What does it mean to be an obedient priest?
Padre Pio said “Obedience is mission: I have come into this world to do the will of my Father, who has sent me. Where there is no obedience, there is no virtue; where there is no virtue there is no good; where good is wanting, there is no love, there is no God; where God is not, there is no Heaven.”
Obedience to the inspirations of God come from the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel. Counsel is a loving receptivity or supernaturalized prudence according to St. Thomas Aquinas. These are small inspirations that fill the baptized all day long. This is the road to sanctity because it is the highest pathway to loving God. However, the bare minimum of obedience for the priest includes issues moral, doctrinal and liturgical. For matters doctrinal and liturgical, the priest must be obedient in issues of…
Divine Law <–> to Scripture and Magisterium
Ecclesial Law <–> to Pope
Particular Law <–> to Bishop
Divine Law includes the following five things: Sacred Scripture, Councils, Creeds, the early Church Fathers (when they spoke unanimously) and Ex-Cathedra Statements. This list comes from Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, an encyclical on the Bible. There is a modern myth that the only thing that Catholics must believe are the two Ex-Cathedra Statements in history (Immaculate Conception of Mary and Assumption of Mary.)
Of course, the Deposit of Faith does include those two Marian statements, but it also includes so much more. In fact, Pope Leo XIII places the Bible at the highest level of Divine Revelation, since “all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.”
If Scripture is so important, how then are we Catholics so different from Protestants? For one, we Catholics are guaranteed an accurate interpretation of the Bible because of Church Fathers and Dogmatic Councils (like Chalcedon.) Without these, the notion of “apostolic Christianity” is nothing more than a guessing game, producing 30,000+ denominations of Christians in the USA alone. (Most of these claim to believe what the early Christians believed!)
Ecclesial Law (Pope) is the next level down. It can never change the Bible, but they can set our discipline. Popes speak infallibly when they speak on matters of articulated faith and morals from the chair of Peter (very very rare.) At a lesser weight but much more common are rulings on discipline. For example, Pope Benedict XVI ruled in Summorum Pontificum (2007) that priests in good standing can offer the Traditional Latin Mass (in private) without any permission from their bishop. When there is pastoral need, it should never be refused publicly. (In point of fact, Pope St. Pius V said that this Mass could never be abrogated.)
Particular Law (bishops) is found at a lower level and it of course can never change doctrine. It is found normally at the level of bishop. It usually refers to diocesean discipline and decisions. One example is that a bishop may remove a non-pastor priest from a parish. Whether stemming from a just or unjust decision, the priest must obey his bishop in any such matter. This is the power a bishop has in in his own diocese.
Divine Law can not be superseded by any Pope or bishop. This includes matters of worthy reception of the Eucharist, for this topic is found in Scripture and the Magisterium. For example, the divorced and remarried can never receive Holy Communion, unless they have obtained annulment(s) and convalidation, or the couple has made a good confession to live in celibacy (and probably apart from each other, to avoid scandal.) This teaching is based on Luke 16:18 (“remarriage” being a serious sin) and 1 Cor 11:26-29 (worthy reception of Holy Communion.) Notice that Scripture is the highest level of Divine Revelation, according to Pope Leo XIII. Thus, if a Pope tried to change the Bible, we would see that good priests would, and in fact must, resist. Why? Because the priest knows that a Pope functions at the level of Ecclesial Law, not Divine Law. We know that Pope can never change Divine Law (See above diagram with arrows.)
But what if a bishop told his priest that he could not deny Holy Communion to a divorced-and-remarried couple who had been respectfully warned to change their life? Would the priest have to obey? Or that a priest is not allowed to say the Latin Mass? No, for this would be a conflation of the three levels of obedience outlined above. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist” (can. 712) Some people retort: “Yes, but only the bishop can determine who is publicly unworthy.” The Vatican overruled this objection in the year 2000 stating that “the Priest who is responsible for the community” has the right to determine denial of Holy Communion, and this includes more cases than just the divorced and “remarried” who have not obtained an annulment. The Vatican preempted objections in even stating that “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.” In other words, the bishop can not make the priest go against Divine Revelation. This would not be obedience. Why? Because protection of the Eucharist comes from Divine Law in Scripture (1 Cor 11) and it does not come from an ecclesiastical or even papal decree.
Saints who said extreme things like “Your superior’s voice is the voice of God” always left one caveat: A command to sin from a superior is never binding on the inferior.
The above references to Scripture and the Vatican website reveal that obedience to the bishops and the Pope have limitations. Not so our obedience to God.