One of the factors which differentiates the Catholic Church from the other Christian denominations which came later, is the line of Apostolic Succession; the lineage of the Bishops can be traced back to the times of the Apostles who were called directly by the Lord. Our present Bishops are the successors to those Apostles. And like them, they bear the spiritual authority of the Lord in their local Church. This is symbolised by the Crosier of the Bishop, and by the ‘Cathedra’ – the Chair from which he teaches the faithful, and which gives it’s name to his Church.
In order for us to be ‘Catholic’, we are required to be faithful to the teachings of the Holy Father and of our Bishop in all matters of faith and discipline. The old-fashioned word for this is ‘obedience’. Priests make a solemn promise of obedience at ordination, but every one of us as Catholics is required to submit to the lawful authority of the Pope and the Bishop. Our Catholicism is not a free-for-all where we decide, individually or as a group, what we will and will not submit to. To place ourselves outwith that obedience is a dangerous thing – more so, when it is done wilfully, persistently and publicly. In this case, it causes what used to be called scandal. And the very real danger is one of schism.
Now, refusal to submit and obey is driven by many factors – but a common feature amongst them is spiritual pride. In this instance, spiritual pride is the belief that ‘we’ know better than the Holy Father or the Bishop on a particular matter. And often, it will manifest itself in matters of Church discipline – how we do things as ‘Church’.
Spiritual pride is never a good thing. It damages the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ – for a body cannot be divided against itself. Such a body will be like glass that is hit by a rock – it shatters and splinters and the shards cause deep wounds.
There are two balms to the wounds of spiritual pride – they are humility and obedience.
For exemplars of these two virtues, we need look no further than the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Chosen to be the Mother of the Lord, still She submitted Herself perfectly to the requirements of the Law, such as at the time of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; for Her, there was no sense of ‘I am greater than this, I need not submit’. No. She did as She was obligated to do.
Similarly, Her sublime humility was like a magnet to God, and it would be the foundation of every other virtue with which She was adorned. Her response to the Lord was always the same – “I am the Handmaid of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me”.
Without these two foundation stones of humility and obedience, there can be no virtue in the spiritual life. Pride is the antithesis of the Lord who came to serve and who washed the feet of the Disciples. Pride was the reason for the fall of Lucifer, who declared “I will not serve”. Obedience is our guarantee that in matter of faith, morals and discipline, we will not go wrong.
The lives of the Saints are constant examples of these two crucial and vital virtues; you will not find a Saint who was not both humble and obedient. The great Padre Pio, for example, though unjustly treated for a variety of reasons by being banned from celebrating Mass and preaching over a long period, accepted this with equanimity, submitting himself perfectly to the authority of the Bishop.
For most of us, the situation is not so severe, nor so difficult. We are simply asked to do what we are instructed by the lawful spiritual authority placed in the Holy Father and our Bishop. And in this way, we maintain and strengthen the unity and the sanctity of the Body of Christ, the Church.