Obedience in a Time of Crisis – A Cross in the Road


Anarchy is the condition in any society where there is no law, no rule, no measure – chaos, and may be said to be the opposite of Christianity, with God creating the world according to ‘law, rule and measure’, a true cosmos, or ‘ordered and structured thing’.

The Greek word arche can mean either authority or governance – hence ‘monarchy’, or rule by one – but can also mean a principle or source. This double meaning is likely intended in the opening declaration in the Gospel of Saint John:  En arche ho logos – ‘In the beginning was the Word’. The Word, Christ, is the source, the measure, the principle, the Law and all the Prophets, all that the Father – the primordial arche – willed to ‘speak’ to His people, all revelation, all truth, summed up in Christ.

The Church that Christ founded is the ‘pillar and bulwark’ of this truth, the safe depository of God’s word, if you will, and the Magisterium draws from this source ‘treasures old and new’, guiding us towards eternity as Mater et Magistra – as mother, nourishing with the grace of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist – and as teacher, offering us the truths that guide our decisions and actions, including our panoply of ecclesiastic, liturgical, and, in an extended sense, civil and societal laws.

Our proper response to these laws is obedience, derived from the Latin ob-audire, to listen to closely, to take into one’s heart – and to act accordingly.

But we are not slaves, nor automatons, and God has left us in freedom, in the hand of our own counsel, which is why, in this reflection obedience, we should begin with the end, that is, the final and ultimate arbiter of our decisions and actions, what John Paul II calls the ‘proximate norm’ of morality, our conscience.

Conscience, strictly speaking, is an act, by which we judge the moral quality of an act that we have done, are doing, or intend to do – it is an act, upon an act, if you will. And, based on this judgement – whether we discern the act to be good or evil – we act, either in accordance with the certain judgement of our conscience – or against it, and so condemn ourselves, to some extent. (We don’t delve here into mortal and venial sin, but they do differ in their gravity, which implies to what extent we have violated and contravened our conscience).

As I have oft quoted the final line of the fifth chapter, on conscience, of Saint John-Henry Newman’s 1875 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk – which was more like a tome, running to 150 pages:

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

Before we run off too easily to do whatever we want in the name of Newman, we must consider that conscience must be formed and informed, by what sources are presented to us, and that we have at our disposal. We must make that ‘judgement of conscience’ as certain, and as much in accord with objective truth, as we are able in the circumstances, and then make our final decision, freely, with serenity of conscience, that we are doing the ‘right thing’.

In his masterful encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, – a very good source for our conscience! – Pope John Paul clarifies (par. 38 – 41) that conscience is neither completely autonomous – literally, a ‘law unto itself’. Nor is it completely heteronomous, slavishly obeying the law ‘of another’.

Rather, as he puts it, conscience is a participated theonomy, a free response to and working with the law of God, which draws us suaviter et fortiter, sweetly yet insistently, to follow Him, and do His will, in which, and only in which, is our peace.

Are the multitude of laws – as Thomas More put it, the very thicket – in which we live always a manifestation of God’s will? Must we always obey the law, and is that the way to do God’s will and achieve heaven?

In most cases, in properly ordered societies, yes – but with some qualification. All authority is from God, ultimately, and it follows that the laws decreed by those authorities are also from God. But not always.

We should keep in mind that law is a means to an end, not the end itself. Some laws are more perfect and infallible means – natural and divine law, as coming from God Himself – while other laws are less perfect and most eminently fallible – as derived from imperfect and fallible human authorities.

Hence, in his treatise on law (I-II, q.96, a.4), Saint Thomas asks whether law always binds us in conscience, and by law here he means human law, for he takes it as given that God’s law always is always binding (even if some may be invincibly ignorant of that law, and hence not culpable, it still binds them in an objective sense).

What Thomas has in mind here are the thicket of human laws – is disobedience to these always a violation of our conscience, and a sin?

His answer, as are most of his answers, is a nuanced one, that pertains especially to the situation we are facing in this Covidian crisis.

He says that if a human law is contrary to the divine or natural law, then it cannot be obeyed. Through the centuries, many martyrs made their way merrily to heaven, as Christians had to resist the imperial decree to worship idols, or burn Scripture, or trample the Cross.

Conversely, if a human law is simply an expression of natural law – as in, the prohibition of murder or adultery – then it must be obeyed, but because of its divine authority, not so much its human.

It’s in all the grey area, in things that are, in the abstract at least, more or less morally neutral, that it gets murky, such as speed limits, consumption of alcohol, where we might wander on a hike, what we might teach our children in school (if the state, say, decrees with Plato that all children must learn geometry), or, in the situation before us, to keep six feet apart, to gather in groups no larger than five, and so on.

Saint Thomas says that in such cases, there are three things we should take into account when discerning the binding force of a law on our conscience:

First, its end: Is the law for the common good of that specific society and, hence, my own good within that society? It may be a good thing to do push-ups, but it does seem quite the thing for a chess club.

Second, its author: Following from the first, is the law within the scope of the lawmaker’s authority? A math teacher may make students do their calculus homework, but clarinet lessons are beyond his reach. Just so, a bishop may have much authority within his diocese, but such authority ends upon its borders. And a police officer cannot enter my home without a warrant from a judge.

Third, its form: The law must be proportionately burdensome – for all law is something of a burden – not unduly so, and especially not unduly so upon certain members of society. It was quite right for Rosa Parks to break the law, and sit in the front of that Montgomery bus on December 1st, 1955, for why should the colour of one’s skin determine where one sits? And, in far more tragic way, we must fight for the rights of the unborn, who bear the burden of a false notion of ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’, at the cost of their lives.

Saint Thomas says that even if we, in conscience, deem a law to be irrational, over burdensome, or just plain ridiculous, we generally obey, at least in public, to avoid ‘scandal and disturbance’, and the undermining of authority. Furthermore, our own conscience is fallible, and we may not be correct, or see all the facts, or be aware of all the circumstances of which the lawmaker is aware.

The reader may apply these principles according to the lights of his own conscience.

But we may conclude with this final clarification, that ecclesiastical authorities bind us more than secular ones, and we are more bound to obey our bishops than our premiers, at least within the sphere of their episcopal authority.

This leads us into some perilous waters, for many have been led astray – that is, into schism and heresy – by considering themselves more enlightened than the Church – we may ponder any number, from Mani, to Arius, to Luther, to the modern schismatics – and the devil rejoices in dividing, isolating and conquering.

Yet there have been and may yet be times where a bishop must be corrected and even – we hope not – resisted. In the fourth century, many successors of the Apostles strayed off after Arius, who taught that Christ was not really divine, not the true son of God. As Saint Jerome lamented, the ‘world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian’. The laity, along with some few bishops, such as the great Athanasius and his watchword of homoousios, had to resist and keep the fullness of the Faith.

The same could be said for other heresies with which many bishops and priests went along: Nestorianism (Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople, second only to the Pope, and in some ways more influential than he, but denied the divine motherhood of the Virgin and the unity of the Incarnation), monophysitism, monothelitism, iconoclasm, and on it goes.

Closer to our won era, when Henry VIII promulgated his Oath of Supremacy, making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England, only one bishop resisted, Saint John Fisher. Most of the nobility followed the bishops, and signed away their allegiance to Rome, with few exceptions, Thomas More being the most significant and honoured. Both Fisher and More paid the price with their heads.

To be clear, we are not facing that choice – yet – only to say that bishops are not infallible, and even the Pope only so under certain conditions. Their Magisterium is a guide to our conscience, not our conscience itself.

So what of lesser matters? We may just ponder two with which many are faced: the wearing of a – I perhaps should write ‘the’ – mask, and the proscribing of Communion on the tongue, prescribing reception on the hand only.

Do these decrees, issued from many chanceries across the world, bind in conscience?

We may apply Saint Thomas’ three criteria:

One could certainly argue that such decrees, strictly speaking, that a bishop’s authority, extends to the specification of doctrine and the application of said doctrine. To mandate a practice that until 1970 was considered an abuse of the sacrament, and only permitted under indult by Pope Paul VI, seems at least disconcerting. And I’m not sure about a bishop forcing us to wear a certain piece of medical equipment at Mass. He may advise, but that’s a different matter.

What of the end, the common good? The purpose of liturgy, and the Mass especially, is to offer a sacrifice of praise to God, and to receive His grace through the sacramental species. Opinion is widely divided over the efficacy of either procedure: Given the micron-size of this virus, most masks are like trying to stop a mosquito with a chain-link fence. And we might add that breathing in one’s own carbon dioxide does not seem a recipe for health. As far as Communion goes, many priests admit that in administering Communion, they touch the hand of those receiving so, far more than they touch the tongue of those receiving so. And which body part has more germs? How much should that factor into how we receive our Lord, in accord with two millennia of tradition and custom? Besides these medical considerations, do we want a Church, or a society, of people with veiled faces, an anonymous group praising God with mumbled voices? And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18)

And what of the form, the proportionate burden? Are we to mask until some expert epidemiologist – many of whom just a while ago were saying masks were useless, but wear them if they make you feel good – tells us we may not? And if this be optional but ‘strongly recommended’, will this not lead to fractiousness, judgmentalism, people looking askance at others – the ‘unmasked’ seen as potential infectors, at the very least lacking charity?

Whatever our decision as we go back to church – with gratitude –  we must also take into account Thomas’ caveat of ‘scandal and disturbance’. Clearly, in dioceses where must masking and receiving on the hand are mandated, you have several options, which must be made in your own conscience:

One could go along to get along, for neither wearing a mask nor receiving in the hand is an intrinsic evil, and one might just tolerate such to participate once again in the sacraments. This may also have elements of scandal, and complaisance – that one is submitting to a practice with which one does not agree – but then so do a lot of things in life. At one general level – prescinding from the present considerations – we can’t have an an-archical church, with everyone making up their own mind, and often must tolerate a lot of things with which we don’t agree, keeping our eyes on the prize.

Then again, one might disobey the direct decrees of the diocese, and enter unmasked, but you will more than likely not be allowed in, or hauled out soon afterward, and would be counter-productive. And you will likely be refused the Eucharist which, obviously, we cannot just go and get for ourselves. To stand in defiance may make a statement, but would also be a disturbance, as well as a likely scandal to oneself and others – we must beware the spirit of disobedience, and even rebellion, within our own souls, which may begin with apparently just causes, but oft does not end there.

One could continue to avail oneself of the dispensation, stay home, or stand outside the church, and pray – as many have been doing all along. The decrees only allow a certain number back into the churches, so some may be forced into this option, or choose it to allow others to attend.

Or, if you are able, drive – or even move – to another diocese where you are more free to worship more freely in accord with your conscience.

And, whatever you decide, you are free to write to your bishop and let him know what you think. After all, we’re all the Church, and, as Canon Law states (212.3), we are free, even obliged, at times to make our minds known to our pastors, with respect and charity, but also in truth:

In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.  

There is no easy answer to this, especially for those who feel strongly about these issues, and, there are deeper issues at stake here- see Archbishop Vigano’s recent letter – upon which I hope to write soon. For now, pray for the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who will show us the path of truth to salvation. As today’s Psalm (15/16) exhorts us:  I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.