Staying faithful through
dissent: questions of obedience
Marie Louise Uhr
Talk given at "Women of Faith-
Reclaiming the Gift"
University of Sydney, September 1974?
a committed member of the Catholic Church while, as national convener of
Ordination of Catholic Women (OCW), leading a public campaign for the
ordination of women, forces me to consider what being catholic means, and what
is church. My concern is sharpened by magisterial decisions about the
ordination of women. And I shall come to that. But first, there's little point
in my trying to change church unless being Christian and belonging to church is
important. Therefore I want to look briefly at what Christianity and catholic
church mean to me, at what concerns me about the authoritarian official
Catholic Church, at a theology of obedience which I believe supports the
present structures, and consider a few hopes for the future.
christian because that's the tradition into which I was born and raised. It's
part of the fabric of my being. At times I struggle with any or all of the
basic tenets, at times I seem to move outside; but then again there are times
when I feel it is central. I find traditional beliefs some say are 'core' such
as virgin births and immaculate conceptions irrelevant; and yet I continue to
learn that my faith centres on a triune God illuminated by Jesus Christ.
Incarnation tells me that the divine is mediated in and through the human; and
the sacramental Christianity of the Catholic church illuminates how others
mediate God for me.
need church because I can't believe apart from a community. On an
introvert/extrovert scale of being human, I'm an introvert; yet I believe that
to try to enter into relationship with God in some private, individualistic
fashion guarantees 1'll be talking to myself. The basic Christian insight is
that God is in some way communal. And I'm not. I can only go to God in
community, and the Catholic church is the community to which I seem to belong
in an unbreakable way; with all its faults and failings; but also with all its
richness of tradition, theology and insight. Time and again throughout history
it becomes autocratic, rigid; I think this is one of those times. Hence I wish
to join with all seeking to make it a more open, loving community. In a world
of starvation, wars, violence, the question of who is ordained may seem a
pretty trivial one; but I believe that more than who has 'orders' is at stake.
Arguing for women's ordination challenges church structure and church
authoritarian church structures and questions of obedience
its current writings against women's ordination the Vatican is upholding a
reductionist image of women and denying they can be sacramental images of
Christ. So the largest Christian denomination in the world is teaching a
distorted and limited understanding of what it is to be human. And this must
not go unchallenged. Further by insisting that the ordination question is
settled for all time the Vatican is blocking freedom of discussion, and acting
in an authoritarian fashion demanding passive obedience from the people. Thus
the question of women's ordination in the catholic church acts as a focus for
issues of theology, ecclesiology and anthropology; of justice, ministry and
God. Moreover, the very passion with which the Vatican argues the case against
women's ordination indicates that it understands the repercussions of women's
ordination very well.
present magisterium believes that it has privileged insights and the right to
rule. The Vatican insists that it alone knows the mind of God on questions that
many committed Catholics see as outside the central credal deposit of faith;
insists too that it has the God-given authority to make rulings on these
questions, without open discussion, for all people and for all time. Women, men
with coeliac disease, men recovering from alcoholism, have all recently been
barred from ordination. Divorced and remarried are barred from Eucharist. The
emphasis is on excluding, on controlling. Such emphasis on power and control,
on who can and who can't celebrate the Eucharist, on who can and who can't
receive the Eucharist, hardly seems compatible with the open Jesus of the
Gospels, who calls all to himself, who tells us to have no fear, and who came
to set us free.
and again the official Church has had to realise that what it was teaching as
absolute truth and the will of God comes out of limited human understanding and
was often erroneous. At different times the official church has insisted on the
God-givenness of teachings such as an earth-centred universe, Friday
abstinence, anti-semitism, and slavery. Its teachings justifying slavery
provide an historical parallel to its current teachings on women. Women are
familiar with the same justifying myth that servitude is ennobled by Christian
love and reciprocal obligation. Moreover, just as Scripture is now used to
prohibit women's ordination, from at least the twelfth to the nineteenth
century moral theologians, church officials and popes used Scripture (eg Lk
12:42-48; Lk 17:7-10; 1 Tim 6:1; 1 Pet 2:18, 1 Cor 7:20-24, Col 3:22-25) to
proclaim the propriety of slave
ownership and slave trading and to defend
the practices. Tragically, the Vatican did not outrightly condemn slavery until
Pope Leo XIII's encyclicals, In plurimis of 1888 and Rerum
Novarum of 1891, well after it had ceased to be a political question.
such misguided papal authority, it is hardly surprising that many find it
difficult to accept the Vatican's pronouncement on the ordination of women.
Hardly surprising, too, that the Vatican's refusal to enter into discussion
with any who question its rulings raises questions of authority and questions
it seems that the most striking characteristic of both church structure and
christian theology is the emphasis on obedience. Too often, I suggest,
obedience is held up as the primary christian virtue and the most critical
element of faith. I'm concentrating on the catholic church and the magisterium
(pope plus or minus bishops), but I don't believe that it is only here that the
question arises. Anglican priests being ordained profess obedience to their
bishop. I'm suggesting (thought I certainly can't prove it here) that
hierarchal structures depend on a theology promoting obedience. Feminists have
analysed the effects of 'Father-God' language and imagery on the people of God;
I believe that we need to consider in addition the Christology of the obedient
very strong emphasis on obedience is evident in a whole series of documents
issued during the present papacy. Its teachings are to be received with silent
obedient acquiescence by the faithful; all public disagreements are equated
with open defiance and subversion of the church's teaching mission.(1)
Obedience to the teachings of the Church is what matters.
Catholics today dissent both publicly and privately from many Vatican
pronouncements, it is curious that this is being done without questioning the
primacy of obedience. But why do the Christian churches stress obedience? To
what extent does our christology demandus to be obedient; or, to turn the
question over, to what extent has a christology which holds obedience as the
primary characteristic of Jesus of Nazareth, been used to create hierarchical
churches in which some have power over the many?
brief look, at a Theology of obedience
is 'the action or practice of dutiful or submissive compliance' (Macquarie
Dictionary 1981) or "being submissive to the will of a superior, doing what one
is bidden' (Shorter Oxford Dictionary 1970). Hebrew religion and the religions
that stem from it are religions of the word of God, which must be heard and
obeyed. (2) Deuteronomy 28 spells out the consequences clearly: obedience
brings blessings and disobedience brings curses.
stories sum it up. The 'origin story' of the Hebrew people's relationship with
their God begins with a tale of disobedience. Adam and Eve disobeyed and were
cursed. This is balanced by a tale of obedience, the story of Abraham. The
Israelites were the chosen people because Abraham, their fore-father, was a man
of obedience, who obeyed God and Sarah. When Sarah said to Abraham 'Cast
out this slave woman with her son' (Gen 21:10), Abraham put bread, water and
their son Ishmael on Hagar's shoulders 'and sent her away' (Gen 21:14). It
doesn't seem to matter to Abraham whether Hagar and their son survived the
ordeal; what mattered was his obedience. (3) The suffering of others never
seems important in obedience stories.
came the great test of this obedience, the order from God to kill his 'beloved
son', Isaac. Abraham set out to obey. As Levenson has cogently argued, (4) the
text of this harsh story makes it clear that Yahweh demanded obedience, even to
the extent of requiring Abraham to be prepared to kill 'the beloved son', and
Yahweh would reward obedience with his covenant. (Gen 22:15-18; Gen 26:1-5)
Testament writers such as Paul turned to these Hebraic stories of disobedience
and obedience (whatever the word meant then) when they tried to make sense of
Jesus' life and death. The stories of the disobedience of Adam (and Eve) and
the obedience of Abraham and Isaac become central to Paul's developing
Christology and hence to later Christology and liturgy. Moreover Paul gives the
Abraham-Isaac stoiy a new twist, as Abraham becomes an icon of God who offers
up his only son; and Jesus becomes a willing Isaac, freely offering himself at
this Father's bidding: the obedience of Jesus overcame the disobedience of Adam
(Rom 5:18-20). Jesus found favour with God because he took the form of a slave
... and became obedient unto death' (Phil 2:7,8). In the slave culture in which
this was written, the chief virtue, essential characteristic and primary
ethical requirement of the slave, was obedience. Sheila Briggs has asked what
such language might have meant to the slaves - who were not freed. (5)
writes of Christian obedience to Christ (2 Cor 10:5-6), to Paul, to the gospel
(Rom 10:16; Gal 2:14; Gal 5:7), to authorities; of' the obedience of faith'
(Rom 1:5; 16:26). For Paul, if God required perfect obedience of his Son then
for Christians to be Christ-like, they must be obedient to God and to
all in authority over them. If authority comes from God, power of authority is
sacred power and must be obeyed. Early Christianity blessed the Graeco-Roman
household codes with its own concept of obedience. Now the voice of household
authority carries the weight of the voice of God. Christian wives must obey
their husbands, Christian children must obey their parents (and others in
authority over them), and Christian slaves must obey their masters (Eph 6:1-5;
Col 3:20-22; 1 Pet 3:6) as they would obey God.
consequences have been catastrophic for wives, children, slaves, and all under
authority. Based on such texts preached as the unchanging and unchangeable word
of God, slavery was accepted as right and just for nearly two thousand years;
women have lived under so-called 'divine' authority to obey their husbands in
all things; and children have been abused. Yet texts such as Ephesians 5:21-32
and Colossians 3:12-21 requiring submission of women and children are still
prayed and preached liturgically as 'the word of God', and the magisterium
shows no sign of regretting this.
theologians built on Pauline and Johannine beginnings so that pre-Nicene
Christologies stress the subordination of Jesus to the Father. In spite of the
Cappadocians' attempts to overcome theologies of subordination (6) and to
stress the equality of persons, the idea of the monarchy of God prevailed. One
Father-God ruled in heaven and one bishop ruled on earth. (7) It was the
triumph of a patriarchal god.
a subordinationist doctrine of the Trinity has been used for centuries to
justify the subordination of women, by insisting, as written in 1984, that the
husband stands in relation to wife as God the Father does to God the Son,
coequal in dignity, but as Initiator to Responder. The wife, holding the
position analogous to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, thus is
characterised by response, submission, obedience'. (8)
great tool for teaching the centrality of obedience / disobedience in
Christianity has been the liturgy. Catholic liturgy has featured the stories of
the disobedient Adam (and Eve) and of the obedient Abraham and willing Isaac,
and has emphasised Christ as the obedient son. Especially at the solemn
liturgical feasts of the Passion and Death of Christ the 'obedience' texts of
Philippians, Genesis and Hebrews are used again and again. Preface VII of
Ordinary times has obedience as central to salvation: we praise God because
Your gifts of grace, lost by disobedience, are now restored by the obedience of
inevitably influences the development of social structures and human
relationships. A theology of obedience ensured that obedience was central to
the way of life of the growing monastic orders. Benedict stressed the obedient
Christ as the model of Christian life and therefore he taught that to obey
others, regardless of what is required, is the Christ-like behaviour. And the
spirituality of the Religious became the model of spirituality for all.
suggest that this authoritarian insistence on obedience is based not only on a
Christology of obedience but also on an anthropology in which human beings are
seen principally as individuals with a will-to-power which has to be controlled
(?broken), so that pride is the besetting sin, and obedience the way to virtue.
Obedience, self-abnegation and an ethic of self-sacrifice become the centre of
personal worth. A more humanitarian religion 'would make self-realization a
virtue and resistance to growth a cardinal sin'. (9)
it is impossible in the late twentieth century to be oblivious of the evil that
has been wrought by those simply obeying instructions from authorities,
including authorities ruling in the name of God. Rather, in a post-Inquisition,
post-Holocaust world, it must be asked if it is possible to regard obedience as
a virtue, no matter who commands.(10) Nonetheless, late twentieth century male
theologians still place great value on obedience in their christology and
spirituality, as can be seen from such comments as Kasper's: In his
obedience Jesus is the setting forth of God's nature'.(11) And Moloney
who describes obedience as being at 'the very heart of a Christian
it is only from those who have been affected by theologies of obedience that a
critical examination of such theologies can come.
So that it is women such
as Dorothee Soelle who have been the ones to challenge traditional christology
and its use of Scripture.(13) For other analyses of Scripture and
other texts exist.
Another look at Scripture
the Hebrew Scriptures, side by side with the stories of public heroes such as
the obedient Abraham, we find a few small stories of disobedient women, such as
the midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exod 1 8s 2), and Queen Vashti (Esther
Israel's prophets, such as Micah, Hosea, Amos and Jeremiah (eg Micah 6:2-8;
Hosea 6:6; Amos 4:1-5; Jer 23:1) spoke out again and again against Royal misuse
of its monopoly of power and against priestly misuse of its monopoly of the
sacred. Under Solomon, the temple became the site of God's holiness and priests
became the guardian, custodian and eventually gatekeeper of holiness', and
determined who had access to the Temple. Today the magisterium decides who has
access to the priesthood. (14) Neither monarchy nor temple turned out to be
disinterested wielders of power. Is the magisterium? Dare I suggest that groups
round the world such as OCW, who again and again are accused of being
disobedient, are being prophetic voices challenging today's ruling church
christian groups look to Jesus as the great dissenting prophet, the great
challenger of ruling authority. After all, he broke sexual and purity taboos
about women (Mt 9:18-22; Mk 5:25-34;Lk 8:43-48); discussed theology with them
(Jn 4:1-42); dined with outcasts (Mt 9:10); caused offence and scandal by his
attitudes to the ruling regulations about cleanness, fasting and the Sabbath;
and was a radical critic of much traditional religious practice. During his
life, he did not found a group of disciples to control God's kingdom, but
called them to follow him and to call others to the same journey.(15) And in
the final post-resurrection commissioning given to us at the end of Matthew's
gospel, the disciples are sent to teach what they have been taught. The
response to teaching is not to obey: it is, one hopes, to learn.
Consequences of challenging the theology of
we refused to place obedience as first of all the virtues, we could then
re-claim a triune God, re-emphasise the Spirit-filled Christ of the Synoptics,
and re-awaken a Spirit-filled Church.
God of Jesus Christ who challenges all power structures gets lost in the
presence of powerful authority structures demanding submission and obedience. A
renewed emphasis on Trinitarian theology with God recognised as equal persons
in loving relationship would acclaim God as love, and model a community free of
domination in which all both give and receive. Christian communities based on
this God could not create churches and societies of inequality, of domination
and control; could not create stratified churches, enforced by hierarchies
silencing prophetic critique.
de-emphasizing of Jesus as the obedient Christ could allow a resurgence of a
Spirit-Christology celebrating Jesus as one fully alive, divine because, as
human, he was filled with the Spirit of God. When Jesus is seen as the Christ
whose Spirit empowers all people not to dominate others but to enliven them,
our church would be a real community, and not a hierarchical church in which a
few have power over the many.
Rahner called for those who feel they need to challenge the official church to
be of courage and accept that the Spirit might be entrusting them with gifts
and responsibilities for the whole church. (16) Therefore, despite current
papal teaching, OCW believes it must refuse to be silent; it must disobey; it
must continue to work for the inclusion of women into a non-hierarchical
ministry of women and men, to create a church in which all are equally able to
express their various spiritual gifts. I believe that now is the time for women
to give prophetic witness to a renewed church. The hour has come for catholics
to challenge Vatican rulings and pronouncements. It is the time to speak: the
a Hannah speaking boldly in the Temple; the time for an Esther,
determined to go to the king and speak 'even if it kills me'; the time for the
Syro-Phoenician woman, refusing to be silenced by the male disciples trying to
protect Jesus from the troublesome woman. It is not a time for Nicodemus,
coining by night, for being disciples in secret; it is not the time for the
silent, the stealthy, the safe'. (17)
We must take
strength from the actions of our biblical foremothers; like the woman anointing
Jesus before his death, going into the house
where he was surrounded by those trying to drive her away, to
carry out the political and priestly action of anointing him as king; like the
woman who spoke with Jesus at the well and then proclaimed him to the whole
village. We have to take the debate to the streets. We act, we hope, in witness
to a vision of an inclusive church. We act, we hope, to be sacramental presence
of the God who gathers the outcast.
This may be acting in disobedience to the present magisterium. But
our hope is to act in faithfulness to the Spirit of God in our midst, calling
us to be fully ourselves. To achieve this, we need to listen to a great deal
more in life than magisterial authorities. We have to listen to the Spirit, we
have to listen to life. We have to listen to one another.
1. William C Spohn SJ 'Current Theology. Notes on Moral Theology
1992. The Magisterium and morality', Theological Studies 54 (1993) 105.
Gerhard Kittel, "akouω, akoη, eiζ-, eπ-, πarakoω,
ωrakoη, uπakouω,uπakoη, uπηkooζ"
in Kittel G W.B. ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol 1
(Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1965) 216-225; p 218
3. Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved
Son. The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New
Haven said London: Yale University Press, 1993) 105.
4. Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved
5. Sheila Briggs, 'Can an Enslaved God Liberate? Hermeneutical
Reflections on Philippians 2:6-11', Semeia 47 (1989) 137-153.
6. Even if their emanation scheme, with everything coming from the
Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, could still be seen as maintaining a
pattern of subordination. See Catherine Mowxy La Cugna, God For Us. The
Trinity and Christian Life, (Harper: SanFrancisco, 1991)
7. See for instance Leo, Serm. LXXXII.1-3 in which he speaks of
being 'head of the world'. Printed in Creeds, Councils and Controversies.
Documents illustrating the history of the Church AD 337-461 ed. J Stevenson,
revised with additional documents by W.H.C.Frend (London: SPCK 1991) 327.
8. Quoted in LaCugna God For Us 268-9, from a forward by
R.Rice to Christian Feminism by N Cross (Front Royal, VA: Christendom
9. Dorothee Soelle The Strength of the Weak Towards a Christian
Feminist Identity (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 110.
10. For a thorough-going analysis of this whole question, it would
be necessary to consider the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries with
its emphasis on liberty and equality and the rise of individualism, the
hermeneutics of the masters of suspicion' Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the advent
of modern psychoanalytic theory, questions raised by post-modernism etc, all of
which have made the whole concept of obedience a very difficult one for many
people. Only a limited analysis of questions raised about the concept of
obedience is possible here.
11. Walter Kasper, Jesus The Christ (London: Burns and
Oates, 1976) 166.
12. Francis J Moloney SBD, A Life of Promise, Poverty Chastity
Obedience (Homebush: St Paul Publications, 1985) 119.
13. Dorothee Soelle, Beyond mere obedience. Reflections on a
Christian Ethic for the future (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House,
1970), and The strength of the Weak
14. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience: From
faithful reading to faithful Living, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991),
15. Moloney, A Life of Promise 160.
16. Karl Rahner in Karl Rahner, Theologian of the graced search
for meaning ed Geffrey B Kelly (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1992)
17. Joan Chittister, Winds of Change: Women Challenge the
Church (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1986)61.