Obedience (Lat. oboedire, “to hearken to”, hence “to obey”) is the complying with a command or precept. It is here regarded not as a transitory and isolated act but rather as a virtue or principle of righteous conduct. It is then said to be the moral habit by which one carries out the order of his superior with the precise intent of fulfilling the injunction. St. Thomas Aquinas considers the obligation of obedience as an obvious consequence of the subordination established in the world by the natural and positive law. The idea that subjection of any sort of one man to another is incompatible with human freedom—a notion that had vogue in the religious and political teachings of the post-Reformation period—he refutes by showing that it is at variance with the constituted nature of things, and the positive prescriptions of Almighty God. It is worthy of note that whilst it is possible to discern a general aspect of obedience in some acts of all the virtues, in so far as obedience stands for the execution of anything that is of precept, it is contemplated in this article as a definitely special virtue. The element that differentiates it adequately from other good habits is found in the last part of the definition already given. Stress is put upon the fact that one not only does what is actually enjoined but does it with a mind to formally fall in with the will of the commander. It is in other words the homage rendered to authority which ranks it as a distinct virtue. Among the virtues obedience holds an exalted place but not the highest. That distinction belongs to the virtues of faith, hope, and charity (q.v.) which unite us immediately with Almighty God. Amongst the moral virtues obedience enjoys a primacy of honor. The reason is that the greater or lesser excellence of a moral virtue is determined by the greater or lesser value of the object which it qualifies one to put aside in order to give oneself to God. Now amongst our various possessions, whether goods of the body, or goods of the soul, it is clear that the human will is the most intimately personal and most cherished of all. So it happens that obedience, which makes a man yield up the most dearly prized stronghold of the individual soul in order to do the good pleasure of his Creator, is accounted the greatest of the moral virtues. As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His direction. On the other hand the obligation of obedience to superiors under God admits of limitations. We are not bound to obey a superior in a matter which does not fall within the limits of his preceptive power. Thus for instance parents, although entitled beyond question to the submission of their children until they become of age, have no right to command them to marry. Neither can a superior claim our obedience in contravention of the dispositions of a higher authority. Hence, notably, we cannot heed the behests of any human power no matter how venerable or undisputed as against the ordinances of God. All authority to which we bow has its source in Him and cannot validly be used against Him. It is this recognition of the authority of God vicariously exercised through a human agent that confers upon the act of obedience its special merit. No hard and fast rule can be set down for determining the degree of guilt of the sin of disobedience. Regarded formally as a deliberate scorning of the authority itself, it would involve a divorce between the soul and the supernatural principle of charity which is tantamount to a grevious sin. As a matter of fact many other things have to be taken account of, as the greater or less advertence in the act, the relatively important or trifling character of the thing imposed, the manner of enjoining, the right of the person who commands. For such reasons the sin will frequently be esteemed venial.
JOSEPH F. DELANY