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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 05 May 2002

obedience QUESTION from David J. Stahl, Jr. June 4, 1999 John-Paul,
I have been discussing the subject of private revelations with several people - a subject fraught with misunderstandings and emotionalism. Many have developed an attachment to particular private revelations, to the point that they pay no heed to the spiritual guidance their Bishop provides - such as do not disseminate these messges, you are well-advised to avoid this site and these people, etc.
I have pointed out that (1) no-one is required to believe in private revelation (even Church approved private revelations), so avoiding particular private revelations does not harm the state of one's soul, but (2) disobedience to legitimate authority is a sin.
This began a discussion of obedience to our Bishop. Could you comment briefly on this subject of obedience? And also point me in the direction of any resources of which you are aware that provide further or more in-depth guidance? I wish to give accurate and helpful counsel.
Christ's peace be with you.
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on June 12, 1999 Dear Mr. Stahl:
This subject can actually be somewhat complicated and I can tell you that the rights and empowerment of the laity is far more extensive that many would have you believe. In fact, one of the major projects for this summer is to write a major dissertation on the empowerment of the laity in proper balance with the leadership of the clergy. While this subject is broader than your question, it touches upon obedience to bishops.
Oftentimes bishops may presume upon their office and a layman’s respect of that office to insist that the laymen obey certain directives which the bishop actually does not have a clear jurisdiction upon.
But the best way to answer this question is to talk about what the power of the bishop actually is and what our obligations are in obedience to those legitimate powers and authority.
We begin by examining Canon Law, and Ad Tuendam Fidem which added a new provision to Canon Law on this subject.
With the new provisions promulgated by Ad Tuendam Fidem there are now three levels of doctrines – that is, three levels of doctrine that are to be believed according to the degree of certitude with which they are taught.
Level 1, the highest level, are the divinely revealed dogmas. These include the articles of the Creed, the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence, Original Sin, and the Infallibility of the Pope, among others. These are to be believe with theological faith on the authority of God revealing (de fide credenda). To deny any of these doctrines is to be in heresy and separated from the Church.
Canon 750 All that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church and also proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, must be believed with divine and catholic faith; it is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore, all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatever which are contrary to these truths.
Canon 751
Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
The Second Level is a new level. This level includes those doctrines that are definitively proposed by the Church. These include such things as the illicitness of euthanasia, fornication, or prostitution, among others. The faithful are to definitively hold these doctrines on the basis of faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church and in the Church’s consequent infallibility. Failure to hold these doctrines definitively taught entails a loss of communion with the Catholic Church. This category was promulgated by the Pope to close a loophole that many liberal theologians were using to excuse their dissent. Many of these liberals would argue the strict technical aspects of when formal heresy applies and with that narrow and strict definition try to run a truck through the technical loophole. The Pope, put his foot down and said, Listen kids, you are not going to get by with that. You are require to believe in the definitive teaching of the Church even if it technically does not rise to the Level 1 Doctrines and if you don’t you may or may not be heretics, but you are certainly NOT in communion with the Church (and thereby can’t take the Eucharist).
The Third Level are doctrines taught by the ordinary and authentic Magisterium which the faith must assent to with religious submission of will and intellect.
Canon 752
A religious respect of intellect and will, even if not the assent of faith, is to be paid to the teaching which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act; therefore the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching.
Religious respect of intellect and will means that the Church is to be given the presumption that it knows what it is doing, that presumption of truth and good judgment on the part of the teaching authority is present. Thus the teaching MUST be submitted to by one's intellect and will. Although these matters may not be infallible, we cannot just disagree. There must be a compelling reason to disagree. The benefit of doubt must be given to the Church. The presumption must go to the Church unless overwhelming evidence beyond any reasonable doubt might suggest that the Church is wrong. In other words, be are not to backseat drive and if we disagree we better have darn good evidence to suggest the Church is wrong.
Regardless of which Level of doctrines we are talking about, the common denominator is obedience.
Canon Law then goes on with…
Canon 753 Although they do not enjoy infallible teaching authority, the bishops in communion with the head and members of the college, whether as individuals or gathered in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care; the faithful must adhere to the authentic teaching of their own bishops with a religious assent of soul.
In other words, we are to give religious respect and obedience to our bishops when they perform authentic teaching of the faith. If we disagree, it must be for good cause and it must be respectful.
Canon 754 All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and proscribe erroneous opinions; this is especially true of the constitutions and decrees issued by the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops.
Here we see that we must also obey the official opinions of the Church concerning doctrine.
The bottom line is that we are to listen to our bishops on issues of faith and morals, whether they be issues of doctrine or issues of discipline, and we are to obey their teaching. Unless there are compelling evidence of wrongful teaching we are to give assent to the teaching of our pastors.
The following canons show various other ways in which we are bound to obedience…
Canon 11:Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it and who enjoy the sufficient use of reason and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have complete seven years of age. Canon 12.1: All persons for whom universal laws were passed are bound by them everywhere.
Canon 205: Those baptized are fully in communion with the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of profession of faith, of the sacraments and of ecclesiastical governance.
Canon 209.1: The Christian faithful are bound by an obligation, even to their own patterns of activity, always to maintain communion with the Church.
Canon 209.2: They are to fulfill with great diligence the duties which they owe to the universal Church and to the particular church to which they belong according to the prescriptions of law.
What all that means is that we owe obedience to our pastors on all things which the Church determines that we are to be bound to – such as, Canon Law, decrees from the Pope and from Councils, teaching from our bishops on matters of faith and morals, doctrine or discipline for those things which the Church has jurisdiction.
What does that mean? Well, it means that the pope said we are not to debate the subject of women priests because the Church has infallibly taught that women cannot be priest. We believe and obey. It means that if the Church promulgates a new liturgy, we obey, though we may respectful offer critique. If the Church allows the option of altar girls, we accept it, though we may disagree.
Dissent in the terms of disrespectful or presumptuous activism is never appropriate.
The follow Canons may bring this into better focus. I also offer the commentary from the Canon Law Society of American in relation to these canons…
Canon 212.1: The Christian faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound by Christian obedience to follow what the sacred pastors, as representatives of Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or determine as leaders of the Church.
--------Commentary from Canon Law Society---------- Such a responsibility (obedience) implies a right, as paragraphs two and three indicate; it also implied an obligation on the part of church authorities to consult the faithful before pronouncing on matters of doctrine or establishing church discipline. Presbyterorum Ordininis 9, given as a source for the canon in Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, calls on priests to listen freely to lay persons, considering their experience and competencies, so that together they may seek to read the signs of the times. It also calls on priests to test, recognize, and encourage the charisms that lay people receive. But this in turn implies mutual cooperation between lay people and priests. ...Canon 212 contains three basic qualifiers as the object of obedience. (1) It must be something that comes from the sacred pastors. This term refers to bishops, including the pope. Obedience is owed to what they intend as specially binding in virtue of their role as representatives of Christ. Not included are personal opinions or matters in which genuine freedom exists within the Catholic communion (see c209.1). To act as Christ's representative is to act with the full responsibility of office (cc. 331, 375) and so too, in keeping with the character of that office, as the source and center of unity in the Church (LG 23).
(2) Obedience is owed to that the pastors declare as teachers of the faith. Various degrees of assent are specified in canons 750-754 -- depending on the qualification of what is taught by the ecclesiastical magisterium. The obedience specified in canon 212.1 relates to the kind of teaching dealt with in canons 750-754 and not to personal opinion or particular theories that are not included in magisterial teaching.
The purpose of Christian obedience is to imitate Christ in dedication to the truth; hence, the object of that obedience is truth -- not the authority of the one teaching it -- just as faith primarily relates to the object of what is believed and not merely to its expression.
(3) Obedience is also due to what the pastors determine as leaders of the Church. In one sense this is also an obedience of faith, for the Church is a community of faith. Yet in disciplinary matters the truths of faith are not always directly involved whereas the common good is. Since all are bound to promote the common good (c. 223.1), it follows that obedience in disciplinary matters is required in the Church. Again, Christian obedience is directed toward what is for the common good and not merely to the authority of the one decreeing something.
Can someone dissent from what the sacred pastors declare or determine? If obedience is in imitation of Christ, then it recognizes that the magisterium is subject to revelation and church governance is meant for the welfare of persons, not vice verse. Dissent on these grounds is possible, but it is to be within the context of one's responsibility to participate in the interaction of pastors and faithful discussed above.
However, the faithful have a right to make know their needs…
Canon 212.2: The Christian faithful are free to make know their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desire to the pastors of the Church.
--------Commentary from Canon Law Society---------- The conciliar source makes a significant statement about the attitude with which such petitioning is to take place. It is to be done with that freedom and confidence that befit children of God and brothers in Christ (LG37). This implies mutual respect and openness on both parts rather than an adversary situation or one of mutual distrust. Experience indicates that all parties have a responsibility for setting the proper tone in such exchanges. Canon 212.3: In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, they have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to other Christian faithful, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons. --------Commentary from Canon Law Society---------- The Council emphasized the personal spirit with which one should express opinions as always in truth, in courage, and in prudence, whereas the Code focuses on external considerations of integrity of the faith and morals. But, while the faithful owe obedience according to the norms above, the faithful have a right to expect the faith to be taught the way it is suppose to be taught and the liturgy done the way it is suppose to be.
Canon 213: The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.
Canon 214: The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church, and to follow their own form of spiritual life consonant with the teaching of the Church.
--------Commentary from Canon Law Society---------- The Catholic Church has known a great variety of spiritual movements throughout its history. Many of these have traditionally been associated with religious communities and even today constitute a vital dimension of Catholic Life. Other forms of spirituality, adapted to varying conditions of time and place, are also evident in the many movements, associations, and personal styles of Catholics. All of these are available for free choice by Catholics; no one spirituality is preferred over the others provided each is in keeping with Catholic teaching. This can pose a problem at the parochial level. Various types of spirituality seek different forms of public expression. Not all are compatible, at least not at the same time and in the same place.
...On the other hand, provided good order is maintained and nothing is done contrary to church teaching, people are entitled to develop and to participate in spiritual movements of their choice. It is contrary to the right guaranteed in this canon to prohibit a given form of spirituality or to require that only certain ones be observed by people in a given locality. Religious freedom applies within the Church as well as in society, and this it its most visible application.
Hopefully I haven't confused you :-)
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