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Religious Obedience

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Religious obedience is that general submission which religious vow to God, and voluntarily promise to their superiors, in order to be directed by them in the ways of perfection according to the purpose and constitutions of their order. It consists, according to Lessius (De Justitia, II, xlvi, 37), in a man's allowing himself to be governed throughout his life by another for the sake of God. It is composed of three elements:

  • the sacrifice offered to God of his own independence in the generality of his actions, at least of such as are exterior;
  • the motive, namely, personal perfection, and, as a rule, also the performance of spiritual or corporal works of mercy and charity;
  • the express or implied contract with an order (formerly also with a person ), which accepts the obligation to lead him to the end for which he accepts its laws and direction.

Religious obedience, therefore, does not involve that extinction of all individuality, so often alleged against convents and the Church ; nor is it unlimited, for it is not possible either physically or morally that a man should give himself up absolutely to the guidance of another. The choice of a superior, the object of obedience, the authority of the hierarchical Church, all exclude the idea of arbitrary rule.


A. The Superiors

By Divine law, religious persons are subject to the hierarchy of the Church ; first to the pope, then to the bishops, unless exempted by the pope from episcopal jurisdiction. This hierarchy was instituted by Christ in order to direct the faithful not only in the way of salvation, but also in Christian perfection. The vow of obedience in the institutes approved by the Holy See is held more and more to be made equally to the pope, who communicates his authority to the Roman congregations entrusted with the direction of religious orders. The superiors of the different orders, when they are clerics and exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, similarly receive a part of this authority and every one who is placed at the head of a community is invested with the domestic authority necessary for its good government; the vow by which the religious offers to God the obedience which he promises to his superiors confirms and defines this authority. But the right to demand obedience in virtue of the vow does not necessarily belong to all superiors; it is ordinarily reserved to the head of the community; and in order to enforce the obligation, it is necessary that the superior should make known his intention to bind the conscience ; in certain orders such expressions as "I will", "I command", have not such binding force. The instructions of the Holy See require that the power of binding the conscience by command shall be employed with the utmost prudence and discretion.

B. The limits of the obligation

The commands of superiors do not extend to what concerns the inward motion of the will. Such at least is the teaching of St. Thomas (II-II, Q. cvi, a. 5, and Q. clxxxvi, a. 2). Obedience is not vowed absolutely, and without limit, but according to the rule of each order, for a superior cannot command anything foreign to, or outside, the rule (except in so far as he may grant dispensations from the rule). No appeal lies from his order, that is to say, the obligation of obedience is not suspended by any appeal to higher authority; but the inferior has always the right of extra-judicial recourse to a higher authority in the order or to the Holy See.


The religious is bound morally to obey on all occasions when he is bound canonically, and whenever his disobedience would offend against the law of charity, as for instance by bringing discord into the community. By reason of the vow of obedience and of the religious profession a deliberate act of obedience and submission adds the merit of an act of the virtue of religion to the other merits of the act. This extends even to the obedience of a counsel which goes beyond matters of regular observance, and is also limited by the prescriptions of higher laws whether human or Divine.

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A. Evangelical

The evangelical foundation of religious obedience is first of all found in the perfect accord of that obedience with the spirit of the Gospel. Freedom from ambition which leads a man to choose a position of inferiority, implies a spirit of humility which esteems others as superior, and willingly yields them the first place; the sacrifice of his own independence and his own will presupposes in a high degree that spirit of self-denial and mortification which keeps the passions under proper restraint; the readiness to accept a common rule and direction manifests a spirit of union and concord which generously adapts itself to the desires and tastes of others; eagerness to do the will of God in all things is a mark of the charity towards God which led Christ to say "I do always the things which please my Father" ( John 7:29 ). And since the Church has invested superiors with her authority, religious obedience is supported by all those texts which recommend submission to lawful powers, and especially by the following: "He that heareth you, heareth me" ( Luke 10:16 ).

B. Philosophical

Philosophically religious obedience is justified (a) by the experience of the mistakes and illusions to which a man relying on his own unaided opinions is liable. The religious proposes to rule his whole life by devotion to God and his neighbour; how shall he best realize this ideal? By regulating all his actions by his own judgment, or by choosing a prudent and enlightened guide who will give his advice without any consideration of himself? Is it not clear that the latter alternative shows a resolution more sincere, more generous, and at the same time more likely to lead to a successful issue? This obedience is justified also (b) by the help of example and counsel afforded by community life and the acceptance of a rule of conduct, the holiness of which is vouched for by the Church ; (c) lastly, since the object of religious orders is not only the perfection of their members, but also the performance of spiritual and corporal works of mercy, they need a union of efforts which can only be assured by religious obedience, just as military obedience is indispensable for success in the operations of war.

Religious obedience never reduces a man to a state of passive inertness, it does not prevent the use of any faculty he may possess, but sanctifies the use of all. It does not forbid any initiative, but subjects it to a prudent control in order to preserve it from indiscretion and keep it in the line of true charity. A member of a religious order has often been compared to a dead body, but in truth nothing is killed by the religious vow by vanity and self-love and all their fatal opposition to the Divine will. If superiors and subjects have sometimes failed to understand the practice of religious obedience, if direction has sometimes been indiscreet, these are accidental imperfections from which human institution is free. The unbounded zeal of men like St. Francis Xavier and other saints who loved their rule, the prominent part which religious have taken in the mission field, and their successes therein, at all times waged against the religious orders; all these things furnish the most eloquent testimony to the happy influence of religious obedience in developing the activity which it sanctifies. The expression "blind obedience" signifies not an unreasoning or unreasonable submission to authority, but a keen appreciation of the rights of authority, the reasonableness of submission, and blindness only to such selfish or worldly considerations as would lessen regard for authority.

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At present, religious have taken a far greater part than formerly in civil and public life, personally fulfilling all the conditions required of citizens, in order to exercise their right of voting and other functions compatible with their profession. Obedience does not interfere with the proper exercise of such rights. No political system rejects the votes of persons in dependent positions, but all freely permit the use of any legitimate influence which corrects to some extent the vicious tendency of equalitarianism: the influence of religious superiors is limited to safeguarding the higher interests of religion. As to the functions to be fulfilled, the superior, by the very fact of permitting his subjects to undertake them, grants all the liberty that is required for their honourable fulfillment.

C. Historical

Though St. Paul and the other early hermits were not in a position to practice religious obedience, it was already manifested in the docility with which their imitators placed themselves under the guidance of some older man. St. Cyprian , in his letter "De habitu virginum", shows us that at Rome the virgins followed the direction of the older women. Obedience was then looked upon as sort of education, from which those were dispenses who were considered perfect and ripe for a solitary life. This idea is found also in the first chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict . St. Pachomius (A.D. 292-346) understanding the importance of obedience in community life made it the foundation of the religious life of the cenobites, preaching by his own example, and inculcating upon all superiors the necessity of a scrupulous observance of the rules of which they were the guardians. The monks (cf. Cassian, "Institutions") thus saw in perfect obedience an excellent application of their universal spirit of self-renunciation. Later, St. Bernard insisted on the complete suppression of self-will, i.e., of that will which sets itself in opposition to the designs of God and to all that is commanded or desired for the good of the community. The obedience of the Eastern monks was imperfect and defective by reason of the facility with which they changed from one superior or monastery to another. St. Benedict, in consequence, advancing a step farther, introduced a new rule binding his monks by a vow of stability. A certain choice of rules still existed, which seemed likely to be hurtful to the common life, for some monasteries had various sets of rules, each set having its own observants. The reforms in the Order of St. Benedict brought into existence monastic congregations known by the identity of their observances, and these were the forerunners of the mendicant orders with their rules which have become canonical laws. St. Thomas thus had before him all the material necessary to enable him to treat fully of the subject of religious obedience in his "Summa Theologica", in which he makes it clear that the vow of obedience is the chief of the vows of religion.

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