Comment on Obedience

Author: Jean Guitton


Jean Guitton

I have before me a little-known letter of Maurice Blondel dealing with the subject of obedience. He addressed it, on July 7, 1902, to a priest who found himself opposed to certain acts of the Roman authority. Reading between the lines of his letter, I can guess the priest's objections: "For obedience to be worthy of a man and of a Christian, it must not be merely 'external'; he should be able to endorse freely in conscience the reasons underlying the command".

Herewith, summarised in my own style, is the philosopher's answer: "You would be right, dear Father, if we were in Heaven, enjoying the (Beatific) Vision and freed from self-love. But we do not yet enjoy that vision; we are only journeying towards it along life's highway. And in this state of darkness, which is an opportunity of merit for us, we cannot perceive in individual cases whether authority is right. Still less can we obey without making a sacrifice! Let us admit it courageously: We are agreed upon the need for the existence of an authority. But whenever an act of the authority goes against us, see how annoyed we are!

The rules whose excellence and obviousness we generally accept are those of a general nature. As for the others, they seem to us to be irrelevant, repellent, intransigent and practically non-existent".

Duty, even when it is an expression of our deep-seated will, is always in opposition to our hasty will. Herein lies the mystery of action: there is no true freedom without this death to oneself. This is true in every moral context; it applies to a member of the faithful in his Church. From the minute when he freely and in conscience recognises that he lawfully owes submission to Christ and to the Church, he cannot insist that every prescription should conform to his own wishes. Even more than this, dear Father, I would go so far as to say: For the action of authority to have a beneficial and sanctifying effect upon our soul, it must necessarily be burdensome and sometimes painful".

Having had the good fortune to know of this letter, when I later read the text of Paul VI on obedience, I see the close connection between two trains of thought, separated by a distance of sixty years. There is a great deal of talk about "conscience" and "freedom". I am willing to admit that the attitude of conscience changes according as to whether one is outside the Church or is a member of the Church. Outside the Church, we have at our disposal only our reasoning power, our information, and our freedom. Conscience is the only judge. But if we once accept that the Church is of divine origin, then conscience accepts a subordinate role; it becomes like the eye which must be impregnated with light in order to see. You will ask me: But what happens if my conscience no longer accepts the authority? I reply: If it can't be helped, then take the consequences. But reflect that no society, however trifling it may be, (even a card party!) can continue to exist if those who have accepted the rules publicly oppose them when they no longer follow them.

Besides, Blondel was right. I knew him as I knew my priests, those fine religious, Pouget, Legrange, Postal. In silence they suffered and obeyed. They taught that true freedom, the kind that demands the most from conscience, the kind that complies with our everlasting duty, has another name: "Self-denial".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 November 1968, page 7

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