St. Ignatius Loyola on Perfect Obedience

Saint Ignatius Loyola, Claudio Coello, 17th century

Saint Ignatius Loyola, Claudio Coello, 17th century

Perfect Obedience

The question of obedience is a timely one in the contemporary Church. On the progressive end of the spectrum, disobedience to the teachings of the Church have been ubiquitous since the breakdown of Catholic discipline in the second half of the 20th century. Catholic Traditionalists, also, have had many lively debates on the precise nature of obedience and how far one is bound in obedience when those in authority in the Church are themselves dissenters, heretics or leading lives of immorality.

Fortunately, this is not a question that Tradition is silent on. From the Rule of St. Benedict to the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi to the Imitation of Christ and many more spiritual works, the characteristics of obedience have been thoroughly examined.

In this post, we bring you excerpts from one of the great writings on this subject, the letter “On Perfect Obedience” from St. Ignatius Loyola. This letter was addressed to the Jesuits in Portugal around 1553 when the Society there had been rent by divisions due to certain brothers who withheld their obedience from their superiors. St. Ignatius fiercely condemns this cafeteria obedience and lays down what went on to become the classic Jesuit definition of obedience, which is nothing other than the traditional Catholic teaching. This epistle is Letter 25 in the Ignatius corpus.

The foundational principle of St. Ignatius’ teaching on obedience is that the superior is to be obeyed not by virtue of the excellence with which he wields the power of his office, but simply because he is the superior, and as such is the representative of God to the religious – this is regardless of whether he acts prudently or not:

The superior is to be obeyed not because he is prudent, or good, or qualified by any other gift of God, but because he holds the place and the authority of God, as Eternal Truth has said: He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me [Luke 10:16]. Nor on the contrary, should he lack prudence, is he to be the less obeyed in that in which he is superior, since he represents Him who is infallible wisdom, and who will supply what is wanting in His minister, nor, should he lack goodness or other desirable qualities, since Christ our Lord, having said, the scribes and the Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses, adds, therefore, whatever they shall tell you, observe and do: but do not act according to their works [Matt. 23:2-3].
After laying this foundation, St. Ignatius explains there are three degrees of obedience. The first and lowest consists in simply doing what one is told; in other words, merely performing the command in a purely external manner. He says there is no true merit in this sort of ‘obedience of execution’:
…[T]he first degree of obedience is very low, which consists in the execution of what is commanded, and that it does not deserve the name of obedience, since it does not attain to the worth of this virtue unless it rises to the second degree…
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