The Beauty of Obedience

After I spoke on that panel in New York last night, some of the organizers took us out to dinner. They mentioned that this was the last of three panels on Gay Catholic Whatnot (the first two having been on Scripture and moral theology, I think), and we discussed whether it made sense to open out the discussion to broader topics. I think the organizers were probably right to avoid bringing in new tangentially-related topics like e.g. Women in the Church, but if I got to pick the most important undercurrent of our conversation last night–the silent, often unrecognized issue which most deeply affected our approaches–I would pick obedience to the Church. And if I’d been able to talk for ten more minutes I think I would have dedicated that entire time to a defense of obedience to the Church as something necessary, beautiful, and intellectually fruitful.

It’s hard for us nowadays to think in terms of obedience to the Church. When we think of obedience–or you could also say trust, since in this case they really do mean the same thing–we think of obedience to particular people in the Church hierarchy or else obedience to Jesus.

Obedience to particular people in the Church is often a really, really terrible idea. It’s how you get pogroms and sex abuse coverups. We are all kind of painfully aware now, I think, of how quickly personal loyalty becomes criminal. Obedience to Jesus might be the way to go, then. But the problem is that there are so many Jesuses. It turns out to be surprisingly easy to craft an American Jesus or a me-shaped Jesus. Trusting that Jesus is easy because trusting that Jesus is wrong.

And so we think of obedience as basically a negative tendency in the human personality. Obedience = submission = repression toward oneself and cruelty toward others.

This is so bizarre to me. That probably makes me the worst possible person to talk about this issue, since the majority position is really tough for me to understand, so I welcome your comments and criticism about my attempt to talk about obedience in this post. I pretty much instinctively find obedience and submission romantic, beautiful gestures of other-directed self-gift. (That’s why I use “submissive” as a neutral-to-positive term when describing figure skating styles.) You guys know that I constantly praise kneeling in prayer and bowing your head. Obedience is how we show that we’re listening and that we trust God to know what’s best for us. Obedience pushes us past our self-imposed limits: It demands more from us than we think we can give, and so it forces us to give more than we thought possible.

I have this hilariously conflicted relationship with authority, in which I simultaneously long for like real, awesome authority and yet rebel against and get cranky about the smaller everyday authorities which come into my life, like my teachers and the Man, man. Society! I’m right though. Chesterton said so! “Break the conventions, keep the Commandments.” The merely-human authorities are often pretty awful, abuse of power comes as no surprise etc etc, and yet without submission to authority our lives are only as big as our own minds can make them.

Obedience to the Church means accepting a worldview often startlingly alien to 21st-century America; that’s why it’s so necessary and so intellectually stimulating for 21st-century Americans. The Church, if we obey Her in love, forces us to accept quite stringent, frankly un-American restrictions on what we do with our bodies and our money (and our prisoners). If you don’t have an outside authority to whom you submit your intellect, then whenever you run up against a rule you can’t understand or a saint you don’t like you can just ditch the rule or the saint. This means your worldview can never be bigger than your brain. You can think of the alternative, the Catholic worldview, as “faith seeking understanding,” or as Chesterton’s lovely formulation (which I realize was referring to something else, so I’m just using it here metaphorically), “The mind conquers a new province like an emperor; but only because the mind has answered the bell like a servant.”

Obedience to the Church requires a level of trust which I think a lot of people really struggle with today. We feel really alone and deprived, like nobody’s looking out for us or for our interests. Sacrificing our own will feels like giving up the one thing that might get us through life with some semblance of self-respect. This is one reason it’s so incredibly important to show love to others who struggle with trusting the Church: We aren’t the Church and that’s really important, we are just smelly old sheep, but when we are trustworthy we can help other people see the Church Herself as trustworthy. We can be like a painting or a prayer, recalling us to the truth that the Church is not a scam or a mistake, that She can be trusted even when She demands more than we think we can give. Everybody knows that the painting isn’t God and even the prayer isn’t actually God, but the painting and the prayer can help reestablish broken lines of communication between the person and God.

Obedience is also a cure for “terminal uniqueness.” Not sure what else to say about that since it seems kind of obvious. You really do have to do the stuff other people did before you, even if you don’t understand why. Obedience is a childlike attitude and it can produce a childlike love.

Instead of thinking obedience = repression we could consider obedience as humility. I think we do know that humility is beautiful–even 21st-century Americans know that, and feel chastened and awed by real humility on the rare occasions when we recognize it. Obedience can be thought of as willingness, a kind of suppleness of the trained and dedicated will, a sense that we hold our lives lightly and should be ready to let go of anything which keeps us from God.

I’m sure even if we all agreed on the beauty of obedience–or even on the beauty of obedience to the Church!–at least some of the people at last night’s discussion would still find some way to disagree on Gay Catholic Whatnot. The world’s a funny old place. But in fact, the concept that obedience could be beautiful is nowhere on anybody’s radar in this discussion, and that’s one reason we often talk past each other.

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