The topic of obedience is very much in the air, so it may be valuable to consider some of the principles involved.
First, I would remind you of the Milgram experiments. You may recall that they established that a big majority of normal, decent people were prepared to administer extremely painful, and dangerous, electric shocks to innocent strangers at the behest of an ostensible authority figure. The outcome was so surprising that the experiments were replicated again and again, and with different groups, but – with insignificant variations – produced the same results. Further, recent, work has been done on this, and it confirms the earlier findings.
From an evolutionary aspect we should expect this. In order that groups can operate effectively it is important that the majority should instinctively defer to the leader. The alternative is anarchy, and the eventual destruction of the group.
But Catholics are immediately faced with an apparent clash. First, we are enjoined by Christ himself to be obedient to God. But since God’s will is coterminous with truth this is not a problem. The difficulty may arise when God’s will is mediated through the Magisterium. Here we have to distinguish between an infallible teaching (always remembering the demanding conditions which limit the scope of infallibility) and other teachings which, though varying in their emphasis, are not infallible. Or, if you dislike double negatives, are fallible.
Such rulings carry great authority from the mandate of Christ. Those who wish to disagree with such teachings (and their practical consequences in moral matters) accept the burden of proof. That is, they must have made every prayerful effort to understand and agree with the teaching.
And only in those very few instances where they are morally certain that the teaching conflicts with the law of love may they be disobedient. Indeed they must be disobedient because we are obliged to follow our properly formed consciences. Many will recognise this principle from Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.
Nevertheless, there have been a number of occasions (although relatively few in the context of 2,000 years) when the Magisterium’s fallible, but authoritative, teachings have been erroneous, and needed correction. The heavens did not fall. In these cases it might have been a better witness if Catholics had expressed vocal and actual disobedience, although, for a variety of reasons, this did not occur. Apart from the heavy, and sometimes mortal, sanctions for disobedience, the senior clergy on the whole were educated, and the laity were not. That is no longer the case.
Bishop O’Donoghue (Report, July 3) has raised the issue by rightly citing the teaching on artificial contraception as the “litmus test” of obedience to the Church. The prohibition is in theory derived through reason from the natural law, but the derivation remains unproven. Therefore it is a fallible moral teaching, allowing of no exceptions, which cannot be based on reason but only on authority. And obedience or disobedience potentially has serious moral consequences. Thus it makes an excellent, and rather precise, “litmus test” of obedience.
I have distinguished in this column between the Magisterium and the Church, because it is the Magisterium which teaches and the community of the Church, clergy and laity, which believes. It is clear that the community of the Church as a whole does not believe in this teaching and, on the best evidence available, this includes 43 per cent of parochial priests (with a further 19 per cent “don’t knows”) in England and Wales. I cannot speak for the bishops (about whose lack of support Bishop O’Donoghue complains) but since they (and all the clergy) have sworn on oath to uphold even the fallible teaching of the Magisterium we do not know.
But there is a clue. At least five cardinals are recorded as arguing the possibility that condoms might be permitted as the lesser evil for lawfully married couples who are infected with HIV/Aids. They would claim that this is not to question the general ruling against artificial contraception. The claim is odd, for no intention whatsoever can justify an act which is intrinsically evil, and Humanae Vitae emphasises, with italics, that “any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to create human life”. But the Holy See, to whom this controversial and, literally, vital matter has been referred, has delayed an answer for four years. It would be interesting to know the reason.
I am not giving a personal opinion on the doctrinal question (nor indeed is this newspaper). I am merely taking the example which Bishop O’Donoghue raised, and the observable facts which surround it. My focus is on the general principles of obedience which it illustrates.
Since we know that we have an instinctive, apparently genetic, tendency to obedience – a tendency which has in many, secular, historical examples led to the greatest evil, we need to arm ourselves if we are to retain or promote our full humanity.
First, we must ask whether the authority concerned is properly constituted and not merely claimed. Second, we should be clear about the degree of authority being invoked.
Third, we should be sure that the obligation imposed is just and reasonable, both in itself and in its consequences.
And finally we must decide which side we take when there is a clash between truth (as perceived through a formed conscience) and obedience. If truth wins we shall have preserved our universal vocation to live in the image and likeness of God.
As for myself, I try to commit one act of harmless disobedience a day, just to keep my instincts at bay and my muscles in trim.
* * *
You may have some comments to make on my theme. Perhaps I am advocating anarchy, or encouraging people to pick and choose. Or you might like to add some additional examples.