True Obedience: The Mark of A Faithful Catholic Part C: Summa Theologica


Summa Theologica – St. Thomas Aquinas

It should be of no surprise that the Catechism of the Council of Trent refers the reader to the Summa. After all, for hundreds of years it was the 'go-to' reference manual for understanding key areas of Catholic theology.

St. Thomas establishes that observance (question 102), rendering honor and respect to those in a position of dignity, is exercised by "rendering him service, by obeying his commands, and by repaying him, according to one's faculty, for the benefits we received from him".  Further, this service is owed to the person in a position of authority, not because of themselves, but because of the position of dignity that they occupy. Disobedience to the superior is counted by St. Thomas as a mortal sin as it is "contrary to the love of God" and the "love of our neighbor".

In article 5 of question 104, St. Thomas proceeds to define the framework for obedience due to  superiors – outside of which obedience is not obligatory and may even be sinful.

The first criteria is that the order cannot contradict the law of God, as He is the "first mover of all wills", all are bound to obey the divine command under justice (Q104, article 4 & 5).  One example employed by St. Thomas is the chain of command within a hierarchy.  In this he states:  "If a commissioner issue an order, are you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul?"  Ultimately, he ends his example with an order given by the Emperor stating "... if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God".

Simply put, if at any point within the hierarchy an order is given that requires the subject to sin, the order is to be disregarded.   This sinful order can be structured in two ways.  Either the nature of the  thing commanded is sinful or the command is to disobey a legitimate order.

Sin can be divided into the immediate, proximate and remote cases. In the immediate case, the order in and of itself is directly sinful, such as a command to break the First Commandment.  In the proximate case, a command involves a situation in which  is it likely the person will fall into mortal sin, such as an order to a reformed alcholic to visit a tavern for a glass of water.  In the remote case, the occasion lacks both characteristics. Catholics are obliged to avoid the immediate and proximate occasions of sin, but have no obligation to avoid remote occasions.

The second criteria is that, the order provided by the superior must be within the "sphere of his authority". Obviously, different types of superiors have different domains in which it is licit for them to issue orders.  For example, a person's manager can only issue orders that pertain to their employment.  A religious superior can only issue orders that fall within the "mode of life" ( clerical, monastic, mendicant, military, hospitaller) as expressed by vows taken and the rule of the order.  For example, a religious superior can issue an order to transfer a member of their order to another monastery or house of the order.

St. Thomas states that a subject who obeys an order outside of the sphere of authority, but does not require sin,  practices "perfect obedience".  This is due to the lack of no obligation to obey but the submit of their will to the superior nonetheless.

St. Thomas concludes by identifying three types of obedience:
1. Sufficient for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one is bound to obey:
2. Perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful:
3. Indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful.

Therefore, following St. Thomas, we arrive at two criteria for obedience:
1. The command does not require the inferior to sin, either in the immediate or proximate case.
2. The command is within the sphere of the superior's authority

These various conditions for obedience can be summarized in a 2x2 matrix as shown below:

In summary, following St. Thomas' reasoning, if an order is within the sphere of authority and does not involve sin, then the subject has an obligation to obey and commits a mortal sin if they disobey.
If the same order is outside the sphere of authority, then St. Thomas states it is perfect obedience to submit one's will to that of their superior.

Finally, it is sinful to obey an order that involves sin (is against the law of God).


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