Catholic Obedience

Roma locuta est! “Rome has spoken!” Often through the course of the centuries, disputes within the Catholic Church have threatened to tear the Church apart. In such situations, and history is full of them, men of good will from either side of a controversy appealed to the authority of the Church, the ultimate seat of which can be found in the office of the Holy Father in Rome. Just as the history of our Church includes a goodly number of disputes, it also chronicles case after case settled by loving, caring, and wise use of authority. Most frequently, the proper authority turned out to be the local Bishop, whose decision settled the matter in question. On other occasions, when the controversy was sufficiently complex or sufficiently widespread, the appeals made their way to Rome itself. Even though occasional adherents to questionable points of view might still refuse to acquiesce and consequently lapse into deeper error, the sole weight of a Roman pronouncement customarily put out the fire. Should a proud heresiarch remain adamant, the simple presence of Rome’s voice could be counted on to lead many previously confused Catholics back to the purity of Faith and away from whatever dangers confronted them. Catholics are so fortunate. After He founded the Church, Christ promised to remain with it until the end of time. He sent the Holy Ghost to dwell within the Church in order to guard the purity of Faith. As a result, Catholics have wisely held on to the anchor of divinely guided authority as storm after storm threatened to break them loose from the one, true Faith. What a comfort! What a refuge! But, also, what a temptation to be lazy, to let someone else do one’s thinking or to become robot-like instead of meeting the obligation to know and grow in the Faith. Even more, what a dangerous potential for an enemy to seize high position in the Church and then sue the accompanying authority as a way to wreak havoc among souls. Is such an eventuality even possible? The teaching of the Church confirms that it is. That teaching tells us that all authority proceeds from God Himself and that no level of authority can ever properly injure any higher level. Whenever the use of authority does harm to properly constituted higher authority (e.g., a priest or bishop challenging a defined dogma), anyone has a right, even a duty, to resist. Such resistance, rather than violating the spirit of Catholic obedience, upholds and strengthens it. Yes, divinely created authority, fully present in the Catholic Church and in no other, is a great comfort and a great refuge. But it is absolute in a very limited sense, under very limited and carefully defined conditions. Absolute authority is present only in the case of infallible pronouncement emanating from the Pope himself, or from a doctrinal Council which enjoys the formal approval of the reigning pontiff. (Neither of these conditions existed, or were claimed to have existed during Vatican Council II. Therefore, nothing coming from that Council enjoys the stamp of infallibility.) Unfortunately, there are many erroneous attitudes about infallibility, some of which are held by many Catholics. What should be known is that an infallible pronouncement is never anything more than an error-free affirmation of a truth that has been part of the Deposit of Faith since the time of the Apostles. There have been no additions to this deposit of faith since the death of Saint John in 100 A.D. Public revelation ceased when he died. Further, infallibility is not a source of truth but rather a protector of truth. It can only confirm what has been handed down through the centuries. And it binds all, past, present and future – with the full authority of Christ Himself. When a Pope speaks infallibly, he defines a truth to be believed by all under pain of sin. But never can infallibility be attached to a command or a practice, only to a truth. Many of the successors of Saint Peter never uttered any infallible pronouncements. Those who have, made use of this extraordinary grace with great care, guided by the Holy Ghost, usually to silence heresy but occasionally to foster suitable devotion – as in the case of Pope Pius XII’s infallible declaration in 1950 that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. Pope Pius XII was not pronouncing something newly discovered; he was telling the world a truth which had been believed by the faithful from the time it happened. Because he used the fullest authority of his office, any question about the fact of Mary’s Assumption was settled.

Roma locuta est!

However, at any level below the infallible authority of a Pope or of a doctrinal Council certified by a Pope, the situation changes. Other levels of the Church’s teaching authority and all levels of its disciplinary authority do not enjoy the gift of infallibility. Nor does the Pope himself, when he speaks without citing his unique power, or when he commands, or when he takes part in liturgical functions. While this study has for its purpose the issuance of a warning against either improper use of the Church’s authority or unwise submission to authority that ought to be questioned, let no one develop the impression that it might also be our purpose to challenge or denigrate the person and position of the Holy Father or that of any of his subordinates in the Church’s hierarchy. As we shall see, some of the greatest and holiest thinkers in the Church’s history have let it be known that a time may come when duty demands that the faithful oppose abuses emanating from the hierarchy even while acknowledging the vital importance of discipline and obedience in our beloved Church. Especially do we revere the Papacy itself and the person of the Holy Father, Christ’s Vicar on Earth. But if we pray for the Holy Father, which we do, we acknowledge that even a Pope may derive benefits from the prayers of his subjects. This is why a Pope asks for the prayers of the people, to aid him in carrying out the heavy burdens of his office. If error and wrongdoing could never proceed from a Pope, then there would hardly be reason to ask God to strengthen and guide him. It is also well to remember that the traditional liturgy of the Mass, celebrated for centuries by Pope and humble priest alike, contains a confession of the celebrant’s sins (Confiteor) , a plea that his sins will not disturb the “peace and unity” of the Church, and a prayer for deliverance “from all my sins and from every evil.” (Prayers before Holy Communion). Unless these prayers are meaningless, and they are not, they indicate quite clearly that no Pope can be presumed to be sinless. Actually, a Pope is assured of all the graces he needs to carry out his awesome responsibilities. Likewise, however, he can confidently expect to be the target of the most intense wiles and snares of the devil. Throughout the history of the Church, Popes have infrequently been challenged by the faithful, and have just as rarely given reason for any challenges. Proper challenges do exist, however, such as the unusual case of Pope Honorius I who reigned from 625 to 638. He was actually condemned posthumously by the Council of Constantinople in 681. Pope Leo II, in his letter giving the decrees of this Council the formal confirmation (status of infallibility) which the Council had requested, solemnly condemned Honorius in that the deceased Pontiff “did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” The crime of Pope Honorius I had nothing to do with papal infallibility. Honorius was declared to be guilty of failing to suppress a heresy (monothelitism) and of scandal in personally dignifying the erroneous position taken by the heretic Sergius. His deficiencies were his own, and should never be attributed to the Church itself. So, a Pope can indeed err when not speaking infallibly. Holy Scripture shows us another case where the first Pope, Saint Peter, was publicly chastised by Saint Paul for giving scandal on a matter of discipline touching the faith. The incident appears in the second chapter of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Because he feared the possibility of displeasing some Jewish converts, Saint Peter favored a practice common to the Jews. But, in so doing, he gave scandal to the Gentiles. In an instant Saint Paul reacted saying: “I withstood him to his face because he was to be blamed.” And Saint Peter promptly and humbly admitted that he had erred, and reversed his position. The point that must be made is that, if a Pope can be wrong, then bishops, pastors and others can also be wrong. In fact, a Pope can not only be wrong unintentionally, he can even intend to destroy the Faith and the Church. Several highly revered theologians, such as sixteenth century Cardinal Cajetan, have addressed this possibility. Careful note should be made of how far that celebrated churchman went when he said: “One must resist face to face the Pope who publicly destroys the Church.” Sixteenth century canonist and theologian Francisco de Vittoria taught: “If (a Pope) desired to hand over the treasury of the Church…, if he desired to destroy the Church, or other similar things, one should not permit him to act in such a manner, but one would have the obligation to resist him. The reason for this is that he has not the power to destroy. Therefore, when it is known that he does so, it is licit to resist him.” Cajetan, de Vittoria, and others have also made it clear that no one but God has authority over the Pope, or the power to judge him. In this, these scholars have been joined by the great champion of the rights of the Papacy during the Protestant rebellion, Saint Robert Bellarmine, who said “Just as it is licit to resist a Pontiff who attacks the body, so it is licit to resist him who attacks souls, or who disturbs the civil order, or, even more, who tries to destroy the Church. It is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will. It is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him, or to depose him, for such acts belong to a superior. Catholic obedience to a superior, therefore, should never be what has been called “blind obedience.” While a command from God, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac (Genesis, Chapter 22), ought not be questioned in the slightest but followed immediately, commands from men are of an entirely different order. God, by His very nature, cannot command or teach anything which would be harmful. There is no command that comes from God which could possibly contain defects to which one might feel constrained to close his eyes. But the same cannot be said either of men or their commands. Saint Thomas teaches: “It is written: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore, superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.” II-II; Q.104, a.5. A Catholic, therefore, should not blindly rely on superiors. He has the responsibility to study and to learn to the best of his ability what God and His Church have taught and what God wants of him. Any wholesale revision of the Church’s practices and dogmas, such as has transpired in the past twenty years, should be questioned, even if by so doing one is questioning the authorities of the Church. Lay persons, in fact, have important rights, many of which seem to have been forgotten in this dizzying age of “renewal.” They have the very basic right to receive from the clergy the means necessary for salvation, the sacraments being the chief means. But they also have rights to the liturgy, which belongs not to the clergy alone but to all the faithful. The great nineteenth century liturgist, Dom Prosper Gueranger, wrote of these rights of the faithful in his treatise Institutions Liturgiques. He chose for an excellent illustration of lay rights the repeated defense of the Ambrosian rite by the people of Milan. When papal authority threatened to suppress this venerable liturgical form, the people stood firm even in the face of two separate papal decrees. At one point the people demonstrated their willingness to take up arms against Rome. Those decrees, issued with due adherence to ecclesiastical formality by Popes Nicholas II and Eugene IV, were eventually declared to be unjust, and were withdrawn. Commenting on this defense of lay rights, a priest of our times has noted: “There is no joy more proper than to pray in the same words and according to the same rites as those of our fathers in the faith.” In truth, the laity in the Church do not exist for the benefit of the clergy, but rather the contrary. The wholesale revision of sacramental forms, liturgical practices, and even dogmas in recent years has provoked strong protests from some Catholics. Most of this concern has come from the laity, who occasionally have been joined in their protests by clergymen. Almost without exception response of the hierarchy has focused, not on the substance of the questions raised, but on demands for obedience. In the face of legitimate objections to what has been done by present-day shepherds of the faithful, loyal Catholics have been told to submit and cease worrying. There is, however, a divinely authored test of the worth of such remarkable changes as we have seen in the past twenty years. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” said Christ of such occurrences. Anyone who looks at the Church’s health today will se what manner of fruit has been produced. Nevertheless, a Catholic readily recognizes that the virtue of obedience is vital in any properly constituted organization and no less important in the Church itself. Catholics who practice it humbly and properly will undoubtedly receive fitting spiritual rewards. But the potential for using obedience improperly, to try to destroy the Church, has not been overlooked by the enemies of the Faith.


Of all the forces that have been arrayed against the Catholic Church during its two thousand years, perhaps the most diabolical has been the sect of Freemasonry. Condemned as early as 1738 by Pope Clement XII, Freemasonry’s war on the Kingship of Christ and His Church has merited repeated and increasingly stronger condemnations from all successors of Clement XII up to and including Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958. It is unquestionable that this same war rages even more strongly today and that Freemasonry has accomplished many of it devilish goals. * In the past, Freemasonry’s campaign to supplant Christ and His Church with the ungodly worship of man, while carried out primarily in dark secrecy, has occasionally burst in to visible and open warfare. In the middle of the nineteenth century, for instance, high-ranking Italian Freemasons, spurred on by their sect called the Carbonari, physically attacked the Vatican and actually held Pope Pius IX as their prisoner in one particularly bloody attempt to destroy the Church. Such tactics as these can be considered to have backfired, however, as the Church responded to frontal assault with new strength and unity. But Freemasonry’s hidden conspiracy has never ceased. In 1884, Monsignor George F. Dillon, D.D., of Edinburgh, Scotland, delivered a comprehensive series of lectures about Freemasonry. These lectures appeared in book form under the title Freemasonry Unmasked. In that scholarly work, the reader will find reproduced the permanent instructions to membership of the Alta Vendita, the highest lodge of the Italian Carbonari. In part, this revolutionary document states: “Our final end is that of Voltaire and of the French Revolution, the destruction forever of Catholicism and even of the Christian idea which, if left standing on the ruins of Rome, would be the resuscitator of Christianity later on.” Further along, these instructions bare a plan to infiltrate the Church: “The Pope, whoever he may be, will never come to the secret societies. It is for the secret societies to come first to the Church, in the resolve to conquer the two.” Eventually, the strategy detailed in this document would culminate in a clergy dominated by conspiratorially imposed thinking and discipline: “You wish to establish the reign of the elect upon the throne of the prostitute of Babylon? Let the clergy march under your banner in the belief always that they march under the banner of the Apostolic Keys.” Several French authors have repeated Monsignor Dillon’s warnings in late years. They have been joined by others from all nations of Christendom. But, in our day, when such warnings are needed ever so much more, there are practically none. Instead, the hierarchy of several nations have abrogated the ban against Catholics joining Freemasonry, and only recently has Pope John Paul II reinstituted it. Meanwhile, a most succinct and bold summary of the overall Masonic strategy to infiltrate the Church and use obedience as a weapon to destroy the Church seems to be enjoying wide success. We speak of the frequently uttered assessment given by Fogazzaro, the founder of the lodge of Milan, given in the early days of the twentieth century: “The reform will have to be brought about in the name of obedience.” (The Church Under Occupation, Ploncard d’Assac.) And so, what has been only offered as a possibility in the past seems to have become a reality in the present. Catholics are allowing revolutionary reform to be forced upon them in the name of obedience. The liturgy of the Novus Ordo Missae has been widely shown to have been stripped of everything peculiarly Catholic. Even the words in the consecration formula have not escaped tampering, as Christ’s word “many” has become “all.” Catholic pulpits and sanctuaries have been and continue to be provided to non-believers. From high-ranking prelates and non-thinking laymen come a procession of such frightful heresies as the worship of man, the worth of any religion whatsoever and the denial of fundamental Catholic truth. An enemy has done this. That enemy, Freemasonry, not only published its diabolical designs, but it boldly relies upon the obedience of the faithful to destroy the Faith. Such a use of obedience has nothing to do with what Catholic obedience truly means. The enemy’s use of authority should have no impact when it seeks to enforce denial of dogma, destruction of our holy liturgy, and casting aside of sacred Tradition. All true Church law has as its ultimate purpose the spreading of the Catholic Faith for the salvation of souls. Laws imposed by men have sanctioned the fundamental changes of so much that was expressive of authentic Catholicism. But Saint Thomas Aquinas has clearly taught the Catholic principle which holds that human law does not bind when it contradicts or nullifies God’s law. If more Catholics understood this elementary principle, the designs of the Church’s enemies would not have reached such terrible heights. So, too, if more Catholics begin to understand what authority and obedience truly entail, the spreading of God’s Church for the salvation of souls will again take root.

* Freemasonry has indeed been justly condemned as a conspiracy against the Church. Without doubt, its leaders actively make war against the Mystical Body of Christ. But no one should equate membership in any branch of the sect with deliberate conspiratorial intent. A high percentage of Freemasons, especially here in the United States, acquire their memberships solely for the material rewards and social standing that the organization promises. In doing so, they become culpable victims of Freemasonry either because the sect becomes for them a substitute for religion, or because they accept the Masonic idea that any religion is praiseworthy.