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The Fourth Commandment
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our next meditation is on the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue and more specifically on obedience. The Old Testament precept does not directly use the word obey, it rather reads in Deuteronomy 20:12, Honor your father and mother so that you may have a long life in the land in which the Lord your God is giving you.
Since the dawn of Christianity however, the Church has consistently interpreted the fourth commandment as prescribing obedience to all legitimate authority. Summarily, especially to three forms of authority: obedience of children to their parents in domestic society, the obedience of citizens to civil authority, and the obedience of the faithful to the authority of the Church in ecclesiastical society.
Our scope in this meditation will be to simply look at obedience in general and then to see how Christ elevated the practice of obedience beyond anything previously known or conceived in the Old Testament. Basically then we shall ask two questions. What is obedience? And then how did Christ elevate the practice of this virtue? I should add theres more coming on obedience in this meditation.
What then is obedience? Obedience is the moral virtue which inclines the will to comply with the will of another person who has a right to command. Thus defined, that is the standard definition in Catholic theology. Thus defined we see that obedience is a moral virtue under the four cardinal virtues and more specifically belongs to the cardinal virtue of justice. Someone then in authority has the right to command.
Immediately we should distinguish two kinds of authority before we go any further. There is what is called dominative authority; the kind were talking about here. The authority of one in a society to command those in that society to obey with their wills. But there is also intellectual authority; the authority of someone, well, to be believed. And here the authority depends on both the knowledge of the one who allegedly has the authority, knowledge, and integrity. And then such a person can be believed. I can trust the one whom I am to believe knows what he or she is saying and is telling the truth.
Just to make sure that the same word: the human mind is potentially infinite in its ideas but the number words the human mind has coined to express its ideas, the number of words is limited. The same word can have different meanings. The authority that were talking about is the authority we call dominative; of one who has a right to command the will and then if someone has the right to command, those under authority have the duty to obey so that the two words authority and obedience are correlative.
In the last analysis all true obedience is finally, or better, should be finally given to God if it is valid obedience. But in practice God has instituted human societies. And its this kind of obedience were talking about here, obedience in human societies.
By prior definition, human societies imply that there is someone in authority, a human being or human beings who has or have the right to require obedience of the members for the common good of that society. Lets go back to make it still more clear, I hope. Properly speaking, obedience is given to someone who has authority in a society. In other words, a group of people joined, or are joined in some common purpose using commonly agreed upon means to achieve or attain that purpose. Someone then is in authority in that society to regulate, govern, or direct the members of that society to use the means for which that society has been established, and achieve the end for which that society exists. In other words, the language that we are here speaking, obedience implies a society, which has a purpose or goal and has certain agreed upon means to achieve that purpose. Then within that society, is someone who then for our purpose has the right to tell those in the society how they are to, well, live in that society in order to achieve the purpose for which that society has been instituted.
Later on, not in this meditation, we shall see how the virtue of obedience can be practiced not only by the will; the essence of obedience is in the will. But well see that the last reaches of obedience include also obedience of the intellect. But strictly speaking, generically obedience is given by the will. Of course the mind must inform the will. Thus the will is the one commanding and as by now we know, the English language, I like to say this, can no longer define the meaning of words.
The English speaking world is too confused, it is too divergent, what a kind word, it is too divergent, its an understanding of what a given word means to be able to produce a lexicon for the whole English speaking world that tells us exactly what that word means. Thus when I use the word command or commanding, look it up in the Websters unabridged, Im guessing at least a dozen meanings and some in close contradiction to other meanings. But for our purpose the will of the one commanding is accepted first of all by the mind. The mind must recognize in the will of the one commanding the authority to which then my will should submit and then my mind, having recognized that this person has the right to tell me what it should do. And then my will if it wants to, and the will is free, if it wants to, it will then conform to the will of the one who gives.
We no longer use the word command or order the directive, all the words weve coined. Catholic moral theology further distinguishes between what we call material obedience and formal obedience. Is this ever important. The language is technical, theological if you wish, but then in the vocabulary of the church, words mean what they mean, and they mean just that.
What does material obedience mean? Material obedience means that I carry out the physical, the external action that I am told to do. I like to say this and repeat it. I have it in writing from my provincial. I was ordered to get six hours of sleep. Most of the time Im obedient. I try to make up the next day, compensation. So, material obedience means that I do what I am told. In this case I was given an order for not action but inaction. Otherwise known as sleep.
It is also this material obedience, in spiritual literature, is called obedience of execution. I put into practice. I execute, I do, physically or verbally what I am told to do.
However, besides material there is also formal obedience. What is formal obedience? What is formal obedience? Formal obedience means that I not only externally do what I am told but internally I submit my will to the will of the one in authority. In other words, I not only perform the action but I perform the action precisely because I am told to do so by legitimate authority. Every word here counts. Lets pause for a few minutes to further explain. The obedience of what we are speaking is the obedience in which we are to grow. Hence this internal formal obedience and not merely the material obedience of doing what I am told but then what I do is not move by my will. Agree with the will of the one who commands me. The extent of obedience is, as wide as the authority of the person who commands. And the number of forms of obedience is all but infinite. Notice here we are not speaking of the extent of Gods authority with is without limit. Our focus and the object of both this and the following meditation is obedience to human beings vested, indeed ultimately, with divine authority. And the real test of obedience, the only trial of obedience, the only hardship in obedience is not in obeying God.
Every sane person who believes in God wants to obey God. The trial is in obeying a human being who is vested with divine authority. Oh no. I keep repeating the phrase, oh yes. And the more we know about that human authority, about its limitations, and for years now, Ive been obeying one of my students after another who now has authority over me. The obedience we are talking about therefore is the obedience to human beings vested, thats the theological term, vested with divine authority. Their authority to command me is always, is always limited by a higher authority, always, always.
Now the adverb always, always, is the supreme authority of God. In other words, no one has the right to be obeyed, do I say does not have a right to be obeyed, may not be obeyed, must not be obeyed unless and insofar as what I am told to obey or to do by human authority is consistent with and not contrary to the will of God. That is why it is so important in the practice of obedience to know what is the will of God. Because then I will not be judging my willingness or reluctance to obey by my feelings; what I know about this person has nothing to do with it. The essence of obedience is in the will and the emotions or the feelings can be positively contrary to what my mind tells me I should do and therefore my will conforms.
In todays world this is the deepest problem facing people who believe in God who know His laws and yet in one, one civilized nation after another are told to obey human authority which is overtly, openly contrary to the divine law. And that is our own beloved United States. Over the years Ive been telling one audience after another. The days of America are numbered. They are numbered. Either those in authority in our society wake up, realize and then bend their minds and wills to the laws of God or only can have the authority but the society is doomed. Thus the laws on abortion or sodomy are notorious. The future of any society, and I repeat our society, depends on that societys, in its human authorities being obedient to the laws of God. Even then this means not obeying human laws which are contrary to the laws of God. For the first time in five hundred years in the history of the Western world wed not have bishops of the Catholic Church imprisoned for insisting on the laws of God. We go on. Not only is human authority limited by the supreme authority of God Himself but human authority in human society is also limited by higher human authority. Those in authority are themselves subject, subject to someone having authority over them.
On a natural level civil society is as we say stratified. Lower to higher to the highest. In previous centuries the problem facing the citizens of a society would arise from a tyrant, one man. A Nero, a Napoleon, a Henry VIII. In modern society that highest authority, how this needs to be said, that highest authority is the will of the people. And God help the will of the people. In civil society this authority in our day, and there are exceptions, say in Muslim countries or in tribal societies, at least in the Western world, the authority of anyone below the highest authority is finally subject to the will of the majority. Otherwise known as modern democracy. The demos, the people. As the Greek philosophers said centuries before Christ, no democracy can survive; now we are speaking before the time of Christ, with the grace now available to civil authorities which not then given, to civil rulers. But as civil society becomes less and less Christian, including Democracy, then I repeat, one of the Greek philosophers said before the time of Christ, will not survive. The people then have no higher recourse than the collective power of the state. Oh what books need to be written. What libraries need to be stacked with volumes spelling out the fact that except for Christ and His Church and the grace that He became man to give the world, no human society can survive unless it is subject to and agrees with the teaching and the mind of the Son of God become man. That society is as we say self-destructive. So much on the natural level.
On the supernatural level ecclesiastical authority is also stratified, but there is one highest authority, the Vicar of Christ, and in one democratic culture after another the Church, the Catholic Church is on trial; what a mild expression. Bishops openly, overtly, in public print to the national media are saying the Catholic Church simply must catch up with the times. Doesnt the Pope know that were living in the twentieth century? As Catholics, how we need this and notice were still on the what. Weve got more coming.
As Catholic s we believe that the Vicar of Christ would never command the universal church to do anything that is contrary to the will of God. Ah, but youve got to be papist Catholics. If you wish you may raise your hands, how many of you have read the article on the papist priest in the current issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Read it. I thought to myself Id recommend having Xeroxed copies distributed to all of you. The suffering of so many priests who are loyal to the Vicar of Christ, and now, what a mild term, [are] harassed by lower authority because of their fidelity to the Vicar of Christ.
Now we ask how did Christ elevate obedience? When God became man He did so in order to provide the grace needed to practice obedience. In other words sin came into the world because of mans disobedience. God became man to expiate the disobedience and for that expiation He provided the means for those who believe in Him to be obedient. Theologically speaking we distinguish the first three commandments of the Decalogue from the next seven. And we say the first three synthesize what we call the virtue of religion. In other words spelling out our responsibilities to God. The last seven are a synthesis of morality identifying and specifying our duties towards others. And the fourth commandment of the Decalogue has the same role as the first commandment. What the first command is to the first three the fourth commandment is well to the last seven commandments of the Decalogue. Because what we call the foundation of virtue of morality is obedience synthesize in the fourth commandment.
We are asking ourselves, how did Christ who is God Incarnate elevate obedience? What in other words did he do to the fourth commandment by becoming man. He did, to be exact, seven things.
The first weve identified. He provided the grace needed to practice obedience in a way and to a depth and to an extent that, never possible and the word is possible. That there could not have been, there just couldnt be religious institutes for the required religious obedience that is commonplace in Christianity. No possibility for that kind of obedience in the Old Law. Why not? There wasnt the grace.
Secondly remember we are asking how Christ elevates obedience. He created the supernatural society of the Church which He vested with a share of His own divine authority to lead human beings to the salvation and sanctification. What are we saying here? In the Old Testament there just did not exist a society whose teaching and whose laws and whose governance as we call it was assured constant divine enlightenment and constant divine support for both its teaching and its laws. That took place only when God became man, and to be more specific that took place only at the moment that God become man died on the cross. In other words it took the obedience of the God man to bring the Church into existence, which church then would be Christ on earth telling the followers of Christ what to do, how to do it, and why. But much more important, providing the members of the society founded by Christ with the light and strength they need to practice obedience. And notice the two words in this second way how Christ elevated obedience. It is not only for the salvation but for the sanctification of those who believe in the Son of God.
There is no salvation without obedience and there is surely no sanctification without obedience. That is why there is a bevy of revelations, you name them, we seem to be having a new revelation about every week. Theres so many now, theres a newspaper now, maybe youve seen it. Page after page of revelations all over. Only God knows how many of them are authentic; there are a lot of them. And over the years in working for the Church and with Church authority, to well, find out as well as I could, to find out if an alleged mystic was really a mystic. This is kindergarten theology. Is that mystic obedient? Well, maybe he or she is a mystic. And that again mystic is not obedient, oh, infallible statement, that person is not a mystic. Thats easy. In other words the Church is founded not only to lead people to their salvation but also to their sanctification.
Thirdly, how, we are asking, did Christ elevate obedient? He lived a life of obedience to teach us how we are to obey. How we are to obey following His example. In other words God became man to practice obedience from well, the moment He came into the world. I dont usually talk this way but I think I should. To the nine months that Mary carried her Son He was obedient. Well wherever she went He had to go too. Thats obedience. And if we wish to dramatize His obedience planned from all eternity; that the scoundrel Caesar Augustus, no holy man; he in his pride would demand a census of all his people. So then, the son of God to teach us, first of all carried by His mother in her womb to Bethlehem. And then, and He knew, He knew Caesar Augustus going to Bethlehem and then born in a stable. This time Mary, Him not in her womb but in her arms to go to Egypt. So we go through the whole life of Christ, let me tell you not just two conferences which I am giving on obedience I could easily give not an eight but a thirty day retreat, five meditations each day on obedience. I know. Do I ever know. Obedience, pardon the Anglo Saxon, aint easy.
Fourth, we are asking how did Christ elevate obedience? He did so dying on the cross to expiate disobedience and thus enable us to reach heaven in spite of our sins of disobedience. I think too many people, when they think about Christ dying on the cross: of course Christ died on the cross to expiate you know whose sins; that wretch, Adam. Not so fast my dear. Not so fast. Christ by His death on the cross expiated our disobedience or shall we make it plural? Our disobediences. All sins are formed of disobedience. No exceptions.
Number five. How did Christ elevate obedience? By instituting the Church to give us the sure guidance we need for knowing who to obey, how to obey, and why. And that why, thats the big one. Why? Because God became man to show His love for me by dying out of obedience so that I should have to obey out of love for Him.
Six. How did Christ elevate obedience? By instituting the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist to enable us to live lives of obedience patterned after His own obedience even to the cross.
The great Eucharistic saints, especially St. Peter Julian Eymard. Read their writings. What is Christ practicing now? Obedience. As Augustine says, Peter offers Mass and Christ obediently comes down to the altar. Judas, not the Judas, but the Judases of the Churchs history offer Mass and Christ in obedience comes down on the altar.
Finally we are asking how did our Lord elevate obedience? He did so by instituting within the Church societies for the express purpose of having His members practice obedience beyond what is binding on all the rest of Christianity. So that by their obedience they might provide the world with a witness that our world so desperately needs and become the channels of grace to all of mankind to practice the hardest virtue that human beings have to practice in the obedience.
Lord Jesus, you became man to practice obedience. That is why you assumed a human nature so that you might have a human will so that you might obey human authority out of love for your Father and out of love for us. Enlighten our minds, dear Lord, to see that obedience is what makes us most like you here on earth. Because only through obedience will we see your face through all eternity. Amen.
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