This article reflects on abuse as a distortion of the exercise of authority and the way of living out obedience, a virtue that unites all Christians and identifies them with Christ, who was himself obedient to the Father even to death on the cross. A fortiori, identification with Christ in obedience is experienced by consecrated persons when, by virtue of the vow, they commit themselves to obey their legitimate superiors. Similarly, the same is experienced by deacons and diocesan priests when they promise obedience to their bishop at the time of ordination.
The importance of obedience was recognized in the life of the Church from its beginnings. Clement of Rome gives us an example of this when, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, he appeals for submission to the ecclesiastical hierarchy as a way of respecting Christ’s own mandate. Thus individuals, in the fulfillment of their duty and with respect for the dignity of others, contribute through obedience to the building up of the body of Christ.
Sometimes, especially in consecrated life, one may be called to live obedience in particularly difficult circumstances in which the temptation to discouragement and distrust may arise. In this regard, St. Benedict, the father of monasticism, called for a trusting dialogue between monk and abbot and urged obedience out of love for God, trusting in his help. St. Francis of Assisi insisted on a “charitable obedience,” in which the friar, sacrificing his own opinion, performs what is required because in this way he “pleases God and neighbor.”
The theological dimension of obedience should be carefully guarded and preserved, because it is a fundamental dimension in the life of Christian communities, guaranteeing their unity and missionary nature. Such a reality, so present in the history of the Church, especially in the various forms of religious life, even the most capitular, must be appreciated and defended. In today’s society, where subjectivity and the autonomy of the individual are rightly emphasized, obedience lived in an adult way is a sign of belonging to Christ and of a life given to the service of His Kingdom. Therefore, abuse of power, authority or conscience constitute wounds in the ecclesial fabric, that is, lacerations on the body of Christ that is the Church.
Pope Francis is well aware of this issue. In an interview with a Portuguese TV channel, he said, “I want to be very clear about this: the abuse of men and women in the Church – abuse of authority, abuse of power and sexual abuse – is a monstrosity! And one thing is very clear: zero tolerance. Zero! A priest cannot continue to be a priest if he is an abuser. He cannot! Because he is sick or he is a criminal, I don’t know – but he is clearly sick. It’s human baseness, isn’t it?”