by Deacon Nick Donnelly
If you hear or read a bishop at the Synod attempting to justify changing the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage you will know that they are setting themselves against the teaching of the Catholic Church. As such, it is our duty not to obey.
The question uppermost in my mind as the Extraordinary Synod on the Family begins is how will faithful Catholics respond to those bishops who are openly seeking to undermine the Church’s teaching?
Many of us are deeply concerned about the presence of cardinals and bishops at the Synod who intend to fudge doctrine on the indissolubility of Marriage and overturn the prohibition on divorced and re-married couples receiving Holy Communion.
I know Catholics who are so distressed by this prospect that they are considering leaving their parishes and joining the Society of St Pius X because they feel they need a safe haven. But I earnestly appeal to readers of Catholic Voice who may be considering this option, now more than ever the Church needs you and all faithful Catholics to stay and fight for the truth.
The Catholic understanding of Obedience
One word expresses the heart of what it means to be a faithful Catholic, and that word is ‘obedience’. All the other dimensions of being a Catholic flow out of a life lived in genuine obedience to God – love, mercy, forgiveness, and justice. In my experience it is impossible to be a genuine Catholic without living a life of obedience because it is the key that unlocks the vitality and energy of divine grace. It is obedience to God’s Word that enables us to be truly merciful and truly forgiving. If such obedience is abandoned then mercy and forgiveness become mere humanitarian sentiment that can affirm immorality and abandon individuals to their sin.
But what if there are those in the Church who seek to take advantage of our obedience to serve their own disobedient agenda? Maybe there are bishops who think that if they succeed in changing the Church’s doctrine then we will all fall into line. This is why now more than ever we need to have a clear understanding of obedience, so that we don’t co-operate with the undoing of the Catholic Church.
Of course the practise of obedience is not popular among many western Catholics who have been radicalised by a pervasive culture of self-assertion, consumerism and ‘free-thinking’. In a survey of Mass-going Catholics in England and Wales a couple of years ago our fellow Catholics were asked to rate in order of importance qualities they thought important to develop in children. While honesty was rated the most important by 86 % of the Catholics, obedience was rated the least important by 56%. This is unsurprising because obedience to authority is not popular in the opinion of many in modern society.
In order to ‘defuse’ the imperative of obedience to Catholicism it’s common among some circles for obedience to be reduced to mere ‘listening’ because the Latin ‘oboedientia’ means ‘to listen’. They ignore the fact that in Roman culture to listen to words spoken with authority meant to obey. By reducing obedience to the modern act of listening, the authority of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium becomes just one more ‘voice’ in a cacophony of opinions to be accepted or rejected according to the judgment of the individual. Instead of God’s Word judging the individual, the individual becomes the judge of God’s Word. This is not the Catholic understanding of obedience.
An authentic Catholic understanding of obedience must include what St Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5) which binds every Catholic, from the Pope in Rome, to lay faithful in their parish church. The Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, describes the ‘obedience of faith’ as follows:
‘The obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him. To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving "joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it."’ (DV 5).
I want to highlight three characteristics of the obedience of faith which we can use as a litmus test to judge our own thoughts, words and actions as Catholics. I have framed these as questions like an examination of conscience:
Question one: Do I fully commit my whole self freely to God?
In other words, do I accept and live the fullness of the Catholic Faith or am I an ‘a la carte’ Catholic who picks and chooses. The Church holds that this aspect of obedience is so important that she has framed it as a canon in her law that is universally binding, as amended by Pope St John Paul II in his motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem [To Protect the Faith].
‘Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church’. (Canon 750§ 2)
So, if you hear or read a bishop at the Synod attempting to justify changing the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage or Holy Communion you will know that they are definitively setting themselves against the teaching of the Catholic Church. As such, it is our duty not to obey. If the worst comes to the worse and dissenting bishops, with the eager assistance of the media, give the impression that they have won the day at the Synod, it is important that we remain calm and prayerful. Almighty God, in His providence, will provide us with successors to the Apostles who will remain faithful to divine truth, safeguarding and preserving the Deposit of Faith. Always remember that Our Lord promised that He would remain with His Church until the end of time, and one of the ways He has done this through history is through faithful bishops, no matter how few, and a greater number of faithful people.
Question two: Do I offer the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals?
Simply put, do I accept that God knows better than I do? Submission to the authority of God is not at all popular, with many falsely assuming that they can overturn the Sixth Commandment ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ and Our Lord’s commandment, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:3).
Question three: Do I freely assent to the truth revealed by Him?
Clearly, we are free to assent to the truth revealed by God, but we are not free to dissent from these truths. No one is forced to remain a Catholic, and no one is forced to assent to the doctrines and discipline of the Catholic Faith. But nowadays when Catholics reject the definitive doctrines of the Faith they don’t leave the Church but agitate and campaign to overturn the truths revealed by God. During the run up to the Extraordinary Synod we have witnessed some bishops waging a campaign in the media against God’s truth about marriage. As Catholics who have freely assented to the truth revealed by God it is our duty to oppose them.
Blessed John Henry Newman
Those who are campaigning to change the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage misleadingly claim support for such ‘doctrinal revolution’ from Blessed John Henry Newman and his work on the development of Christian doctrine in the life of the Church. Cardinal Newman taught that the Church’s understanding of divine truth revealed by God was not ‘fossilised’ at a point in history, but that her understanding deepens over time through the assistance of the Holy Spirit. However, there is a world of difference between a deepening knowledge of God’s truth and a contradictory change in the understanding God’s of truth. Newman did not hold the spurious idea being promoted by dissenters that the Church could come to a new understanding of divine truth that negates and contradicts the mind of the Church over the past 2,000 years.
What saddens me about this constant need to challenge dissent and disobedience in the Church is that it often means that we have to frame our faith in terms of opposition and conflict. For me, and I’m sure for other faithful Catholics, deciding to be obedient to the doctrines and discipline of the Faith is a liberating, exhilarating and creative act. Faithful obedience, compared to disobedient dissent, is like being plugged into a divine powerhouse, suffusing your life with energy, inspiration and creativity. As the paragraph in Dei Verbum puts it, we experience the gift of the obedience of faith as moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind, and giving joy and ease in assenting to the truth and believing it.
I conclude by inviting you to join me in praying daily a version of St Augustine’s prayer to the Holy Spirit for the bishops participating in the Synod:
Breathe in them, O Holy Spirit, that their thoughts may all be holy.
Act in them, O Holy Spirit, that their work, too, may be holy.
Draw their hearts, O Holy Spirit, that they love what is holy.
Strengthen them, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard them, O Holy Spirit, that they always may be holy. Amen.