The case of Frank Pavone’s dismissal from the clerical state due to alleged continued disobedience raises the serious question of obedience in the religious context. Frank met with Taylor Marshall here and discussed at length the history of his relationship with both the Vatican and his own bishop.

Of course it is complicated and of course Frank Pavone has his own side of the story–a version that paints the bishop as a manipulative, deceitful character. We must remember that those who have disciplined Fr Pavone also have their version.

The vow of obedience to one’s religious superior is done with the understanding that he (or she) is a mentor, a shepherd, a Father or Mother in God–one who cares for those in his or her charge. It also assumes that the superior and the one making vows are on the same page, that they believe the same gospel and are serving the same greater good. In other words, they’re playing on the same team and they’re the coach.

But what if this isn’t the case? What if the religious superior really is a skunk, a heretic, an immoral, corrupt and genuinely evil character? A priest or religious promises obedience to his superior and his successors. What is the first guy is a saint and the next one is a sinner?

In fact, the whole “obedience to a superior” thing is especially fraught when you weave in an understanding of human psychology–an area where we all have weaknesses and unacknowledged problems. Here’s what I mean: sometimes –actually very often–in religious life a person who needs to submit–a psychologically immature person who needs security perhaps–will subconsciously be drawn to a life where they must submit and vow complete obedience. They sense that they will find in such a dynamic the security they need.

At the same time there are others who need to control and dominate others. The two tend to attract each other like magnets. The dominator and the dominated seek each other out and then a very unhealthy situation occurs potentially full of psychological and spiritual abuse, and the abuse is hidden from both the dominator and the dominated because both of them believe they are doing God’s will. Furthermore, if either of them begins to have a moment of self knowledge and begins to perceive what is happening there is a built in religious response to reject that self knowledge as leading to disobedience or failure to do God’s will. “I know Mother Superior is being mean and vindictive and unreasonable, but I have vowed obedience and I will become more holy if I just put up and shut up.” or on the other side, “Perhaps I am being somewhat unreasonable in my demands of. Sister Doormat, but she needs to learn the difficult lessons of obedience is she is to make spiritual progress and it is my job to help her on that path.”

Its complicated.

Time and again the stories of abuse in the church and society include this undercurrent. The abused person was first psychologically and spiritually dominated and abused. “Father Fabulous told me if I didn’t sleep with him I would be committing disobedience…” When the vow of obedience in a religious community, is combined with handing over all your worldly goods the potential for abuse increases. I’ve known a community of religious men who were expected to beg for their material needs and were reduced at times to dumpster diving to get enough food to eat. Meanwhile their religious superior was living high off the hog. I’ve known another religious community in which, when a monk’s mother died, he was expected to sue the rest of the family for a larger part of the inheritance in order to give it to the religious community. I am sure there are many other similar stories of abuse out there–and not just of Catholics of course, but we Catholics have a stricter and more traditional understanding of the need for obedience.

The problem of wicked, incompetent, ignorant, vain, arrogant and just plain stupid religious superiors is well known. In fact, read the lives of the saints and it’s amazing how many of the saints have run into this problem. They make a vow of obedience and the Lord gives them a Mother Superior, an Abbot, a Bishop or a whole religious community of nincompoops, silly, shallow, vain and jealous men and women who do everything possible to quash the saints’ ambitions, mock them, marginalize and exclude them.

But what does the saint do? They obey. They obey despite the stupidity, venality, jealousy and small mindedness. Dear little Therese of Lisieux chirps, “There is no virtue in doing what is reasonable.” In other words, the vow of obedience isn’t really worth much if one obeys when it is easy to obey and the bishop asks you to do something that suits you. Obedience becomes a soul building virtue when one obeys despite the stupidity of it all–even if it looks like one is never going to be exonerated and restored.

There is still the problem of a superior who may demand something which is not only difficult, but actually immoral or illegal. What if the bishop expects his priest to aid in a cover up of crimes, participate in something immoral, deny the faith or compromise his priesthood? Then, surely, in consultation with a spiritual director and appeal to a higher authority the person under vows must resist. But I emphasize that this decision is not simply according to his own wishes, his own discernment or what he perceives as his “call from God.”

I am enlightened on this issue by the Rule of St Benedict. In the rule he demands instant obedience of the monk to his Abbot, and he does so for a profound and beautiful reason. He expects obedience so the monk will learn the habit of obedience in order that when the Lord calls him he will already be trained to instantly obey and say to the Lord, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

The practicalities are difficult. That is why the priest and religious must have a trusted spiritual guide and confidante other than his or her religious superior. This person will help in the discernment process when difficulties arise. Finally, the root of the word “obey” is the Latin obedire which means to listen or pay attention to. The opening words of Benedict’s Rule are “Listen My Son to the words of the Master”. Obedience can only work when everyone is listening and paying attention not only to one another, but to the gospel and to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

Go here to check out my book Listen My Son – St Benedict for Fathers.