INDING TIME TO READ is difficult, but absolutely necessary for the life of the mind. My family and teachers taught me that the mind is a gift from God, and so we should do everything possible to develop it. Personally, I value reading a variety of things: news, fiction, professional material, poetry, periodicals, etc. Eight years spent in seminary formation, surrounded almost entirely by people with similar worldviews, taught me especially to value the purposeful digestion of other points of view. For this reason, I regularly read three periodicals: one with which I generally sympathize, a second with which I generally disagree, and a third that is published outside the USA and offers an international perspective.
A recent letter to the editor in one of those periodicals confounded me:
“The [Second Vatican] Council was, in many ways, our own Reformation. Yet many of its reforming efforts were largely thwarted by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Those popes imposed an atmosphere of obedience and ‘orthodoxy’ that has squelched dissent. . . . They made it impossible for dialogue and renewal to overcome the archaic demands of silence and obedience to church authorities. . . . But obedience is not what the church needs from the faithful. It needs compassion.” (Commonweal, May 17, 2013)
The author seems to have an understanding of obedience that is utterly unfamiliar to me. Obedience, in my life, is one of the greatest sources of my freedom. It is in my obedience to the truths of faith, the revelations of Jesus, and the authority of our Mother, the Church, that I have experienced the truest freedom. Since promising obedience to my bishop at ordination, I have found the natural result to be interior peace and freedom of soul, not feudalistic indentured servitude. I have found imitation of Mary’s profound obedience to be the core of my spiritual life.
Does the Church need our obedience? Well, Christ demands our obedience to Him, so, insofar as the Church is a structure of divine establishment, yes. One should always be cautious when the word “dissent” is employed positively while the word “obedience” is used negatively.
This letter to the editor caused me to think of a musical analogy. When I play an organ score, a satisfying performance begins with playing the notes that are written in the score and is intensified by the charisma I can bring to it. In a certain sense, every musician who desires to be great must, before all else, be “obedient” to the notes of the particular composition. Disregarding the notes in the name of “freedom” would not engender peace or beauty. The results, rather, would be chaos and disharmony. Discord and division, of course, are synonyms for sin.
A wildly misguided understanding of obedience is not a surprising result of a culture in which self is central and in which freedom and license are nearly universally conflated. The Church very much needs our obedience—to Christ, and to the Church He kindly established as our saving refuge.