Trad Catholics and True Obedience
Friday, on the Catholic Church’s old calendar of saints, is the feast of St. Thomas More. Known in his own day as the wisest and wittiest man in England, More is now remembered mostly for two somewhat lesser achievements. First is the word “utopia,” which he coined. Second are his pithy last words: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
The first point has been discussed at far too much length. As every tedious high school teacher has pointed out, utopia is a mashup of the Greek for “good place” and “no place.” That didn’t stop Marx and Lenin from hailing More as a proto-communist. But then, they didn’t have the benefit of Miss Grundy’s sophomore English class.
The second point, on the other hand, hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. Why did Thomas More call himself “the King’s good servant” at all? Surely at that point he had nothing to lose. Why not go for something more cathartic, like “Death to King Hank, that fat old pervert”?
It’s not just Sir Thomas, either. Before Elizabeth I condemned him to be hanged, St. Robert Southwell addressed the Queen as “Most mighty and most merciful, most feared and best-beloved Princess…” Why were More and Southwell so courteous towards their respective tyrants?
The answer is, they were Catholics, and Catholics believe that obedience to authority is a virtue. It’s one of the evangelical virtues, as a matter of fact—otherwise known as the counsels of perfection. These great martyrs refused to renounce their faith in the Catholic Church, and so were executed. But they also refused to renounce their duties as subjects of a lawful sovereign, even as the royal hangman marched them to the scaffold.
This might sound like a lot of High Tory LARPing, but it isn’t. Catholics—like all Christians—don’t believe in equality, let alone “equity.” We believe in hierarchy. And, from the Church’s infancy, Christians have believed that obedience to that hierarchy is crucial. As St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans:
Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.
There are exceptions, of course. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men.” So, the Church has always taught that Christians have a duty to resist our rulers when they command us to sin. This distinction would become crucial when, a few decades after Paul dispatched his letter, the Emperor ordered Rome’s Christians to make little sacrifices to the pagan idols or else forfeit their lives. (They chose death, to their eternal glory.)
Yet resistance is the exception, not the rule. It’s not an attitude, but a single act. It’s a last resort when obedience becomes totally impossible. We’re certainly not called to make a habit of resisting. As Christ Himself said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
John Henry Newman spoke for all Christians, and especially all Catholics, Christians) when he said: “The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest.” Rebellion is a failure to recognize the hierarchies set over us by God, an echo of Satan’s non serviam. It’s a preference for one’s own individual judgment to the commandments of authority. And it’s deeply un-Catholic, un-Christian. As Pope Leo XIII once said, “If anyone is compelled, so that union may be preserved, to renounce his own private opinion, let him do it cheerfully for the common good.”
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As in politics, so too in religion.
The Church, you know, is not democracy: it’s an absolute monarchy. At the very top of that hierarchy is Christ is King. His bride, the Church, is the Queen; the Virgin Mary is like the Queen Mother. Next it’s the Pope, who acts as Christ’s viceroy on earth. Then we have the cardinals, the princes of the Church. Then it’s the primates, the metropolitan archbishops, the diocesan bishops, the auxiliary bishops, the priests, and the religious brothers and sisters.
Finally—right there, at the bottom—is the laity. We’re the 99 percent. Basically, we’re serfs.
This makes intuitive sense to subjects of a monarchy, be it the Roman Empire or the Kingdom of England. It’s easy enough for citizens of European republics, like the French, whose ancestral memory is monarchical. For Americans, however, it’s rather more difficult.
The hierarchical nature of the Church has always troubled the American mind, which is democratic right down to its synapses. We naturally recoil from any notion of authority. We feel entitled to a share of any power being wielded by anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s our birthright.
Little wonder that our attitude towards the Church is therefore deeply democratic. Spend any amount of time on Catholic Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. Despite the urging of holy bishops like Cardinal Robert Sarah, we automatically group ourselves into factions: traditionalists, conservatives, liberals, progressives, etc.
Naturally, each faction also have their own newspapers and blogs. They have our own pundits and “influencers” who constantly snipe at one other—and at bishops who defy the party line. Take the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter. They recently published an editorial sarcastically offering their support for the U.S. bishops, who are expected to publish a document rebuking pro-choice (Catholic) politicians who present themselves for Holy Communion. So, the Reporter writes,
We say: Just do it.
Just do it, so that if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual, they will be crystal clear about that reality after the conference leaders move forward with this patently bad idea.
What’s funny is that the same sentiment is echoed by every right-leaning pundit in the Catholic blogosphere. (Nothing brings Catholic journalists together like hating on the bishops.) But that attitude is entirely contrary to Leo XIII’s magnificent directive to Catholic journalists:
Catholic writers must spare no effort to preserve this harmony in all things; let them prefer that which is of general utility to their own private interests. Let them favor common action; let them willingly submit to those “whom the Holy Ghost has set as Bishops to rule over the Church of God”; let them respect their authority and never undertake anything against the will of those they should look on as their leaders in the battle for Catholic interests.
Nor is it uncommon to hear Very Online Catholic talk about “holding the bishops accountable” as if they were town aldermen, not the Successors to the Apostles. We sign petitions demanding they resign, as if they could be recalled like Governor Newsom. We protest outside their cathedrals. We come up with Trumpian nicknames for them, like “the African Queen.” We choose those whom we’ll follow (like Archbishop Viganò) and those whom we’ll reject (like Cardinal Cupich), as if it were a choice between the Republican and the Democrat.
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Still, our democratic roots never show quite so much as when the pope is involved.
Ever since Francis ascended the Chair of St. Peter, a whole cottage industry of anti-papal media has grown up in the Church. Pundits make a comfortable living by amplifying his mistakes and interpreting his (admittedly confusing) statements in the worst possible light. Again, the idea seems to be that folks have a right to be “informed” so we can “hold the pope accountable.” But that’s thinking like a liberal, a democrat—not a Christian.
Think of the passage from Genesis about Noah and his sons. When Noah got drunk and passes out in his tent. The drunk, naked Noah is found by his son Ham, who “told his two brothers outside.” Ham’s brothers Shem and Japheth then “took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”
You’ll probably notice that Noah isn’t exactly blameless here. Still, Ham is cursed for revealing his father’s sins, even to his own brothers. Surely the same must be true for our clergy, whom we call Father—not least of all the Pope, our Holy Father.
Of course, children have the right to petition their parents when they feel they’re being mistreated. In fact, St. Catherine of Siena did just that. That great Doctrix of the Church inundated Pope Gregory XI with letters asking him to reform the clergy. A very sensible request, no doubt. Yet Catherine always addressed the Pope as Babbo, or Daddy. She called him “my sweet Jesus on earth.”
I understand why many conservative and traditional Catholics don’t feel the same filial love for Pope Francis. All the same, nothing is more “conservative” than respect for authority, and obedience to the bishops is a tradition even older than the Tridentine Mass.
Clement of Rome, the fourth pope, ordered wayward Catholics to “accept correction and change your minds. Learn submissiveness, and rid yourselves of your boastfulness and proud incorrigibility of tongue.” Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred only a few decades after St. Peter, said “the bishop is to preside in the place of God… so neither must you undertake anything without the bishop.” He asked the Church to “be concerned about unity, the greatest blessing”—just as rebellion is the greatest evil.
Those who would look for counter-examples will easily find them. But, then, we must ask: Why go looking for reasons to defy our superiors? Are we making a habit of obedience or resistance?
I hope we can see the difference. If Francis asks us to offer a sacrifice to Pachamama, of course we must refuse. But the fleeting presence of a Pacha idol in the Vatican Gardens doesn’t mean we have to spend the rest of Francis’s papacy calling him an idolator.
And if Francis does end up restricting access to the Latin Mass, by all means, we should seek it out where it exists. We should write letters to our bishops asking them to make it more available. Children have a right to appeal to their fathers—respectfully, lovingly—when they feel he’s wronging them.
But it doesn’t mean we can start attending a Sedevacantist parish where the Latin Mass is offered illicitly. We shouldn’t sacrifice the Church for the Old Mass. Again, St. Ignatius warned: “If a man runs after a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God; if a man chooses to be a dissenter, he severs all connection with the Passion.”
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It may not seem an easy distinction to parse. Still, we have to try. That’s our duty as Christians, as Catholics—especially as Catholics who claim a special attachment to the traditions of the Church. Authority is a tradition. Hierarchy is a tradition. Obedience is a tradition.
We have a duty to be good sons like Shem and Japheth, even when our father is misbehaving. We have a duty to be obedient, like Paul and More and Southwell—even when we’re up against wicked rulers, like Nero and Henry and Elizabeth.
That isn’t to say we should follow the bishops blindly or excuse their misdeeds. There’s a difference between covering your father’s nakedness and celebrating it. But we should certainly err on the side of respect and obedience. America may be a republic, but the Church is a monarchy.
And if we want to be like St. Catherine of Siena, we have to imitate her obedience as well as her courage. If we want to raise some grievance with the Pope, first we have to address him as Babbo, our “sweet Jesus on earth”—and mean it.
Everyone wants to criticize Francis, but no one wants to call him Daddy.