The congregation charged with overseeing religious men and women has published an instruction to help improve the understanding of the roles of authority and obedience in religious communities.
The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life today released an Instruction entitled: "The Service of Authority and Obedience," which was presented this morning at an assembly of male and female superiors general held at the Salesianum in Rome.
The first topic that the new instruction addresses is religious obedience.
While some think of religious obedience as simply an adherence to “ecclesiastical or religious laws and rulings,” the congregation explains that this is not how it should be understood. Rather, religious obedience has its roots in the “search for God and for His will.” It springs from the “momentum of a journey in search of God which involves listening to His Word and becoming aware of His design of love - the fundamental experience of Christ Who, out of love, was obedient unto His death on the cross.”
The practical outcome of this is that, obedience, “is not justified on the basis of religious authority.” Instead, “because everyone in a religious community (first and foremost the authorities themselves) are called to obedience, Authority places itself at the service on the community so that God's will may be sought and achieved together."
The parallel issue of religious authority must be seen in the context of the “shared commitment to obedience, ... the theme that opens and closes this document," an explanation of the instruction says.
How to respond in matters of “difficult obedience” is also addressed by the document. The congregation describes these instances of “difficult obedience” as instructions that are “particularly hard to carry out, or in which the subject feels he sees 'things which are better and more useful for his soul than those which the superior orders him to do'.”
Room is also made for situations in which the one who must obey has 'objections of conscience.' This reference is meant to help people “consider obedience not just as a passive and irresponsible execution of orders, but as a conscious shouldering of commitments ... which are a real actuation of the will of God," a press release explains.
"The Instruction seeks to recall, above all, that obedience in religious life can give rise to difficult moments, to situations of suffering in which it is necessary to refer back to the Obedient One par excellence, Christ.”
However, those in authority can also experience “difficult” moments, the instruction notes. They can experience “moments of discouragement and fatigue which can lead to resignation or inattention in exercising an appropriate guidance ... of the community."
The document also contains “a vast and coherent set of guidelines for the exercise of authority," such as "inviting people to listen, favoring dialogue, sharing, co-responsibility, ... and the merciful treatment of the people" of those under authority.
An explanation of the instruction concludes by saying that the religious community should be “a place in which, under the guidance of the superior, a form of 'community discernment' must be exercised in decision- making. This practice, for the implementation of which important suggestions are offered, does not however eliminate the role of authority ... And it must not be forgotten that, by ancient tradition, the highest authority within religious institutes resides in the general chapter (or similar institution), which is a collegial body."