16Oct Traditional teaching on obedience was ‘wrong’ and ‘damaging’

Obedience proved the disempowering of me in my youth. It was touted as a virtue, to obey your parents, obey your teachers, obey the policeman and the priest, obey the rules, obey. Being a biddable boy, I very easily acceded to this demand. It was not a problem for me. You were greatly admired and greatly praised for your willing obedience to all bona fide superiors in your life, to all your elders.

But this call to obey, in the culture of the Catholic Church, came wrapped up in a complex package with other hand-me-down wisdoms. And if you entered religious life, as I did, at the age of eleven, obedience became a locked room and I did not possess the key that would let me out. And just to make sure that you did not try to do so, you were fed a spirituality that informed you to take no notice of your feelings. If you were unhappy or sad, that is what is known as the cross, just like the one that Jesus carried. Use your mind and your intellect to learn the way of the faith. Use your will to follow as you are directed, but do not give any value or mileage to your feelings. They just come and go. This was not the warmth of following the Lord. This was stoicism.

This teaching was and is totally wrong and extremely damaging. For our feelings are the indicator to us of the good or harmful issues that make up our life. We get feelings about people, feelings about situations, feelings that murmur to us from our depths, telling us that this is good, or this is not very clever. My feelings tried to tell me how unhappy I was, trying to faithfully pursue the road to priesthood, but I discounted those feelings, burdensome though they were, and ploughed on. A friend of mine likened me to a Lancaster Bomber, taking all kinds of flak, but determined to fulfill the mission set out for that flight.

Living within the confines of the religious enclosed world of Seminary, there were no other voices getting through to tell me that life could and should be different. Between the culture of religious obedience and the disavowal of all my natural feelings, I was wrecked as a lively emotional being. When I was ordained, I couldn’t care less about anything.

Today, I have a son of twenty years. As he got ready to go to University this morning, I told him always to listen to his body, to his mind and to his feelings. Our first port of call in order to know and understand life lies within ourselves, in our soul and spirit. God has made us that way. Our first obedience is to that inner voice, to our own self. To thy own self be true…

I offer these thoughts, not as a self-promotion, but as a possible parable for what happens in the church, and, indeed, in any institution. The priests I knew in those days did their job obediently as teachers and parish priests or missioners, but how often did they examine or question the things they did? We often do the things we are trained to do – obediently – and no more. Did no one ever think to find out how a young student was faring?
The real ‘changers’ in life are the people who ask the real questions. Is the church adapting to the needs of people today? Do I understand what people are like today? How they feel? What they seek? Do I go out to people and risk my own self with them? Or do I simply do the tasks I was trained for and leave it at that?

I work as a mediator for separating people, helping them to have the conversations they need in order to make peaceable arrangements for their children. Over the past ten years the nature of the clientele has changed. New situations and new problems are emerging, such as the anger of alienated young men. Our Service needs to study these things and develop new ways of addressing these urgent issues, and we are doing this. It won’t do just to keep on doing the stuff I was trained to do. I must develop, or else I become irrelevant.

Many years ago, Brian Redhead, the popular presenter of Radio Four’s Today programme, asked the question, “What is the Fire Brigade for? Is it to put out fires? No. Its purpose is to save lives. Putting out the fires is just one of the methods it uses.”

So with the church and all of us, its members. We often forget our real purpose – to save human lives – and instead settle for one of the methods, saying our prayers, or harking back to the old methods, frightened to look at the new.

As a student of Moral Theology, I was delighted the day I found out that the word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin ‘ob –audire’, which means to listen intently. It really is about listening to what the heart of another is saying, listening out for the voice of God, speaking heart to heart. This understanding gives to obedience a majesty and a dignity that I had never come across before. Until then obedience conjured up the face of angry Sergeant Majors, of stern teachers and exasperated parents, of priests giving out from the pulpit, and people not having room to turn round.

Now here was a meaning and a vista to savour. To obey means to listen lovingly to what comes to us from the loving heart of God, and to put that in to practice. No robots here. Just sons and daughters of God.


Brian Fahy, an English man of Irish parentage, was a religious and priest who later got married. His wife has recently died.

18 Responses

  1. Kevin

    Thank you Brian. It’s one of those seeming paradoxes in life some times. I read that definition of obedience not so long ago myself – listening to the heart, heart to heart. Such a God send it was, is.

    I remember thinking, ‘I knew it.’ Heart instinct. I nearly roared, ‘Praise Jesus Halluliah !’ But feared being thought ‘born again’ and an ‘Evangelical’. Lol I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all.

    Feelings are what make us human.

    God bless you in your work.

  2. Ed

    Bravo, Brian!

  3. Brendan Peters

    Anyone who knows Brian will know him as a wonderfully gifted human being. The wisdom in these thoughts is sorely needed in a wounded Church at this time. Thanks, Brian.

  4. Danielle Hicks-Gallagher

    Brian, thank you for a beautiful and enlightening article, in particular for the last three paragraphs.

  5. Kevin

    If Brian reads here, I meant to offer condolences too in the recent loss of your wife. Not easy for you. You have a wonderful son and give him great advice. You do sound like an amazing heart and soul, having found the ‘better way’, though travelling a difficult, circuitous and painful road. I wonder if it’s to be found any other way.

    Someone sent me a piece this morning – Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

    He knew the ‘better way’ too it seems to me. That sonnet is about way more than romance. You are a bomber, driven to reach your target and you did, have, thank God – and can maybe help those youngsters learn there is a ‘better way’ too.

    In case anyone wondering about this ‘better way’. It’s something Paul speaks about in his letters – the way of charity, of love.

    All the other and greatest gifts altogether are meaningless, nothing, without that ‘better way’ we must walk to share those same gifts.

    God bless.

  6. Ger Gleeson.

    Today, I am sure there are good men who renounced their positions as Anglican Ministers, and converted to the ONE TRUE AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH. In a short period of time, with their wives and families, they will be celebrating their first Mass. Truly wonderful. Brian Fahy and thousands of others, are ordained Priests, but because they fell in love, they are no longer allowed to continue in active ministry. Another Rome rule which is WRONG, WRONG WRONG.
    God forgive them for they know not what they do.

  7. john

    Sadly, far too many good men have left the active ministry because they fell in love and as been pointed out, Rome has set up an Ordinate for Anglican priests who wish to join the ranks of Rome! These men are then ( re-ordained) and continue on as before but with their wives and children alongside them for support. On another point, one should look at the Church of Ireland which has been lucky to have many many former RC priests join its ranks and they have enriched it with their presence. Rome’s loss is Anglicanism’s gain.

  8. Kevin

    Dishonest, double standard and hypocritical. Something else the younger people see through straight away and it keeps them away. For the rest of us, can takes years to realize you have to take so much of what they say with a very large dose of salt. As a younger person said to me the other day, “they are so full of crap.” Out of the mouths of babes. I won’t repeat what was said about the frocks and bling.

    These good men set out to love and serve God. When God begins a work nothing and no one will prevent its realization. Can’t remember who said that but it’s true. They are no less priests for being who they now are. That they have suffered as they do for being true to their humanity might make them even truer in that priesthood.

  9. Br. Adam Conroy

    As a 24 year old who has just entered religious life I find it discouraging to find the fundamental rule of obedience attacked by those who claim to be for the renewal of the Church.

    If you enter a religious order, do you not know that obedience is required of you. It is a free choice you make with your mind and you generally don’t make these kinds of decisions unless you wish to ultimately live according to the decisions of your superiors.

  10. Mary Burke

    Br Conroy, good wishes to you in religious life! No doubt you won’t be much longer there before you are presented with a differentiation between a military notion of obedience, where one indeed lives and/or dies (Gallipoli, the Dardanelles/Hellespont) according to the decisions of your superiors and a theological one – to listen (with the ears of the heart) to the voice of someone. The only thing which these two have in common is the word ‘obedience.’ Otherwise they are poles apart, not to be confused.

  11. Kevin

    I believed that once too – and such blind obedience took me on a right road to hell.

    I don’t see the ‘fundamental rule of obedience being attacked’ rather defined and understood.

    I wish I’d known then what I know now and superior/s, in all good and Godly conscience, would have to told to go to hell.

    Discernment, your own, should not be overlooked. All the very best with your religious life.

  12. Ger Gleeson

    Br Adam Conroy is blessed to be called to the religous life. It must be very comforting for him to know that within the walls of the Monastery he will be guaranteed his daily Mass and the sacraments for the rest of his life. The laity are not so fortunate, as because of the lack of priests, they may not receive the sacraments in the future. Manmade rules within the church have been made, and changed as the need arises — the rule of celibate Priests only must also change.

  13. Chris McDonnell

    Brian was generous in responding with a comment to my October 11th posting on the Heythrop meeting, and he made me think. In his discussion of Humanae Vitae he was, and there is no other word for it, gentle in his argument regarding the principle behind the text. Although I found and still find that encyclical to be something of a watershed it was good to read on the blog a point of view with which I differed but found eloquently and carefully expressed. Too often in recent months the tone on many blogs relating to current difficulties in the Church has been vitriolic and that only gets us into a deeper mess. Let’s continue to explore the present reality that faces us with honest comment, charitably put.

  14. Br. Jude

    Brother Adam – Google tells me you are a Dominican-novice. You aspire to follow the Gospel way in the steps of holy men and women, as varied as Albert the Great,Thomas Aquinas, Martin de Porres, Bartolome de las Casas, Meister Eckhardt, Johannes Tauler, Catherine of Siena and, your Dominican contemporaries, Timothy Radcliffe and Albert Nolan. As you read these men and woman, you may discover a more dynamic – and less passive – understanding of obedience/listening. The Spirit has that annoying knack of “blowing where he willsl”. Such divine freedom can be troublesome to the “fundamental rule of obedience ” which you enunciate. Fear not! You will see, in time, how your Dominican predecessors and contemporary brothers lived out that tension. Have courage and openness. Blessings on your generousity.

  15. Br. Adam Conroy

    Thanks for the good wishes on my future life as a Dominican.


    In response to Br. Jude. I haven’t read the lives or the works of all of those great men and women yet. However, I have read some of Timothy Radcliffe’s work and he is a Dominican I admire very much.
    I believe there is a balance between blind stupid obedience and actually using the common sense given to one by God to work with one’s superiors and talk to them when issues arise.

    I think it’s a matter of looking at obedience and saying “Do I want to Freely take on the Rules of this Order”; bearing in mind that the objective is to seek God.

  16. Kevin

    The objective is to ‘seek God’ – indeed.

    As it is for all inside and/or outside monasteries and convents. Just as many and more good and holy people ‘in the world’ too.

    Seeking with all you are, and that does mean, as commanded – using your whole mind, common sense as you rightly suggested.

    And you have two fists if necessary too. Lol. I am kidding. Well kinda 😉 More metaphorical. A homely Abbot once said to me, “You really shoot from the hip with both barrels don’t you. No holding back.” On important issues it’s true, and a weak or ill informed superior won’t stop me. We respected each other greatly though.

    If a religious house is not a home then it becomes a home full of neurotics in need of therapy.

    Forget where I read that years ago but always made me laugh. I believe it applies to the Church as a whole too – should be family and it’s not that yet.

    Sincerely, kidding aside, all the very best to you on your path. Do not neglect the prayer. At your peril 🙂

  17. Br. Adam Conroy

    Thank you for that advice. I find I am very much at home here in the Dominican novitiate. The prayer life is rich and we manage to have adoration of the blessed sacrament and benediction every day. This, along with Night Office, is one of my favourite times in the day.

    It allows a pause for reflection and time to adore the Lord and bring personal prayers to him.

    I find all the community here to be open and willing to discuss problems and issues taking into account that I’m an adult and also on the road to being a fully professed religious (And hopefully a priest eventually). And I also believe I need to take into account my responsibility as a novice who has still to be fully integrated into the Order.
    Thanks again for the good wishes. 🙂
    God Bless

  18. Katherine

    Thank you so much for this piece. I thought I was alone in the torment and guilt I experienced over so many years between listening to my heart’s wisdom and blindly subjecting myself to words spoken by others. You are right,it is so destructive and you never get back the lost years. The Catholic Church needs to face up to the psychological damage it is creating in innocent, God fearing people, through the pulpit. I believe there is a lot of mental illness created just by attending mass and listening to homilies. No wonder the Churches are empty. To be honest unless this is sorted out the young best keep away. It is possibly their guardian angels keeping them safe!! how sad!