Readers may be surprised, or scandalized, that Catholics like myself critical of bishops who appear to be pushing the practice of Communion in the hand during the COVID-19 epidemic are minimizing the importance of the virtue of obedience. So having criticized one view of what obedience is about, I’d like to say something positive about obedience.
Obedience is indeed a wonderful virtue. We should not see it as a passive or effeminate virtue, but as a primary virtue of the soldier. Christians are, after all, soldiers of Christ, and it is the constant theme of traditional Catholic spirituality that we should overcome our self-will in order to conform ourselves to the will of God. This, after all, is what the love of God is: “If you love Me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Furthermore, our religious superiors exercise over us God’s authority, and for most of us our opportunity to obey God in specific matters comes in the form of obeying God in our superiors.
The difficulty modern Catholics have had with obedience is partly the result of spiritual writers of recent centuries taking it too much for granted that they are not talking about obeying our superiors in matters of sin, or about “rash” obedience when what we are commanded might be sin; nor about matters that go beyond our superiors’ competence, or about commands that fail to promote the common good.