Legalists, Libertines, Rules and Reasons

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.


  1. *ALERT* False Dichotomy Warning. */ALERT*

    Authenticity v. Obedience?

    “The Virgin Mary most perfectly embodies the obedience of faith. By faith Mary welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ and so giving her assent: ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 148).

    Would the author propose that our Lady’s “Fiat” is anything but a submission of will to God? Our Lady was authentic in trusting in God whilst fully submitting in loving trust to God’s will.

    While our human superiors don’t, in themselves, merit the obedience we owe to God, are we not called, by the Sacred Scriptures, to submit to one another in love?

    1. “While our human superiors don’t, in themselves, merit the obedience we owe to God, are we not called, by the Sacred Scriptures, to submit to one another in love?”

      Not sure Dylan that Vox Clara and the Congregation would be very happy with your characterization of them as not equal to God and if you look at the way people are treated who dare to criticize or even raise questions I think you’ll find that “submission in love” isn’t exactly what they’re looking for.

    2. Dylan,

      I’m not sure you read my post very carefully, since it is precisely the dichotomy of authenticity and obedience that I am calling into question.

      Also, as you rightly note, obedience to God is something quite difference from obedience to a human being. The chief difference is that God, like our own intellect, can move the will from “within.” Thus submission of will to God is qualitatively different from submission of will to another human being. In fact, the nearest human analogy is our will’s submission to a truth proposed by our intellect. Which is why blind obedience (where the intellect is not involved) is a deprived form of obedience.

    3. But take a look at the scripture just before the passage quoted in the Catechsim:

      Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

      Gabriel tells her what’s going to happen, it doesn’t make sense to her, so she has the fortitude to ask God’s messenger a question. It’s only after the explanation that she submits. If you believe that Mary was sinless, it must be ok even to ask God for understanding before submitting.

  2. As one priest in my Archdiocese put it, disobedience to the rubrics in a “liberal fashion” is seen as diabolical. Whereas disobedience to the rubrics in a “conservative fashion” is seen as laudable.

    1. disobedience to the rubrics in a “conservative fashion” is seen as laudable.

      Not by any conservatives I know. Again and again I see tradition-minded clergy submitting themselves to rubrics they don’t care for.

      It’s tiresome to have continually to defend against unjust charges.

      1. In my experience the charges are not unfounded. A few points:

        -triple striking of the breast during the Confiteor
        -blessing of the water during the Lavabo
        -the complex incensing rituals carried over from the the 62 Missal.
        -joining the hands at “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” in the introductory dialogue during the preface
        -making the sign of the cross with the host and chalice before receiving Communion

      2. Indeed. And I would have no problem with traditionally-minded folks importing practices explicitly forbidden by the GIRM into the Novus Ordo, if the same traditionalists didn’t act as a liturgical mutaween, intent on tracking down “liturgical abuses” and reporting these to Rome.

        What’s sauce for the goose, and all that.

      3. I think Jeffrey and Johnathen’s arguments here are difficult to maintain because now we know that there are two forms to the one Roman rite. The two forms are to mutually enrich each other, according to the MP. This sort of cross fertilization is actually encouraged now.

  3. we bend our will to the will of another without seeing rhyme or reason behind the rule.

    Fides quaerens intellectum is good Catholic practice, articulated by Anselm and having its roots in Augustine’s observation that we believe in order that we may understand. Understanding the mysteries of God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We desire it but it’s not a starting point.

    I am a strong believer in asking the reason behind the rule. It’s frequently an enlightening experience, so long as the intent is not to challenge.

    1. Robert,

      My response to Dylan might be germane to your point as well. The act of faith in God is, I think, quite different than obedience to a human superior, precisely because God is, as Augustine put it, more interior to me than I am to myself. There is no coercion involved in submission to God, even when it is blind. This is not, I think, the case with human authorities.

      1. Especially anonymous human authorities who with no explanation make 10,000 changes to what officially appointed experts following Vatican directives prepared and what the bishops of the English speaking world approved, giving us instead mistranslations, incorrect English phrases and constructions, and violations of LA and RT. How about expecting Vox Clara and the CDW to be obedient before asking the rest of us to be. Sounds like some politicians with rules for everyone else but not for us.

  4. RBR, do you truly maintain that “disobedience to the rubrics in a ‘conservative fashion'” is NOT seen as laudable by a lot of traditionalists?

    Isn’t it true that perpetual eucharistic exposition became the rage in parishes BEFORE the law limiting it to religious communities that had it as part of their constitutions was changed?

    And what about the North American College in Rome? It had one tabernacle on site (see canons 936 and 938) for decades after V2 until a rector came along and added 2 or 3 more within the seminary. (He’s now in New York City.)

  5. I’m not sure that obedience can actually be termed obedience when it is blind. One has to know what one is obeying and why in order for it to be true obedience.

    Lemmings are not obedient. Nor are slaves. The element of free choice has to be part of this.

  6. It might be helpful to the conversation to remind that the Latin root of the word obedience is to listen.

    Moving toward an immediate polarization is rarely indicative of an attempt to truly listen to each side (and in this case to the Spirit as well), and unlikely to lead to true obedience and a free assent of the will.

  7. We can regard the liturgical texts as giving the basic guidelines and framework, but it hardly consitutes “disobedience” to use these intelligently and creatively. It is MISTRUST that lies behind a fetishism about every written word of the liturgical texts. The attitude is a hangover from the Tridentine Church in which the Roman Canon and its rubrics were said to provide hundreds of occasions of mortal sin.

    1. +JMJ+

      Then why bother with a new translation?

      And what are the faithful to do, who have a priest who is incapable of intelligently and creatively veering from the texts and rubrics?

      1. Jeff,

        Alas, I fear that many priests who are neither particularly intelligent nor creative think themselves so. I recall one priest who, attempting inclusive language, substituted “Creator” for “Father” throughout, so that the first Person of the Trinity became the “Creator of our Lord Jesus Christ.” One person’s intelligent and creative deviation is another person’s nonsensical blather.

        That said, I agree with Fr. O’Leary that the more bizarre and convoluted the translation the more there will be a temptation to try to improve it. I know, confronted with some of the collects, I would think, “I, can do better than this.

      2. +JMJ+

        F.B., how “bizarre and convoluted” would you say the current translation is, given the propensity of some priests to deviate from it even today?

        I’m not denying that a lot of what I’ve seen of the 2010 text is bizarre and convoluted, just saying that the current translation is not immune from tinkering, as we’re all well aware. A pet peeve of mine is when the inclusive “Happy are they who are called to His supper” becomes the exclusive “Happy are we who are called to this supper”, even though I’m sure the priest thinks he’s doing just the opposite (making the text more inclusive).

        I can understand the frustration we are all facing with this new translation. I’m curious what cacophony might arise when people in the pews decide to be “intelligent and creative” with the responses. I suppose most don’t have the necessary liturgical or theological formation to do so. Example: the new bishop of my diocese celebrated Mass at my parish this past Sunday, and — as is his prerogative — he used the pontifical concluding dialogue (“Blessed be the name of the Lord / now and forever. | Our help is in the name of the Lord / who made heaven and earth”) and as far as I could hear or see, I was the only one who knew the responses. 🙁

        Karl: when celebrants are willing to submit their creative ideas in advance to the consensus of their flock…

        Oh, happy day! But I wonder how many priests who dare to do that would be willing to submit to a congregation which wants a Mass prayed “by the book”.

      3. Jeffrey

        Congregations of territorial parishes are usually not univocal on any liturgical subject. Which does not entitle celebrants to their own preferences, I hasten to add. Rather, the practice of engaging in liturgical creativity without engaging the flock as a whole beforehand has a very high risk of being an exercise in ego-stroking at some level.

        The thing is, most celebrants dread opening up this can of worms. Until thay get the courage to do that hard work, the courage to be creative rings mighty hollow most of the time.

    2. Well, when celebrants are willing to submit their creative ideas in advance to the consensus of their flock (and not just a small group thereof that is dominated by an amen chorus for the celebrant), then I might find this notion more credible. I’m a progressive; I don’t want to see Vatican III done in a Vatican I way, which means we need local structures in place to temper the blindspots of celebrants.

      1. Hey, I LIKE the Amen chorus! OK, to sing in concert, not as a mechanism for ego-stroking the pastor. . .

  8. The Annunciation story could be seen as a story about CHOICE as much as about obedience.

    When the new translations come into force, priests will discover that they have to rephrase all the time, so the obedience-brigade will have a lot of extra work trying to keep them in line.

  9. To cut through the confusion this topic apparently invites, let me suggest that we worship God and not rubrics. In particular, liturgical rubrics and norms are guidelines lacking the force of (for instance) canon law.

    It seems to me that, since Vatican II, most on all sides have argued that departures which heighten the worship of God are may have merit, while those that don’t do not. Of course, different individuals may differ in judging which are which.

    Fortunately, however, for Catholics (as opposed to Protestants) these matters are not left to individual judgment. Holy Mother Church is based on authority–the authority of Christ, provided when necessary through his vicar, our Pope (and only when necessary, we may tend to hope). On matters liturgical, this guidance may normally be transmitted by the CDW and local bishops.

    It is our obedience that enables us to take advantage of this authority. Even though in particulars it may appear to differ from one pope to another, and especially when in an individual matter—like the translation of a Latin prayer—it may seem clear to any one of us that we could have done the job better, had it been ours to do.

  10. The World Values Study distinguishes three types of authority: the traditional authority of shared values in agrarian societies, the rational authority of bureaucrats in industrial societies, and the authority of personal experience in postindustrial societies.

    In traditional societies authority to interpret values was widely shared among church officials, political leaders, and holy people. Obedience was not to a particular person. One heard everyone echoing similar values. In a particular situation it might be the king, the bishop, a scholar or an ascetic who best expressed what everyone held.

    The monastic notion of obedience to a spiritual mentor grew out of the early monasticism’s withdrawal from normal Christian communities as well as the general society. Great spiritual leadership was needed for solitaries and those living in isolated communities. The obedience to a holy “lay” person that evolved out of that situation has little application today; certainly not for priests and laity who are not religious.

    Both the monastic ideal of obedience to a spiritual mentor and the practice of pledging obedience to a feudal lord were essential when they originated. Now that abbots and bishops are CEOs, these older concepts of authority and obedience are of limited help.

    Christendom has pretty much disappeared. Now, Catholicism takes the form of an industrial era corporation with its advantages and disadvantages. Arguments on this blog about liturgy are mostly about the relative bureaucratic authority of various bishops and scholars.

    In our society Catholics value personal experience of the liturgy rather than the authority of bishops or scholars. The Vibrant Parish Life Study showed that Catholics placed liturgy at the top of their list in importance but half down the list of being well done. If we want well done liturgy, begin by listening (being obedient) to peoples’ experiences. VPL said people want but do not get “listening” from staff.

  11. “Arguments on this blog about liturgy are mostly about the relative bureaucratic authority of various bishops and scholars.”

    Translation of liturgical texts is not as such a bureaucratic activity, though commissioning and approving and implementing such translation is. The chief criticism made on this blog is that the creative core of the task of translation has been ruined by premature or insensitive bureaucratic intervention. Indeed, some bishops speak of translation as a “relatively straightforward” task (Bp Roche of Leeds) which is very much the point of view of a bureaucratic administrator inexperienced in the ways of writing.

    “In our society Catholics value personal experience of the liturgy rather than the authority of bishops or scholars.”

    I think a mature Catholic values all three in their proper place, but not when they are dysfunctional.

    “Catholics placed liturgy at the top of their list in importance but half down the list of being well done.”

    Quite. And if liturgy is not well done the reason is that personal experience and creativity is cramped by a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

    ” If we want well done liturgy, begin by listening (being obedient) to peoples’ experiences.”

    Yes, and this entails not merely sensitivity to nuance in translation, but also the creation of NEW liturgical texts expressive of the religious experience of contemporary Christians.

  12. I don’t see why any of this should cause concern.

    I am certain that a not insignificant number of priests will continue to celebrate Mass according to the Sacramentary. Some bishops will observe the new liturgical law in the breach (according to their view). Others might be more strict. However, I suspect that over time attitudes might soften and permissions to use the Sacramentary might appear here and there. I think we’ll all look back and see how silly these arguments were once the dust has settled.

    So, we anglophones will have the EF, a de facto Rite I (Roman Missal, “high church”) and a de facto Rite II (Sacramentary, “contemporary church”). Some may characterize this as a further balkanization of parishes. This has already occured, so perhaps it is best if the distinctions are made more clear.

    The only point of contention might be that cathedral parish Masses will probably use the new translation all the time. Hopefully, those that strongly disagree with the new translation will find a parish nearby that does not use the new translation.

    1. I don’t see this scenario as either desirable or likely. Of course the scenario I see as more likely (parishes disliking the new translation but being forced to use it) as equally undesirable.

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