absent themselves from public worship when they fear they may be infectious with any serious illness.

When discussing the hygiene implications of the reception of the Precious Blood, I have encountered the view that Providence would surely protect those who risk infection out of devotion. That, however, is not what Tradition teaches us. St Thomas Aquinas charges sternly that a poisoned chalice is not to be consumed by the priest or offered to others (Summa Theologica IIIa Q83 a.6, ad3). Yes, health can trump liturgical and devotional considerations.

This does not mean that we can’t have a proper discussion about whether the COVID-era restrictions were justified: naturally, we can. But it is not simply the case that considerations of that type don’t count for anything.

More difficult, in fact, is in trying to take account of other kinds of considerations: when priests say, from bitter experience, that if they fail to destroy a historic altar, or allow females to serve, or whatever it might be, they will be removed from office and replaced with a hard-line progressive: or perhaps by no-one at all. This is the kind of argument which has been made by conservative priests over the decades since the liturgical and theological revolution.

Others have considered things in a different way. Fr Bryan Houghton, for example, resigned his position as parish priest in England voluntarily, rather than say the reformed Mass in November 1969. He said that he would go along with the reform until the Canon of the Mass was touched, which in time it was. For him, the damage being done liturgically was so great that he could not in conscience cooperate with it. And while he regretted leaving his parishioners, it was not long before he found pastoral work to do in his place of retirement, in France.

I admire Fr Houghton’s courage and adherence to principles, and over the years many priests have made a similar calculation. It does not follow, however, that priests who choose differently are invariably wrong, since they may be in a different situation with different calculations to make. Peter Kwasniewski has done us all a favour by setting out the arguments with great clarity, but our individual circumstances can make applying even the clearest of principles complicated. In seeing how priests and bishops navigate the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century, we should hold fast to the Tradition—as St Paul teaches us (2 Thessalonians 2:15)—and also apply the virtues of prudence, charity, and patience.

Peter Kwasniewski’s book is available here, and will be sent for free to clergy who request it.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash.


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