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What did Vatican II mean with <I>obsequium fidei</I>, "obedience in faith"?

What did Vatican II mean with obsequium fidei, ‘obedience in faith’?

The small word obsequium is occupying an increasingly large place in the attention of theologians. (1) No wonder it has become a key word to describe (or to prescribe) the response of the faithful to the pronouncements of the teaching authority. To find its meaning in the original Latin is difficult enough, to translate this meaning into English is near impossible.

1. In the documents of Vatican Council II the word or its derivatives occur repeatedly (Ochoa in his Index lists twenty-two references), but it is used in a variety of senses. In the Code of Canon Law, 1983, it occurs five times, three times specifically connected with the teaching office (canons 218, 752, 753).

It may look like an abstract term, but it is meant to be practical. It has been used, and is being used, to regulate the attitude of the faithful in doctrinal matters.

In order to explain the meaning of obsequium, a small diversion about the hermeneutics of conciliar texts is necessary.

Often enough, there is a conciliar text in which a term or an expression is used which, at the time of the council did not have a fully matured and commonly agreed on definition; such as subsistit in the sentence Haec Ecclesia [Christi) . . . subsistit in Ecclesia catholica. . . “This Church [of Christ] ... subsists in the Catholic Church... (LG 8). Or, communitas ecclesialis for describing some non Catholic Christian communities (e.g. UR 19). Or even such a locution as Vicarius Christi used for both the pope and the diocesan bishop (e.g. LG 18 and 27). Many other examples could be quoted. The fact stands that not rarely, when the council made a statement, especially a statement containing a new insight into the doctrine revealed by God, the Fathers left also some uncertainty or ambiguity behind. No one who is familiar with the documents can deny that much. Had it been otherwise (that is, had the council come out with clear and distinct statements only), its speech would not have been human speech. (2)

2. A conventional method to explain the “mind of the council” is from the discussions which have taken place in the drafting committees, from the developments of the successive drafts of a document and from the official Relatio which introduced it to the assembly. Such a historical approach (indispensable as it is) can certainly account, perhaps to a high degree, for the “mind of the committee,” or the “mind of the relator,” but in itself it is incomplete because it does not account for what went on in the mind of the vast majority who ultimately approved of the document. It is precisely in this general act of approval that the sensus fidei of the episcopate could have been playing a decisive role beyond and above the reasoning of the drafting committee and the persuasive speech of the relator.

It follows that a seminal concept can contain more than what the drafting committee intended to put there. This should not be surprising; for a long time we have accepted that an expression in the Scriptures can contain an inspiration for the whole church well beyond the meaning intended by the writer himself.

All seminal locutions emerge with a meaning from the past, but their full significance can unfold in the future only. The historians of the council can report on the reasons articulated by the drafting committee explaining the use of a term such as subsistit, collegium, vicarius, or obsequium, etc.; they can have, however, no direct access to the instinct of faith of the majority who recognized in the expression a genuine insight into the Christian tradition—to be reflected on and defined with greater precision by generations to come.

As soon as the council had come to an end, researchers converged on its pronouncements. Naturally enough, they perceived the uncertainties and ambiguities. The question came spontaneously: What did the council mean exactly when it used such-and-such a term or expression? Many researchers rushed (and are still rushing) into answering the question without ever asking if the Fathers intended an exact meaning in the first place as the conclusion of their thought process, or wanted to prompt the church into a thought process with the help of an intuitive insight. (3)

3. I do not know of any comprehensive study (if such a thing is possible) of the hermeneutics of the declarations of Vatican Council II. There are particular studies on individual documents but they lack the dimension which can come only from comparing one document to another. If such a major study will ever be undertaken, it should include also an identification and critical evaluation of the different literary forms used within various constitutions, decrees and declarations.

Such a study is all the more needed in that Vatican Council II has been different from all other councils; its scope was not to determine contested issues but to give pastoral guidance to the whole church. Judges speak in a court room, their language is precise and technical, they absolve the innocent and condemn the guilty . Pastors speak in a friendly environment, they use words to attract and encourage those who listen, they wish to heal the sick and bring back the lost ones.

In other words, the final formulation is due not only to the rational planning of a committee but also the faith vision of all the participants.

Obviously it would be wrong to say that an ecumenical council is either judicial or pastoral; nevertheless there can be dominant trends at a council which must be taken into account in construing the correct hermeneutics for the interpretation of that council.

Thus dissertations and hypotheses keep multiplying, defending one meaning or another, presuming always that there must have been a well-defined meaning somewhere. It can be only a matter of patience and diligence to find it! Alas, at times, a monumental work"proving" what the council meant exactly can be described only with the classical words magnus passus extra viam, a remarkable step—in the wrong direction. (4)

4. The emphasis is on what the council meant exactly Clearly, it is perfectly legitimate to write a dissertation on the development of a point of doctrine in the discussions of a conciliar committee, or on the doctrine expounded and embraced by a relator, and so forth; as long as the researcher states conclusions with the mind of the council.

The thesis (if a thesis it is) I wish to put forward is that in the conciliar documents there are terms and expressions for which we need a new category. They are not precise concepts; they are “seminal locutions.” This, of course, needs explanation.

Seminal locution is an expression which conveys an insight into the truth but without defining it with precision; it needs to be developed further. It is a broad and


To say that the council has left room for further development in the understanding of a concept is not to imply that the council acted on scarce information about its meaning. Quite the contrary; the Fathers perceived with great clarity a meaning which carried in itself the potential for further development. intuitive approach to a mystery that leaves plenty of room for future discoveries. (5)

5. Such a development is not simply a logical explicitation of what is contained in the seminal locution. It arises out of the convergence and accumulation of new insights, reached through reflections (and through experiences, if such is the case) prompted by the original seminal locution.

For some scholars this can sound like an absurd statement; it seems to imply that the Fathers did not even know with any certainty what they were doing or saying. Well, the problem is not with the Fathers; they knew well enough what they were doing. It is with the expectation of the researchers: they assume that the council had to speak with clear and distinct ideas all the time. But this was not the case. Vatican Council II was a pastoral council not only in what it said but in the manner of saying it. In this respect, it has no parallel in history.

Besides, the same council affirmed the existence of a “supernatural sense of faith” of an “unerring quality” “from the bishops down ... which is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth” (LG 12). This sense of faith, no doubt, operated at the council itself, among the bishops, and helped them to identify, but not to dissect, analyze and classify, the seeds of truth which in due course can grow into a large tree. (6)

6. Indeed, research into the meaning of a conciliar idea can go in the wrong direction, and end up with irrelevant conclusions, because of the false initial assumption that the council’s intention was to teach through precise concepts and conclusive propositions. The council’s task was to bear witness to the truth; such a task is often correctly fulfilled by pointing toward the truth.

This is not to mean that the Fathers never used words and terms in an exact way, or they never taught in precise propositions. They did, and when they did, the meaning of their various expressions can be clarified by appropriate research.

All those who in one way or another were involved in the work of the council or had the opportunity to observe its operation, know well that while the Fathers had an overall perception as to “where the council was going,’’ many of them would have been hard put to define the precise meaning of an idea they otherwise approved of and voted for. Further, if somebody had asked each individual bishop to give, before he voted, his own interpretation of, say, subsistit, there would have been a variety of responses their name would have been legion! From so many differing perceptions, no ultimate precision could arise. But the multiplicity of answers could still cover a common insight and point in the same direction.

So, often enough, the right questions in undertaking the interpretation of a conciliar term and expression are: “How can this insight be developed further?” “Where does it lead’” In answering such questions Newman’s theory on the development of doctrine can be helpful: enlightenment will not come from logical deductions alone; the “supernatural sense of faith” of the community will play a capital role in carrying the teaching of the council forward.

The problem is that many researchers do not raise the initial questions of the literary form of the expression they intend to clarify.

It follows that before the investigation for finding the meaning of a term or expression is undertaken, the nature of that locution must be determined. If it is a straightforward affirmation, the work of construing its exact definition may well start immediately. If it is a seminal expression, it should be taken for such; it should be taken as a seed sown which must strike roots and grow branches before it can bear fruit. A seminal expression must be assimilated, pondered over before its potential meaning can unfold. Councils are entitled not only to make precise definitions but also to use an evangelical mode of speech.

Now we are able to come to the point. Obsequium is one of these seminal words. The discussion whether it means precisely “respect” or “submission” works on a wrong assumption, which is that the council indeed meant it always in a specific and exact way. The council used many forms of speech.

When the council spoke of religious obsequium it meant an attitude toward the church which is rooted in the virtue of religion, the love of God and the love of his church. This attitude in every concrete case will be in need of further specification, which could be “respect”, or could be “submission,” depending on the progress the church has made in clarifying its own beliefs. (7)

7. See especially LG 25 and DV 5.

Obsequium, like communio, ultimately signifies to be one with the church; one in mind and heart, which means one in belief and in action. Obsequium is a special expression of this communion, mainly in doctrinal matters. It is ideally perfect when someone is so well united in faith with the church that he or she believes all that the church holds firmly, and searches with the church when some point in our tradition is in need of clarification. In the first case we can speak of obsequium  fidei (one with the believing church holding firm to a doctrine), in the second case of an obsequium religiosum (one with the searching church, working for clarification).

To put it another way the ongoing attempts to translate obsequium by one precise term are misguided efforts which originates in a lack of perception of the nature of that concept. Obsequium refers first to a general “attitude”, not to any specific form of it. The external manifestation of a disposition can take many forms, depending on the person to whom obsequium must be rendered, or on the point of doctrine that is proposed as entitled to obsequium. Accordingly, the duty to offer obsequium may bind to respect, or to submission—or to any other attitude between the two.(8)

8. The Italian word ossequio can also give a clue for the understanding of obsequium every dictionary lists a whole gamut of English words in translating it; they range from “respect” to “submission” with many other attitudes in between. Ossequio really means a fundamental attitude which needs to take a specified concrete form, depending on the circumstances; in some cases it might be a polite expression of esteem, in other cases a manifestation of submission. A similar type of word in English would be “loyalty”: it means an attitude which can be expressed in different ways—by loyal obedience or by loyal opposition.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 3. Read the whole chapter here.

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