Friday, September 13, 2019

On Servility and Religious Assent

Baron Munchausen

June's General Assembly of the USCCB was livestreamed on a popular video site, leading this writer to witness the collected power of the American episcopacy react to the heartfelt recommendations of a representation from the National Review Board for the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People to release all relevant information about the activities of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick... with silence and polite dismissal. By contrast, the day's later presentation by Bp. Barron concerning P. Francis's "eloquently ambiguous" language on the death penalty was accompanied by applause and a near-unanimous vote to incorporate the Bergoglian language into the Conference's own catechetical publications.

The free-form online commentators have been typing nonstop ever since.

A relevant passage from the latest Vatican Council's document Light of the Nations goes as follows:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
These recent months have thus given opportunity for many dogmatic assertions based on a "dogmatic constitution" from a non-dogmatic Ecumenical Council about obedience and submission to a catechism modification. The circular logical absurdity of these arguments is lost on most, and even many of those who perceive it see no way to escape its spin. There is a proper submission to authority, papal authority especially, which is in concert with true obedience, but it does not involve acting as if some doctrine is defined when one knows full well that it is not.

The form of religion assent and submission posited by the Fathers of Vatican II is precisely the one so often parodied by the anti-papists of yesteryear. The laity may not morally accept undefined doctrine as if it is defined. It is as rationally impossible as Baron Munchausen lifting himself out of the swamp by pulling upwards on his own hair. One cannot logically give submission of the mind and will to the minds and wills of the bishops when they flagrantly ignore the doctrines handed down by tradition, especially in such a clearly non-dogmatic document as a catechism. Catholic tradition does not tell us to unthinkingly pray, pay, and obey, but rather to discern the spirits always (1 John 4). It does not forget that historically every heresiarch has been a bishop or priest.

It is not anti-authoritarian to reject bullying. Christ warned the laity against practicing quiet submission at all costs to those who throw their weight around:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them. (Matt. 7)
The very form of the warning implies the ability to discern between truth and falsehood without depending on every word the magisters speak, the so-called "magisterium of the moment." The episcopacy of today does not exist in a prophylactic vacuum, set aside from the rich and often messy history of the Church, as if their mere will is enough to demand submission and assent in all things.
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. (Gal. 1)
There are two sins opposed to obedience, as the old moral manuals tell us. The one that most people know and fret about is disobedience, the sin of defect by which one expresses contempt for the command or for the person commanding. The other is servility, the sin of excess by which one is prepared to obey indiscriminately even in unlawful matters.

Everyone despises the sycophant, the yes-man who clings to his superior at any cost to his fellow man and to his own soul. If the superior is a man of any moral character, he also despises the sycophant; if he is not, he still despises the sycophant, but will happily use this inferior to suit his own ends. The servile sycophant is a quisling, a traitor to his peers who refuses to stand—respectfully but firmly—against clear error and wickedness.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of sobriety. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Tim. 1)
Servile spirituality is a vice, not a virtue. Obedience must be practiced, but also tempered by reality and by a well-formed conscience. No power less than God's is absolute and unquestionable, and even St. Paul found it necessary to oppose the highest authority on earth to his face (Gal. 2). The early Christian apologists spoke truth fearlessly to emperors and executioners.

It is not easy to maintain a spirit of respect to ecclesiastical authorities when they threaten to jump into a pit and pull us with them, but the belligerent attitude of many discontented laymen is not ultimately helpful for anyone: it embitters the discontents further and makes errant leaders more rigid in their mistakes. They need our prayers, if only so God will recall to their minds the law of non-contradiction.

"... but for Uncle Ted?"


  1. It seems pretty obvious to me that, whatever "religious submission of mind and will" means, it is not precisely the same thing as "assent": indeed, at least some of the moral manualists suggest as much (e.g., Fr. Tanquerey, who wrote that assent is usually given to teachings commanding obsequium religiosum but that such assent is prudent, conditional, and derived from reverence for the officeholder doing the teaching). In other words, I'd posit that "religious submission of mind and will" is not so much assent as it is a ready willingness to assent, even if one is unable to because one has judged there to be an evident contradiction with another teaching of equal or higher authority, which thus commands as much (or more) assent. Put even more simply, it would seem that it's possible to receive a teaching with religious submission of mind and will without assenting to it. A good example of such is Pater Edmund Waldstein's earnest and sincere struggle to accept certain parts of Amoris Laetitia, documented here:

    1. If what "Lumen Gentium" said on the matter was obvious, it would not be subject to so much confusion, disagreement, and debate. Like nearly everything in Vatican II, it can be interpreted as one pleases to suit contemporary agendas.