The Virtue of Obedience: Our Duty, Our Crown
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Monsignor Charles M. Mangan
Anyone who is serious about obtaining Everlasting Life in Heaven will do all he can to increase in the virtue of obedience. For without it, one will never please the Lord, Who is our benevolent Creator and compassionate Master.
Yes, we are actually obliged to be obedient--it is our solemn duty. And in the future, God willing, we will see that it helped us to attain the crown of perfect beatitude--the unending face-to-face vision of the Most Blessed Trinity--in Paradise.
What do we mean by the virtue of obedience?
The eminent Jesuit theologian Father John Anthony Hardon, S.T.D. (1914-2000), in his helpful Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Image Books, 1985), offered the following definition of obedience: "The moral virtue that inclines the will to comply with the will of another who has the right to command." (Page 291)
Therefore, a person who is rooted in obedience submits his will to the one who possesses legitimate authority over him.
In his Summa Theologica (II, II, Question 104, Articles 4 and 5), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274) declared that God is to be obeyed in all things, while human authorities are to be obeyed in certain things. Father Hardon explained: " . . . obedience to God is without limit, whereas obedience to human beings is limited by higher laws that must not be transgressed, and by the competency or authority of the one who gives the orders." (ibid.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the virtue of obedience, even calling it, as we did above, a duty. "The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will." (1900)
Several examples of the virtue of obedience in action spring to mind.
+ Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, obeyed His Father by becoming man through the power of the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Mary, later going to His obedience-inspired salvific Death on Calvary.
+ Our Blessed Lady obeyed the Almighty by consenting to become the Virgin-Mother of the long-awaited Messiah.
+ Saint Joseph heeded the Angel of the Lord and took Jesus and Mary to Egypt because King Herod wanted to kill the Baby.
+ All baptized Christians are moved by the obedience of faith to listen and submit to the Word of God.
+ Children obey, respect and pray for their parents, grateful that God has given their fathers and mothers to them.
+ Priests obey their Bishops or Superiors, for example by accepting new assignments from them.
+ Those who are consecrated to Christ by the profession of the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience obey their Religious Superiors regarding what apostolic work they are to do.
+ Those who have spiritual directors listen to and obey them concerning how they should seek Christian perfection in particular matters.
+ Catholics obey God and the Church by heeding the Commandments and the Precepts of the Church, for example by attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, following the Church's laws concerning the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, etc.
+ Citizens pay taxes to the rightful authority and defend their country from hostile foreign attack.
Father Hardon added: "As a virtue, (obedience) is pleasing to God because it means the sacrifice of one's will out of love for God." (ibid.)
How does one fail in regard to the virtue of obedience? Theologians have traditionally distinguished between sins in excess and sins in defect relative to a virtue.
A sin in excess against obedience is servility, which is marked by adherence to a directive that is contrary to a higher law or precept. One would be guilty of servility if he obeyed a civil law that is at odds with God's moral law.
A sin in defect against obedience is disobedience, which is the transgression of an order that falls within the competent authority of the superior and is, therefore, a legitimate directive. One is disobedient if he purposely fails to do or omit something commanded by his lawful authority.
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Dom Gregory Manise, O.S.B., under the heading "Obedience" in the Dictionary of Moral Theology compiled under the direction of Francesco Cardinal Roberti (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1961), wrote: "Obedience to a human superior in lawful commands, if not motivated by selfish reasons but honest motives, does not degrade but ennoble man, for it is submission to God Himself, from Whom all power proceeds. Also obedience provides certainty of freedom from error: a superior may err in commanding, but a subject never errs in obeying a lawful injunction. Obedience strengthens the will as the noblest sacrifice man can make to God, which Holy Scripture, speaking of obedience, calls greater in virtue than sacrifice (I Kings 15:22)."
Is there ever an occasion when one should refuse to follow the order of a human authority? Yes, if a human superior commands something that is against God's law. One must refuse to obey injunctions that are in opposition to God's law because they are not truly legitimate. Authentic human superiors are those to whom God has delegated part of His authority. If they misuse that authority by enjoining contrary to the Creator, then their human subjects are bound to disobey them. Saint Peter and the other Apostles had it right when they fearlessly proclaimed: "We must obey God rather than men." (The Acts of the Apostles 5:29)
Consider the civil officials in innumerable localities who promote indescribable aberrations contrary to God and His wise designs: the destruction of innocent life in the womb, the hastening of death for the elderly, the direct sterilization of mentally handicapped persons, the "marriage" of one man to another and one woman to another, etc. No Christian worthy of the name defends or intentionally acquiesces to these ghastly affronts against our loving Creator and His immutable Law.
We cannot obey the Lord and legitimate human authority without the supernatural assistance provided for in the Sacraments, our sincere veneration of Our Blessed Mother, our daily prayers, our avoidance of the "near occasion of sin" (that is various persons, places, objects and events), and our genuine and frequent acts of charity and self-denial.
God desires that we progress in the virtue of obedience because He realizes that our final destiny hangs in the balance. With Jesus the Eternal High Priest as our stellar model and His Mother and His Foster-father as our constant companions, we will perform well our duty of being obedient to Our Blessed Lord and to our rightful human superiors and one day experience the unceasing joys of our labors.
This pamphlet is available from Eternal Life (902 W. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown, KY 40004) and may be obtained by calling 1-800-842-2871. Used with permission.
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Virture of Obedience
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