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Obedience: Is it Virtue or Vice?

by william mcinnes, sj

[In our democracy] we acknowledge the restraint of reverence; we are obedient to whomsoever is set in authority and to the laws, especially to those which offer protection to the oppressed.—Thucydides, Funeral Oration of Pericles (431–413 B.C.)


Of all the events remembered from the long and active life of Father Robert Drinan, SJ, as teacher, civic servant, and priest, none has received more attention than his decision, under orders from his religious superior, to leave the Congress of the United States where he had served for ten years.To obey so decisively and deliberately was for some a bold act of courage, for others an abject surrender of personal freedom. For all it raised eyebrows. Just what is obedience? Is it a virtue or a vice? And what role does it play in human affairs?


As a longtime associate of Father Drinan and a member of the same religious order (the Jesuits), I offer some observations.


Obedience, notes Webster’s Dictionary, is “the submission of one’s own will to the will—expressed or otherwise—of another or to an impersonal embodiment of authority (e.g. obedience to the State).” Obedience arises out of a fundamental relationship in a community. It is a complex human act. It recognizes authority as well as a respondent to that authority. It includes a mandate and also a compliance.


The word obedience, in fact, is derived from a Latin phrase ob+ obedire—meaning “to hear.” Thus obedience includes a message (or order) sent and a message (or order) received.


The quality of the response of obedience may vary widely, depending on the receptivity of the respondent. Some obey out of duty, some out of force; some soberly after reflection, some recklessly out of thoughtlessness; some out of anger, some out of love.


In its many manifestations, obedience is an integral part of society, especially in a society built on a hierarchical foundation. When it functions well, it enlarges participation of members and fosters self development. It promotes efficiency and accomplishment of high social goals. It draws smoothly on the heritage of the past, recognizes the expertise of the present, and creates the future.


Widespread obedience to the law is one pillar of a just society.


Even in a democracy, which tends to level hierarchy, obedience survives, often as in a deliberate concession to the anonymous authority of public opinion and media exploitation. Obedience offers a sense of direction and a cohesiveness of purpose under duress.


Every society demands followers as well as leaders in order to function.


Obedience, as with every human act, can be abused—by tyrannical leadership or by recalcitrant respondents. When commands are given without concern or received without critical judgment, the result is often tyranny and rebellion, the breakdown of community life.


Obedience is a sibling of human choice. It can lead to good or evil—e.g., in families, the military, or government.


Parents inculcate obedience in their offspring in order to shepherd their way through the uncharted waters of childhood. Children, like missiles, are launched to maturity by learning and following the example and orders of their parents. So when parents require an unreflective and blind obedience from their offspring, they stifle their growth to true responsibility and mature freedom of choice. When children rebel against their parents and reject their authority out of hand, they forfeit the wisdom and experience of history. Obedience is a means to an end that can be good or bad.


Military commanders must demand obedience in order to win wars. Soldiers need to accept commands in order for themselves—and others—to survive. But when the orders are unjust and the response equivocal, the dead-end road leads only to Nuremberg and Guantanamo Bay. Obedience does not guarantee goodness; it only points to it.


In society, authority seeks not only to lead but also to empower citizens by its vision to peace and prosperity. The corresponding obedience of citizens to just laws broadens participation and strengthens dialogue. Together law-maker and law-observer promote the common good. But if authority hardens into authoritarianism and obedience moves to non-cooperation and rebellion, then the whole community suffers.


Authentic obedience, therefore, requires genuine leadership on the part of authority and critical judgment on the part of those called to obey. When exercised properly, obedience becomes the training ground for maturity and the flourishing of community life, opening to both personal fulfillment and social progress. When abused, the result is chaos.


The foundations of obedience go deeper than political considerations or even philosophical horizons.


John Adams, himself a public figure, once wrote:


To understand the mystery of obedience one must search beyond the surface of politics and philosophy. Politicians and metaphysicians may dispute forever, but they will never find any other moral principle or foundation of rule or obedience than the consent of governors and governed.—John Adams in Boston Gazette, 1774


Bob Drinan drank from a deeper well than consensus: his religious faith. It was through his theological reflection and practice that he discovered a deeper meaning. It came into play when he had to decide either to leave Congress or follow the orders of his superiors. He was a witness to the reality of a more profound meaning of obedience—discovered by a faith that reaches beyond reason.


What is the evidence for this appeal to faith?


The theological dimension of obedience illuminates in a special way the reality of obedience. For those who do not acknowledge faith as a path to understanding, this makes no sense. To those who accept faith as an alternate path to understanding (and wonder), the theological dimension of obedience is central.


In a very early chapter of the Bible, the sacred Constitution for believers, there is a command from God to Adam and Eve to obey: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree” (Gen. 2:16–17). Later in that same book, a concrete model of obedience is presented in the person of Abraham, a leader of the Israelites and man of faith. He was ready to obey God’s command even though it meant the sacrifice of his own son, suggesting that obedience is rooted in mystery as well as sociology (Gen. 22:1–19).


In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians of the time tried to fathom this mystery by offering a plausible explanation. They developed a reasonable insight for the necessity and desirability of obedience in social life. Obedience, they argued, is necessary for the functioning of society and “it is a moral virtue proceeding out of the primary virtue of justice through love” (Michael Downey in the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (1993), “Obedience”). For Aquinas, obedience, though not subjugated totally to human reason, is a reasonable act. It is necessary, therefore, to include faith as well as reason to confront the mystery of choice.


Ignatius of Loyola, a former soldier and founder of the Jesuit Order, to which Bob Drinan belonged for more than six decades, made obedience the lodestone of the order he founded. Obedience, according to the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, was to be “the essential requirement for effective cooperation with the saving work of Jesus Christ.” Ignatius proposed that to obey willingly and intentionally was not only a requirement for community cooperation but a personal goal in itself, a means for growing in holiness.


Fortified by religious commitment as well as critical judgment, the decision to obey takes on a special spiritual meaning for the one seeking intentionally to obey.


The secular and anti-monarchical culture of the twenty-first century tends to denigrate obedience and idolize individual autonomy and social freedom. Obedience is not only not admired but is seen an incomprehensible way of acting. In literature as in social life, the development of historical criticism and widespread social criticism have undermined further the theological underpinnings of obedience. Both the thought and practice of obedience are demeaned and dismissed.


Percy B. Shelley, a modern romantic poet, wrote in “Queen Mab”:


Obedience, bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men and of the human frame a mechanized automaton.


Bob Drinan was not a genius. But he was a human being and a civic servant. He was also a deeply religious man, a believer. Which helps one to appreciate, if not agree with, his choice to obey.


For many years he had immersed himself in that spirituality of obedience, even as he was actively involved in the routine of public policy decisions.


Bob Drinan was a firm believer in the virtue, even the vow, of obedience for his own direction. Perhaps part of his mission was also to give witness of that virtue to others. And to encourage them to live its implications.


He would be the first, I believe, to concede that the exercise of authority and the requirement for obedience would need to be adapted in modern society. Perhaps one of his greatest gifts to succeeding generations was to raise these issues for others.


Q: How can modern leaders exercise authority in a manner that encourages wider acceptance and a more mature insight into the virtue of obedience?

A: He who longs to strengthen his spirit must go beyond obedience and respect. He will continue to honor some laws but he will mostly violate both law and custom.—Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933)


Q: How can citizens be taught the value, the splendor, and the responsibility of obedience in this modern anti-authority society?

A: [The love of the British people and their attachment to their government] infuses into your army and navy that liberal obedience without which your army would be base rabble and your navy but rotten timber.—Edmund Burke, Second Speech on Reconciliation with America, 1775


Every once in a while in the course of history someone comes along to bear witness to a great truth: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day. Their presence and obedience may baffle some, irritate others, intrigue many. It might even arouse the curiosity of someone to explore and follow that leadership and practice that obedience.


Bob Drinan’s decision to obey and leave the Congress he so loved was painful. But his appreciation of a deeper significance of obedience—its intentional, fulfilling, and witnessing value—was overriding for him. And it can be for us too.


Congressman Edward J. Markey '72

I had that unique opportunity to see [Father Drinan] both in law school and here on the House floor. And I saw him play the role of the catalyst, of the idealist, of the man who continued to push others when they say they can go no further in trying to strive for excellence and to stand up for an ideal...

When members of Congress are coming here to cast their vote, all of our names are flashed up on a board over the head of the Speaker to vote "aye" or "nay" on the key issues of our time. During the years that Father Drinan was a Congressman, as the members would look up to see how other members of Congress voted, when they looked up at Father Drinan's name, they knew he was not casting a vote looking at the next election, but rather he was looking at the next generation on every vote. And that led to almost every one of his elections being as close as an election can be, because he was not factoring in his own electoral life but rather the life of every person in our society. His vote was true north.

(From a eulogy given in Congress, February 5, 2007, and reported in the Congressional Record)