What is obedience? Chances are, if you are below 30, you won’t really know. If you’re above 30, you’ll probably have some idea of what it is. If you’re a parent or have some authority at work, you’re probably becoming more and more aware of its existence and necessity.
Obedience is a virtue. A virtue is a power of the soul which helps us to do good actions easily, not just now and then, but consistently. The virtue of obedience helps us to easily and consistently submit our will and actions to those people who have authority over us. But, true and perfect obedience is not based on fear of being punished, nor is it based on the fact that we like a particular superior. Nor do we obey just because we agree with the order we have been given. No, true obedience is when we submit our will to our superior’s because he or she is the representative of God and participates in His Authority. So, if my boss tells me to take out the bins, I do it because he has asked me, not because I like taking out the bins!
But, we have to be careful with obedience. This is because we can be not obedient enough, but we can also be too obedient! Everyone will understand how we can be not obedient enough – this is known as disobedience, and it’s when we refuse to obey a legitimate order given to us by someone who is our superior.
But, how can you be too obedient? Surely, if the superior represents God and participates in His Authority, then we have to obey everything he asks us, without question. No! Precisely because our superiors represent God, their authority over us is limited by His Law. So, if a superior orders us to do something which is against God’s Law, it would be wrong to obey. For example, if a Dad orders his son to rob the local bank, the son has a moral obligation to refuse to obey, because “we ought to obey God, rather than men”. This is true for religious superiors as well, including bishops and popes – we cannot obey them if they tell us to do something wrong.
Also, if a superior orders us to do something which will cause an injustice to ourselves or our families, we are not obliged to obey, and we may even be obliged to not obey in some cases. So, if the government imposes a tax which is obviously unjust, we do not have to pay it. However, we have to be sure that the order really is unjust because our fallen human nature is always looking for an excuse not to obey!