Authority and Obedience from an Ecclesial Perspective

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

With special reference to the instruction: The service of authority and obedience[1]

[This material was presented at the New Visitor's Meeting that was held in Rome, January 2014]

by: Rev. Nicola Albanesi, CM


When we speak about authority in our European civilization which is rooted in the Greco-Roman culture, some unconscious mechanisms are triggered which give the word a meaning of authoritarian, thus associating it with authoritarianism … in other words, giving it a pejorative meaning. This word brings with it many prejudices, aversions, misunderstandings, fears, and mistrusts. This is because we are aware of a long series of historical failures that have resulted from the misuse/abuse of authority.

Thus when we relate authority and obedience with one another, there arises a spontaneous connection with power. Authority resides in the person who exercises it and power is exercised through a certain amount of violence and imposition. Authority imposes the will of the one exercising such authority on those who are called to respond through obedience. Therefore, the word authority implicitly implies power. Given the fact that we interpret reality through the language that we speak, the discourse with regard to authority immediately evokes the exclusion of freedom. Therefore, every emancipation movement has not only challenged authority but has also challenged the very idea of authority[2].

In order to speak in a positive sense about authority let us look at those languages that have been influenced by Latin and note that there is constant recourse to the word authority-authoritarian. People are seen as being competent in the area of authority when they are convincing, when they know how to satisfy, when they are seen as credible.

I recall some of Romano Guardini’s ideas that were expressed in his work, Ethics, with regard to the relation between authority and authoritarian. The binding force of authority is not identical to the validity of simple moral norms which are imposed by themselves and which speak to people in a direct manner and appeal to their conscience. Rather the binding force of authority, the binding force of that which is proposed by authority is rooted in the person who proposes such and such a thing. Only in virtue of the person’s competence and legitimacy does such authority acquire a meaningful character that one’s conscience can accept. Guardini concludes: Here, then, authority is an intrinsic union of the moral significance with the concrete reality that such authority calls us to respect[3].

In its ecclesial dimension authority is indissolubly realted to service. The greatest authority in the Church is possessed by one who serves. Such is the case with regard to the title that Pope Gregory the Great applied to himself when referring to his pontifical dignity … the Servant of servants. Competent authority is exercised by those who place themselves in a position of service to others: the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). Those words confer another meaning on the word authority and give a very distinct tone to our conversation about authority.

The words are the same but the Christian language provides us with a new way to express the relation with authority, that is, authority is expressed in terms of service rather than domination. You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave (Matthew 20:25-27).

The evangelical manner of exercising authority

The exercise of authority in the Church derives its norm from Jesus. Even at the time of Jesus’ first public appearance, he revealed his unique authority: the people were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes (Mark 1:22). In this case the authority remains because of the power that arises from the word that is spoken with such competence. Immediately after an exorcism the people exclaim: What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him (Mark 1:27). In this context the authority of Jesus is combined with the power of his action. The authoritative word of Jesus enlightens, heals, commands and is accomplished in what he says. In the gospels this awareness grows until it is finally formulated in the following manner: all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matthew 28:18). In this sense all authority in the Church is a participation in the liberating and enlightening power of Jesus. Jesus himself has indicated the manner in which authority should be exercised in the Church … not in an authoritarian manner but in the form of service.

Look at the last supper discourse in the gospel of Luke: Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves (Luke 22:26-27). John expresses the same idea in his gospel: You call me “teacher” and “master”, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do (John 13:13-15).

We see then that Jesus has a very precise concept of authority as service and he expressed this service by washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus does not want to impose this specific action on us (washing feet), but he does want us to follow his example (service).

The primitive Church abided by this lesson. The most significant passage in this regard is found in the first letter of Saint Peter: So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, (overseeing) not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1Peter 5:1-4).

In other words, everything that concerns authority is assigned exclusively to the Chief Shepherd (those who are responsible to him are collaborators). The virtues that are pointed out are those of tending the flock (not overseeing it by constraint but willingly) … tending the flock in a disinterested manner, with gratitude and magnanimity (not for shameful profit but eagerly) … tending the flock through humble service (not lording it over others but being an example to the flock).

We have a starting point for what, from the Regla pastoral of Saint Gregory the Great until the documents of the Second Vatican Council, would become the great treatises with regard to the exercise of authority in the Church[4].

The Vatican Instruction: Faciem tuan, Domine, requiram

This document deals with the theme of religious obedience and places it within the context of the search for God and the search for God’s will, a task that is proper to all believers. Therefore Christian and religious obedience is not presented as the simple fulfillment of ecclesiastical laws an norms but is viewed from the perspective of a search for God which in turn involves listening to God’s word and becoming aware of God loving plan (the fundamental and exulted experience of Christ which led him to become obedient, even to death on the cross)[5].

Therefore in this context, authority in religious life is united with assistance in searching for and fulfilling the will of God, which is always liberating. Those exercising authority must submit themselves to obedience: they are called to live as obedient servants before proposing or imposing their authority on others.[6]

Among the themes that are dealt with in this section we find reference to that which is called difficult obedience. Here we refer to those situations of obedience in which the religious is being asked to consent to some matter in which the subject sees things which are better and more useful for his soul than those which the prelate [superior] orders him to do. In those cases the Instruction highlights the fact that obedience in religious life will, at times, involve difficulty and situations of suffering in which it will be necessary to refer to and to reflect upon the par excellence obedience of Jesus Christ.[7]

In this same line of thought, the Instruction presents the unique and irreplaceable value that is found in Jesus’ obedience, namely, that to obey the Father means that we love the Father. Consecrated men, called to follow Christ, share in Christ’s life and find in the Christ the strength to fulfill the will of God and respond with the obedience to that which is requested. For every believer, to obey the Father means that they recognize themselves as sons in the Son. Obedience is a distinctive sign of filiation and is an expression of experiencing ourselves as beloved children of God. If it is true that there is no obedience without love, then it is equally true that there is no love without obedience. Aside from this theological perspective, there is no obedience or love.[8]

In order to better understand the relationship between obedience and love, a reality that is highlighted in the Instruction, I believe a text from Saint Thomas Aquinas is especially enlightening because of the way in which it addresses the question and then proposes a solution. The two words, obedience/love, which imply a natural tension, are here understood from the perspective of the primacy of love.

The theological reflection of Saint Thomas

In the third part of his Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas asks in question 47 (a section entitled, the efficient cause of Christ’s passion), can it be said that Christ died in order to obey the Father? We have here the case of a difficult obedience and Saint Thomas develops this question in six articles (III, q.47, aa. 1-6).

It is certain that the Father asked the Son to die. Therefore it appears that Christ died in order to obey the Father. Nevertheless, in this case it is also true that it was cruel and unjust to hand over an innocent person to endure such a passion and death (ivi, a 3,1). Nevertheless, in Scripture it appears that Jesus willingly handed himself over to death (ivi, a 3,2). Furthermore we read that Jesus offered up his life out of love. Therefore, the death of Christ is attributed to charity rather than obedience.

So then, how do we formulate the question? On the one hand, he did not spare his own Son but handed him over for all of us (Romans 8:32) (ivi, a 3,3); but on the other hand, Christ handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering (Ephesians 5:2) (ivi, a 3,3). Saint Thomas responds, as always, in a broad and articulate manner. We pause here to reflect on one point which Saint Thomas insists upon, namely, the Father, when he asked the Son to offer up his life for us, he inspired in him the will to suffer for us and instilled him with the charity to do so (ivi. 3,3).

It seems to me that this is the most authentic and truest form of obedience, one that is in accord with the Trinitarian mystery: when the one who commands provides people with inspiring motives to obey and infuses people with love in order to fulfill the will of God, then new motivations arise and people are provided with a stimulus and an example. This is the obedience that is proper to people who are free and to people who are able to be inspired by love. Then in imitation of the Son of God, these people act through love and not through obedience. Such authority, then, does not diminish one’s awareness but fosters growth and enables one to act in accord with the example set forth by the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

All of this is in accord with the teaching of the New Testament in which the exhortations to obedience are a digression for it is in these teachings that we find the motivation and the stimulus for our activity. A similar exercise of authority appears to correspond perfectly to our historical situation in which people have need for a guide, a need to be helped to move toward unity, but need this assistance in a manner that respects their freedom and autonomy.

The model of authority and obedience that is presented in the instruction

The document proposes guidelines which, if accepted and lived, can create a proper environment in every religious community, an environment that fosters constructive work. The tasks are different for those who govern and guide and for those who ought to allow themselves to be guided … but the purpose for both is the same: to build up the community. Specifically this implies that we look for the means to recreate the conditions for communion, those conditions that allow people to discover the vocation of the community and the vocation of each one of its members. Furthermore, this also implies that we look for the means to create the conditions so that every person can express their abilities, abilities that will enable them to fulfill themselves and also enable them to contribute to the edification of the community and thus enable them to insert themselves into the mission of the community which is broader and more significant than the mission of the individual.[9]

In order for this to happen, the relationship between superior and subject should be one in which there is a willingness to engage in an open exchange, in constructive dialogue and in a sincere search for the will of God. The document highlights the following attitudes and dispositions that ought to inform the actions of both parties: a willingness to recognize in each person the ability to accept the truth … this involves an ability to recognize the ideas of another as better than one’s own ideas; freedom from prejudice and from an excessive attachment to one’s own ideas; the courage to present one’s ideas and positions but also the courage to open oneself to a new perspective and to modify one’s point of view; to share responsibility and to be respectful of the just autonomy of each person; to highlight the interdependence of the members of the community, the possibility of acting co-responsibly and the possibility of offering one’s own unique contribution; to be mindful of the fact that the plurality of perspectives promotes a deeper reflection on issues and therefore a conflict of ideas should never become a conflict of persons.[10]

These attitudes or dispositions require that both parties involved offer the gift of their own ideas (ideas that they are convinced of and yet ideas that they can detach themselves from) since it is in this way that some decision can arise that is the fruit of the input of both parties and thus each person takes ownership of the decision.

The exercise of authority and obedience that is sensitive to the present era

Here I will point out two elements that appear to be especially significant as we reconsider the exercise of authority within our present cultural context and within a renewed vision of the church: the centrality of the human person and the vital community dimension.

The first element, the centrality of the human person, must be considered from the perspective of the problems involved in growth, the persons’ doubts and their inevitable weaknesses. At the same time this element must also consider the complex of attitudes, gifts, abilities and sensitivities that each person possesses. Frequently, in the past, people submitted to pastoral plans that stifled their legitimate aspirations of individuals, thus community interests were more important than individual interests. Given the fact that it is individuals who give life to the mission and it is also individuals who give life to the community, it is necessary to maintain a good balance between the needs of the individual and the demands of the community. To place the human person at the center of our perspective is to promote the following:[11]

  • Respect for the person, for their autonomy and for their intelligence: there are fewer and fewer people who will allow themselves to be guided blindly by authority. In fact, more and more people want to understand the reasons behind the requests that are made by people who exercise authority.
  • Attention to a person’s uniqueness: Many people have the need to be understood and loved before they can be guided by commands and precepts. This is true even when at the same time there is a great need for security, support and inspired strength. Therefore, the Word of God, inspired and inspiring, ought to have much influence in the present exercise of authority in the Church.
  • Attention to the diversity of situations: Simple situations demand simple and immediate structures of authority. Complex situations demand collaboration,, delegation and other common forms that are well-founded and where there is a loyal and fraternal relationship between responsible persons (on a horizontal level) and facile communication (on a vertical level). This makes the structures of participation, which are by nature slow and at times over-bearing, more effective and freer.

The second element that should be considered with regard to the exercise of authority within the community is the vital community dimension that it possesses. From this point of view the praxis of governing must be reconsidered in light of the centrality of the human person and the vision of the Church-communion. Our constitutions presuppose an ecclesiology of communion which the Council has placed before us in order to renew, in a radical manner, ecclesial structures. The Council wanted to promote a new style of governing, thus the value that is known as the collegial exercise of authority (and not simply democratic) … this involves a participation in the decision making process and an acceptance of the responsibilities that result from such decisions and finally, it also involves the systemic application of the principle of subsidiarity. It should be noted that all of this is preserved, defended, guarded and promoted because shared responsibilities are accepted by individuals and carried out by these same individuals with generosity and with dedication … and not with a sense of power.

There is still a long road in front of us. Despite all our efforts we have not attained a satisfactory balance in our style of governing (and perhaps we will never attain this balance in any permanent manner) … a balance between mutually opposed dimensions which are nevertheless bound together: the demands of the individuals and the needs of the community, the primacy of charity and its rightful corrective element, the virtues of mercy and justice, the value of the person that must be safeguarded and the value of the works that are to be maintained, the obedience that is requested, obedience that is referred to as availability and the obedience that is offered and that implies responsibility as it responds to authority.

A brief concluding note

Before concluding, allow me to make a brief personal note. During these long years of exercising the provincial responsibility as Visitor, I have constantly asked myself: have I dialogued with the Missionaries? At times the dialogue has been easy and productive, a source of joy and consolation. At other times (less frequently) the dialogue was difficult, interrupted and partial. I have lived with these frustrations and would categorize these as situations where there was not adequate dialogue with certain confreres. It is clear then that without dialogue there can be no exercise of authority that promotes the life of persons (in order to better their life) just as there can be no obedience that is free and freeing. This, then, is a question of personal and community conversion. Indeed, we, all of us, have the need to be constantly re-evangelized.


  1. Translator’s Note: this document can be found in English at the following site:
  2. For an informative treatment of this problem one can read the essay of Luisa Muraro, Autorità, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino, 2013.
  3. Romano Guardini, Ética, Morcelliana, Bresdcia, 2003, 4873
  4. For this paragraph which establishes a neo-testament foundation for the exercise of authority I refer to the enlightening pages of Cardinal Martini whose work I have utilized here: C.M. Martini, El Obispo, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino, 2011.
  5. The first two parts of the Instruction establish a foundation: Part I: consecration and search for the will of God (#4-15); Part II: authority and obedience in community life (#16-22).
  6. Cf., #20 of the Instruction which is central of the development of this theme in Part II.
  7. The theme of difficult obedience is dealt with in #26 of Part III: in mission (#23-31).
  8. Cf., #25 of the Instruction.
  9. Cf., Part III of the Instruction.
  10. Cf., #25 of the Instruction.
  11. For this sections I have utilized the stimulates references from a small meeting of authors concerned with religious life: Benedetto Calati, Il primato del amore, Edición Camaldoni 2001; Timothy Radcliffe, Testimoni del Vangelo, Ediciones Qigajon Comunità di base, Magnano 2004. Para un estudio más profundo de los términos en referencia a la reforma /renovación de la Iglesia remite en cambio a dos ensayos de Ghislain Lafont: Immaginare la Chiesa cattolica. Linee e approfondimenti per un nuovo dire e un nuevo fare della comunità cristiana, San Pablo, Milano 1998; La Chiesa: Il travaglio delle riforme. Immaginare la Chiesa cattolica, San Pablo, Milano 2012.

Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM