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The Politics of Free Obedience: What is a Lay Catholic To Do?

How can liberals stay in the Church after the recent Papal letter against the ordination of women and that Catechism of the Catholic Church that may have beautiful concepts but has exclusive language?

How can conservatives stay in the Church? Some have already left, saying that Pope John Paul II is much too liberal (followers of LeFebvre, for example). And what about that seemingly crazy decision on altar girls? Too much tradition has been given up already, they say.

And you Catholic Workers–don’t you have a lack of bureaucratic structure in your approach? How can you tolerate the Church? Do they tell you what to do? How do you handle that?

How can intelligent Catholics, or intelligent human beings, consider participating in such a Church? How can they bear the pain of terrible disappointments when decisions are made that are very hard to accept? What is a lay woman or man to do?

What are our choices? One could walk away in sadness and try to find meaning in life in other ways and places.

One could find and attack one’s foes in the Church (from left or right) and try to make the Church into what we feel it should be–immediately.

Or one could continue to read the New Testament and take the Jesus path, which is Matthew 25, the washing of the feet, the beatitudes, the Cross and the Resurrection, knowing that the Church is not “they” making decisions, but “us” and “they” serving the poor.

We have all known people who have chosen the road of despair rather than hope.

But friends in the Faith whose ideas come from a deep life of prayer can help us find our path. We remember making a retreat with the prominent English Jesuit Bernard Bassett. We were looking forward to plopping the problem that was nagging us into his lap. We had responsibilities on certain floors at a hospital and had no problem covering them. But on the other floors the people were being neglected by those responsible. Gradually, we assumed responsibility for the other floors, but we were getting tired of it.

With the advent of psychology as “the” ingredient in spiritual direction, we just knew that this famous Jesuit would say, “Of course, do only what you are assigned. Don’t try to take on the whole world. You aren’t responsible for what others don’t do.”

He did no such thing. Instead, he jumped out of his chair, shouting, “The washing of the feet!” It’s all answered in the washing of the feet! The washing of the feet! Keep doing what you are doing!”

Our efforts to thwart Matthew 25 (“What you do to the least of these, you do to Me”) were ended once again.

Who would One rather have as Pope or Bishops?

Obedience!–one says, aghast. How could one be obedient to such an oppressive institution?

Obedience is not a popular concept today. It makes a modern person shudder even to think of such an idea. The word has connotations of mindlessness, limitations on expression of one’s talents and abilities. It raises the most basic questions about what God is like and why one would want to have to submit in obedience to Him and to a plan the Lord might have devised for us without our knowledge. And the idea of obedience to the Church is even worse.

But, as matter of fact, obedience is very popular in our society. Without the Church, people find current intellectual fashion or fads and accept them as their creed. They accept these beliefs whole, without much analysis, and give unquestioning obedience to the leaders.

One current fashion is political correctness and one of its special publications is the New York Times. The infallible pronouncements of the powerful leaders of this movement are much more apodictic than those of any Pope. They actually make John Paul II look like a minor-leaguer. They attack anyone of religious beliefs as a fanatic, a nut or a bigot. One cannot disagree with them or disobey without dire consequences and a form of excommunication. (Ironically, political correctness grew out of the struggle for justice in the civil rights movement and the work for peace of the 1960’s; Catholics have subsequently had to part company on some issues with some of the Protestants and other people of good will who joined together in these historic struggles.)

The new dogmatists also reach those who have adopted “me first” spiritualities. With the abandonment of even the Golden Rule, these new spiritualities have brought narcissism to new heights–or rather depths.

From a different perspective, a current fashion is the absolute belief in capitalism and the free market as the best force to control our destiny. One dare not disagree, even though the archenemy, Communism, has been discredited. When one protests the terrible impact of current economic policies on workers, especially in the Third World, but even in the U.S., the infallible authorities point out that one must have faith in the free market, and then continue their policies which are advantageous to the few. The drops from the trickle down theory become drops of blood for the poor.

Another example of longer duration has been a century of Freudian dogmas. The authors personally have known some of the most brilliant minds on the West Coast who gave absolute, almost blind obedience to these dogmas. Joining them in the diagnosis of disturbed children, one had to accept these dogmas without question. They demanded more faith than one would need for accepting the Apostle’s Creed.

Paradox of the Christian Faith

“But why is obedience even a question?,” people ask today. Can’t we believe in God and just make our own decisions? He gave us a brain, after all!

The great mystics, the best theologians and the best spiritual guides all tell us that faith is not only belief in a Person, it is submission of our will to God. And Christianity is not a religion of “me and God” alone. The Lord left us a community. He said, “Where two or three are gathered…”–not one alone–and asked us to be responsible for one another.

One comes to the Church for the fullness of faith, for the Eucharist, for the forgiveness of God and the community, and trusts in the succession of the Apostles emphasized by all of the early Church Fathers. And in this process, one encounters what Mel Piehl, writing in Revolution of the Heart, edited by Patrick Coy (New Society Publishers), calls the “central paradox of the Christian faith: that the believer freely chooses to submit individual free will to God and other people.”

When a person has had a real religious experience, an elementary confrontation with the Living God and a meeting with Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, the proud self-sufficient spirit lives no longer. The believer realizes that one is not all-knowing; the person will find it difficult to be self-righteous. The believer seeks the way of the Gospel and finds that Jesus was obedient, seeking the will of His Father, no matter how painful, even unto death–a death that was the way to redemption and the Resurrection, not only for the Lord but for all who believe in Him. Somehow we must follow in His steps and keep his Words–through God’s grace.

We are Free to Serve

Obedience has to do with trying to discover God’s plan in our lives–and this takes place in the community of the Church.

Obedience is listening to the Lord and other people, not waiting for the commands of some monarch.

And because our obedience is freely given, we are free to find creative ways to live the Gospel. We are free to give our lives totally to the service of the poor. As lay Catholics we do not have to wait for orders from Rome to begin washing others’ feet. We are free to love our enemies and seek to end terrible conflicts and to do many things the Gospel asks of us. We are free to develop alternatives to an industrial society which takes away the dignity and meaning of work. We are free to help the stranger in a strange land. We are free to work against the evils of racism and anti-Semitism. We are free to overcome our self-centeredness and go the extra mile. We are free to give up all and follow Jesus. We are not dependent on current fads. We are not controlled by moods and instincts. We have a much higher level of freedom than many others.

And throughout the almost 2,000 year history of the Church, we can observe that those who responded in great dedication to the freedom to live the Gospel ultimately had much more success in influencing the Church than those who responded in anger.

As Mel Piehl points out, “Almost by definition the most perfect expressions of Christian values flourish not in the visible places of society but in the invisible, not among the conventionally powerful but among the powerless.” Giving up all means gaining all, but not in the world’s terms.

Obedience Liberates

In trying to understand obedience it is interesting to reflect on what some of the writers on spirituality of this century have said about it.

From a liberation perspective, Johannes Metz has said that “obedience is the radical and uncalculated surrender of one’s life to God the Father who raises up and liberates. It impels one to stand close to those for whom obedience is not a matter of virtue, but the sign of oppression….” This definiton was written about the religious life, but it is applicable to anyone.

And Thomas Merton helps us to know that following the will of God will not crush us or destroy our personalities, but call us to our greatest potential. He tells us that perfection means “simple fidelity” to the will of God in every circumstance of our ordinary life. To be a saint means to be oneself, to be what God intended one to be. We are called to share with God “the work of creating the truth of our identity.” But one cannot find oneself in isolation from the rest of humankind. We must give ourselves to others in the purity of selfless love. (New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions Books).

The Spirit is with the Church

There is hope. The three images of the Church emphasized in the New Testament and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church: the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, give us a perspective of God’s presence with the Church that we know can ultimately overcome narrowness, conflicts, painful disagreements, and the possibility of being uprooted from the best of Catholic traditions.

We have not yet read the new Catechism but we are interested in seeing it. Our interest was piqued when Fr. Tom Sheehy, who worked for peace and justice for many years, was telling the pastor of All Saints in a conversation at the Catholic Conference in Houston, a few days before his death, that a workshop on the Catechism of the Catholic Church had changed his life.

Some Models

Two examples of people who used their freedom to live the Gospel stand out strikingly: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker and St. Francis of Assisi.

Dorothy Day understood the human side of the Church and was very aware of its failings, but she asked that we follow the Gospel precept to be obedient to every living thing: “Be subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake.” It means washing the feet of others, as Jesus did at the Last Supper. “You call me Master and Lord,” he said, “and rightly so, for that is what I am. Then I, your Lord, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example; you are to do as I have done for you.” To serve others, not to seek power over them. Not to dominate not to judge others.

In Dorothy Day’s view, the works of mercy are neither paternalistic charity nor formal religious duty, but an opportunity for expressing the freely given love at the heart of Christian faith.

The Catholic Workers not only believed in the daily practice of the works of mercy as opposed to the works of war, but performed them, day after day, year after year, and lived a model of what they believed the Church should be.

At the same time they published a newspaper to bring Catholic social teaching to society and picketed when necessary and sometimes went to jail to bring attention to problems of injustice to the poor, to workers, or for the sake of peace.

But all of this has been based on a profound faith, as Dorothy Day wrote in her essay on obedience:

“Faith is required when we speak of obedience. Faith in a God who created us, a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Faith in a God to whom we owe obedience for the very reason that we have been endowed with freedom to obey or disobey. Love, Beauty, Truth, all the attributes of God which we see reflected about us in creatures, in the
very works of man himself…fill our hearts with such wonder and gratitude that we cannot help but obey and worship…My faith may be the size of a mustard seed but even so, even aside from its potential, it brings with it the beginning of love, an inkling of love, so intense that human love with all its heights and depths pales in comparison.”

Dorothy Day’s contention, here and elsewhere, is that faith and obedience to the Church is not a constraint but an expression of spiritual freedom–when, of course, it is freely entered into.

Dorothy Day and the Worker were able to influence the Church in the United States, disproportionately to the size of the movement. A much quoted example of this is the credit given to Dorothy by the U.S. Bishops in their pastoral letter on peace.

The life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, a layman through whom the face of the earth was renewed, also inspires us. And he had difficulties and struggles with obedience.

We can look to him, a non-priest, as an example of a person who made a decision. He was initially refused permission to start his order by a medieval Pope. He was told that his idea for the Franciscans was too harsh; he thought it was what Jesus taught in the Gospels. He had to make a decision.

He could mobilize a crusade against the Pope for such corruptness as refusing to help him, or he could seek other solutions, wait, work and pray for guidance. He did the latter, and went about changing totally the face of Europe with the blessing of the Church. Whom do we remember, the Pope or St. Francis?

Frustrated Bachelor?

As an example on a very small scale, the authors listened to a person condemn in rage all bishops as inept, sexually frustrated bachelors who could not inspire anyone–simply because one bishop did not fund or implement his plan for peace several years before. He had carried this rage for years, since his first and last meeting with a bishop.

Any Monday morning quarterback could have told him that he should fund and implement his own peace plan and not lay his failure at the feet of an old bishop who took the trouble to hear this person out.

At around the same time this same old bishop told us to start a Legion of Mary group or sodality instead of a Catholic Worker House. We said no. He blessed us and wished us well.

He came several times to visit us after we started our Catholic Worker House and to celebrate the liturgy. He came alone without secretaries or masters of ceremonies and didn’t seem frustrated at all. In fact, he spent all of his time during his visits sharing with the poor people of the house, since he spoke Spanish perfectly–maybe that goes with

How Can we Respond?

“But,” contemporary Catholics wail, “it’s this particular Pope, or this particular bishop or priest or Sister–you can’t expect me to have patience with this person!”

There have been many difficult times in the Church’s history. Sometimes there has been outstanding leadership; sometimes the leadership has been, at best, weak, and at worst, corrupt. But the Holy Spirit has always been with the Church and, in the darkest, most difficult times, has appeared in totally unexpected ways and in unexpected
places–sometimes among the laity–to call the Church to herself again–not by words alone, but by living the Gospel in creative ways.

Recent decisions of the Pope cannot be allowed to destroy our free obedience to God and to the Body of Christ, the Church. Many perceive these decisions as being a great tragedy, causing tremendous hurt and disappointment.

But disappointment cannot be permitted to derail people from the Gospel and from giving up all to follow Jesus. We must not replace pursuit of the Gospel with anger, even if one believes the Church caused the anger by making the wrong decisions.

If after a time of prayer and reflection, rancor towards the Catholic hierarchy replaces our commitment to Jesus, the Church, the Body of Christ, then a real tragedy has taken place. Our lives as Christians will have been turned upside down and Gospel values will have been lost.

One has to make a choice. Will we choose to hold anger and adopt rage as a response, putting our creative energies into this? Or will we, even when we don’t understand or don’t agree, trust in the Holy Spirit in the
fullness of time, and practice the evangelical counsels to give up all and follow Jesus? If we make the former decision and are immobilized by it, it may be therapeutic, but it is a copout. And it is certainly easier than responding to Matthew 25 and sharing the lives and problems of the poor.

A Worry

A concern to many is the lack of direction in people’s lives.

Being like a 60’s liberal with vague ideals of lifestyle and commitment will not keep one afloat–even a Catholic Worker–but may even lead to sinking in the shallow waters of political correctness.

It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of Christianity or commitment with our homemade ideology and pet theories–or even ideals where words come cheaply.

No one has ever forbidden a person from preaching by the way they live their lives–as the old parishioners say, “I’d rather see a sermon lived than talked.”

As Fr. John Kavanaugh recently said in America (July 2, 1994), “A Christian, whether Pope or peasant, is most effective in discipleship when least ambivalent in motive. It is so easy to skim the benefits off the top. It is so tempting to serve the good news of our own egos and prominence, rather than yield to the harrowing truths we preach.”

We obviously need to know where we are going.

We hope not to forget the words of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.” (Chapter 19 verse 8 )

We are afraid that people will give up on the Church instead of giving up all and following Jesus.

We pray that we can all respond to the simple mandate: Be true to God, to yourself and to others in pursuing your mission in life and no amount of criticism will ever dissuade you, much less stop you.

Pray for us at the Houston Catholic Worker that we will be able to follow the Gospel in love and obedience and joy.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIV, No. 5, August 1994.