In a recent essay, Humblesse Oblige, writer Simcha Fisher makes a lovely case for the neglected virtue of obedience, reminding us that the Church doesn’t impose obligations simply to throw her weight around, but because she understands our feelings aren’t always adequate to the situation.
“If obedience for the sake of obedience seems shabby and pathetic to you,” she writes, think of a mom putting nutritious meals on the table for her kids. Sometimes cooking seems like just the thing and it’s a joy. But at least as often the end of the day comes around and she’d just as soon hide. That’s when obedience becomes a blessing – it helps us to do what is good for us.
As Fisher writes, “it would be great if I always had that marvelous feeling of satisfaction and delight when feeding my kids. But I suspect I’m working more time off purgatory when I feel nothing of the kind, but I do it anyway.”
Moreover, the only to way begin to have the right feelings is to begin to grow in virtue, which has to start somewhere – usually with simply obeying and trusting that good will come of it. For that reason Fisher adds: “I’m grateful for the obligations the Church imposes. And deep down, I wish she would impose more, because I’m lazy. I’d like to see some Holy Days of Obligation moved back to weekdays, and I know my Lent would be more fruitful if my sacrifices weren't optional.”
What a marvelous point – and very relevant to this Year of Faith because growth in the virtue of faith requires not only prayer and study, but also regularly exercising our faith in order to stretch (so to speak) our souls’ capacity to trust God.
An act of faith can be as simple as professing belief in God as we do when we recite the Creed or a morning offering. It might mean consciously entrusting a painful circumstance in our lives to God, trusting his grace will work things to the good. Often it entails doing the right thing – obeying—even when we don’t feel like it or we don’t understand the rule. Faith grows not because we fully see the path, but because we’re willing to take a step in the dark.
A priest friend of mine recently remarked that American Catholics have a hard time with Faith –harder than perhaps we understand. He said the last thing in the world any American Catholic is inclined to do is accept any matter on faith. We think we have to “get” it and approve first.
His evidence was how common it is for people who consider themselves Catholic to be nevertheless “pro-choice,” pro-contraception, or in favor of same-sex marriage. The Church’s positions on those issues are not primarily religious, but drawn from the natural law and accessible from reason alone. If you think a fetus is not a unique and unrepeatable new human life, you’re not arguing with the Church but with the embryology textbooks.
Similarly, it doesn’t take faith – only statistics – to see that contraception has been a disaster for women and children. It’s reason that tells us that re-defining marriage such that the state is forbidden to take biology into account when ascertaining who a child’s “parents” are is unfair to the child and gives the state more power than it ought to have by making family something the state defines, rather than a natural entity the state must respect.
What does it mean for a Catholic to dissent from these positions? If we are not willing to follow the Church’s guidance in matters where it’s possible to think your way through, are we going to listen when she says the Holy Spirit has promised to protect her from teaching error in matters of faith and morals? Or that God is Three in One or that Christ offers us mercy for our sins, or that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus? Those are far more incredible doctrines, and not subject to proof.
To believe them requires faith – and the willingness to make an act of faith when it’s easier not to believe.
“Believe” (or “obey”) does not mean “shut up and ask no questions.” Cardinal Newman once wrote that 1000 difficulties don’t make a single doubt. It’s not sinful to find certain doctrines hard to accept. Cardinal Newman taught that difficulties are an important mechanism for growing in faith. As we wrestle through them, through grace our faith becomes clearer and stronger, and we become better prepared to explain it to others.
Wondering how a truth of faith can be so is a far cry from concluding that it isn’t so. Often the road from difficulty to appreciation of Church teaching is paved with little acts of obedience and trust.