How Can We Be Obedient to Sinful Superiors?

Living the virtue of obedience in our age is challenging. With the break down of human institutions—governments, universities, cultural centers, and even and especially the human dimensions of the ecclesiastical Church (even as she retains her supernatural origin and character)—many of us find ourselves asking the question: How can I be obedient when I know things are broken?

Anyone who has served in ministry long enough has found themselves on the receiving end of unjust and uncharitable commands for obedience by priests who are sinning in the process. Over the years, more and more people have come to me for guidance on how to respond in the face of their ill treatment at the hands of priests. These are priests in multiple dioceses, so no one should be wondering who I am talking about. Most priests are not saints, which means their sins and weaknesses are well known by those who serve closest to them. The laity is bound to find themselves in the crosshairs just as much as children experience the sins and weaknesses of their parents.

The sins of priests are as varied as our own, and often hidden, which makes it difficult for people to figure out how to respond and how to be obedient. I can remember one seminarian telling me that he and a priest were stunned by people’s veneration of the priesthood. I was equally stunned by his lack of understanding of who the priest ultimately is for the people according to Christ and 2000 years of tradition. Seminary formation in the last few decades has done incalculable damage by downplaying the sacred and supernatural nature of the priesthood in favor of materialist administrative approaches that reduce priests to nothing more than businessmen who run a parish. This is a cheap counterfeit, and the laity knows it.

Our age has sought to tear down the ministerial priesthood in order to make it something it is not—something easier and less demanding—but the truth remains whether certain people like it or not. Priests are given a higher calling and conformity to Christ. They are another Christ, alter Christus, which means their actions have tremendous power. This also means that when they sin against the laity, religious, or one another in large ways and small ways, the impact is considerably deeper than in any other relationship.

In fact, the sins of priests through the scandal they cause can destroy the faith of future generations to come. I have witnessed it. This is why the priesthood requires such care and humility. The Lord has given tremendous power to priests. A power that is meant to come from Christ through a life of deep prayer and dedication to the Sacraments and a deep filial charity towards the flock. The laity look to their spiritual fathers to lead them to the things of heaven.

Now, priests are fallen men. They will sin and make mistakes. We need to be forgiving towards their shortcomings. We must work hard to separate sinful men from their sacred office and not conflate the two when sinful actions arise. If a priest is unrepentant or damaging us spiritually, then it may be best to move to another parish. I have personally known of multiple situations where this was necessary. The situation had become so destructive that obedience was impossible.

In light of all of this, how do we submit in obedience to those priests in authority over us? What about in situations we don’t agree with or when we see that self-love or sin, and not the Holy Spirit, is the motivator of a decision? The answer is a hard one to swallow, but one that leads us to holiness. We submit in obedience and pray for our priests or superiors, as long as they are not asking us to sin or committing serious abuses.

We are called to supernatural obedience, which means we are called to see Christ working in our superiors. This does not mean that they are always acting in union with the Holy Spirit, but it does mean that the Holy Spirit is always at work. The virtue of obedience sanctifies us in ways nothing else can. Surrender in situations such as these breaks our stubborn pride and deepens our humility. It also awakens a deeper charity within us when we pray for those superiors who we see are not living in conformity to Christ. The Lord reveals sins and weaknesses in others to us not that we might lord it over them, but that we might aid them with our prayers and sacrifices.

Supernatural obedience is seeing Christ at work in all things, even those situations we do not understand. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene writes in Divine Intimacy:

An excellent instruction from St. John of the Cross says: “Never look upon your superior, whoever he may be, with less regard than upon God Himself” (P). If we do not have this supernatural spirit which makes us see God in the person of our superior, our obedience cannot be supernatural. It is necessary to be a soul animated by this motive alone: I obey because my superior represents God for me and speaks to me in His name: my superior is another Christ to me: Hic est Christus mens. This is my Christ.

Christ is always at work sanctifying us. He knows what is best for our souls and sometimes he permits suffering from our superiors in order to help us grow in humility and charity. This does not discount the very real sins of superiors. Our obedience is the means by which these moments in our lives are redeemed by Him through a deeper union and conformity to Him. It leads us to a deeper love, especially when we find we must love a superior who seems more like an enemy than a holy leader.

St. Padre Pio understood this call to obedience when he endured persecution from Church authorities for years. He knew Christ was using his superiors to sanctify him and help him reach greater heights of holiness. Submitting in obedience in this way opens up wellsprings of charity and humility that cannot be won any other way.

In Western culture, we often mistake the virtue of obedience for agreeing with the decisions of our superiors, liking our superiors, or that we must trust our superiors to submit. This is not supernatural obedience. This is often pride and our own desire for control. We grow spiritually in leaps and bounds when we obey orders we find repugnant or that come from people who we struggle to agree with, like, or respect. This is when the Lord is pruning away our own pride and control in situations.

Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen continues:

Since the motive of human confidence in our superior is a defective basis for our obedience, we must found it on supernatural confidence, on trust that springs from the recognition of the divine government working through the superiors God has given us. Even if our superiors were less upright or less virtuous, we would have not reason to fear. Faith teaches us that God controls and rules everything and that no human will can escape His divine dominion.

Obedience is not ultimately about the man or woman exercising God-given authority. Our eyes must raise beyond them to Christ Himself who guides all things, even seemingly unjust and uncharitable situations. His plans are often so much greater than our own, and the struggles we experience in being obedient will sanctify us and others in ways we do not expect. We have to trust that Christ will work all things towards our good.

Western society rejects notions of obedience. This lack of obedience, especially for Americans, is spiritually destructive. It can lead us far from Christ. We are called to learn obedience in order to be conformed more closely to Christ. This does not mean we are obedient to sinful commands. We can never be commanded to sin. This is an abuse of obedience and should never be tolerated. It does mean, however, that we are often called to be obedient to instructions that we do not agree with and/or that are given through the sins and weaknesses of the person in authority. We must keep this in mind the next time a priest sins against us or others we know.

If this still doesn’t convince us, we need to meditate on Christ before Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Herod, and hanging from the Cross. That should be enough to silence our stubborn, sinful pride and remind us that He surrendered Himself in obedience to the commands of men who brutally tortured, crucified, and murdered Him. Our protestations pale in comparison to so great an act of obedience as that of the Son of God dying for us on the Cross. He did so because throughout it all His eyes were raised in loving obedience to His Heavenly Father.

Photo by Jomarc Nicolai Cala on Unsplash


Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate with an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in philosophy. Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths.

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