7 Thoughts on Clerical Obedience

By Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (Cand.), DHS, OCV

It is my belief that knowing about possible pitfalls in living out the different vocations is important for vocational discernment or accompaniment.  Although all vocations require some form of obedience, how obedience is to be exercised will differ by vocation.  E.g. A husband cannot command his wife to do something that is not befitting her status as an adult woman, a wife; he cannot demand that she only wear green-colored clothes, trivializing her dignity as an equal partner, and overstepping the boundaries of spousal authority.  He can command a child to wear only green-colored clothes because the child is under his parental authority.  Diocesan deacons and priests are to practice “clerical obedience”, which is not as encompassing as say, obedience in religious life or “religious obedience”.  I thought I’d list 7 thoughts that might not be crystal clear to those unfamiliar with our theology and law regarding clerical obedience for secular clerics under a diocesan bishop.

Obedience Implied by the Divinely Instituted Hierarchy

The cleric is ordained “unto ministry”, and that ministry is determined by the hierarch in charge, namely, the bishop.  The deacon or priest is called to be a “collaborator” of the bishop, a collaboration that is implicit in the divinely established hierarchy, and explicitly promised by the cleric upon ordination.  Put differently, clerical obedience is not merely an “organizational” way of divvying up duties for the care of the flock, it is part of the very sacrament of orders because orders itself is hierarchical in nature:

Just like that of Christ, the priest’s obedience expresses total and joyful readiness to do God’s will. This is why the priest recognizes that this Will also becomes evident in the indications of legitimate superiors. Readiness towards the latter in this regard is to be understood as true enactment of personal liberty, a consequence of a choice ceaselessly matured before God in prayer. The virtue of obedience, intrinsically requested by the sacrament and the hierarchical structure of the Church, is explicitly promised by the cleric, first in the rite of ordination to the diaconate, and then in the rite of ordination to the priesthood. With this promise the priest strengthens his will in communion, thereby entering into the dynamics of the obedience of Christ, who became obedient Servant unto death on the Cross (cf. Phi 2:7-8).[1]

Clerical obedience is the key ingredient that allows the hierarchy to function and it leads to holiness:  “Priests who perform their duties sincerely and indefatigably in the Spirit of Christ arrive at holiness by this very fact.”[2]  The Church’s entrustment of “ministry” to the cleric is not to give a man his own private “fiefdom”, but to use his ministry to further her mission under the guidance of the bishop as his subordinate collaborator.  It is the bishop’s ministry that the priest or deacon furthers and fosters in the manner determined by the bishop who is himself subject to the authority of the pope. 

2. Obedience of Mind and Heart

One facet of clerical obedience is that as part of the divine economy of salvation, its importance is akin to, yet greater than, military obedience.  In the military, disobeying a “direct order” even in a matter that would be deemed trivial for a civilian, can lead to court martial.  For clergy, disobedience disrupts the communion of the one heart and mind meant to exist between the bishop and his clergy, a unity that calls for the subordinate cleric’s “convergence” and “consonance” with the bishop’s programs:

Filial union with his own Bishop is also an indispensable condition for the efficacy of the priestly ministry. For pastors with more experience it is easy to note the need to … adhere in a co-responsible manner to pastoral programs. Besides being an expression of maturity, this adhesion, which entails proceeding in unison with the mind of the Bishop, contributes to the edification of that unity in communion which is indispensable for the work of evangelization. With full respect for hierarchical subordination, the priest will promote a genuine relationship with his Bishop characterized by sincere trustfulness, cordial friendship, prayer for his person and intentions, and a true effort of consonance and convergence in ideals and programs, which takes nothing away from intelligent capacity for personal initiative and pastoral resourcefulness.[3]

This may not necessarily be easy but it is essential to a flourishing local Church.

3. The Oblation of Self: Obedience

The cleric has been ordained “unto ministry” meaning that he has given his life to the service of the Church, and it is the bishop who determines how he shall serve the Church concretely in ministry.  Celibate clerics have agreed to dedicate their working lives to “ministry” as it is assigned to them by their bishop, and in turn are supported by tithes.  At times, the Pope or the appropriate department of the Holy See representing him, can give special “missions” to individual priests or religious that go outside the normal parameters, but this is highly unusual, and it would generally be decreed in writing.  Whether serving in his own diocese or whether he is “on loan” elsewhere at the service of the universal Church, the cleric finds holiness in the fulfillment of his duties as a cleric. 

He owes obedience to his bishop in all that pertains to sacred ministry.  Just as a married person has given over the right to acts proper to the generation of children to his/her spouse and no longer has that power [control] over his/her body in that dimension, so too, a celibate cleric has given over his life unto ministry as assigned by his legitimate superior.  The obedience he owes is not amorphous and it entails self-sacrifice, sometimes great sacrifice:  “conformation of the priest to Christ takes place not only through his evangelizing, sacramental and pastoral endeavors. It also transpires in self-oblation and expiation, that is to say in accepting with love the sufferings and sacrifices proper to the priestly ministry.”[4]  Christ’s obedience was “unto death, death on a Cross.”  The cleric’s “sacrifice of obedience” might be in faithfully discharging the duties pertaining to the assignment to a parish as insignificant and “hopeless” as Ars, France.  It might take the form of someone who has taught on the university level being assigned to the spiritual care of those in a nursing home.  It might be martyrdom to preserve the seal of confession or being laicized because of a false accusation.

The virtue of clerical obedience can be severely tested when the bishop gives a cleric an assignment that goes against his personal inclinations.  The cleric should always be cultivating the attitude of “holy indifference,” which means that he is not unduly attaching himself to any particular assignment or ministry given to him or voluntarily undertaken with the permission of the bishop: he undertakes his assignment with fervor because this is God’s desire, not for his own sake or self-aggrandizement but for Christ’s people.  The wise cleric is humble and realizes that the most important work he does in the divine economy of salvation is his willing obedience to his bishop’s legitimate commands.  The humble priest spending an hour in unconditionally obedient ministry might be more helpful to souls than a lifetime marked by constant contention with clerical assignments:

In this sense each priest receives a formation that permits him to serve the universal Church and not only become specialized in a single place or a particular task. This “formation for the universal Church” means being ready to face and deal with the most disparate of circumstances with constant readiness to serve the Church at large in an unconditional manner.[5]

4. God’s Will and Private Vows for the Cleric

Many glibly canonize their feelings or desires or ambitions as being “inspired” or “God’s will.”  While much can be said about the topic of God’s will, it will suffice for our purpose here to note that God’s “formal will” requires that an individual fulfill the obligations imposed not only by baptism, but also the additional ones inherent to the individual’s vocation.  There can be no divinely given “inspiration” that goes against these obligations and to act against them while obliged to do so is outright disobedience to God’s will.

Let’s take the example of a cleric who believes that God is calling him to “completely dedicate himself” to the welfare and relief of the holy souls and makes a vow to that effect.  When a vow is made by a cleric, it cannot go against the scope and breadth of the clerical obedience promised at ordination.  In the Catholic Church, the bishop has the authority to dispense, commute, or even annul private vows made by his clerics.  A public vow is made to God and received “in the name of the Church” by “legitimate authority.”  In praxis and in law, the only public vows made are usually in the context of consecrated life forms in which is made profession of the evangelical counsels before the person authorized by law to receive the vows in the name of the Church.  A private vow is a vow made that is not received “in the name of the Church” by “legitimate authority” and remains “private” even if it is televised, made in front of a bishop, pope, or large crowd.  It is the lack of reception of the vow in the name of the Church by the “legitimate authority” that makes it private.  The Church does not authorize anyone [other than the Pope] to receive vows in Her name that are not already governed in law.  At this time, the only vows and promises that are “public” are tied to the sacraments and consecrated life.

To be valid, a vow must be for the “good” and it cannot go against the obligations of one’s state in life.  Because a cleric has given up his life unto “ministry”, he has effectively handed over the right to his time, effort, energy, and intention to the Church which mediates Her rights in this matter through the bishop.  A cleric receives and is obliged to obey the bishop’s lawful orders regarding clerical ministry.  A private vow, therefore, that goes against the bishop’s lawful directives is either annulled or suspended for as long as the bishop’s assignments stand.  Moralists even state that because the obligation of obedience is perpetual, a bishop could theoretically permit a cleric to make a private vow to do a good thing, but he or his successor can always negate or suspend the cleric’s private vow by giving him a different assignment.  The assignment does not have to be objectively better in itself, it is subjectively better for the cleric to fulfill it because it pertains to the obedience owed by the hierarchical nature of holy orders and his promise(s) of obedience.  Put differently, a cleric cannot object that the apparent “good” promised by his private vow is “better” than whatever “good” is assigned by his bishop and therefore it would be “bad” to do the apparently “lesser good”.  There is no wrong in doing the good even if it is not the “best” or “highest”.  But doing an objectively “higher” good in disobedience to a lawful directive (meaning something that falls under the scope of the authority of the bishop) is always objectively wrong.

A spirit of activism can endanger a cleric’s personal salvation and render his ministry less fruitful.  Activism takes place when the cleric puts his emphasis on “work” and little on sacramental ministry and cultivating his own interior life.  It fails to recognize the power of the grace of God and instead relies on the human metrics for success: the number of baptisms, successful fundraisers for this or that cause, the latest round of volunteers that signed up for the parish renovation committee, etc.  This activism is most evident when the work becomes more important than the prayer that should undergird it, such as when religious communities are founded primarily to supply cheap, exploited labor in an apostolate and denying its members the tools and time for growth in virtue and prayer because the work takes precedence.  There is the age-old story of a pastor who delivered a moving homily and he was proud of his efforts in giving it; to another person, though, it was revealed by God that a prayer of a lay saint was the primary reason for the conversion of heart experienced by the congregants during that homily.

The power of prayer and conformity to God’s will, so often given lip service but denied in praxis by clerics, is that which allows the performance of the slightest duty done with love of God and neighbor, to bear great fruit.  A pastor with a devotion to relieving the sufferings of the holy souls in purgatory does not have to spend all day in the cemetery praying for them or in the pulpit preaching constantly on purgatory.  He can offer his obedience in attending his clerical retreat for their benefit.  He may fervently hear confessions or offer up the midnight rush to a hospital for an anointing for their relief.  He may offer the sacrifice of his will in ministry to God.  The time he spends exercising or in appropriate recreation can likewise be dedicated for the Church suffering. 

This is not rocket science, but it is difficult for the laity and clergy imbued with masculine values and with a secular outlook to truly grasp the significance of the cleric imitating Christ in His total conformity to God’s will in holy obedience.  The external appearances can be so very deceptive: a man “wasting his talents” in an assignment given by the bishop or its corollary of a cleric apparently “successful” in an assignment or privately undertaken apostolate that is done without fervor or concomitant interior life; the object of envy from fellow clergy for a post that is in truth far from glamorous but done with the love of God… God’s metrics are not ours.  It is the bishop’s duty to assess the needs of the local Church, giving assignments to his collaborators in ministry and it is the clerics’ duty to carry out the assigned ministry out of love for souls by faithful obedience.  This is how God’s will is accomplished in the life of a cleric.

5. Three Things Bishops Can Demand

  • Fidelity to Faith.  A bishop can take a heretic to task.  This should go without saying, but it bears repeating now and then.
  • Upright living.  The diocesan bishop has the authority to insist that any immoral behavior engaged upon by a cleric be corrected.
  • Conformity to canon law and all things pertaining to ministry.  The bishop has the authority to determine precisely how a cleric is to engage in ministry within the confines of law.  It is he who determines what the cleric is assigned to do, and whether it is on a full-time or part-time basis.  Any ministry that is voluntary on the part of the cleric is also subject to the bishop’s review and permission.

6. Three Things Bishops Cannot Demand

Even bishops are limited in what they can require under clerical obedience.  There are matters that do not fall under their authority such as things that do not pertain to faith, morals, or “ministry”.  We shall divide our examples into three categories of secular affairs, certain matters pertaining to physical health, and certain things pertaining to mental or spiritual health.

  • Secular Affairs.  A bishop cannot force a cleric to make a will in favor of himself or his diocese under the guise of “obedience.”  He cannot insist on a certain color, make, and model of the car a cleric purchases with his salary.  The diocesan bishop does not have the authority to force his priests to vote in a particular manner or intercept his mail.
  • Physical Health.  A bishop cannot require a cleric to undergo “extraordinary medical procedures.”   He can demand – generally, not in the particulars – that level of self-care required by the cleric’s office(s).  He does not have the right to the medical records of a cleric – but he can demand proof of physical fitness to serve in ministry. 
  • Mental/Spiritual Health.  A cleric may not be forced to have a spiritual director.  He cannot be forced to seek counseling or disclose his mental health records.  The cleric cannot be made to take an oath of truthfulness in a trial (therefore, there can be no perjury), nor to testify against himself.  Mental health and spiritual direction cannot be “weaponized”, used as a way to govern in the external forum based upon internal forum knowledge.  A cleric should never, ever agree to undergo counseling or, worse, release confidential records without consulting a canonist with regard to his rights in the matter and how to best mitigate potential damage should he freely choose to have counseling and/or release its content [e.g. the wording of a release can be extremely important with regard to limiting the number of recipients and duration of how long a report can be stored.]  Freely choose, in this case, means that the cleric is fully informed of the pros and cons of the action in addition to being free from undue pressure, which is usually not the case.

7. Disobedience is Not Equal

Disobedience to legitimate authority can have the equivalent of court martial for clerics.  The most serious form of disobedience is schism. “[S]chism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”[6] But other forms of disobedience can be serious as well, whether because they touch upon the liturgy directly, pertain to matters of faith and morals, or because they gravely disrupt the divinely ordained hierarchical relationship between cleric and bishop.  Punishment, therefore, for clerical disobedience will depend on the kind of disobedience and can be as severe as laicization or excommunication.

The question naturally arises as to whether disobedience can ever be called for in the life of a cleric. We all know the concept of “civil disobedience” in America. It is an act done in protest to that which is deemed either “immoral” or “unjust” or because “the greater good” demands it.  In the USA, we have a strong tradition of standing for the rule of law, and there is sufficient leisure for people to devote to eradicating injustice and the pursuit of their rights.  It should come as no surprise that clerical obedience does have its limits, but what those limits are may surprise the faithful who have not spent years in clerical formation.

As we have already mentioned, clerics cannot be ordered to go against the faith or morals and they must obey matters of discipline unless they are waived by legitimate authority.  Further, they cannot be ordered to do things that do not substantially pertain to ministry that are not already regulated by law.  Examples of things that go beyond the bishop’s authority to command include the model and color of the cleric’s vehicle, who inherits under the terms of a cleric’s will, and how time off is to be spent.  A cleric could give due consideration to a bishop’s request or viewpoint in these matters, but would not be obliged to follow them, even if couched in the language of an order, because it goes outside the scope of a bishop’s authority.  His not following a command under these conditions would not be disobedience because it does not pertain to what was promised by the cleric.

The level of obligation for something demanded by obedience will depend on the matter itself.  Is it of divine law?  Divine positive law?  Natural law?  Positive ecclesial law?  Civil law?  The cleric is to be a model of obedience just as the Son of God was the model for obedience.  That being said, there is an aspect about clerical obedience that does not appear to be appreciated by lay persons, namely, its tie to the divinely instituted hierarchy.  An unmarried lay person has the right to do all kinds of good things and freely choose what will be done, how, and with whom.  Married persons enjoy many freedoms as well, but this is curtailed by their duties to spouse and children.  Clerics, although they are ordained unto sacred service, are generally not free to choose the good things that they are to do with their time.

The lack of freedom for a cleric in determining how the bulk of his time will be spent can be puzzling to laypersons because they have more latitude in how they spend their time.  An unmarried layperson, duties permitting, can choose to spend eight hours a day at the cemetery praying for the holy souls.  A military chaplain cannot.  The unmarried layperson can choose to dedicate his life to a particular apostolate.  The cleric cannot.  The cleric’s time is simply not his own when it comes to ministry.  He is bound to his diocese, and to work for the good of his diocese.  In working for the good of his diocese – unless “loaned out” by his bishop, he works for the good of the universal Church.  This hierarchical system of assignments is not merely a human administrative issue, it is backed by divine law and the will of God.  This is what he signed up to do.

Thus, it should come as no surprise to those who understand this truth that while a layperson can put into his calculations for his choice of how to spend his own time factors such as whether he is attracted to the apostolate, whether he is treated well by his colleagues/supervisors, whether his talent is suitable for the apostolate, etc., this is not how clerical ministry works.  A cleric cannot put his own individual desires or “inspirations” or preferences ahead of his bishop’s commands.  He cannot base his decision on whether to obey on what he speculates to be the “true” reason for the command.  If what is commanded falls under the scope of the bishop’s authority, he is bound to obey. 

What some of the laity fail to realize is that not only is there a danger of the “clericalization of the laity” in the Church, there is also a danger of the “laicization of the clergy”.  This means that the cleric encroaches on the role of the laity, instead of remaining in his own proper sphere.  For example, it belongs to the laity to sanctify the world through activity with politics that goes beyond voting.  Former president of Paraguay, Senator Fernando Lugo, made the headlines when he wanted to devote his life to lay profane (non-sacred) activity (as a politician), not sacred ministry.  He was a bishop who was laicized because he put lay activism before clerical oblation.  

Put differently, Lugo essentially said “non serviam” and chose to reject the sacred in favor of work in the realm of the profane.  Obviously, he did so because he saw “good” that could be done as a politician. Humans generally make decisions based on perceived good.  He rebelled against his duty as a cleric.  This called for a drastic response: his reduction by the Holy See to the lay state.  Just as serious disobedience can be punished in the military with the death penalty or life imprisonment, so too, serious disobedience against the divinely instituted structure of command may be punished by excommunication and/or laicization.  Why?  Because persistent insubordination to the will of God by a cleric pursuing a good, no matter how noble has no place in the clerical ranks.  It can lead not only to scandal but can potentially undermine the faith of other clergy who may choose to reject their divine vocation thusly.  The formal will of God always demands obedience of the cleric no matter how tempting and how rewarding other enticing work or “apostolates” may be.

While we are on the topic of laicization, let’s talk about what we typically call “laicization” which is a punishment or favor for an ordained man who is legally put back into the canonical “lay state” by the Holy See.  When an ordained man is placed back into the lay state by the Holy See, obedience requires that he forfeit all trappings of the clerical state even if he remains invisibly but truly ordained.  Thus, he no longer has the right to active and passive voice among the diocesan clergy.  He no longer can be called “Deacon” or “Father”.  He may no longer wear clerical garb.  Likewise, the faithful have the obligation of obedience to the Holy See in such a matter and not accord the man the respect due a cleric: they are not to call the cleric by his former title, agitate for disobedience against the decree of laicization, etc.  E.g. Mr. Fernando Lugo is addressed by his civil titles as a senator, not as a bishop of the Catholic Church.  Violence against his person is not punished ecclesiastically and cannot be considered a sacrilege because he no longer has clerical standing, notwithstanding his sacramental seal of orders.

In summary, clerical obedience is not fully understood by most people, but I hope that these reflections help in understanding this essential aspect of the vocation to orders. 

[1] Directory, pg. 77.

[2] Presbytorum ordinis, Ch. 3, Section I, n. 13.

[3] Directory, pp. 46-47.

[4] Directory, pg. 22.

[5] Directory, pg. 27.

[6] Canon 751.

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