The Catholic Church and the Rule of Law- Part II: Dr. John Lamont
Source Part A: Society of St. Hugh of Cluny
Source Part B: Society of St. Hugh of Cluny
The Catholic Church and the Rule of Law- Part II
By John Lamont
To understand how the Jesuit conception of obedience departed from earlier conceptions, it is helpful to compare it with the teaching of St. Thomas on obedience. The fundamental difference between the two is that St. Thomas considers the proper object of obedience to be the precept of the superior (2a2ae q. 104 a. 2 co., ad 3). Obedience that seeks to forestall the expressed will of the superior does not bear on what the superior wants or thinks in general, but only on what the superior intends to command. St. Ignatius’s lowest degree of obedience, which he does not consider to be virtuous, is thus what St. Thomas considers to be the only form of obedience. St. Thomas holds that St. Ignatius’s alleged higher forms of obedience do not fall under the virtue of obedience at all:
For Seneca says (De Beneficiis iii): “It is wrong to suppose that slavery falls upon the whole man: for the better part of him is excepted.” His body is subjected and assigned to his master but his soul is his own. Consequently in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow-man, but God alone. (2a2ae q. 104 a. 5 co.)
St. Thomas ‘s point here is that the limitation of the duty of obedience that is admitted by a pagan philosopher to belong to slaves a fortiori applies to the limitation of the duty of obedience in general. The contrast between Seneca and St. Ignatius on this point is striking. St. Thomas does not hold that his limitation on obedience applies only to obedience in natural matters, with religious obedience being excepted.
Religious profess obedience as to the regular mode of life, in respect of which they are subject to their superiors: wherefore they are bound to obey in those matters only which may belong to the regular mode of life, and this obedience suffices for salvation. If they be willing to obey even in other matters, this will belong to the superabundance of perfection; provided, however, such things be not contrary to God or to the rule they profess, for obedience in this case would be unlawful. (2a2ae q. 104 a. 5 ad 3.)It is thus the case, as noted above, that St. Thomas does not consider obedience to involve the sacrifice of one’s will as such. It can only involve the sacrifice of one’s self-will, which is defined by its adherence to goods that are attractive in themselves but that do not conduce to our ultimate happiness. Nor does he think of obedience as a virtuous form of personal asceticism. He does not hold that obeying a command we dislike is necessarily better than obeying a command we are happy to fulfil. Indeed, since a rightly directed will seeks the common good, a good person will be glad to carry out any suitable command, since such commands and obedience to them both exist for the sake of the common good.
Obedience does not for St. Thomas occupy the central moral role that it does for Counter-Reformation theologians. He does not consider that all good acts are motivated by obedience to God, because he considers that there are virtues the exercise of which is prior to obedience – such as faith, upon which obedience depends. Nor does he consider that the essence of sin consists in disobedience to God, or even that all sin involves the sin of disobedience. All sin does indeed involve a disobedience to God’s commands, but this disobedience is not willed by the sinner unless the sin involves contempt of a divine command – i.e., involves a will to disobey the command in addition to a will to do the forbidden act. He asserts that ‘when a thing is done contrary to a precept, not in contempt of the precept, but with some other purpose, it is not a sin of disobedience except materially, and belongs formally to another species of sin’ (2a2ae q. 104 a. 7 ad 3). Obedience is simply an act of the virtue of justice, which is motivated by love of God in the case of divine commands and love of neighbour in the case of commands of a human superior. These loves are both more fundamental and broader than obedience.
In addition to his transformation of the traditional conception of religious obedience, St. Ignatius was responsible for another innovation that revolutionised the relation of superior to inferior in the religious life. This was his introduction of a new conception of the manifestation of conscience. Opening one’s heart to one’s spiritual father, and revealing one’s sins, trials, and tribulations, was an ancient practice in the monastic life: it was recommended by St. Anthony himself.10 This practice originally had three characteristics; it was a voluntary act on the part of the person manifesting their conscience, it was directed at a spiritual father who was chosen purely for his wisdom in guiding souls, and its purpose was the growth in holiness of the person making the manifestation.
St. Ignatius rejected these characteristics. He not only encouraged but required the manifestation of conscience, and he required that the manifestation be made to the religious superior – he made no mention of manifestation to a spiritual father other than the superior. He required that such a manifestation be made every six months, and he directed that all superiors and even their delegates were qualified to receive these manifestations – in contrast to St. Benedict, who limited the recipients of the manifestation of conscience to the abbot and a few selected spiritual fathers in the monastery.
Finally, instead of restricting the purpose of the manifestation of conscience to the spiritual well-being of the manifestee, the superior was not only permitted but required to use the knowledge of his subordinates gained through the manifestation of conscience for the purposes of government. The manifestation of conscience was much broader and more intrusive than the chapter of faults in monastic communities, which limited itself to external actions that contravened the rule, or even than the necessary extent of self-revelation in the confessional. It included ‘the dispositions and desires for the performance of good, the obstacles and difficulties encountered, the passions and temptation which move or harass the soul, the faults, that are more frequently committed … the usual pattern of conduct, affections, inclinations, propensities, temptations, and weaknesses.’11 It should be underlined that the making of a full manifestation of conscience of this kind was impressed upon the inferior as a grave religious duty.
The overweening power that this practice gives to the superior needs no underlining. The ancient religious orders (such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites) resisted the introduction of an obligatory manifestation of conscience on St. Ignatius’s model, but many modern religious institutes adopted it. The abuses of the practice were so severe that the Holy See eventually had to forbid it.
Leo XIII’s decree Quemadmodum banned the practice for lay institutes of men and all religious congregations of women in 1890, and it was banned for all religious by canon 530 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law (the Jesuits, however, were permitted to preserve it by a special decree of Pope Pius XI).12 By this time, however, the practice had had several centuries to leave its mark on the understanding of authority and the psychology of superiors and subordinates within the Church.
There is probably a connection between liturgical practice and the Jesuit conception of obedience as well. The liturgical prayer of the Church is principally composed of the Psalms. Any reader of the Psalms will notice that they are full of what by Counter-Reformation standards is insubordinate language towards God; complaints, demands, criticisms, unsolicited advice, and reproaches. They are not compatible with a spirituality in which the Jesuit conception of obedience plays a central role. Accordingly the Counter-Reformation came to treat the recital of the Divine Office as important largely because it was a task that must be completed under pain of mortal sin. The spiritual life of laity and religious came to be focused instead on devotions, which did not pose this problem. It would be interesting to pursue the question of how far a tyrannical conception of authority influenced post-Counter-Reformation devotion and religious art. One may speculate that the feminised chinless portrayal of Christ, and the sickly sentimentality, that characterised this period, were an attempt to balance the fear and aversion produced by the perception of Christ as a tyrant that would inevitably follow from belief in his supreme authority.
The Counter-Reformation Church thus wholeheartedly adopted the Jesuit understanding of obedience, and extensively practiced the Jesuit method of manifestation of conscience. The effect of this scarcely needs explaining. The Jesuit understanding of authority was a tyrannical one, since it located authority in the will of the superior rather than in the law. Of course, the expositions of this understanding of authority always insisted that it did not extend to commanding sin, but this limitation did not have much practical import. The relevant understanding of a sinful command was more or less limited to grave and clear violations of the Decalogue, and the unjust commands of authority are rarely ones that insist on crimes of this sort; such crimes are not the sort of thing that unjust authorities usually have an interest in commanding. Some expositions of the Ignatian conception of obedience, indeed, described obedience to an order than one suspects but is not certain to be illicit as an especially high and praiseworthy form of obedience.13
To a tyrannical understanding of authority necessarily corresponds a servile understanding of obedience, where the object of obedience is not the law as understood by the reason, but the pure will of the superior untrammelled by the will or intelligence of the subject. Ignatian thought and practice not only upheld a servile understanding of obedience, but provided a uniquely effective method of producing such obedience. The follower’s independent will and intellect are deliberately annihilated as far as is humanly possible, and this is done not only by external pressure, but also by a far more effective means – that of enlisting the follower’ own will in the process, through getting the follower to believe that this annihilation is a religious duty, and indeed is the highest form of holiness. The Ignatian form of manifestation of conscience provided the perfect means of implementing this process. By leaving the the subordinate with no thoughts or desires independent of the superior’s will, it provided a means of thought control that surpassed anything described by George Orwell. It was no accident that totalitarian leaders such as Lenin and Heinrich Himmler admired and emulated the Jesuits.
A number of objections are liable to be raised against this indictment of the Jesuit theory of obedience. Has not Jesuit spirituality in general, and the Constutions of the Society of Jesus in particular, been given the authoritative approbation of the Church? Have the Jesuits not produced many saints and done great work for the Church, something that could hardly have been produced by a tyrannical and thus morally objectionable method of formation? Was St. Ignatius himself not great saint, and an outstanding leader whose methods were not in fact tyrannical ones? Have not Jesuits in the past shown a high level of ability and initiative, something that is incompatible with a method of formation that is a form of brainwashing and breaks the mind and will?
As far as the approbation of the Church goes, it can be pointed out that the essence of the spirituality of St. Ignatius is contained in his Spiritual Exercises. These are distinct from the Constitutions of the Society and his other writings on obedience, and are the spiritual work of St. Ignatius that has been singled out for approbation by the Church. They do not however contain the teachings of St. Ignatius on obedience that are criticised here, and in fact lay stress on reflection and conscious action. The Constitutions of the Society have been approved by the Church as the basic regulations governing the structure and functioning of the Society. This approval thus bears on the Constitutions as a regulatory structure for the Society; the reflections on obedience in the Constitutions do not form part of this regulatory structure, and hence are not the objects of the approbation of the Constitutions by the Church.
When it comes to the achievements of the Society of Jesus, it should be remembered that notwithstanding the heroic witness of a number of Jesuit martyrs, the principal achievement of the Jesuits – the thing they were really good at, and that enabled them to make a decisive contribution to the Counter-Reformation – was running secondary schools. It was the Jesuit schools that enabled them to turn the tide in favour of the Church in a number of European countries. A defective understanding of authority and obedience did not have too much scope for action in these schools. For one thing, they were run according to a detailed and uniform program that did not leave much scope for tyrannical initiatives on the part of the superior. For another, they had the essential test of direct, immediate success or failure at their stated object, which is a main curb in practice on tyranny and servility. Educational success was immediately apparent, and meant the schools would flourish; educational failure was equally apparent, and meant that they would lose their pupils. Finally, the difficult and humbling side intrinsic to all successful teaching was not propitious for the characteristics that mark those who enjoy and practice tyranny or servility. Neither the servile nor the tyrannical have the authority needed to teach large numbers of adolescent boys. When it came to the main apostolic activity of the Jesuits, a literal understanding of St. Ignatius’s teachings on obedience was thus destined to largely remain a dead letter. Unfortunately this was not the case with other orders and other apostolic pursuits in the Church of the Counter-Reformation.
There are more considerations that need to be kept in mind when considering the successes of the Society of Jesus in general. The Society does seem to have ended up by attempting to train its recruits according to a servile conception of obedience, at least initially, but the calibre of Jesuit recruits led to this formation producing a result that was different from its ostensible purpose. The Society was very selective in the men it admitted, insisting on ability and intelligence that were far above average, and the men admitted were generally given substantial tasks to do. Servile obedience is inculcated by subjecting the inferior to humiliating, pointless and unpleasant tasks, to a degree intended to break their will and self-respect. With individuals of strong will and high intelligence, however, this process can fail of its purpose. In such a case, what it produces is great toughness and endurance, together with rigorous self-control and the capacity to disguise one’s thoughts and emotions. Such a process is often used in the initial stages of military training, in order to produce just these qualities. When this toughness and self-control has been elicited, however, the character of military training is changed to foster the qualities of initiative and intelligence that are required for successful performance.The demand for success in important tasks virtually requires subordinates to show initiative, and superiors to exercise actual leadership. Jesuits who lived up to the servile theory on obedience would thus tend to fail at the tasks required of them, and to suffer as a result. The need for success in the important tasks undertaken by the Society demanded a mitigation in practice of the tyrannical theory of authority.
It seems that the Jesuits in fact took this approach to obedience, appropriately so given St. Ignatius’s military background. Their training came to be valued not simply for its capacity to produce obedience, but even more for the traits of endurance, self-control, and dissimulation of the emotions that it inculcated – the Jesuits came to be recognised as distinguished above all others for their capacity to master anger. These traits are extremely useful in worldly activities, and explain much of the success of the Jesuits in worldly affairs, although their usefulness in producing holiness is open to question.
These mitigating factors depended however on the character of the Jesuits as a carefully selected elite. They could not obtain for the Church as a whole, and they did not do so. For the great majority of Catholic priests and religious, the Jesuit conception of obedience and the Jesuit method of manifestation of conscience tended to produce what they were intended: subordinates who believed that they owed servile obedience to their superiors, that they should surrender their will and intelligence to the people above them, and that in so doing they were doing God’s will and growing in holiness: and superiors who believed that their commands were the will of God, and that any resistance to these commands by their subordinates was rebellion against God himself.
As for the wisdom, sanctity, and achievements of St. Ignatius, we should distinguish between the meaning of St. Ignatius’s writings on obedience when considered in abstraction from their original context, and the meaning that St. Ignatius can be judged to have ascribed to them when we look at the context of his own purposes and actions. In the light of this context, it seems that what St. Ignatius had in mind in his writings on obedience was the idea that the subordinate should not simply carry out explicit commands, but should grasp the plan of the superior that the commands were intended to implement, and should accept and enthusiastically carry out that plan. Such an approach to the superior’s purposes was necessary for the tasks that he intended the Jesuits to carry out, because these tasks generally required independent action where regular recourse to the superior’s instructions could not be available. It is in general the approach that subordinates must take to carry out any substantial task properly. However, in expressing this idea St. Ignatius was handicapped by the deficient understanding of law that was accepted in his time. As we have seen, this understanding was not St. Thomas’s conception of a law as a rational plan to achieve some good. Law was instead conceived of by the philosophers and theologians with whom St. Ignatius was familiar as simply a set of commands. In his writings on obedience St. Ignatius was trying to get across the idea that obedience to the law in this sense – obedience simply to the content of the explicit orders of the superior – was not sufficient, and that an understanding of and identification with the superior’s purposes was necessary. He did not however have at his command an idea of a law that could exist in the superior’s mind, be distinct from the superior’s beliefs and purposes generally, and be rationally appropriated by the subordinate. He was therefore induced to convey his meaning by calling for an identification with the superior’s personal intentions and beliefs, without making a satisfactory distinction between the superior’s plan and general objectives as directed to the common good, and his other beliefs and goals. We can draw a comparison here with St. John of the Cross; just as St. John would not have accepted the unreasonable conclusions that followed from his ascetical teaching, and did not put these conclusions into practice, so St. Ignatius did not intend the unreasonable applications of his writings on obedience. He was simply betrayed into unreasonable positions, as was St. John of the Cross, by the philosophical assumptions of his age, from which he was not able to emancipate himself. We might also see his personal struggles as an influence on his doctrine of obedience; originally vainglorious and ambitious, and always attracted to ruling and taking the initiative, he would have found the attempt at a total surrender of mind and will to another a useful tool for combating his dominant faults.
The problem was that the meaning of St. Ignatius’s writings on obedience taken in the context of his actions and purposes, and the meaning of these writings when considered on their own, were not identical; and it was the latter meaning, not the former, that was generally accessible to, and generally accepted by, the Church of the Counter-Reformation. It is true that intelligent spiritual writers could interpret the Jesuit theory of obedience in an acceptable way. For example, Dom Paul Delatte, in commenting on the Rule of St. Benedict, writes of the Rule’s demand for obedience that
Obedience so described is a far different thing from the obedience that reproduces the passivity and inertia of a corpse, or the unthinking docility of a stick that we brandish in our hands. It is said that a good commander ought to have his forces well in hand, so as to get from them with spirit and unity the maximum efficiency at the exact moment it is needed. So it is with the obedient soul … When the masters of the spiritual life use these comparisons they merely wish to express the perfect pliancy of the obedient soul, dead to its own will.14
Dom Delatte was however writing from within the Benedictine tradition, which had its own well-articulated understanding of obedience that could be and was used to interpret St. Ignatius’s writings in a positive sense. But the usual practice was to take St. Ignatius’s words literally, in a sense that commended a tyrannical understanding of authority.
We find this, for instance, in Alphonsus Rodriguez S.J.’s Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues. This work, the most widely read manual of ascetic theology of the Counter-Reformation, was published in Spanish in 1609, and went through many editions in many translations – over sixty in French, twenty in Italian, at least ten in German, several in English. It was required reading for Jesuit novices up to the Second Vatican Council. In his proposed examination of conscience, Fr. Rodriguez (who is not to be confused with St. Alphonsus Rodriguez) requires the penitent
II. To obey in will and heart, having one and the same wish and will as the Superior.
III. To obey also with the understanding and judgment, adopting the same view and sentiment as the Superior, not giving place to any judgments or reasonings to the contrary.
IV. To take the voice of the Superior … as the voice of God, and obey the Superior, whoever he may be, as Christ our Lord, and the same for subordinate officials.
V. To follow blind obedience, that is obedience without enquiry or examination, or any seeking of reasons for the why and wherefore, it being reason enough for me that it is obedience and the command of the Superior.15
Rodriguez praises obedience – as he understands it – in illuminating terms.
One of the greatest comforts and consolations that we have in Religion is this, that we are safe in doing what obedience commands. The Superior it is that may be wrong in commanding this or that, but you are certain that you are not wrong in doing what is commanded, for the only account that God will ask of you is if you have done what they commanded you, and with that your account will be sufficiently discharged before God. It is not for you to render account whether the thing commanded was a good thing, or whether something else would not have been better; that does not belong to you, but to the account of the Superior. When you act under obedience, God takes it off your books, and puts it on the books of the Superior. … so the Religious, living under obedience, composes himself to sleep – that is to say, he has no trouble or care about what he is to do, but goes his way to heaven and perfection. Superiors see to that, they are the captains and masters of the ship. … this is the blessing which God has given to the Religious who lives under obedience, that all his burden is thrown on the shoulders of his Superior, and he lives at ease and without care whether this be better or that. This is one of the things that greatly move virtuous folk to live under obedience and enter Religion, – to be rid of the endless perplexities and anxieties that they have there in the world, and be sure or serving and pleasing God. … If I were there in the world and desired to serve God, I should be troubled and in doubt whether I eat too little or too much, sleep too much or too little, do too little or too much penance … but here in Religion all these doubts are cleared away, for I eat what they give me, I sleep at the time appointed, I do the penance they assign me. 16
Rodriguez adds that ‘not only in spiritual matters, but also in temporal, this is a life very restful and void of care. Like a passenger in a well-victualled ship, a Religious has no need to attend to his own necessities.’17
One could not give a plainer exposition of a servile notion of obedience. Rodriguez’s position draws the logical conclusion from a literal understanding of St. Ignatius’s writings on obedience. If a subordinate entirely abandons the activity of his own mind and will when presented with the order of a superior, it is indeed the case that he surrenders all moral responsibility for the execution of the order, and the responsibility is transferred entirely to the superior who gives the order. That is because moral responsibility requires the functioning of one’s intellect and will; if this functioning is legitimately abolished in the case of a superior’s order, responsibility for the execution of the order is abolished as well. The fact that the abandonment of this functioning is presented as legitimate and indeed as obligatory is the key to this logical implication. If the functioning of one’s mind and will is abandoned illegitimately, one does not lose all moral responsibility for the acts that one performs as a result of their abandonment. But if this abandonment is legitimate, as Rodriguez claims it is, moral responsibility is indeed necessarily suspended.
In drawing this conclusion, Rodriguez goes farther than St. Ignatius. The absence of this conclusion in the writings of St. Ignatius is what makes it possible to give a pious interpretation to his views on obedience, and to assert that his writings need not be read as an endorsement of a tyrannical understanding of authority and a servile understanding of obedience. With Rodriguez such an interpretation is ruled out, and these understandings of authority and obedience take undoubted possession.
Like other writers, Rodriguez makes the usual exception for obedience to commands that are manifestly contrary to the divine law. But this exception is not something that has much practical reality. Internalising and practicing the Jesuit notion of obedience is difficult, and requires time, motivation, and effort. When it has been done successfully, it has a lasting effect. Once one has destroyed one’s capacity to criticise the actions of one’s superiors, one cannot revive this capacity and its exercise at will. Following the directive to refuse obedience to one’s superiors when their commands are manifestly sinful then becomes psychologically difficult or even impossible – except perhaps in the most extreme cases, such as commands to murder someone, which are not the sort of sinful commands that religious superiors often have an interest in giving in any case.
There is an explicit appeal to the wisdom and goodness of superiors in this doctrine of obedience. This appeal however ignores the characteristic effects of the exercise of tyrannical authority, which are no less deep – perhaps deeper – than those of the practice of servile obedience. Such authority has an intoxicating effect, producing overweening pride and megalomania. Superiors in the grip of these vices become both prone to giving unjust orders, and incapable of conceiving of themselves as sinful or mistaken.
Rodriguez is especially interesting in his description of the principal appeal of a servile conception of obedience to the subordinate (its appeal to a superior needs no explaining). He states in the plainest terms that this appeal lies in the abdication of all adult responsibility, along with the worries that inevitably accompany it. The ruinous effects of attracting to the clerical state people who seek avoidance of adult responsibility, and the material security of passengers in a well-victualled ship, extend much farther than the overthrow of the rule of law in the Church.
This servile conception of obedience remained the standard one into the twentieth century. Adolphe Tanquerey, in his widely read and translated (and in many way excellent) work Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique,18 could write that perfect souls who have reached the highest degree of obedience submit their judgment to that of their superior, without even examining the reasons for which he commands them.19 The Jesuit conception of obedience did not remain a peculiarity of the Society, but came to be adopted by the Counter-Reformation Church as a whole. This was due to the prestige of the Society and the attractiveness to religious superiors of the nature of the obedience held up as a model, and also to the plausibility of the conception given the philosophical assumptions noted above. This conception of obedience was completely dominant in the many foundations of the Counter-Reformation, which, unlike the Benedictines, lacked traditions of their own to counteract a literal reading of St. Ignatius. It was also prevalent in the new institution of the Counter-Reformation seminary. We can see an manifestation of this prevalence in the Treatise on Obedience of the Sulpician Louis Tronson, which gave St. Ignatius’s teaching and writings as the summit of Catholic teaching on obedience. The Sulpician adoption of the Jesuit conception was particularly important because of their central role in the training of priests in seminaries from the 17th century onwards. The seven years of seminary training meant that the tyrannical understanding of authority and servile understanding of obedience conveyed by this training was deeply ingrained in those who went through it.20
As a result, this was the understanding conveyed to the laity. Its effect on the laity was different from its effect on the clergy. The laity could never hope to acquire authority, so the traits needed to rise in a tyrannical system were not produced in them. What happened instead was that the laity were infantilised in the religious sphere of their lives. This infantilisation can be observed in religious art and devotion, especially from the 19th century onwards, and in the willingness to give blind obedience to the clergy. It had of course a certain attraction; there is a comfort in relapsing into childhood in some sphere of one’s life, and handing over deliberation, decisions, and adult responsibility to one’s superiors. This attraction is the basis of the appeal of religious cults and totalitarian states. The Catholic laity did not have to endure tyrannical authority in every sphere of their lives, so this comfort was all the more appealing to them; it did not have the accompanying cost of total servility that the clergy had to pay.
It was thus the literal, tyrannical understanding of St. Ignatius’s writings on obedience that had come to be accepted by the Counter-Reformation Church. The enormous chaos that followed the Second Vatican Council is an indication of this acceptance. It revealed a widespread alienation from Catholic teaching and tradition among priests and religious, the majority of whom either gladly rejected what they had been taught to consider true and holy or left the religious life altogether. This was a consequence of identifying this teaching and tradition with the tyrannical regime under which they had been formed. The resulting hatred and alienation was greatly aggravated by the fact that this regime was largely incapable of communicating a real understanding of Catholic tradition in the first place, because such an understanding requires a mature exercise of intellect and will – precisely the things that religious formation was designed to extirpate. As a result there was little or no real grasp of the tradition to counteract the reaction against the generally accepted conception of it. Indeed such a real grasp often made a priest or religious suspect in the eyes of ecclesiastical authority, since it required this mature and independent exercise of thought and insight – as is the case with all substantial traditions. The tragicomic history of John Henry Newman’s career in the Catholic Church is a good illustration of this suspicion. Newman’s actual thought was ferociously reactionary in nature, but because he had arrived at his positions by himself, he came under the suspicion of ecclesiastical authorities (who were in fact often more liberal than himself in their ideas), and was held up as a hero by modernists whose whole lives were condemned by his writings.
As for the laity, their indoctrination in blind obedience made them willing and even proud to follow disaffected clergy when ordered to reject the liturgy and teachings that they had previously been told were sacred and inviolable. The lack of Catholic initiative by the laity in the preconciliar period is also to be explained by this infantilising formation. It has long been noted that converts to the faith, at least in the English-speaking world, made a disproportionately large contribution to Catholic thought and culture. This was inevitable given the formation that cradle Catholics had received.
Formation in tyrannical authority and servile obedience inevitably fostered undesirable characteristics in the priests who exercised authority over the laity, and thus produced hostility to the clergy. It is significant that the term that came to be used for opposition to the Catholic Church in Europe was ‘anticlericalism’. In its literal meaning, the word ‘anticlericalism’ is quite distinct from opposition to Catholicism, since it simply means antipathy to the Catholic clergy. Such an antipathy does not imply rejection of the Catholic faith, and in some circumstances may be quite justified, or even required by fidelity to the Church. Its identification with anti-Catholicism as such was the result of an opportunistic exploitation by unbelievers of the widespread loathing of the clergy, a loathing caused by their practice of a tyrannical conception of authority, together with a genuine identification of the faith with the clergy – an identification fostered by the infantilisation of the laity, which produced the impression that the faith was the property of the clergy as such.
There were of course many factors in the Church that counteracted the effects of the philosophical and practical forces described above; her intellectual traditions with their insistence on learning and philosophy, healthier traditions of spiritual teaching and practice, and the demands of reality itself in the form of the challenges and responsibilities faced by clergy and religious. In the 20th century, however, the forces within the Church promoting a tyrannical understanding of authority and a servile understanding of obedience received decisive reinforcement from two factors.
The first was the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. The basic idea of this codification – that of streamlining the canon law of the Latin Church, and making it easier to use – was well-meaning and indeed correct, but the way in which this idea was implemented was fundamentally flawed. The problem with the 1917 Code was that it was a Napoleonic Code, rather than a Justinian Code. When the Emperor Justinian decided to codify Roman law for purposes similar to the ones that inspired St. Pius X, the whole mass of previous Roman legal rulings and decrees were collected together, organised, and purged of obsolete and contradictory elements. They were not however ruled void of authority and replaced by an entirely new body of edicts. The great body of Roman legal tradition was preserved in Justinian’s codification. In the Napoleonic code, in contrast, the previous legal tradition was abolished and entirely replaced by the new and much smaller collection of decrees that made up the code devised by Napoleon and his jurists. The Latin Code of Canon law of 1917 was deliberately designed on the Napoleonic rather than the Justinian model. The massive body of the Latin legal tradition, collected in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, was declared to be of no force. From this point onwards the Latin Church had to operate largely without the benefit of its own legal tradition, on the basis of a legal system modelled on the legislation of a military dictator implementing Jansenist and Enlightenment ideas of law and authority. In addition to the crippling of Catholic legal practice that this involved, the alleged abrogation of the entire Corpus Iuris Canonici was itself of dubious legality, since the canonical tradition of the Church has always been considered to contain substantial elements of sacred tradition. This is recognised by the Oriental Code of Canon Law, which states at its outset that ‘the canons of the Code, in which for the most part the ancient law of the Eastern Churches is received or adapted, are to be assessed mainly according to that law’ (canon 2). It is paradoxical that the Oriental Code should recognise the authority of the Eastern canonical tradition, while the the Latin Code should overthrow the Latin tradition – despite the fact that the Latin tradition is the one that contains most of the rulings of the pope, the highest legal authority in the Church. The 1917 Latin Code thus struck a severe blow at the rule of law in the Church.
The second factor in promoting a tyrannical understanding of authority was the abandonment of the Church’s practical activities in the postconciliar period. The enormous involvement of clergy and religious in education and health was largely shut down along with the religious orders that carried out this involvement. The institutions that had carried out this involvement were handed over to governments or lay organisations, and became Catholic in name only. The direct activity of the Church in preaching and administering the sacraments was also greatly reduced, as congregations shrunk after the Council and continue to decline. The expectation that priests and religious would succeed in carrying out serious work, and the accompanying need for competence and leadership, declined along with the decline in serious work to carry out. The scope for tyrannical exercise of authority was correspondingly widened.
This last factor may seem to contradict the thesis about the dominance of a tyrannical conception of authority in the Church. Do not tyrants seek something to tyrannise over? If the importance and influence of Catholic activities declines steeply, does not their scope for tyranny decline with it?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the dynamics of an organisation that has been dominated for a long time by a tyrannical conception of authority and a servile conception of obedience. The key point is that in a clerical system dominated by these conceptions, the leaders all start off as followers themselves. In this capacity, they learn the skills of the slave for survival and advancement; flattery, duplicity, bullying and humiliation of those beneath them, and concealment. Their promotion from subordinate to superior does not depend primarily on their competence at the tasks they are supposed to perform, but on their capacity to ingratiate themselves with their superiors. The leadership in such a system is thus not selected for its capacity to get things done, and is not generally motivated by a desire to get things done. The dominant motivation is desire to escape the servile position and enjoy the tyrannical position. A collapse of the real activities of the institution does not get in the way of the fulfilment of this desire – if anything it makes it easier, by dispensing with the need for determination and intelligence in the personnel of the institution; these characteristics compete with the skills of the courtier as qualifications for promotion, and make the task of tyrannical leadership a lot more difficult. The deliberate destruction of these activities of the Church was to a great extent motivated by the desire of religious leaders in the Church to free themselves of the encumbrance of real responsibilities, the better to have free range for the arbitrary exercise of their wills.
We have now seen how the members of the Church have been formed to accept a tyrannical understanding of authority and a servile understanding of obedience in religious affairs. This in turn explains why the rule of law does not obtain in the Catholic Church; its leaders do not consider themselves to be subject to the law, and their followers do not see the law as the source of their leader’s authority or as a constraint upon their actions.
There are connections between these causes and the particular form of violation of the law mentioned at the outset of this paper. Scandalous sexual activity on the part of priests is not new in Catholic history; it has occurred during every period in the past when zeal and fidelity in the Church has diminished. What is new, however, is the character of this activity. Previous scandal largely involved concubinage and casual fornication by priests. The scandals of the past sixty years, however, have been of a different character; involvement with adolescent boys has been much more significant than in any previous period of corruption on the part of the clergy. It is not of course that such involvement was absent in the past; it is that it was not the characteristic form that clerical sexual misbehaviour took. This new development is a result of the fact that these forms of sexual abuse are closely connected with narcissistic personality types, and a social structure based on tyranny and humiliation both forms and selects for this type of personality.
The abandonment of the rule of law in the Church is only one of the manifold consequences of the Jesuit conceptions of authority and obedience. It is impossible to even attempt a description of all of these consequences. I believe however that these consequences put together are one of the most serious problems that the Church suffers from today; if we restrict our consideration to internal problems, it is likely that they are the most serious one. The single effect of the overthrow of the rule of law in the Church indicates that this is the case, and demonstrates the urgency of rejecting these conceptions of authority and obedience, and replacing them by the traditional ones that enlist, rather than destroy, the free cooperation of mind and will.