Why is Obedience Difficult Today?

The Church has a major obedience problem and we don’t seem to know how to fix it. The clergy sex abuse scandals revealed a deep culture of coverup that used obedience as a weapon in order to protect personal and/or institutional interests. The situation is improving somewhat, but we still see rampant abuses of obedience both large and small within the Church. Why do we have such a hard time executing authority properly and submitting in proper obedience as Catholics? One of the primary answers is the impact nihilism has had on all of us.

Nihilism is a philosophical system that focuses on the use of the will to dominate often referred to as “will to power”. It is rampant in Western culture, in fact, we are completely saturated in it. This means it is also influencing the Church in destructive ways. “Will to power” leads people to abuse authority and to have a disordered understand of how and why they are given authority. It also means Catholics struggle with being obedient because our culture tells us we don’t need to be obedient. Everything is up to us to decide.

Obedience is essential for maintaining a holy structure within the Church and for growing in holiness. This obedience begins with Christ, but then goes down through the clerical hierarchy, all the way into our homes. Reality is hierarchical, even though we live in an age that wants to pretend this is not the case. The Lord calls each one of us to imitate His loving obedience to the Father.

Priests, bishops, laity, and religious are all a product of our culture. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we absorb the prevailing philosophies of our day. Every person sitting in the pews who wishes their political opponent would crush the opposition is in fact seeking “will to power” which is out of the nihilistic playbook. This desire for power and control goes back to the Fall, but it is also a major part of the Zeitgeist of our day through this philosophical system.

Living in a culture with this modus operandi for executing authority has had disastrous impacts on the Church. While the most obvious example are the clergy sex abuse scandals, this also plays out in parishes, ministries, families, work, and relationships of all kinds. We tend to view one another as a threat to our own power and control. This erupts disastrously when priests and laity battle it out for authority, bishops see their priests as a liability, power struggles develop in religious communities, or parents seek to dominate their children.

We have to be willing to examine our consciences and ask the Lord to show us if we have abused our authority or not. We will quickly find times when we have done so when we consider how we respond to criticisms or perceived threats to our power and control. This happens at all levels of the Church. Our egos are fragile until our entire identity is in Christ alone. The saint has no need to retaliate because they have become detached from criticism and are humble enough to see when they make a mistake and when they have not.

This can happen just as frequently within families when parents are trying to execute their God given authority over their children, but in a moment of weakness allow a desire to control take over. A lot of us have never witnessed a loving use of authority or the beautiful submission of true obedience. This has left all of us trying to learn an absolutely essential virtue for growing in holiness without a lot of holy examples in our lives. We have to look to Christ, Our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the saints as our guides to truly live obedience well.

Obedience is not a blind, tyrannical authority. The Church is not meant to be the military or a bureaucracy. Obedience is meant to be the image of Christ’s obedience to the Father. This is a filial obedience of profound love, not a grasping at power and control. Obedience is inextricably linked to charity, humility, trust, deep prayer and discernment, and the salvation of souls. A person who has been given authority by God, whether bishop, priest, parent, or religious superior, is given that gift to wield with great humility and immense charity. It is not given for their own sake. It is given for the sake of the souls entrusted to their care. It is an awesome responsibility that we do not take seriously enough.

There is a deep festering wound within the Mystical Body that continues to deepen and grow as more scandals erupt within the Church and confusion rules the day.  Everyone within the Church has witnessed destructive abuses of authority within the hierarchy. Priests have publicly tried to share through surveys and other mediums that many of them fear and distrust their own bishops. This means there is a breakdown in the filial relationship between bishops and priests that must be addressed because that division trickles down into the pews. Broken relationships within the Church impact everyone. The relationship between bishop and priest is meant be one of deep filial love, respect, and trust.

The laity has also been trying to share the same concerns and sufferings. Religious have come forward begging the Church to do something about abuses and scandals. Sometimes complaints are ideologically driven rather than being from a desire for their spiritual fathers and shepherds to love them as Christ loves them, but to simply brush these concerns off is to abuse one’s God given authority and the charity with which that authority is to be lived. As more and more confusion comes out of the hierarchy, the laity need to know they can trust their leaders and be obedient to authentic Church teaching.

As a mother, my daughter is quick to tell me when I am no longer lovingly executing my authority in requiring her obedience. Sometimes this is her being disobedient, but other times she is right. In those moments of sinful weakness, I have lost my temper and turned to a desire to force her obedience, which is not from the Lord. The same can be said for priests, laity, and religious within the Church who are not seeking to be disobedient, but to point out that abuses of this beautiful virtue are occurring at much too high of a rate within the Church at present. Gaslighting those who voice concerns is an abuse of authority.

When authentic charity—a willingness to even suffer in order to will the good of others over ourselves—doesn’t ground obedience a servile mentality arises. The priest, lay person, or religious is no longer seen as a brother, sister, or spiritual child in Christ. They are seen as a number in a large mass of people that needs to be kept in line. A desire to dominate arises because bishops, priests, minister members, parents, etc. have lost sight of why The Lord gave them authority in the first place.

Charity should always ground everything we do as Christians and this is especially true when it comes to both exercising authority and living out obedience. Obedience is meant to be a virtue that helps individuals and communities grow in holiness. It is supposed to give freedom to those who fall under divinely ordained authority to trust that their superiors are seeking the will of God for them and greatly desire their holiness. This can only be attained through an intimate prayer life where one is truly seeking to discern God’s will for those in their care.

Authority is not given to a bishop, priest, parent, etc. for their own sake and to fulfill their own insecure need for control. In fact, when we start grasping at control and power, we know that it is our own ego or the temptations of the devil that are undergirding our decisions. It is at these times when we must repent, humbly apologize to those we have hurt, and seek to grow in a deeper love for God and others that allows us to exercise our authority properly and to be the kind of person people want to lovingly obey and trust. We must do the same when we find ourselves being disobedient to persons with divinely given authority.

Obedience is a gift from God. Those who have been entrusted with authority have been given a tremendous responsibility that they will account for upon their death. Whether bishop, priest, parent, religious, or some other leader, the Lord will ask us if we lovingly executed our authority or if we abused it for our own selfish desires. We are not alone and it is not too late for all of us to abandon nihilistic tendencies in order to truly live the virtue of obedience. The Lord shows us the way to be obedient through His perfect, loving submission on the Cross. He shows us what true authority looks like when he washes the Apostles’ feet. It is Christ Crucified that should be our example when executing any kind of authority within the Church and in our homes.

Photo by Dolina Modlitwy 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 (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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