True Obedience: A Key Consideration for Our Time

Editor’s Note: In connection with our ongoing exploration of traditional principles of ecclesiology and as a “pre-emptive strike” (so to speak) in view of further anti-traditional moves expected from the Vatican, we offer this exclusive excerpt from a forthcoming book by our contributing editor Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times, with our thanks to Sophia Institute Press. The book will be released in late February. Meanwhile, it may be pre-ordered from Amazon or directly from the publisher. For an application of these principles to specific cases in the 20th century including that of Archbishop Lefebvre, see Dr. Kwasniewski’s article, “Clandestine Ordinations Against Church Law: Lessons from Cardinal Wojtyła and Cardinal Slipyj.”

Modern people, heirs of an incoherent totalitarian liberalism, typically oscillate between despising all authority and blindly submitting to whatever authority they still acknowledge. There is no longer a rich network of authorities at various levels that form a constellation of reference points within which the individual Christian yields his obedience to God and to the hierarchy that proceeds from God.[1] Authority is too often twisted into a voluntaristic, arbitrary caricature of itself, and the obedience given to such a substitute is itself a caricature. It is no virtue to submit to known falsehoods; there is no merit in obeying a system erected on errors and lies.

What we must understand is that the virtue of obedience, properly understood, is beautiful because it is always an obedience to GOD, whether immediately or mediately. For example, when I worship God on the Lord’s Day, I am doing so out of obedience to Him directly, because He is the one who has given the divine law that we must set aside one day of the week to worship Him. When I obey the pastors of the Church by assisting at Mass on Sunday, I am also obeying God, but indirectly, because the pastors who govern in His Name are the ones who established that particular determination of the precept. Similarly, when I obey legitimately-constituted civil authority, it is because it has its authority from God—not from the people. According to Pope Leo XIII, the one whom we must always obey—the only one whom we ultimately obey—is God Himself. It would be unworthy of human dignity, he says, that one man should have to submit to another man equal to him in nature, unless the ruler rules in God’s name and by His authority, for then we are giving our assent to what God wills through His minister.[2]

The implications of this point are staggering. Immediately we understand why any human being, no matter what his position in the Church or in the State, is to be obeyed only if and when what he commands is in harmony with the law of God, or at very least not evidently opposed to it. If a civil law or an ecclesiastical law is at odds with the divine law or the natural law (which is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law of God’s mind), then the principle memorably enunciated in the Acts of the Apostles takes force: “We must obey God rather than men.” If one has a serious and well-founded doubt about whether the human command is compatible with the divine or natural law, one should not obey it. To say otherwise would be to say that in a case where we fear we might be committing a mortal sin, or even a venial sin, we should go ahead and do it lest we offend our superior.

Thus, obedience to anyone except to God is not an absolute and does not exist in a vacuum. It has conditions for its existence, levels at which it operates, and limits. A sound and sober analysis of this question is given by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologiae.[3] According to Aquinas, it belongs to the divine order that rulership is exercised not solely by God, whose will is always in accord with wisdom, but also by His representatives, whose will may not always be right: “It is written (Acts 5:29): We ought to obey God rather than men. Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.”[4] St. Thomas explains:

There are two reasons for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior in all things. First, on account of the command of a higher power. For as a gloss says on Romans 13:2, ‘They that resist the power, resist the ordinance of God’: ‘If a commissioner issue an order, are you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul? Again if the proconsul command one thing, and the emperor another, will you hesitate to disregard the former and serve the latter? Therefore if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God’ (cf. St. Augustine, De Verb. Dom. viii). Secondly, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him.[5]

To clarify further, the Angelic Doctor writes:

Man is subject to God simply as regards all things, both internal and external, wherefore he is bound to obey Him in all things. On the other hand, inferiors are not subject to their superiors in all things, but only in certain things and in a particular way, in respect of which the superior stands between God and his subjects, whereas in respect of other matters the subject is immediately under God, by Whom he is taught either by the natural or by the written law.[6]

It is important to note that Catholic theologians are unanimous in maintaining that an authority can actually act against the common good, the pursuit and protection of which is the very basis of all legitimate authority—and, even more importantly, that ordinary Catholics are capable of recognizing when it is happening. If we could not, we would be helpless to respond to any moral or intellectual deviations on the part of our pastors and teachers. For that matter, if the faithful lacked this capacity of discernment, much of Church history would be unintelligible.

Take the staunch and public refusal of many Catholics in England to attend Archbishop Cranmer’s new, protestantized rite of Mass, even when they were encouraged to do so by clergy who preferred the strategy of compromise with the heretical forces coming to power there in the sixteenth century.[7] Even at the cost of inconvenience, harassment, fines, and worse penalties, devout English Catholics refused to attend what would only later be called the Anglican rite—and this, well before any directive from Rome asserted that the new service was “the offspring of schism, the badge of hatred of the Church,” and “grievously sinful” to attend.[8]

If we understand, then, how both conscience and virtue operate, we will see that there can be no such thing as “blind obedience” in the Christian life. To do anything good and to avoid evil, we must make a judgment about the good to be done or the evil to be avoided; we must engage in practical reasoning about any proposed course of action; we must interiorly will conformity to the truth and reject falsehood. While there are general rules of action and exceptionless norms, only the individual can, at the moment of acting, know and choose what is right to do or not do; this responsibility over oneself cannot be “outsourced” to someone else who will think and choose for him.[9] This, rightly understood, is the primacy of conscience to which the Catholic tradition bears witness.[10]

Of course, there will be times when a command is given to someone who is under another’s authority and the subordinate sees no moral difficulty in it; in that situation, the lack of anything objectionable in the command would free him to follow it without further ado. The point here is not that moral reasoning must be complicated and time-consuming—a virtuous person with an illuminated conscience will find certain decisions very easy to make, even if the consequence will be suffering—but rather, that moral reasoning is always going on and cannot be circumvented, nor should any attempt be made to do so in the name of a purportedly “holier” form of obedience.

If we are convinced that something essential, something decisive in the Faith is under attack from the pope or any other hierarch, we are not only permitted to refuse to do what is being asked or commanded, not only permitted to refuse to give up what is being unjustly taken away or forbidden; we are obliged to refuse, out of the love we bear to Our Lord Himself, our love for His Mystical Body, and our proper love for our own souls.

Because this is true, any penalty or punishment meted out for “disobedience” to the revolutionaries would be illicit. If a punishment is given on false theological or canonical premises, it is null and void, just as the canonical trial and excommunica­tion of Joan of Arc were recognized as illegitimate twenty-five years after her execution at the hands of corrupt and politically-motivated clergy.

Imagine a hierarch who removes, suspends, excommunicates, or seeks to laicize a Catholic priest because the priest loves and adheres to the liturgical tradition and the hierarch despises and rejects it.[11] The suspension or excommunication or even removal from the clerical state would be null and void: it is a self-contradiction for authority to be used against anyone whose only “crime” is that he “contends earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (cf. Jude 3). The priest may continue administering the sacraments as before; his faculties remain unimpaired.

Let me emphasize: I am speaking about a priest who is punished for nothing other than the “fault” of adherence to liturgical tradition, which is not a fault but a resplendent virtue—for example, a priest who is suspended just for continuing to say the traditional Latin Mass after the local Ordinary has dared to forbid it; or a priest who is removed from his pastorship and any parochial duties because he can no longer, in good conscience, distribute Holy Communion in the hand. Invariably, most superiors in cases like this will devise trumped-up charges to distract from the real issue.

Someone might object that I am, in essence, denying that legitimate ecclesiastical authority still exists, for if it did, any penalty it meted out against a priest, whether guilty or innocent, would still be effective pro tempore: a priest who had his faculties removed would lack faculties. After all, canon law assumes the validity of actions in the external forum.[12]

My response is that this reasoning would be true in ordinary times but not in our extraordinary times, when ecclesiastical authority, by its assault on liturgical and theological tradition, has turned against the common good of the Church, subverting its own purpose and, to that extent, its authority. Catholics recognize a law more fundamental than canonical dictates—one that conditions them necessarily and thoroughly: salus animarum suprema lex, the salvation of souls is the supreme law. It is for the salvation of souls that the entire structure of ecclesiastical law exists; it has no other purpose than ultimately to protect and advance the sharing of the life of Christ with mankind.

In normal circumstances, ecclesiastical laws create a structure within which the Church’s mission may unfold in an orderly and peaceful way. But there can be situations of anarchy or breakdown, corruption or apostasy, where the ordinary structures become impediments to, not facilitators of, the Church’s mission. In these cases, the voice of conscience dictates that one should do what needs to be done, in prudence and charity, for the achievement of the sovereign law. For example, St. Athanasius the Great was officially excommunicated but did not hesitate to carry on with his work nonetheless (including the public celebration of the liturgy), and many priests who remained faithful amid the extinction of the Catholic hierarchy in Elizabethan England exercised their ministry in violation of ordinary canonical norms, even over multiple generations.[13]

The conventional line of argument would be that if a priest’s faculties have been removed, he may continue to validly (but illicitly) offer the Holy Mass, baptize, confer the Last Rites, and confirm (if he does so at the time of Baptism or reception into the Church), but could not give valid sacramental absolution except in a case of emergency and could not serve as witness to a valid sacramental marriage. Without wishing to deny that there are complicated canonical issues involved, we must not fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the traditional Catholic Faith is under unprecedented assault from the very ones who should be its primary upholders and defenders. This already creates a generalized emergency that does not need to be “declared” as such. (Who would declare it? Surely not the lavender modernists who are in positions of highest authority and who benefit from, or at least approve of, the dissolution of Catholic faith and morals.) The fundamental right of the baptized to a traditional sacramental life, being of divine law, may never be compromised by any appeal to or application of human laws, howsoever authoritative they may be in se. The law does not provide for every situation, and without a doubt the canonical principles of equity and epikeia must come into play. Canon law exists to facilitate the glorification of God and the sanctification of His people, not to create impediments and obstructions to them.[14]

When a building is burning down, one tries to put out the fire and rescue victims with any means at hand, rather than waiting until the fire brigade arrives—especially if one knows from bitter experience that the fire chief is absent from his post, or sleeping, or intoxicated, or convinced that fires are beneficial, and most of the firemen are bumblers whose methods don’t work, or, worse, are paid by saboteurs to spray gasoline on the fire. The crisis in the Church is not to be blamed on those who, conscious of an obligation in the sight of God and a duty to suffering fellow believers, have responded to it as best they can, with the bright weapons of obedience to the highest law that governs all others.

To read more about the book from which this excerpt was taken, see the product page at Sophia Institute Press. Pre-orders may be placed either there or at Amazon.

Photo at the head of the article by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Stained glass window from the cathedral of Brussels.

[1] See Bronwen McShea, “Bishops Unbound: The History behind Today’s Crisis of Church Leadership,” First Things, January 2019.

[2] See ST II-II, Q. 104, art. 1. See Leo XIII, Diuturnum 11 and 17; Immortale Dei 18; Libertas 13.

[3] See ST II-II, QQ. 104 and 105.

[4] ST II-II, Q. 104, art. 5, sed contra.

[5] Ibid., corpus.

[6] Ibid., ad 2.

[7] The new missal of Pope Paul VI bears alarming similarities to Cranmer’s rite, as may be readily observed in any dispassionate comparison. Charts useful for this purpose can be found at and

[8] William Lilly, “England (Since the Reformation),The Catholic Encyclopedia, special ed. (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913), 5:449. See Michael Davies, Cranmer’s Godly Order: The Destruction of Catholicism through Liturgical Change, rev. ed. (Ft. Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 1995).

[9] See Marc D. Guerra, “Thomas More’s Correspondence on Conscience,” Religion & Liberty, vol. 10, n. 6, July 20, 2010. In his Commentary on the Sentences, St. Thomas says (In IV Sent., Dist. 38, Q. 2, art. 4, qa. 3) that a married man must be ready to die excommunicate rather than have marital relations with someone whom a church tribunal decrees to be his wife, but whom he knows is not his wife, since “truthfulness of life…must not be given up [even] to avoid scandal.”

[10] In the words of the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra: “Conscience says absolutely: you have to do this action; you mustn’t do that action. The voice of conscience confronts man’s freedom with an absolute: an absolute duty…. Man cannot dispense himself from an obligation which the judgement of conscience forces on him: the universal experience of remorse proves it….. The fact that man feels he cannot dispense himself from an obligation dictated by his own conscience shows that its judgment makes the person know a truth that pre-exists conscience itself. A truth, that is, which is not true because our conscience knows it, but, vice-versa; our conscience knows it because that truth exists. In other words: it is not truth that depends on conscience, but conscience that depends on truth” (“The Restoration of Man,” The Catholic World Report, September 20, 2017).

[11] See Fr. John P. Lovell, “What Is a Canceled Priest?,” OnePeterFive, October 4, 2021.

[12] The principle of “what is freely given can be freely taken away” (i.e., since a priest’s faculties are freely given by his ordinary, they may be freely taken away) must be properly understood. No man has an absolute right to become a priest, and no priest has an absolute right to offer the Mass or celebrate the other sacraments. But if we understand that the very purpose of the priesthood is to offer sacrifice, to reconcile sinners, to add new members to the Church, etc., then it would be absurd, once a man is ordained a priest, to impede his ministry—that is, Christ’s ministry in and through him—unless he is actually guilty of wrongdoing (e.g., heresy, schism, sexual abuse). It would thus be more accurate to say: “what is freely given for X purpose should not be taken away unless X is violated,” or, spelled out more fully, “what is freely given for the common good of the Church and the good of each of Christ’s faithful may not be taken away unless the recipient of that gift acts against the common good or against the good of the faithful.” This brings us squarely back to the question of the Church’s bonum commune, which cannot be severed from (in the words of Pius IV, speaking of the traditional Roman Rite) “the received and approved ceremonies of the Catholic Church in the solemn administration of all the sacraments.”

[13] See Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope, 17–22.

[14] For further reasoning in support of this position, see my article “Have There Been Worse Crises Than This One?,” OnePeterFive, January 13, 2021.

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