Moral Briefs – Chapter XLIII – The Vow of Obedience

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonWhat kind of obedience is that which makes religious “unwilling to acknowledge any superior but the Pope?” We have been confidently informed this is the ground given in several instances for their removal. And we confess that, if the words “acknowledge” and “superior” are used in certain of the meanings they undoubtedly have, there is good and sufficient ground for such removal. At the same time we submit that the foregoing phrase is open to different interpretations of meaning, several of which would make out this measure of repression to be one of rank injustice.

The studied misrule and abuse of language serves a detestable purpose that is only too evident. A charge like the above is true and false, that is to say, it is neither true nor false; it says nothing, unless explained, or unless you make it say what you wish. It is a sure, safe, but cowardly way of destroying an enemy without being obliged to admit the guilt to oneself.

Now the religious, and Catholic laity as well, never think of acknowledging, in the full acceptation of the word, any other spiritual superior than the Pope, and there can be nothing in this deserving repression. Again, no Catholic may consistently with Catholic principles, refuse to accept as legitimate the legally constituted authority of the country in which he resides. As to a man’s views on the different forms of government, that is nobody’s business but his own. But whether he approves or disapproves in theory, his life and conduct must conform with the laws justly enacted under the form of Government that happens to be accepted. To depart from this rule is to go counter to Catholic teaching, and no religious order does so without incurring strict censure.

The vow of obedience in a religious respects Caesar as well as God. It cannot validly bind one to violate the laws of State any more than to violate the law of God. This vow does not even concern itself with civil and political matters; by it the religious alone is affected, the citizen looks out for himself. But the citizen is already bound by his conscience and the laws of the Church to respect and obey lawful authority.

A good religious is a good citizen, and he cannot be the former, if he is not the latter. As a mere Catholic, he is more liable to be always found on the side of good citizenship, because in his religion he is taught, first of all, to respect authority on which all his religious convictions are based. There is a natural tendency in a Protestant, who will have nothing to do with authority in spiritual matters, to bring this state of mind over with him into temporary affairs; being self-willed in greater things, he is fore-inclined to be self-willed in lesser. The Catholic and, for a greater reason, the religious knows less of this temptation; and the better Catholic and religious he is, the farther removed he is from possible revolt against, or even disrespect of, authority.

Against but one Order of all those repressed can the charge of insubordination be brought with any show of truth. The Assumptionists made the mistake of thinking that they could with impunity criticize the doings of the Government, just as it is done in Paris every day by the boulevard press. It is generally conceded that, considering the well-known attitude of the Government towards the order, this was a highly imprudent course for a religious paper to pursue. But their right to do so is founded on the privilege of free speech. It takes very little to find abuse of free speech in the utterances of the clergy or religious in France. They are safe only when they are silent. If there were less docility and more defiance in their attitude, if the French Catholics relied less on God and more on man for redress, they would receive more justice than they have been receiving.

The punishment meted out to the religious for their insubordination has had, we are told, a doleful effect on the temporal power of the Pope, an interesting patch of which has been broken up by the new French law. It is a mystery to us how this law can affect the temporal power of the Pope any more than the political status of Timbuctoo. It is passably difficult to make an impression on what has ceased to exist these thirty years. We thought the temporal power was dead. This bit of news has been dinned into our ears until we have come to believe. No conference, synod or council is considered by our dissenting friends without a good strong sermon on this topic. Strange that it should resurrect just in time to lose “an interesting patch” of itself! This is cruelty. Why not respect the grave? We recommend the perusal of the obituary o£ the temporal power written in Italian politics since the year 1870. We believe the tomb is carefully guarded.