“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”
For years in my pride I rejected obedience as a virtue I would encourage in my preaching. Perhaps it was my being a child of the 1960’s, but obedience seemed like a virtue for little children. “Do what your mommy tells you.” It seemed to me that many people transfer onto their religious experience the dynamic of their relationship with their parents, especially if the teenage years were fraught with tension between the parent who “knew better” and the rebellious teen.
As I became more familiar with the inner workings of people’s lives, I saw that some people seem to spend their lives transferring their adolescent battle with a parent into fighting against Mother Church or God our Father, resisting any hint of being obedient, even to one’s own detriment. When one is stuck in this kind of rebellion, one never grows up religiously. Here’s how it plays out:
All over the country there has been for years a hefty marriage preparation process for couples preparing to be married in the Catholic Church. One of the elements of the preparation is learning the Catholic Church’s wisdom on sexuality, marriage, children, natural family planning, and so on.
Over the years many priests, deacons and marriage prep couples have soft pedaled the natural family planning piece. There is profound beauty in the Church’s wisdom on the meaning of sexuality and how important it is for husbands and wives to not be selfish in giving of themselves to each other. Among other items, the wisdom is that sterilization (either tubal ligations or vasectomies) are contrary to wisdom built on the Gospel and on the natural law.
So occasionally one will even hear a young practicing-Catholic couple who have had only one or two children choose one of these forms of sterilization. A good practicing Catholic friend or relative of the couple, who has been brought in on this decision, may advise that it’s against the teachings of the Church. Frequently enough, a common response, coming right out of the marriage prep they had on conscience, flips immediately to the priority of conscience.
The impact of this poor training in conscience is that it amounts to this: if you don’t like a teaching of the Church, don’t give it much thought, dismiss it, because in your conscience it doesn’t apply to you.
Part of good training on conscience is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the obedience of faith.” It’s defined this way: “To obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.”
It is true indeed that God sometimes asks us to do the impossible, like suffer through multiple sclerosis, accept the death of a spouse or a child, live through a war, raise a mentally ill child, or something unique to your description of something impossible.
How does this play with the primacy of conscience?
When faced with what looks like an impossible call from the Lord, our first inclination should not be that the teachings of the Church on the matter do not apply to me. A good conscience means that I must wrestle between my values and my reality. A good conscience will have as a first presumption that with You, Lord, I can do all things if you but strengthen me. A good conscience will have this as its first priority: “I will obey you Lord. Hear my plea, Do not let me do anything against you will.” A good conscience does not flip immediately to what I want.
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” If the Son of God had to learn to be obedient to the Father’s will, then learning obedience takes some doing. After all He did say, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.”
If the Son of God were not obedient, He would have run away from the cross. He would not have allowed Himself to be “lifted up so as the draw everyone to Himself.”
So, the obedience of faith is what we are all called to. This is no making up one’s own religion to maintain our lives the way they are. Our religion, the Catholic religion, is not risk adverse. In fact, it is very risky to be Catholic and to embrace the obedience of faith.
One last point: one cannot come to the obedience of faith unless we allow God to place His law within us, and write it upon our hearts. If we do not enter the fray between our conscience and this obedience of faith, then we do not have an adult understanding of God’s relationship with us. We are still, religiously speaking, a teenager looking for the easy answer.