Two of the best known, not to say notorious, statements about obedience come from the authoritative texts of the Society of Jesus. The thirteenth rule for thinking with the Church reads: “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.”
(I sometimes wonder whether this statement did not in its own way contribute to what Yves Congar called “the incredible inflation” of the magisterium especially that of the Pope, in the modern era.)
In his letter to the present General Congregation, Pope Benedict, speaking of Jesuit obedience, evoked the phrase”perinde ac si cadaver essent“. Here is the paragraph of the Jesuit Constitutions in which the phrase appears: “Let holy obedience, in execution, in the will, and in the intellect, be always utterly perfect in us; let us obey with great promptness, spiritual joy, and perseverance whatever may be commanded of us, persuading ourselves that all things are just, and by a blind obedience giving up our own contrary opinion or judgment; this applies to whatever things are commanded by the Superior, unless it can be shown that some kind of sin is involved. Let everyone persuade himself that those who live under obedience must let themselves be led and ruled by divine providence through their superiors, as if they were a corpse which allows itself to be carried here and there and treated in any way, or like an old man’s cane which permits itself to be used anywhere and in any way that the man who holds it wishes.”
(The image of the corpse is found in the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and may go back as far as Pachomius.)
The evocation of these texts reminded me of a book I read some years ago. In Quand Rome condamne, his massive volume on the French Dominicans and the worker-priest crisis of the early 1950s, François Leprieur has a whole section on the discussion of obedience that accompanied the Roman actions that put an end to the worker-priest experiment and that forced prominent French Dominicans, among them Frs. Congar and Chenu, from their posts and into exile. All the Dominicans obeyed promptly and fully what their provincial and Roman superiors required of them. In the course of the discussion of obedience, differences between Dominicans and Jesuits over the spirituality of obedience seemed to emerge.
Congar said that obedience meant following the command of a superior because it comes from a legitimate authority in an area in which he has competence. But to submit one’s freedom to a superior’s command does not absolutely require one to think that the authority is correct. He wanted to write an article on obedience, “a balanced article, which avoids the error (unthinkable for a Thomist) of the so-called ‘obedience of judgment,’ that is, being obliged to think and to say that what one sees as white is black because the authority says that it is black.”
Another one of the censured Dominicans, Féret, argued that according to St. Thomas the relationship between superior and subject exists for the sake of the common good of the community in question, and it is this common good that is to regulate the decisions of the superior and to motivate the obedience of the subject. The theory of blind obedience, explicable in terms of the discipline thought necessary in the Counter-Reformation, departs from this earlier and sounder view. Like Congar, Féret also criticized what he took to be the Jesuit idea of “blind obedience.”
Two Jesuits also published pieces on obedience. A. de Soras found Féret’s criticisms excessive. He argued that religious obedience required something more than obedience in other contexts. It involves supernatural mystery before which what reason regards as folly is God’s wisdom; in addition, it represents an imitation of the obedience unto death of Christ. There is, them, a “mystique of obedience.” Being faced with what one might think is absurd is an invitation to join with Christ in his obedience. The situations in which one might judge that a command goes against the common good of the Church are thought to be extremely rare; and Christians in making this judgment have to be aware how much of the “old man” remains in them and how much they be blinded to what ought to be done.
H. Holstein’s article was entitled “The Mystery of Obedience.” In it he criticized Féret’s view as ‘naturalizing,” this is, ignoring the dimension of mystery..
Fr. Chenu is supposed to have been asked whether he found obedience difficult. “Oh no,” he replied; “obedience is easy. What’s hard is charity.”