When I was an undergraduate philosophy student, I spent a summer working on an organic wheat farm in Kansas, where an eccentric and heterodox farmer was trying to start a religious commune. We spent a lot of time studying the Douay-Rheims Bible, shooing rattlers out of the breezeway, dodging tornadoes, and driving up to Denver to “evangelize” preparatory to World Youth Day.
One Sunday, we drove out past the sunflower fields to a church in Salina where the priest, supposedly, was very holy, reverent, and wise. It was an aesthetically appealing mass (even now, as a radical leftist, I still love a traditional liturgy), and afterwards we were invited for tea and sweet pastries in the rectory. The priest had a droning voice and very white, very soft hands, which impressed me unpleasantly. Men I admired didn’t have dainty hands like that, and my own were rough and calloused from my days fixing fence, training horses, and working in the gardens. But I was trying hard to save my vile soul, and that meant feeding on self-denial, including denial of my impulse to judge my spiritual authorities.
In the course of conversation, I mentioned that I was studying philosophy, and we chatted briefly about Plato, then somehow moved on through Aquinas to Descartes, at which point the priest began to utter the usual criticisms: Descartes was to blame for so much of this modern depravity, attacks against tradition, separating the body from the soul, and so forth. This was a sore point for me, as I’d been reading and enjoying Descartes since high school, and thought his Thomistic detractors were missing the point (which for the most part they are). So I spoke up. I disagreed, albeit politely, and presented my own defense of the value of Cartesian thought.
That kind of killed the conversation.
Afterwards, I found out why. In the big orange 80s van, the eccentric farmer / would-be cult leader gravely chastised me for having dared to disagree with a priest, a man of God, my rightful authority, Christ in person. I felt both mortified and aggrieved. I wanted to point out that Jesus didn’t have soft white hands, and anyway, what was I studying philosophy for if I couldn’t use it freely? – but, as I said, I was trying to save my soul.
Looking back on this some 25 years later, I am incredulous that I let myself be shamed simply for expressing a philosophical position. But it’s not really surprising.
In our Christian culture – not just Catholic, but Protestant; not just American, but global; not just contemporary, but traditional – clericalism is bolstered by our cult of obedience. Obedience is woven into every aspect of our Christian lives, whether it’s a command for women to submit to men, a command to obey the laws of the land, or the requirement that we obey our religious leaders when they tell us not only how to act, but how even to think.
This is one reason why slavery retained its hold on our civilization, even well into the supposedly enlightened modern age. This is why it took forever for women to win even some semblance of equal representation in government. It’s why abuse of children was legitimized for centuries as “discipline” and radically hierarchical and aristocratic societies flourished under the name of “Christ” in spite of the shining example of the Gospels, and the early church.
I could say “for nearly 20 centuries we have been disobeying Jesus” – but, Jesus did not command through demands for obedience. Satan tempted him to claim power, and to do signs and wonders, in order to command obedience – but Jesus did not succumb.
I wonder whether since then we have succumbed, we the church – and especially church leaders. From the time Christianity became enshrined as an official religion this was a danger, and this corruption came to full flower with the iniquitous Inquisition, and the unholy Crusades. Over and over we have denied Christ by refusing to follow his example, claiming power and enforcing obedience.
Obedience to God is one thing. But how do we know when it’s God? Why should we believe those who say “I speak for God” – when they compel our assent with threats, standing between us and the sacraments we have been taught that we need, for salvation?
I’ve seen this abused so many times. In the protestant communities where our leaders would go off to pray, and come back with a “word” from the Lord about who was supposed to do what. One such word from the Lord was that I was not suited to take a job as stable manager, because it would be “unscriptural” for a woman to lead. Words from the Lord told people who to marry or not marry. Among Catholics, I saw how the spiritual directors in the covenant community in Steubenville abused and manipulated those under their command.
And now it is becoming clear how destructive this cult of obedience has been. When we have been told repeatedly “this man is Christ” and “don’t disagree” – how can we have the moral daring to tell them no, let alone fight back, when what they use their authority to exact sexual submission?
And this cult is protected by injunctions to silence. I found a prayer card in a church recently, with a “Prayer for Priests” from 1959. On its flip side, it tells us why we should pray for priests:
The priest “is another Christ – respect him
He is God’s representative – trust him.
He is your benefactor – be thankful to him.
He is the physician of your soul – show him its wounds;
He directs you towards God – follow his admonitions;
He is judging – abide by his decision.
If you must tell his faults – tell them to God”
It’s no surprise to me that, in a culture where such blind obedience is protected by fearful secrecy, victims have been silent and afraid. What is a surprise to me is that there are still so many priests – in parishes and religious houses, teaching in schools or ministering to the poor – who still present to us the example of Christ, who listen to the laity, amplify our voices, empathize with our struggles. And I am grateful to them.