Sickly (Sinful) Servility is Not Obedience, Fr. Micelli and Fr. Hardon on the Limits of Obedience

I’ve always enjoyed the Humphrey Bogart Casablanca for many reasons but it’s funny how often scenes of the film apply to life today. I love the guy who comes to the couple sitting at the outdoor bistro table and warns them that they must be ever so careful because Casablanca is full of pick pockets. Moments later, the man who had been warned goes to pay his bill and can’t find his wallet. So it is for the past year or so with people online warning of schism and the potential of sin by lack of obedience. The weapon of choice in this battle is labelling people schismatic. Much like giving guns to a pack of excited chimps, however, the crossfire and blasts have been ferocious, and unfortunately, because it is focused on making audiences online, the frenzy has lost actual precision and appears to be an uninformed melee of tribal rivalries anymore.

In the wake of Fiducia Supplicans, however, the subject matter has, rather providentially I believe, become so absurd, that I think a refresher on the limits of obedience and the sin of servility, as both Fr. Hardon and Fr. Vincent Micelli taught should help us regular folks in the pews here. It’s not as if the errors floating around haven’t been piling up over the years, but I’d say this newest batch of public confusion on obedience and loyalty to Mother Church and the Vicar of Christ had a definite kick off point almost a couple years ago. Beginning around the time Patrick Coffin launched a set of evidentiary points that he believed illustrated error in Papal issues, the weapons and the nuclear cache of labels being aimed, targeted, and launched quickly ramped to armageddon. The frenzy rapidly became a witch hunt pace of ousting “Schismatics.” Since then, it continues, but what Fiducia Supplicans has brung to the “discussion” is an absurdity that helps clarify a lot here.

Fr. Micelli at the 1977 Wanderer Forum National Conference

In 1977, we hosted our National Conference and the topic was modernism – Fr. Vincent Micelli spoke, and during his talk (the full talk will be online here soon enough), he mentioned a problem that leads to the sin of servility. Said Fr. Micelli:

Indeed, sometimes matters are even worse than that.  Social authorities join the confusion, giving, as you know, general absolutions without serious reasons, without a guarantee of confession later on, joining these groups that want to downgrade the bishop’s powers so that they want a democratic church, letting their clergy, in fact, commanding their clergy to go to seminars where roving bands of modernists, philosophers, psychologists, theologians, have these clergymen young and old as a captive audience.  They’re cooperating with the enemy.

What do you do when that happens?  Unfortunately then, we have dialogue now, uncritical dialogue.  We thought dialogue meant that you talk to the other side in order to give them Christ, give them the truth.

That’s not the way Catholics have understood it.  Catholic theologians have said, “No, no.  We’re having dialogue so that we can incorporate their teaching in the Catholic religion.” But their teaching can’t be incorporated.  Yet you have Catholic priests who are Christian Marxists, Catholic Marxists.  You have Catholic priests who are more Protestant than they are Catholic.  The whole purpose of dialogue was to share Christ, not to share heresy.  And that’s what we’ve come to today.

The false concept of ecumenism makes all truth, and that’s a modernist heresy, relative, nothing’s permanent.  

Again, in this atmosphere where the Catholic loses his respect for his faith, gets an inferiority complex, what happens?  He won’t speak up.  He falls into the sin of servility.  He’s a slave of the other side for fear of being criticized.  He’s embarrassed over Jesus Christ.  Our Lord said, “Whoever is ashamed of me before men, I will be ashamed of him before my Father who is in heaven.” Today, many, many Catholics are ashamed of Jesus Christ and of the Catholic Church.  They tolerate deviations in morality, in doctrine.  What does that mean?  While they’re talking with the enemies of the church, they’re backing the enemies by their silence.  For example, when Catholics have dialogue with the communists and never bring up their crimes against humanity, their crimes against religion, but are sipping cocktails with them, back slapping with them, being friends, they are de facto denying the faith because they’re silently backing the evils of the enemies of Christ.

The whole Christian world, and this is my final thought, must pray for a hierarchy and a priesthood that is firm, alerted to the plague of modernism, firm, prompt to crush it the way Saint Pius X did.  We need bishops, priests, sisters, Catholic teachers who understand their office much better, are willing to fight and die for it, who understand their solemn duties to the flock of Christ, who are profoundly conscious of these duties, especially conscious of the duty of never giving scandal by joining the enemy to the little ones of Jesus Christ.

The Lord said, “For those that give scandals to the little ones, it were better that a millstone be tied about their neck and they be thrown into the depth of the ocean.” It’s time to stop the tactic of temporizing out of fear of the world’s contempt, or of compromising, economizing, and minimizing the faith.  If we don’t stop, pretty soon we’ll be members of a deserted church.  You don’t make converts that way.  You don’t keep members in the church that way.  The only solid, the only indestructible, the only sure bridge to God in truth, in holiness, and in faith is the bridge of Jesus Christ, the High Priest.

Micelli, Rev. Vincent S.J. Sermon on Modernism delivered at the Mass for the Feast of the Sacred Heart at the Wanderer Forum National Forum. June 17, 1977.

So Father Micelli’s warning has to do with compromising revealed truth in order to appease the world, and those who do not profess the Catholic Faith. Because these people disagree with revealed truth, the ecumaniac (as Fr. Hardon would call those who practice misguided ecumenism) compromises the truth out of servile fear. Recall that servile fear is a specific type of human respect problem. In this instance it is a sin because one fails to testify to the Truth. Worse, one fails to be a faithful witness to Divine Revelation from Jesus.

The clergy, the pope, the bishops, priests, and even lay people are required to testify to the truth. Period. For over a year now there have been Daily Readings posts on this website, and to which many subscribe by email. Your author carefully selected the source of those saints readings from a highly acclaimed text from the mid-19th century for a reason: all of the saints highlighted daily had great pains to state the truth. That is what Jesus expects of us.

We hear from so many today a conflated notion of obedience: whatever the Pope says, they say, we must agree. We know that’s not the case. If Pope St. John Paul II had said Turbo bubble gum (a popular polish brand he was known to chew and blow bubbles with) is the best bubble gum, I was not bound by obedience to parrot this acclamation and adopt it as my own… I may well prefer Big League Chew and such a statement would not be “schismatic.” We know, therefore, that obedience and loyalty to the Church is not plenary and not without ascertainable subject matter. Bubble gum is not a matter of the deposit of faith. We should therefore understand the inherent limits of loyalty and obedience as God intends.

Father Hardon on Obedience Without Servility

The concept deepens and becomes much clearer if we examine religious life because religious have a heightened duty of obedience. The vow of obedience puts the religious under a special duty. This special duty has been examined thoroughly across the millennia now and we can profit by such clear teaching and extrapolate the limits for us lay people as well.

Father Hardon first makes the (sometimes not obvious) obvious point that chaos is a universe with no authority. Obedience is how order works and particularly how God ordered society. Disobedience is rooted in the first rebel, Satan. Or, for us humans, in Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden. One trouble today is that idiots are interpreting obedience (! – see number three below). Others are abusing the duty of obedience in order to gain authority or to marginalize others. This in itself is a mess — calling someone a schismatic who may well have a proper question is calumny!

Fr. Hardon gives four issues that at his time were prevalent and are problems with authority today, but I excerpt the first three here:

That’s a three thousand year old definition of chaos, a society without authority. So that is what we are addressing ourselves to, that human factor in obedience, and we know how human that human factor can be. In our own day it causes a special problem for the following four reasons.

First, there are abuses of authority. In other words, authority in so many places has lost its title to respect, and not just civil authority, but also ecclesiastical authority or ecclesiastical society.

Without identifying the seminary, within the last two years I have been involved in a case with a young man who was in his third year of theology, a fine student, a good seminarian. He was due to be ordained Christmas of that year to the Diaconate, but during the early fall he witnessed a concelebration of mass by one of the professors and a nun. Now the seminarians were told, keep your mouth shut. He didn’t. He told others, for example, he told me. He was dismissed from the seminary shortly before his ordination to the Diaconate on trumped-up charges. He appealed to the bishop. The bishop wouldn’t see him.

Well lest you wonder what happened to the young man, he is now happily in another seminary because others, including myself, appealed to other bishops to take him in for another diocese. But that is clearly an abuse of authority.

Second, we can have widespread oppression. There are many reasons for the convulsions in religious life in our day, and this is one, widespread oppression. I don’t want to magnify it. I just want to state it. I’ve been a religious too long myself and too involved with communities not to know that religious can suffer and sometimes through just blindness on the part of those who either make certain regulations or the way those regulations are required to be observed and remembered.

I was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame who are now in Chardon, Ohio. While I was en route to another city, I was in an airport, a stopover in Cleveland, my hometown. I had about a half hour between planes, so I thought to call up one of my former teachers. So I rang the convent where I knew she was teaching. It was after class hours, so I knew she would be available, I thought. And the sister that answered the telephone, well, I told her I wanted to talk to Sister so and so, and she said, I will get the superior. But I said, I don’t want to talk to the superior, I want to talk to the sister. Well, you can’t talk to the sister until I get the superior’s permission. I identified myself as the priest and told her I just wanted to spend a minute on the telephone. And by that time I was watching my watch, so she went to get the superior and I had to hang up or I would have missed my plane. Now call it what you will, a bizarre story, but this sort of thing is not a laughing matter at all.

Third, now we have sincere people who just misunderstand the meaning of obedience. We all have the natural desire, we all have, for independence. But in today’s world that desire has been sharpened to a razor’s edge. Now I’ve talked to many people about this in many stations. And I’ve read so many books, I think I told you I read a book a day. And I subscribe to say 12 magazines and therefore receive perhaps 20 periodicals a month. People are far more independent, especially in the U.S. Independence is our middle name. The “A” stands for, in America, the “A” stands for Autonomy.

Obedience will not be either as easy or as unchallenged in our country as it might be in other nations or even here in America 25 years ago. Of course we have much more education. There are exceptions, but by and large most religious when they enter have had a better than average education. And consequently the more educated the mind is, even without being a particularly intellectual. Education is many things. It is for our purpose especially the development of the intellect. You train your muscles. Look how many hours we spend in class. Every day for 8 years of grade school, 4 years of high school, 4 years of college, and in my case 15 years after college.

The net result even with the simplest postulant, the net result is that their intellectual muscles have been trained to ask questions. They see problems. They see through things. And this thing of telling them do it and they do it, well if you find such a person, thank God. But the more educated people are, the more in their minds at least they will change, question, wonder whether what they are told to do is a wise thing or why they should do it.

Hardon, John A. excerpt of Lesson On Obedience without Servility

Before you misunderstand something. Father Hardon made very clear that in the religious context, the religious ought to obey even stupid orders. His example:

All I know is that one of the blessings of obedience is peace of soul. If you recall at the St. Louis Religious Life Convocation back in April of 1978, Mother Teresa was asked, what if the superior commands you to do something that you know is absolutely stupid?

She said, do it. It’s the superior’s fault that it’s stupid, but you will be very wise in obeying.


That’s for religious life. I think, however, we must contrast this with another point Fr. Hardon made:

Now, it’s right here that obedience in some communities is the hardest vow that the religious are called upon to practice, because the same people whom they have under earth sworn to obey are the people who may be abusing their authority and abusing it by commanding things that must be done.

I just had a call from a sister, long distance. There in her community is growing Pentecostal from the superior on down. A sister finds that she cannot go along with the antics of her fellow sisters, and she feels very, very alone. This is a hard one. In any case, with obedience in such difficulty is the reason we need counsel.

Where must I obey?

The general rule is this. I must obey or should obey in everything unless I am absolutely sure it is sinful. And you better be sure.If it is sinful, I must obey God rather than man.


And Father Hardon makes it clear how that speaking up is sometimes necessary:

And prudence, all blessed prudence. The first law of prudence is silence.

There are, however, times when you have to speak up.

Then be sure that you have to speak up. No matter how unjust the order may be, and I’m speaking of situations where the order or the facts are a matter of being unjust, you are told to teach a certain subject, to use a certain book. While your conscience tells you, I can’t use this book, it’s contrary to the faith. Well, sister, you’re either going to teach from this book or this syllabus or you lose your job.


Father counseled that sister, and she was right to speak up. That is, to tell the superior that she was wrong. The superior ultimately fired the sister from teaching, (another abuse of authority there), but it was not wrong for the sister to speak up.

Dubias and Speaking Out

I know from the rest of the quotes above that both Fr. Hardon and Fr. Micelli did not directly discuss the issues that compound when the problems arise from the Pope. The issues are more complex because you have scandal as well as infallibility. To say, for instance, that something the Holy Father said is flat out wrong seems to contradict infallibility. It’s worse when that issue appears to be related to faith and morals, such as the case with Fiducia Supplicans. I mentioned last week that we are not bound to error, and that is true. While for religious there is virtue, as Fr. Hardon said, in following the stupid order of a religious superior, for lay people, there is a conflict of rights and duties that can arise. The answer to these matters is often to ask a question for clarity.

Mary’s Dubia Was Perfect Obedience, and Informs the Right Way to See the Burke Dubia

When the archangel Gabriel told the Blessed Mother that she was to conceive, Mary asked how this could be. She had a dubia. Why? Because it would appear that the angel was telling her to break her vows. Mary was right to ask. “How is this to happen?” Test the angel. Test the instruction. The implication of the Blessed Mother’s question was direct: “are you telling me to sin by breaking my vow?” A fair, and necessary question. She was rewarded for it. Far from disobedience, her dubia was execution of obedience. Only by asking was she able to see a path to obey the angel’s order, right?

Today, Cardinal Burke and others had a similar dubia. It has never been answered. I don’t know if that implies the problems Fr. Hardon outlines, whether abuse of power or oppression, but it isn’t right. Had the archangel refused to answer Mary’s dubia, we may have never received Our Savior, after all.

To call Burke or any of the other “dubia cardinals” schismatic is the very problem with Fr. Hardon’s point number 3: idiots don’t understand obedience. But these idiots turn around from some false notion of respect or obedience and insult them for asking. It’s wrong. At its best, it is guided by ignorance or at its worst, it implies that others joined the abuse of power and oppression. In any case, it is wrong to call it schism. It isn’t.

Years and years have passed and so many more things have occurred… Pachamamma, Luther, “blessings”, this Anglican thing, and on and on… Many have been silent out of prudence. Wise. But the situations have multiplied and there is a just too much for people not to speak out. It’s not schismatic to question, is it? It’s certainly not schismatic to rightly call error out.

At this point it appears that the loudest voices crying “Schism” or worse are the idiots and the excessively servile. Apart from human respect problems (servility), they appear to have no problem with falsely alleging grave moral sins on others (calumny). What a mess! In the early centuries, if you spoke out, you got tossed to lions, beaten, or worse (ask St. Lawrence about the worse). Today, it is a verbal murder of your good name and reputation.

At the end of Casablanca, Captain Renault finally sees things as they are and he “Speaks out.” Rick had it figured out way earlier and set his plan in action. It wasn’t until seeing it, and that Major Strasser has been shot in order to protect the life of Lazlo, that Renault finally got it and his prudential calculus told him it was time to act. Then, the best turn happens where instead of helping the Germans, or arresting Rick, he picks the phone up and shows his allegiance, “Major Strasser has been shot, round up the usual suspects.” And away the plane goes with Lazlo off to safety, and Rick and Renault walk off into the sunset. I’m hoping there will be a moment where more of the Renaults among us wake up as he did. Until then, if you have questions, be prepared to be a suspect, even if you are right.

This article, Sickly (Sinful) Servility is Not Obedience, Fr. Micelli and Fr. Hardon on the Limits of Obedience is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John B. Manos

John B. Manos, Esq. is an attorney and chemical engineer. He has a dog, Fyo, and likes photography, astronomy, and dusty old books published by Benziger Brothers. He is the President of the Bellarmine Forum.
  • John Nicolas says:

    It’s painful, when one joins a convent/monastery, do the vows, and it turns out the superior and fellow sisters/brothers don’t act like catholics.
    Ever since the 1960’s religious life has been crumbling down, and the good ones are brought to despair. Obedience to the superior is ultimately obedience to Christ. The highest superior in the Church is the Pope, and when even the Pope doesn’t act and speak like a catholic anymore, whom do you turn to? There has never been a crisis like this before, and when the Church will be restored in the future, even more glorious than she has been in the past, there will never be such a darkness again. For even when in the very last days, the Anti Christ himself will arrive, the Church will suffer, yet be victorious. The renewal will happen before that time comes. It’s called the triumph of Mary’s Immaculate Heart.

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