Vows of Obedience

Book cover of Into the Fire by Dakota Meyer
One brave man who didn't obey his superiors

Last week, outgoing pope Joseph Ratzinger assured members of the Roman Catholic Church that he would be taking a “vow of obedience” to whomever is elected his successor by the all-male college of cardinals. I suppose his announcement was needed to ease any fears he might become a competing force to the soon-to-be papal incumbent.

The first time I heard of “vows of obedience” in the Church was from a former pastor of mine. During a conversation I was having with him about something I was urging him to do – the obviously right thing to do, he blurted out to me that he took a vow of obedience to the bishop. He also added that if his bishop, Thomas Doran of the Rockford Diocese, ever left his post, he would have to take a vow of obedience to whomever replaced him.

This was all new to me, a parochial-schooled, practicing Catholic for over forty years.

What the pastor was telling me was, “I can’t do what’s right because the bishop to whom I have taken a vow of obedience has instructed me not to”.

I had a similar conversation with the vicar for clergy of the same diocese. Basically, I was trying to figure out why these Catholic priests weren’t taking the obvious course of action that would have been consistent with biblical teachings, public pronouncements of the Church, and any basic sense of morality, decency, and compassion.

Either one of two excuses kept coming back to me, after repeated attempts to get me to go away didn’t work.

The vicar didn’t use the vow of obedience phrase, instead he told me multiple times, “There are laws”.

It wasn’t civil law he was talking about. Most civil laws in the United States are based on a common foundation of morality, i.e. don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, etc.

Neither was the vicar talking about divine law which would be the broad, basic, and timeless human values C.L. Lewis often wrote about.

No, the laws this vicar was talking about, the one that kept him and other priests from doing what every reasonable person would agree to be the right thing to do, were the canon codes, Church law.

This was one of my eye-opening moments in my battle with the Church that led to my self-ex-communication from the institution and organized religion.

In what kind of religion – Christian religion – does man-made canon law trump God’s divine law?

Answer? In the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholic sources will claim that divine law trumps all and that vows of obedience are limiting and conditional. However, my own experiences prove otherwise. Indeed, the entire scope of the Catholic clergy abuse scandal and cover-up proves otherwise.

Time after time in the Church, instance after instance, child abuse case after child abuse case, priests, nuns, brothers, friars, monks, and lay employees failed to “do the right thing” because the message from their superiors – explicit or implied – was not to.

After witnessing a court hearing involving the Archdiocese of Chicago and a child abuse survivor of “Father” Daniel McCormack, I approached one of the Archdiocesan attorneys who was essentially arguing to the court for the right to hide files and keep secrets from the court and the public in matters of criminal law. I took the opportunity to remind this gentleman that he is a man and an adult and, as such, he has a moral duty to do what is right, not necessarily what his superiors tell him to do.

Of course, anyone who has had a job and has had to rely on income from that job to pay the bills understands the importance of doing one’s duty according to the job description or employment contract. If your boss tells you to do something, you don’t argue unless you want to risk losing your job or risking a future promotion or raise. However, if what your boss tells you to do is morally objectionable to you, you must make a choice. Do I do what I find to be immoral and keep my job, my pay, and my chance at moving up in the company or do I “do the right thing”?

In the movie A Few Good Men, two Marines are charged with murdering a colleague as he slept. As the defense attorney of the two indicted Marines, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is able to prove that there was a secret order given by Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and that his clients were merely following an order by their superior when they caught their peer off-guard and attacked him. They had no choice, was Kaffee’s argument, but to follow orders.

At the end of the movie, the jury finds the two Marines not-guilty of murder but guilty on the charge of behavior unbecoming of an officer. When the private voices confusion at the verdict,  his more sophisticated and wiser co-defendant, a Lance Cpl., explains to him, they should have known better than to follow that order and it was wrong of them to do so.

Book cover of Into the Fire by Dakota Meyer
One brave man who didn’t obey his superiors.

It works both ways. In September 2001, when President Barack Obama presented Marine Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor, he described how Meyer and a fellow-Marine, Juan Rodriguez-Chavez had asked for – and had been denied by their superiors – permission to enter a killing zone to rescue American soldiers in grave danger.

“They were defying orders,” Obama read from his prepared statement, “but they were doing what they thought was right.”

To those heroes, what their hearts were telling them trumped what the men they were supposed to obey were telling them, at the risk of their own lives as well as their careers. That is true courage. That is true character.

According to news reports, former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Sean Doherty also defied “stand down” orders from their superiors on September 11, 2012. They and others were overcome with a sense of duty and moral courage to launch an effort to rescue U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and others who were surrounded, out-numbered, and basically defenseless in their consulate quarters nearby. Woods and Doherty paid with their lives but they saved many others in the process.

For adult men and women to take and adhere to unconditional vows of obedience to another human being is not only wrong, it is evil.

Any man who demands others take a vow of obedience to him is putting himself in the role of an all-knowing, perfect, god-like being and removes from those promising to obey him their inalienable right of conscience, free-thought, and reasonable action.

Any man or women who vows obedience to another human being over an above their own moral conscience is complicit in that evil because it is indeed a form of human worship.