Book Review: True Obedience in the Church by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has written yet another very interesting book, True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times, published by Sophia Institute Press.  This book is an informative read, a short and enjoyable summary of a complex topic, especially applicable to our times.  The book can be read in one or two sittings and applies to all Catholics and touches in many ways on themes of sacred liturgy.  

The work presents an erudite discussion on the subject of true obedience in the Church.  In recent years this subject has taken on new meaning for many Catholics who have witnessed a revival in liturgical ceremonial and art in the light of the revival of the tradition of the Church, particularly under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.  In view of that, recent moves which seem to go contrary to the imperturbable nature of the liturgy have raised many questions, not least of which is the question of what true obedience entails within the tradition of the Church. This is an important question that is especially felt during a time in the history of the Church when  a significant portion of Catholics are left feeling censured and deprived of their liturgical patrimony and birthright.   

As with any institution, there have always been abuses of power - most recently, often to the detriment of the common good in the area of theological orthodoxy and the sacred liturgy.  In an age of appalling liturgical abuses and rupture, much of the defense of the Church involves the laity, who are called to understand the subject of legitimate obedience and to stand up for their indefeasible rights.  There are limits of obedience.  And there is obedience due only to God.  The obligation laid upon us by God is that our first obedience must always be to Him.    

The author quotes St. Thomas Aquinas:

"Man is subject to God simply as regards all things, both internal and external, wherefore he is bound to obey Him in all things.  On the other hand, inferiors are not subject to their superiors in all things, but only in certain things and in a particular way, in respect of which the superior stands between God and his subjects, whereas in respect of other matters the subject is immediately under God, by Whom he is taught either by the natural or by the written law" (True Obedience in the Church, p. 15).  

The author's knowledge of the subject has obviously been gained by studying the theological implications in light of real-life experience in today's Church.  He writes that when a superior makes "a determination that appears contrary to some truth we already know by reason or by faith," then we have no choice but to "refuse to accept it or abide by it" (p. 11).  This is because Christian thinking is never some form of unthinking servility or mindless regimentation.  Obedience to conscience takes precedence of everything, and cannot be commanded for something wrong.  It is based upon the truth and is always subordinate to the one whom we must always ultimately obey - God Himself.  Obedience has conditions for its existence, limits, and levels on which it operates.  

"We must begin by seeing that it is not obedience that comes first, but truth and charity; and this is why obedience, rightly understood, is not blind.  In the order of being, there is first the truth, and the love of this truth; and then, obedience is the only appropriate response to truth, the only appropriate response of the will to truth that is to be loved for its own sake.  Take away truth, and you take away love; take away love, and you take away the root of obedience" (True Obedience in the Church, p. 7).  

The conclusion made by the author is that when there is an abuse of authority, the faithful can at times be forced to disobey earthly authority in order to obey divine authority.  If the will of superiors or pastors is opposed to the will and laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power.  The author quotes a 2014 document from the International Theological Commission that is worth mentioning here:

"Alerted by the sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.  'The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers' (Jn 10:4-5).  For St. Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy.  In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially 'authorized' preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church" (True Obedience in the Church, pp. 45-46).  

Not a few theologians have addressed this all-important question over the centuries, including Augustine and Aquinas.  It is a fascinating discussion that has taken on new implications in our present age of confusion.  True Obedience is packed with great quotes and golden tidbits of information, also in the endnotes.  I encourage readers to purchase a copy for themselves, to study up and be well informed and up-to-date on the discussions surrounding this important subject.  Even when leaders abuse their power to the detriment of the life of the Church, there is always refuge in obedience in its highest and most radical form: obedience to the truth for the love of the good - for the love of God.  

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