I have noticed an interesting phenomenon when liturgical questions come up. For some, let us call them the liturgical legalists, the only important question is “what is the relevant legislation.” For others, whom we might call liturgical libertines, any concern for rules, rubrics, canon, or decrees is a sign of inauthenticity. What both of these views share is a certain understanding of obedience.
In both cases, obedience is understood to be most perfect when it is “blind” obedience, when we bend our will to the will of another without seeing rhyme or reason behind the rule. If you seek to understand why you are commanded to do something . . . well, that is seen as something less than obedience in its purest form. Legalists and libertines differ in that the former embrace such blind obedience and the latter reject it, but they agree that obedience is a matter of one will submitting to another.
Of course blind obedience has a venerable place in the history of the Church, as in the counsel found in the Rule of St. Benedict that a monk who is commanded by a superior to do the impossible “trusting in God help, must obey” (RB ch. 68). Obedience is sometimes blind because there are some cases where you don’t see the reason for the rule, and if you have committed yourself to a particular order of things, you obey and trust that enlightenment will follow. But these are the exceptional cases and, to some degree, to be lamented. Just as blindness is a privation of sight, so too blind obedience indicates some degree of failure: either because the one commanding is unclear in conveying the reason for the rule, or because the one being commanded is simply too thick to understand it, or because between the two there is not sufficient trust for one to learn from the other what the right course of action is.
But true obedience is not necessarily blind obedience. In fact, in true obedience I do not need to submit my will to another at all. Rather, I see the reason behind the rule, and the only “submission” involved is my will submitting to the truth proffered by my mind. As the late Herbert McCabe, from whom I’ve cribbed most of my ideas here, put it: “the real obedience is to be found in those who share the common agreement. . . . A totally obedient community would be one in which no one was ever compelled to do anything” (God Matters, 229). This is, of course, somewhat utopian, which is why we have recourse to blind obedience. But it should also be the norm, since it is the sort of obedience Christ shows toward the Father (at least in the traditional high Christology to which I subscribe). Christ’s obedience to the Father is perfect because he knows all that the Father knows.
So perhaps the liturgical legalist should not be too quick to judge as disobedient those who ask for the reason behind a rule. Perhaps they are seeking to be more perfectly obedient. And perhaps the liturgical libertine ought not to be too quick to judge as inauthentic those who think that asking about the rule is the first step in seeking the reason. Perhaps they are seeking authentic obedience.
As we face the implementation of a new English translation that many people, from a variety of perspectives, view as problematic, I think it will be worth our while to remember what true obedience involves. Legalists should not view as unfaithful those who raise critical and uncomfortable questions about the translations and the process that produced them. Libertines should not view those who do their best to implement what they admit is an imperfect translation as having knuckled under to authority and abandoned all claim to authenticity. Obeying rules and asking for reasons are not mutually exclusive; in fact, this might be the only way to be truly obedient.