Sunday, 1 June 2008

On religious obedience

The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has just released an Instruction on "The Service of Authority and Obedience", and it looks to me at least suspiciously like another element of Pope Benedict's 'Marshall Plan'.

We have known from the beginning of his pontificate of his commitment to the importance of the religious life to the life of the Church. And he has spoken a number of times about the need for religious institutes to return to fidelity to their founder's charism. And I don't think he means the kind of 'return' that resulted, for example, in most Benedictine monasteries observing far fewer of the provisions of the Rule of St Benedict then they had before the 'renewal' process began!

Bringing back the vow of obedience

The new Instruction addresses a key issue that has afflicted contemporary monasticism: how to give back some real content to the vow of obedience, while at the same time avoiding the culture of mindless conformity that saw so many communities destroy themselves in the name of obedience to the 'spirit' of Vatican II.

Writing on a topic like obedience is challenging because virtually every religious order has its own distinctive interpretation of what religious obedience is really about.

This Instruction is notable first of all in quoting heavily from the Rule of St Benedict, which is after all the base document for Western monasticism, as well as drawing on insights from other key founders such as St Augustine, St Bernard, St Francis, St Clare and St Ignatius. The traditional orders have sometimes found it hard to recognise themselves in Vatican documents of the last several decades, but in this one they will have no such difficulty.

Secondly, the document provides a wonderful meditation on the nature of leadership that, though directed at those in religious life, has a much wider relevance.

Thirdly, it insists on the need for the practice of obedience to be a genuine part of religious life - indeed the life of every Christian - notwithstanding the pressures of Western culture which prize individualism and self-realization over community. It points out that it is inherent to the nature of the Church that our obedience to God is practiced not just directly to God but also indirectly. Laws and rules, external events, and those in positions of authority all play an important rule in the life of every Christian. It warns however against attempting to go too far in the direction of 'collectivity and excessive uniformity' in religious life.

The Instruction argues instead for a sense of interdependence between members, and between superiors and members in order to maintain a careful balance between on the one hand 'childish dependence', and on the other 'self-sufficient independence'.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the document to say that Pope Benedict's influence and priorities seem to loom heavily in some of these themes and approaches (and in the selection of references and supportng argument). But it is certainly consonant with his teaching, and draws heavily on it. And in one area in particular I think one can certainly discern his touch, and that is on the case for disobedience in extreme situations.

When is it necessary to obey God rather than man?

One of its most important sections at least from a traditionalist point of view - particularly to the breakaway traditional monasteries such as Le Barroux and Flavigny (who even now remain outside the Benedictine Confederation) - is the discussion of when it might be necessary to disobey a superior.

The Instruction is careful to note that these actions should not be the norm, nor lightly undertaken. All the same, it does include a section that gives some comfort to the traditionalist monks that felt compelled to leave their monasteries in order to preserve their charism.

"27. Here one could ask: Can there be situations in which a person's conscience would not seem to permit following the directives given by persons in authority? Can it happen, in short, that the consecrated person must state in relation to the norms or to their superiors: “It is necessary to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? This is the case of the so-called objection in conscience of which Paul VI spoke, and that should be considered in its authentic meaning.

If it is true that conscience is the place where the voice of the Lord resounds, the voice that indicates to us how to behave, it is also true that it is necessary to learn to listen to this voice very attentively in order to know how to recognize it and distinguish it from other voices. In fact, it is necessary not to confuse this voice with those which emerge from a subjectivism that ignores or disregards the sources and criteria that cannot be given up and are mandatory in the formation of judgments of conscience: “It is the ‘heart' converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience”, and “freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from' the truth but always and only freedom ‘in' the truth”.

The consecrated person will then have to reflect long before concluding that it is not the obedience received but what is sensed within him or herself that represents the will of God. He or she will also have to remember to keep the law of mediation in force in all cases, guarding him or herself from making serious decisions without any examination and verification. It certainly remains indisputable that what counts is to arrive at knowing and fulfilling the will of God, but it ought to be likewise indisputable that the consecrated person is committed by vow to accept this holy will through determined mediations. To say that what counts is the will of God, not the means, and to reject them or to accept them only on the basis of what is pleasing, can take away the meaning of the person's vow, and empty his or her own life of one of its essential characteristics.

Consequently, “apart from an order manifestly contrary to the laws of God or the constitutions of the institute, or one involving a serious and certain evil — in which case there is no obligation to obey — the superior's decisions concern a field in which the calculation of the greater good can vary according to the point of view. To conclude from the fact that a directive seems objectively less good that it is unlawful and contrary to conscience would mean an unrealistic disregard of the obscurity and ambivalence of many human realities. Besides, refusal to obey involves an often serious loss for the common good.

A religious should not easily conclude that there is a contradiction between the judgment of his conscience and that of his superior. This exceptional situation will sometimes involve true interior suffering, after the pattern of Christ himself ‘who learned obedience through suffering' (Heb 5:8)”.

This is an important statement I think.

More food for thought

There is much more in this Instruction worth meditating on, and I might include some further commentary on it over the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you want to take a look at the document, you can find it here:

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