I was watching a presentation by Joan Chittister recently as part of the Spiritual Directors International annual conference. In it, Sister Joan put forth the Benedictine steps to humility as a solution to what she – correctly, I believe – sees as the loss of values in our overly individualistic society. One of the qualities of humility, as Benedict saw them and as Sister Joan presented them, is obedience to authority. When I heard a Roman Catholic nun say that I was enraged. In truth, to hear most anyone from most any religious tradition say that would have left me flabbergasted. Institutional Church leadership, across traditions, has lost the moral high ground because the leadership has transgressed the way every other human being has – but with gusto.
Should we submit to authority when leadership rapes our children, oppresses women, engages in organized crime modeled cover ups, hides church assets so the church’s victims cannot get the legal settlements they deserve, or any of a host of other crimes? When Buddhist teachers sexually assault their students, do we need permission from the hierarchy before calling police? Just once, no, not just once but rather repeatedly, until the victims say they can stop, I would like to hear leadership figures from across those same traditions admit they are unworthy of our trust and our obedience and why. Then healing might start.
St. Benedict of Nursia lived in a time long before the Church scandals of the last fifty years – fifteen hundred years before now. He also wrote in a certain context, a context that would later become Christian monasticism. In that context a certain amount of obedience is likely necessary. That specific context doesn’t generalize to the general population, however. Just because a monk owes obedience to his or her superior is irrelevant to the question of to whom a non-monastic owes obedience. To address that question, we need to make a distinction between total obedience and limited obedience.
For most of us, limited obedience isn’t a problem. Limited obedience is a qualified obedience, and we determine what those limits are. For example, I would say that no understanding of legitimate obedience would compel anyone to do anything they find unethical. I hope that I would never do anything that would harm another being unless that action would protect other, innocent beings. The excuse that I was “obeying orders” doesn’t hold water for me. At the other extreme, if a supervisor at work asks me to complete a project that doesn’t violate my ethics I would obey. When society says I shouldn’t park in handicapped parking spots, I comply.
On the other hand, total obedience is owed to God alone. Gone are the days when the human race was so immature that it needed leadership figures who required absolute obedience in order to avoid cataclysmic consequences. In fact, we have evolved to a place where unquestioning obedience may lead to the same kinds of disasters it used to avoid! Imagine what suffering could have been avoided if just one person in Roman Catholic leadership had the courage to speak up and refuse to reassign pedophile priests! Imagine if one person had refused to honor their vow of obedience when given an unjust, immoral instruction! What if one person in that hierarchy had refused to participate in the cover-up that eventually risked prosecution under anti-racketeering laws in the United States? One answer given has been that it would have cost that person their position in the Church and their career.
A morality that never costs anything isn’t a morality at all. At best it’s a position paper or terribly boring editorial. A morality that keeps us safe from being caught up in the fray of an important issue isn’t a morality but rather a hiding place. If we believe that something will matter to us again by virtue of carefully avoiding taking a stand by always deferring responsibility to an outside authority, we are deluded. So with apologies to Joan Chittister, humility may or may not restore values to a society struggle to find them. Integrity would do a lot more.