Official texts of the Church on obedience

Perfectae Caritatis, Vatican II Council for the renewal of religious life, Pope Paul VI, 1968

14. In professing obedience, religious offer the full surrender of their own will as a sacrifice of themselves to God and so are united permanently and securely to God’s salvific will. After the example of Jesus Christ who came to do the will of the Father (cf. John 4:34; 5:30; Heb. 10:7; Ps. 39:9) and « assuming the nature of a slave » (Phil. 2:7) learned obedience in the school of suffering (cf. Heb. 5:8), religious under the motion of the Holy Spirit, subject themselves in faith to their superiors who hold the place of God. Under their guidance they are led to serve all their brothers in Christ, just as Christ himself in obedience to the Father served His brethren and laid down His life as a ransom for many (cf. Matt. 20:28; John 10:14-18). So they are closely bound to the service of the Church and strive to attain the measure of the full manhood of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Religious, therefore, in the spirit of faith and love for the divine will should humbly obey their superiors according to their rules and constitutions. Realizing that they are contributing to building up the body of Christ according to God’s plan, they should use both the forces of their intellect and will and the gifts of nature and grace to execute the commands and fulfill the duties entrusted to them. In this way religious obedience, far from lessening the dignity of the human person, by extending the freedom of the sons of God, leads it to maturity.

Superiors, as those who are to give an account of the souls entrusted to them (Heb. 13:17), should fulfill their office in a way responsive to God’s will. They should exercise their authority out of a spirit of service to the brethren, expressing in this way the love with which God loves their subjects. They should govern these as sons of God, respecting their human dignity. In this way they make it easier for them to subordinate their wills. They should be particularly careful to respect their subjects’ liberty in the matters of sacramental confession and the direction of conscience. Subjects should be brought to the point where they will cooperate with an active and responsible obedience in undertaking new tasks and in carrying those already undertaken. And so superiors should gladly listen to their subjects and foster harmony among them for the good of the community and the Church, provided that thereby their own authority to decide and command what has to be done is not harmed.

Chapters and deliberative bodies should faithfully discharge the part in ruling entrusted to them and each should in its own way express that concern for the good of the entire community which all its members share.

Vita Consecrata, apostolic exhortation post-synodic from Pope John Paul II, 1996

Reflection of Trinitarian life in the evangelical counsels

21. The deepest meaning of the evangelical counsels is revealed when they are viewed in relation to the Holy Trinity, the source of holiness. They are in fact an expression of the love of the Son for the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. By practising the evangelical counsels, the consecrated person lives with particular intensity the Trinitarian and Christological dimension which marks the whole of Christian life.


Obedience, practised in imitation of Christ, whose food was to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34), shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust, which is a reflection in history of the loving harmony between the three Divine Persons.The consecrated life is thus called constantly to deepen the gift of the evangelical counsels with a love which grows ever more genuine and strong in the Trinitarian dimension: love for Christ, which leads to closeness with him; love for the Holy Spirit, who opens our hearts to his inspiration; love for the Father, the first origin and supreme goal of the consecrated life.The consecrated life thus becomes a confession and a sign of the Trinity, whose mystery is held up to the Church as the model and source of every form of Christian life.


Potissimum Institutionis, Directives on formation in religious Institutes (1990, Cardinal Hamer, Prefect for the Congregation for the religious)

15. « The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ, who was obedient even unto death, requires submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions. »(45) Further, all religious « are subject to the supreme authority of (the) Church in a special manner » and « are also bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience. »(46) « Far from lowering the dignity of the human person, religious obedience leads it to maturity by extending the freedom of the sons of God. »(47)

Religious obedience is at once an imitation of Christ and a participation in his mission. It is concerned with doing what Jesus did, and, at the same time, with what he would do in the concrete situation in which a religious finds himself or herself today. Whether one has authority in an institute or not, one cannot either command or obey without reference to mission. When religious obey, they offer this obedience in continuity with the obedience of Jesus for the salvation of the world. This is why everything which, in the exercise of authority or obedience, indicates a compromise, a diplomatic solution, the consequence of pressure, or any other kind of temporizing, is opposed to the basic inspiration of religious obedience, which is to align oneself with the mission of Jesus and to carry it out in time, even if such an undertaking is difficult.

A superior who promotes dialogue educates to a responsible and active obedience. All the same, it remains for the superiors to use « their own authority to decide and to prescribe what is to be done. »

For the teaching of obedience, it should be remembered:

  • – that to give oneself in obedience, it is first necessary to be conscious of one’s existence. Candidates need to leave the anonymity of the technical world, to know themselves as they are, and to be known as persons, to be esteemed and loved;
  • – that these same candidates need to find true liberty in order that they may personally pass from « what pleases them » to « what pleases the Father. » For this, the structures of a formation community, while ever remaining sufficiently clear and solid, will leave ample room for responsible initiatives and decisions;
  • – that the will of God is expressed most often and preeminently through the mediation of the Church and its magisterium; and specifically for religious, through their own constitutions;
  • – that for obtaining obedience, the witness of the elder members in a community has greater influence on the young than any other theoretical consideration. Still, a person who makes the effort to obey as Christ did, and in Christ, can succeed in overcoming less edifying examples.

Education in religious obedience will therefore be given with all the clarity and exigency that is necessary so that one does not wander from the « way, » which is Christ in mission.

The service of authority and obedience (2008, Cardinal Rode, Prefect for the Congregation for religious)

The role of persons in authority for the growth of the community

20. The growth of the community is the fruit of an “ordered” charity, which respects its points of reference. Consequently, “it is also necessary that the proper law of each institute be as precise as possible in determining the respective competence of the community, the various councils, departmental coordinators and the superior. A lack of clarity in this area is a source of confusion and conflict. ‘Community projects,’ which can help increase participation in community life and in its mission in various contexts, should also take care to define clearly the role and competence of authority, in line with the constitutions”.51

Within this picture persons in authority promote the growth of fraternal life through the service of listening and dialogue, the creation of a favourable atmosphere for sharing and co-responsibility, the participation of everyone in the concerns of each one, service balanced between the individual and the community, discernment and the promotion of fraternal obedience.

a) The service of listening

The exercise of authority implies that persons in authority should gladly listen to those who have been entrusted to them.52 St. Benedict insists: “The abbot calls the whole community together”; “all of us have been called to give advice…because often it is to the youngest that the Lord reveals the best solution”.53

Listening is one of the principal ministries of superiors for which they must always be available, above all for those who feel isolated and in need of attention. In fact, listening means accepting the other unconditionally, giving him or her space in one’s own heart. For this listening conveys affection and understanding, declares that the other is appreciated, and that his or her presence and opinion are taken into consideration.

Whoever presides must remember that the one who does not listen to his brother or sister does not know how to listen to God either, that an attentive listening allows one to better coordinate the energy and gifts that the Spirit gives to the community and also, when making decisions, to keep in mind the limits and the difficulties of some members. Time spent in listening is never time wasted, and listening can often prevent crises and difficult times both on the individual and community levels.

b) Creation of an atmosphere favourable to dialogue, sharing and co-responsibility

Persons in authority will have to be concerned with creating an environment of trust, promoting the recognition of the abilities and the sensitivities of individuals. Moreover, with words and deeds they will nourish the conviction that the community requires participation and therefore information.

In addition to listening, persons in authority will value sincere and free dialogue — sharing feelings, perspectives and plans: in this atmosphere each one will be able to have his or her true identity recognized and to improve his or her own relational abilities. Persons in authority will not be afraid to recognize and accept those problems that can easily arise from searching, deciding, working and together undertaking the best ways of realizing a fruitful collaboration. On the contrary, they will look for the causes of any possible uneasiness and misunderstandings, knowing how to propose solutions, shared as much as possible. Moreover, they will commit themselves to finding ways of overcoming any form of childishness, and discourage whatever attempts are made to avoid responsibility or to evade major commitments, to close oneself in one’s own world and in one’s own interests or to work in an isolated manner.

c) Soliciting the contribution of all for the concerns of all

Whoever is in charge has the responsibility for the final decision,54 but must arrive at it not by him or herself but rather by valuing the greatest possible free contribution of all the brothers or sisters. The community is what its members make it. Therefore, stimulating and motivating a contribution from every person so that each one feels the duty to contribute his or her own charity, competence and creativity will be fundamental. In fact, all the human resources are strengthened and brought together in the community project, motivating and respecting them.

It is not enough to place material goods in common, but still more significant is the communion of goods and personal abilities of endowments and talents, of intuitions and inspirations, and still more fundamental, and to be promoted, is the sharing of spiritual goods, of listening to the Word of God, of faith: “the more we share those things which are central and vital, the more the fraternal bond grows in strength”.55

Probably not all will be immediately disposed to this type of sharing. When faced with possible resistance, far from giving up the project those in authority should seek to balance wisely the urgency for a dynamic and enterprising communion with the art of being patient, not expecting to see immediately the fruits of their own efforts. They must also recognize that God is the one and only Lord who can touch and change persons’ hearts.

Difficult obedience

26. In the concrete development of the mission, some instances of obedience can be particularly difficult because points of view or means of apostolic or diaconal action can be perceived and thought of in different ways. In the face of certain difficult situations of obedience, to all appearances absolutely “absurd,” there can arise the temptation towards distrust and even abandonment. Is it worth continuing? Could I not realize my ideas better in another context? Why get worn out in pointless conflicts?

St. Benedict already confronted the question of an obedience “very burdensome or positively impossible to perform”; and St. Francis of Assisi considered the case 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”. The Father of monasticism replies, asking for a free, open, humble and trusting dialogue between the monk and the abbot, though in the end, if requested, the monk “obeys for the love of God and confiding in his help”.74 The Saint of Assisi invites the person to implement a “loving obedience,” in which the friar voluntarily sacrifices his views and carries out the command requested, because in this way he “pleases God and neighbour”,75 and sees a “perfect obedience, there, where even not being able to obey because he is being commanded “something against his soul”, the religious does not break unity with the superior and community, and is also ready to bear persecution because of it. “In fact,” observes St. Francis, “whoever chooses to suffer persecution rather than wish to be separated from his brothers truly remains in perfect obedience because he lays down his life for his brothers”.76 This reminds us that love and communion represent supreme values to which even the exercise of authority and obedience are subordinated.

It must be recognized that it is understandable, on the one hand, to have a certain attachment to personal ideas and convictions, fruit of reflection or of experience and matured over time, and it is also a good thing to seek to defend them and to carry them forward, always in the perspective of the Reign of God, in a straightforward and constructive dialogue. On the other hand, it is not to be forgotten that the model is always Jesus of Nazareth, who even during his Passion asked God that his will, as Father, be done, nor did he pull back from death on the cross (cf. Heb 5:7).

When requested to give up their own ideas or projects, consecrated persons might experience loss and a sense of rejection of authority or to feel within themselves the “loud cries and tears” (Heb 5:7) and pleading that the bitter chalice might pass. But that is also the time to entrust oneself to the Father in order that his will might be done, and thus to be able to participate actively, with all one’s being, in the mission of Christ “for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

It is in saying these difficult “yeses” that one can understand in depth the sense of obedience as a supreme act of freedom, expressed in total and confident abandoning of oneself to Christ, the Son freely obedient to the Father, and one can understand the sense of mission as an obedient offering of oneself that brings the blessing of the Most High: “I will bless you with every blessing…(and) all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:17, 18). In that blessing obedient consecrated persons know that they will again find all that they left with the sacrifice of their being detached; within that blessing is also hidden the full realization of their own humanity (cf. Jn 12:25).

Obedience and objections of conscience

27. Here one could ask: Can there be situations in which a person’s conscience would not seem to permit following the directives given by persons in authority? Can it happen, in short, that the consecrated person must state in relation to the norms or to their superiors: “It is necessary to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? This is the case of the so-called objection in conscience of which Paul VI spoke,77 and that should be considered in its authentic meaning.

If it is true that conscience is the place where the voice of the Lord resounds, the voice that indicates to us how to behave, it is also true that it is necessary to learn to listen to this voice very attentively in order to know how to recognize it and distinguish it from other voices. In fact, it is necessary not to confuse this voice with those which emerge from a subjectivism that ignores or disregards the sources and criteria that cannot be given up and are mandatory in the formation of judgments of conscience: “It is the ‘heart’ converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience”,78 and “freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth”.79

The consecrated person will then have to reflect long before concluding that it is not the obedience received but what is sensed within him or herself that represents the will of God. He or she will also have to remember to keep the law of mediation in force in all cases, guarding him or herself from making serious decisions without any examination and verification. It certainly remains indisputable that what counts is to arrive at knowing and fulfilling the will of God, but it ought to be likewise indisputable that the consecrated person is committed by vow to accept this holy will through determined mediations. To say that what counts is the will of God, not the means, and to reject them or to accept them only on the basis of what is pleasing, can take away the meaning of the person’s vow, and empty his or her own life of one of its essential characteristics.

Consequently, “apart from an order manifestly contrary to the laws of God or the constitutions of the institute, or one involving a serious and certain evil — in which case there is no obligation to obey — the superior’s decisions concern a field in which the calculation of the greater good can vary according to the point of view. To conclude from the fact that a directive seems objectively less good that it is unlawful and contrary to conscience would mean an unrealistic disregard of the obscurity and ambivalence of many human realities. Besides, refusal to obey involves an often serious loss for the common good. A religious should not easily conclude that there is a contradiction between the judgment of his conscience and that of his superior. This exceptional situation will sometimes involve true interior suffering, after the pattern of Christ himself ‘who learned obedience through suffering’ (Heb 5:8)”.80

-Saint Thomas Aquinas, Common Doctor of the Church, Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Treaty on Obedience, Q. 104

Art. 5 Whether subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things?

Objection 1: It seems that subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things. For the Apostle says (Col. 3:20): « Children, obey your parents in all things, » and farther on (Col. 3:22): « Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh. » Therefore in like manner other subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things.

Objection 2: Further, superiors stand between God and their subjects, according to Dt. 5:5, « I was the mediator and stood between the Lord and you at that time, to show you His words. » Now there is no going from extreme to extreme, except through that which stands between. Therefore the commands of a superior must be esteemed the commands of God, wherefore the Apostle says (Gal. 4:14): « You . . . received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus » and (1 Thess. 2:13): « When you had received of us the word of the hearing of God, you received it, not as the word of men, but, as it is indeed, the word of God. » Therefore as man is bound to obey God in all things, so is he bound to obey his superiors.

Objection 3: Further, just as religious in making their profession take vows of chastity and poverty, so do they also vow obedience. Now a religious is bound to observe chastity and poverty in all things. Therefore he is also bound to obey in all things.

On the contrary, It is written (Acts 5:29): « We ought to obey God rather than men. » Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.

I answer that, As stated above (Articles [1],4), he who obeys is moved at the bidding of the person who commands him, by a certain necessity of justice, even as a natural thing is moved through the power of its mover by a natural necessity. That a natural thing be not moved by its mover, may happen in two ways. First, on account of a hindrance arising from the stronger power of some other mover; thus wood is not burnt by fire if a stronger force of water intervene. Secondly, through lack of order in the movable with regard to its mover, since, though it is subject to the latter’s action in one respect, yet it is not subject thereto in every respect. Thus, a humor is sometimes subject to the action of heat, as regards being heated, but not as regards being dried up or consumed. In like manner there are two reasons, for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior in all things. First on account of the command of a higher power. For as a gloss says on Rm. 13:2, « They that resist [Vulg.: ‘He that resisteth’] the power, resist the ordinance of God » (cf. St. Augustine, De Verb. Dom. viii). « If a commissioner issue an order, are you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul? Again if the proconsul command one thing, and the emperor another, will you hesitate, to disregard the former and serve the latter? Therefore if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God. » Secondly, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him. For Seneca says (De Beneficiis iii): « It is wrong to suppose that slavery falls upon the whole man: for the better part of him is excepted. » His body is subjected and assigned to his master but his soul is his own. Consequently in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow-man, but God alone.

Nevertheless man is bound to obey his fellow-man in things that have to be done externally by means of the body: and yet, since by nature all men are equal, he is not bound to obey another man in matters touching the nature of the body, for instance in those relating to the support of his body or the begetting of his children. Wherefore servants are not bound to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in the question of contracting marriage or of remaining in the state of virginity or the like. But in matters concerning the disposal of actions and human affairs, a subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his authority; for instance a soldier must obey his general in matters relating to war, a servant his master in matters touching the execution of the duties of his service, a son his father in matters relating to the conduct of his life and the care of the household; and so forth.

Reply to Objection 1: When the Apostle says « in all things, » he refers to matters within the sphere of a father’s or master’s authority.

Reply to Objection 2: Man is subject to God simply as regards all things, both internal and external, wherefore he is bound to obey Him in all things. On the other hand, inferiors are not subject to their superiors in all things, but only in certain things and in a particular way, in respect of which the superior stands between God and his subjects, whereas in respect of other matters the subject is immediately under God, by Whom he is taught either by the natural or by the written law.

Reply to Objection 3: Religious profess obedience as to the regular mode of life, in respect of which they are subject to their superiors: wherefore they are bound to obey in those matters only which may belong to the regular mode of life, and this obedience suffices for salvation. If they be willing to obey even in other matters, this will belong to the superabundance of perfection; provided, however, such things be not contrary to God or to the rule they profess, for obedience in this case would be unlawful.

Accordingly we may distinguish a threefold obedience; one, sufficient for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one is bound to obey: secondly, perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful: thirdly, indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful.