Raimondo Spiazzi

Obedience: we are treating the subject fearlessly even though today there is a bad press for whoever declares himself in favour of obedience and of respect for the values and virtues always considered basic to civil and spiritual life. Being free from any responsibility (which is always a cross) and from every concern for a position of power (which is always a temptation) may perhaps guarantee to a person the hope of not being misinterpreted if he attempts to express in current terms considerations which might seem—but really only seem—so out of date.

If the modern age is characterized by the substitution of the principle of reason for the principle of authority, we know that in more recent years a kind of charismatic impulse has been on the increase; in every area of life, profane and religious, it takes the place of reason itself as the motive of action and is imposed in a much more decisive manner. Democracy is the daughter of reason and to it owes its definitive validity, even if it was conceived among the presumptions of the Enlightenment.

The recent totalitarian regimes were linked to a will for power which in its wear and tear fashioned various ideologies as substitutes for the objective principles of the natural law, contested as it was by philosophical relativism and juridical positivism. The contestation is the expression of primordial impulses, at times defined in profane and lay circles, as charisms. In the name of these there are some today who tend to break all barriers. Others, more reasonable, attempt to reassess the relation between liberty and authority, between the communitarian and the directional element (no longer are the terms subjects and superiors used, nor indeed authority or hierarchy) according to criteria considered responsive to the asserted maturity of man, which true or presumed as it may be, constitutes a psychological component which in the organization of social relations cannot be disregarded. Certainly, any form not only of authoritarianism but also of paternalism is now regarded as insupportable, insufferable, and inconceivable especially if vested in ostentatious sufficiency, or worse still, founded on an appeal to an unconditional representation of a transcendent power which asserts its claims not in the ways of reason, but in the name of a personal investiture, secular or sacral, to which only an attachment of blind fideism could respond. This no one is disposed to accept today so that even the traditional language on the origin and the function of the divine vicegerence of authority is refuted or is called in question.

Perhaps the way to meet the problem is to turn truly to the ways of reason. Reason should not give rise to fear: it is a reflection of the eternal Logos. If it is authentic reason, it is a participation of man in the truth of God.

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The ways of reason. We will interpret: the ways of conscience. Here is another word which stirs fear. In reality, conscience is the root of liberty, the highest good, recognized today as the fundamental right of man and of the citizen. The problem is to discern not only whether the conscience is right but also whether it is true, that is, whether it judges and works in truth; and whether charism is enough to give truth to the conscience, and thus to liberty and to action.

When charism comes from the divine Spirit as in the just man of whom Saint Paul speaks, then it itself is truth, since for the just there is no law (I Tim. 1, 9), because, as Saint Thomas explains, the same interior perfection, the same impulse of the Holy Spirit, inclines him to carry out by a connatural feeling without any external rule, the works of the law (I-II. q. 96, a. 5; cfr. Rom. 2, 14-15). The development of a truly democratic society should tend also toward this liberty in justice.

But this is not the case with contestation, nor more generally with disobedience. Moreover, in the Christian community, who is certain about having the divine Spirit with himself? The Saints, who are full of the Spirit, are never disobedient, do not break from the ranks, do not subvert the most sacred principles. These if any one ever is, are the pioneers and prophets of progress without professing to be charismatic, without presuming that they have a divine investiture opposed to that—which hypothetically can be functioning badly in practice—of constituted authority. They bring about the true revolutions in ways of humility, the supreme expression of rationality.

After all, for the individual conscience, obedience is like an addition of light, a teacher as Saint Thomas says (II-II, q. 186, a. 5), which enables it to overcome limitations, uncertainties, internal contradictions which influence the deliberation of human acts and very often result in disorder and incoherence, which means the failure, not merely moral, of life. For social groups, authority represents the unifying principle which organizes interpersonal and social relations in reference to the common good. It is utopian to think of being able to get along without it. Without the directive principle of authority society would have neither political nor religious consistency, because it would be deprived of its "form".

It is certain nevertheless that this principle is less valued and applied today in the new psychological and sociological conditions. Personalism, democracy are the components of a situation in which the freedom-authority relationship presents, without doubt, certain problems of measure, proportion and definition. But it can also find certain new modes of functioning, perhaps better than those which prevailed in the past, at least in areas where authoritarianism restricted the subjects and isolated the principles, or where paternalism went hand in hand with a proportionate infantilism.

For both individual and social life it is a matter of solving the problem of maturity in the light of prudence, the key-virtue of action. It is formed in the spirit of and exercised in practical conduct with the help of obedience. Here also Saint Thomas offers the elements essential for a methodology and pedagogy of prudence, which still prove, and today more than ever, their validity. (cfr. II-II. q. 47, a. 8).

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According to the Thomistic analysis prudence in its psychological dynamism evolves through a triple moment or operation which is then reflected in the life of social groups as a method of acting and of governing men, who arc not automatons nor slaves, but persons endowed with reason and liberty and recognized and respected as such.

The moment of counsel is the first: full investigation of the means for attaining the end, full consultation for assisting in this investigation, and facilitating its discovery. In the life of a group it is the moment for dialogue among all and with all, the moment for the free expression of thought and opinion on the part of all. It is the procedure in the ordinary range of conferences and collaboration in the development of human relations—political, intellectual, religious. etc—or in the extraordinary periods of evolution and transformation of institutions affecting the interests of the whole community (as has happened in these years of aggiornamento and renewal of religious institutes). The most profound essence of democracy, considered as a spirit rather than a technique of government, is incarnated in this moment of prudence applied to social life.

In the second moment, of judgement, there is realized rather the aristocratic element in the application of the competence derived from wisdom, knowledge, experience, etc. From the results of the investigation, the opinions expressed, the propositions presented, a choice is made with the intention of adopting the best means for the purpose and the surest way to the personal and common good.

This choice will be made honestly according to objective criteria and when the situation calls for it with scientific rigour (and this is the function of moral theology as the study and consultation of ways of acting and their value along with the various disciplines concerned with the socio-economic and political life of the people). In the spiritual life it is the moment of confrontation between means and end in the light of the testimony and criteria of universal reason which in the Christian is illumined and corroborated by faith. In social life it is the moment for the various organs, or "councils" or commissions, which are called on constitutionally to pronounce on the validity of a law or on a decision to be taken, or also of any or all others, individuals, groups, and associations who freely express their opinions on debated questions according to their competence.

And therefore it is the moment of the technician, and of the expert. Today many hope that in political society this competence of the elite will be incarnated in a House as a representative group along with that which expresses the political will of the majority of the population. In the Church today also there exist and there are being perfected in their structure and in their function, central and peripheral organs which serve in this work of selection, with pronouncements arrived at from profound study of questions, from comparison with tradition, from examination of sociological and socio-religious data, from experience and practice. In the framework of a healthy democratic conception and of an order founded on the principle of the common good as the justifying reason for society and authority, the moment of judgment is that in which the few act concretely in the service of the many.

The final moment is that of decision (imperium), in which the will renders effective and workable the dictate of reason. This is the case whether it is personal will in the ambit of the individual life or the collective will, represented by the political power in the sphere of social life, where there is transmitted in legislative action (lex imperium) that which is directive and executive endowed with a power binding on the will of those who live and work together for the common good. At various times in the life of an association, or according to various types of government, this decision would be binding in the case of a single person, a group, an organism, or directly on a whole community (in the case of an election, especially in the form of direct democracy). In any case there will have been incarnated the principle of authority harmonized with the principle of liberty, in an economy of balances, compensations, and correctives wisely proportioned according to the cultural maturity and the social development of the people.

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An ancient teaching this, which does not seem to be at all out of date. Moreover the proof of its validity is seen today in the recurring crises in governments which accentuate one or the other of the moments described, depending upon the ideological postulates and the abstract schema under which the functions of the state are conceived or according to the interests of the parties prevailing in the exercise of power. When it is a crisis of political prudence, generally the oscillation is between the two extremes of anarchy and despotism.

On the plane of ecclesial and religious life authority and obedience can be harmonized in a prudential synthesis. This finds many forms of realization according to the various levels of psycho-sociological-spiritual development which characterize the historical context within which the Church also is inserted and lives. There are, for example, the new experiences of work and even of collegial government being institutionalized on all levels of ecclesial society. Witness the broad range of consultations carried on in these years. Witness the vast new horizons open for the action of all members of the Church in the apostolate. But in every case it must be remembered, especially in the ecclesial and religious sphere, that however various, variable, evolutive in time and in geocultural space, the relation between authority and liberty could never be as some would claim without binding power on the one hand, without obedience on the other. Nor could there ever be lacking in truth terms of the relationship, understood and experienced in the Christian dimension, the experience of the Cross.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 January 1969, page 11

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