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Consecrated Life: The Vows - Obedience

Monday, March 30, 2015

In the context of religious life, there is a spectrum of approaches in relation to obedience. 

For a Diocesan priest, the obedience is to the Bishop, who may send priests to a parish or to be involved in a particular mission, ministry, or administrative role. In a religious order, a brother, sister or nun is obedient to their Master, Provincial or Superior. There are differences between say, the Dominicans and other religious Orders or Congregations. Some Orders for example, have a basic structure similar to a military setup, where the commanding officer sends his troops to different locations. Some priests can be sent to new locations without any question! This requires a different sort of formation than with the Dominicans, since individuals are told what to do, which mission they are going on, even what studies to partake, and there may not be much negotiation involved at all. The practical details vary from Province to Province, but I believe this is how some religious live out the vow of obedience. With the Dominicans, the concept of obedience is somewhat different. The Order has elements of democratic participation, and in most cases we elect our superiors. They will be taking decisions that impact on a Priory or indeed the entire Province, however they eventually reach the end of their term and face the ballot box, or will need to live again as a brother who is not in an elected office. The word ‘prior’ means first amongst many, which is different from say the title of an Abbot or Abbess, who by the nature of his or her office, has more authority over the monks or nuns in their community. Obedience in a ‘command and control’ model is appealing to some, who do not always want to think about all the options available!

The fundamental basis of obedience is ‘doing what we are told to do’. But in the Dominican Order, it is more complex than this. Individual friars might have their own interests in relation to study or pastoral work. Obedience involves individual friars deciding what they want to do and also discerning the needs of the Province and the Order as a whole. So what often happens, is friars can ask to be sent to a particular house or mission based on their talents. Sometimes this is not possible, or the needs of the province are greater in a particular area, so the Provincial needs to take into account a number of factors in deciding where a solemnly professed brother ends up being sent. In the Dominican Order at least, obedience is seen as a two-way process. This is in comparison to a top-down decision being made, without any consultation process. It is in the nature of academic study which the Dominicans specialise as an Order, that circumstances can change quickly, and individual friars might grasp an opportunity for example, to do a research project in another country, Or they could ask to take on a job as a prison chaplain, or hospital chaplain if an interesting or rewarding position becomes available. Unlike the Benedictines, Dominicans do not normally live in the same place for most of their religious lives. Friars tend to move around their province. 

The itinerant preacher

Obedience in religious life also covers the day to day running of a religious house, so superiors will appoint friars in particular roles. Take the Oxford priory, which is a busy place with many house jobs and duties such as the bursary (involving management of finances, procurement and building maintenance), the sacristy, duties relating to teaching, as well as roles in the wider Oxford community. Everyone needs to take on their fair share of the workload and under obedience, some things just need to be done. The Dominican model of governance aims for an automatic response to the everyday tasks, so that superiors don’t need to keep asking for things to be done. This becomes more important in smaller communities, where brothers might have quite a lot to do in their pastoral roles or projects. Christian charity is important in stepping in to cover or take on responsibilities you haven’t been asked to do, if it seems something isn’t being done for whatever reason. Generally speaking, there is a temptation amongst some religious, to manufacture incompetence. This is of course not limited to religious life, it is seen in many workplaces! By manufacturing incompetence, someone might knowingly make a bad job of a particular task, so it increases the chance they will not be asked to do it again. Or, manufacturing incompetence through agreeing to do something, and then deliberately not doing it, so as to give the perception of being unreliable, hence the superiors probably won’t ask them to do it again. There is a difference between being unable to take on a role, and being unwilling to take on a role. So, the area of obedience is more complex than you might think. Christian charity is needed for the vows of obedience to enable the particular religious community to flourish and carry out its mission.

Br Luke Doherty O.P.

Br Luke Doherty O.P.

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